The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

5 August 2003

I now pronounce you

I've mostly stayed out of the gay-marriage brouhaha so far. Way back in 1996, I complained about the Defense of Marriage Act, and got a tad hyperbolic in so doing; subsequently I figured it might not be a bad idea to lower my profile on this issue.

But while I haven't exactly recanted, I would rather avoid demonizing the opposition. And along these lines, Moira Breen has precisely the argument I'd been unable to come up with on my own:

I believe most people who are uneasy about gay marriage are not so because they are hateful bigots, but because they are looking back over forty years of trends in marriage, divorce, and sexual behavior that (righly) disturb them — serial marriage, high divorce rates, contempt for concepts of duty and loyalty toward spouse and family, the view that children's lives are secondary in importance to the ever-shifting desires of adults. They see the push for gay marriage not as a separate argument revolving around fairness and justice, but as an extension of those deplorable trends — and they are encouraged in that perception by many of [same-sex marriage's] proponents, who do make the argument in those terms.

Emphasis in the original. Regardless of the hardware possessed by Heather's, um, parental units, marriage is fundamentally about children, about providing them a structure within which they can grow and develop; the partners themselves, like it or not, are secondary players. This is not to say that childless couples don't deserve to have their unions sanctified by church or state or whatever, but the fact remains: marriage is fundamentally about children. Moira again:

As state and society we don't poke our noses into people's reproductive plans or fertility status before they marry, but this (quite proper) delicacy and respect for privacy cannot negate the fact that societies institute marriage because of the existence of children. If children did not exist, we would not be arguing this issue at all, for an institution of marriage would never have arisen to fulfill a non-existent need.

Of course, if children did not exist, we would probably not exist either — as the story goes, if your parents didn't have children, neither will you — but since they do, any plan to redefine marriage that doesn't focus primarily on children is going to draw opposition, and, I think, rightfully so. I still don't like DOMA or its preemptive-strike motivation, but proponents of same-sex marriage have yet to offer an alternative that puts the emphasis back where it belongs: on the kids.

(Update, 6 August, 9:30 pm: Bruce at This Is Class Warfare takes exception to this reasoning.)

Posted at 1:02 AM to Almost Yogurt

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I don't know. Maybe I'm just new around town, but I've only run into this "marriage is primarily for children" argument recently, and only in reference to the gay marriage issue. I always felt that marriage was simply a societal recognition of the romantic love shared by two people- a love that (theoretically) lasts for the rest of their lives. We associate child rearing with marriage because (A) romantic love biologically leads to the production of children and (B) we believe two people living together and caring about each other to be the best setting for children to grow in. So therefore children are not the cause of marriage as much as an effect.

Posted by: Jonathan at 3:52 AM on 5 August 2003

That's a fairly recent (forgive me if I say, post-modern) view of marriage, Jonathan. The history of social constructs is pretty clearly that of formalizing restrictions on the immediate freedom of individuals to bring about greater goods in the long run.

In the case of marriage as it has evolved naturally, the long-run greater good is children, pure and simple.

Posted by: McGehee at 7:40 AM on 5 August 2003

Thanks for commenting on my post, Charles.

Jonathan, I think your comments taken with Charles's illustrate well the fundamental opposition here. If romantic love had the properties you claim for it, marriage wouldn't be necessary. It's precisely because romantic love is fragile and impermanent that society comes after you with the vows and the licenses and the shotguns and the balls and chains and...seriously, I've always been mystified by people who sincerely believe marriage is all about romantic love. (Now, being a Westerner, I wouldn't marry anybody I wasn't romantically in love with - it's a necessary, but emphatically not sufficient condition.)

Posted by: Moira Breen at 9:55 PM on 5 August 2003


"takes exception"... very diplomatic, more so than I can usually muster.

Posted by: bruce at 1:42 AM on 7 August 2003

McGehee, yes. I was speaking of the current commonly accepted Western definition of marriage. It is fairly recent, but I would hardly associate it with postmodernism. I'd say the emphasis of marriage has been on love as opposed to child rearing or economic concerns for at least the past sixty years, although I admit that I don't have any hard evidence to back up that claim.

Moira, yes, romantic love can be fragile and impermanent, and that's why love affairs don't always turn into marriage. I was referring to a certain kind of romantic love- "a love that (theoretically) lasts for the rest of their lives". Obviously, that's only one qualification. It also has to be a love that allows the couple to live together, work together, essentially function as a unit. And this functioning is supported by the expectations and recognition that marriage gives a couple.

Posted by: Jonathan at 6:12 PM on 7 August 2003