Redefining Marriage, Part 8: The (Semi-)Relevance of Marriage

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In Part 7 I argued that in our society marriage has become an institution without an acknowledged social rationale or raison d’etre. We still do it, but we no longer know why it exists in the first place, or how it benefits society. Marriage is seen in individual terms, not social terms. It is something that people have a right to, and a healthy social egalitarianism inclines toward the view that rights should be equally accessible to all. But we no longer know what “it” is, and what qualifies as it and what doesn’t.

In part, marriage no longer makes sense because we have weakened or abandoned the connections between sex and children, sex and marriage, sex and commitment, marriage and children, marriage and commitment, and children and commitment.

Crucial to all of this is the mainstreaming of contraception. Contraception offered everyone the options of sex without children and marriage without children. The option of contraceptive sex helped make sex without marriage and even sex without commitment socially acceptable, contributing to the mainstreaming of casual sex, cohabitation and ever-delayed marriage. Contraceptive sex even weakened the taboo against adultery, while the option of marriage without children further weakened the connection between marriage and commitment, since marriage no longer entailed agreeing even in principle to the long-term joint project of raising whatever children might come along.

Once sex without marriage, sex without commitment and even marriage without (the same level of) commitment achieved a level of acceptability, the connection between children and commitment was compromised. The normalizing of cohabitation, casual sex and divorce on demand was made possible in part because it was possible to take children out of the equation—but once the normalizing took place, it was no longer possible to stigmatize having or raising children out of wedlock, or without the commitment of both partners. Artificial conception technologies were another factor, opening the door to children on demand without a marriage, a committed father figure or even a baby daddy.

Because marriage no longer serves any acknowledged social function, what’s left of marriage is largely whatever it means to the individuals wishing to marry. Marriage used to be part of society’s pedagogy—something society imposed on individuals. Now, as far as the larger society is concerned, it’s substantially up to the individuals to decide what it is and what it means. (Since everyone comes to marriage for the first time with no experience of being married, this is a somewhat problematic arrangement. Mark Twain once noted, “No man or woman really knows what perfect love is until they have been married a quarter of a century.” The phenomenon of couples writing their own vows and creating their own ceremonies, proclaiming to society their own notions of what love and marriage are instead of being instructed by the long experience of society, reflects this social abdication.)

Since sex, children and even commitment are all available without marriage, and since society no longer offers any compelling reason to marry, why should anyone desire marriage? Clearly, the practical force of this question has been felt by many. Far more people choose not to marry in the first place, or to marry much later, or to divorce much sooner. Still, people still marry in large numbers, and even among same-sex couples there is at least some wish (though perhaps much less than one would sometimes gather from media reports) for something that is thought of as “marriage.” What explains this ongoing wish to participate in an institution without an acknowledged rationale?

For a great many people, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others, the meaning of marriage may be supplied not by society as a whole but by a religious subculture and its beliefs. In Part 5 I noted that Christianity teaches that marriage is a reflection the universal human vocation to love and a partnership ordered toward the perfection of the spouses. Many Americans still believe that, or something like it, and this is sufficient to explain a great deal of the ongoing desire for marriage.

There is likewise the ongoing cultural legacy of a time when marriage as a social institution functioned more effectively. Much as cultural forces have labored to tear down and dethrone marriage in many ways, we still live in a generally marriage-positive culture, and marriage still commands a significant cultural approbation. Cohabitation may be widely accepted, but marriage hasn’t entirely lost its aura of gold-standard authority.

Even an occasional wedding (or anniversary) among one’s peers can exert some social pressure on those who remain unmarried. Those who are cohabiting or dating may have a lingering sense of being second-class citizens, or may feel that they have not yet achieved the pinnacle of what life together is meant to be. A woman in particular is more likely to feel less than completely satisfied, and perhaps less than completely secure, with the love of a man who shares a roof and a bed but is unwilling to put a ring on it, to proclaim it to the world—particularly if she gets around to thinking about having a baby.

Children still grow up with fairy tales and Disney movies that end with wedding bells. Romantic comedies send mixed but still generally positive messages about marriage as the ideal. The wedding industry labors mightily to preserve the romance and pageantry of the “big day”—and of course there are the showers, the presents, the reception and so forth.

Of course the real effect of much if not all of this is often to encourage people to desire a wedding, not necessarily a marriage, and certainly not the fullness of what marriage entails. Still, the idea of marriage remains a compelling one.

More to come.

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