The ongoing conversation about same-sex marriage has largely adopted the rhetoric of the civil rights movement. Those who oppose same-sex marriage are denying basic human rights to same-sex couples. Those who oppose same-sex marriage are not just wrong, their views are illegitimate and should not even be admitted into the conversation, on par with the racism of prior generations.
I think the tone of the discussion fails to capture what this is really about, though. This is not a matter of rights — it is a matter of definition. I support traditional marriage because I believe the family — with a father and a mother — is the fundamental unit of society. I believe that the rise in divorce, fatherless (or motherless) children, and single parents has contributed to a whole swathe of social ills, including an expansion of government social programs. This is not meant to be demeaning to hardworking single parents out there — they are doing the best they can in a hard situation. And I believe that divorce is sometimes justified. But I believe that children, on the whole, thrive best when they live in an intact home with their biological father and mother. And I believe that the number of divorces and broken families will continue to rise if we adopt same-sex marriage as the policy of the state.
You may initially dismiss this as fearmongering. But please be patient, and allow me to explain.
There are two potential definitions of marriage in question as a civil institution from which we can choose: a conjugal definition of marriage, and a companionate definition of marriage:
- From the conjugal perspective, marriage is a permanent legal union between a man and a woman who unite their families ostensibly for the purpose of having children, and who arrange their lives legally, civilly, and socially with the welfare of forthcoming (and preceding) generations in mind, and who enter into a legal obligation to remain loyal to that arrangement to the end of their lives, to be dissolved only for compelling reasons.
- From a companionate perspective, marriage is civil arrangement between two lovers for the purposes of sharing finances, assets, etc. (generally with the interests of the individual couple in mind, irrespective of forthcoming generations), to be dissolved if either party loses interest in the arrangement without legal consequence.
[Again, these are two competing civil definitions of marriage — this ignores potential additional definitions superimposed on marriage by faith traditions.] The companionate conception of marriage treats marriage as being primarily for and about the relationship between lovers. In contrast, the conjugal conception of marriage treats marriage as being just as much about children and the welfare of children (as well as forthcoming and preceding generations) as it is about the relationship between lovers. As LDS writer James Golberg explains, the companionate conception of marriage treats marriage as being primarily about the lateral relationship. The conjugal conception of marriage treats marriage as being equally about the vertical and lateral relationships.
The conjugal definition is the definition of marriage that has held in centuries past. This is why, for example, same-sex lovers in ancient Greece never really consider marriage something necessary for their union — marriage was about forthcoming generations, not just a ratification of a companionship. Homosexuality has existed for millennia, but this is the first time that same-sex lovers have attempted to claim the right of marriage. Why? Because this is the first time society’s conception of marriage has drifted from the conjugal definition to the companionate definition.
I believe the companionate conception of marriage is what is contributing most to the rise in divorce and broken families. This started a long time ago: with the implementation of no-fault divorce; we now no longer see marriage as a binding legal obligation, but instead as an economic contract either party can dissolve at will. Once upon a time, a couple (or an individual) had to produce a compelling reason for the marriage to be dissolved (such as infidelity, abuse, etc.), and that reason had to be evaluated on its merits by a civil servant. Today, no compelling reason is required at all.
While the prior system may have had its flaws — and perhaps judges were systematically biased against women, or perhaps there was too high a threshold for what constituted compelling evidence or compelling reasons — the prior system at least held that marriage was a legally binding arrangement and that, for the welfare of children, it needed to be preserved except in those cases where a compelling cause necessitated its dissolvement. The implementation of no-fault divorce placed marriage on the same level of almost any other economic contractual arrangement, and this placed marriage, as defined by the government, somewhere in between the conjugal and companionate view.
Since then, divorce has risen from the single digits to close to 50%. Since then, government welfare programs have dramatically expanded. Once sticking with a struggling marriage became legally optional, changing social norms and expectations of marriage have led many to abandon ship once their expectations and hopes were no longer completely realized. And since then, single parents have become a staple of modern society. Again, I recognize that single parents are often doing a great job of raising their kids. Again, I recognize that divorce is sometimes warranted and needed. But I would venture to say that the vast majority of them are not warranted, and that there are far too many single parents by choice than by necessity.
The Public Interest
To me, the only reason the state has an interest in marriage in the first place is to protect and preserve the arrangement into which children can be born. In other words, the state’s interest is in the welfare of children, and children thrive best when living with their biological father and mother. We cannot always achieve this ideal, and there are always valid reasons for divorce (the welfare of children can be such a valid reason), but this does not mean that we cannot encode into our civil and legal tradition a preference for intact families. We have done this in the past by incentivizing potential parents to enter into a lifelong legal obligation to their spouses and families. This is, and was always, the only valid real and legitimate reason for the state to even license marriage in the first place.
In the companionate view of marriage, it makes no sense to have the state involved in the first place. People can already privately contract for legal rights (such as inheritance, shared assets, etc.), and these private agreements are generally upheld in court. The state has no legitimate interest in publicly ratifying companionate relationships beyond these already existing legal agreements, unless children are potentially involved.
Basically, granting a government license and benefits to a purely companionate relationship amounts to the government saying, “Oh, you two are in a committed relationship now. Here’s a certificate acknowledging your relationship, and which requires others to acknowledge your relationship too. Here’s some bonuses for that too.” That is simply not a marriage. I don’t see a public interest in that. I don’t see any reason for the existence of government-licensed marriage from that perspective, or to grant any particular benefits at all to such a relationship. Why again does going steady suddenly entitle us to some sort of government benefit, certificate, or tax break? All it does is bestow a certificate of social and societal approval on someone’s committed intimate relationship, and I don’t really see why that is a right of a couple or a responsibility of the government.
In short, the state has a legitimate interest in ratifying arrangements into which children can be born, and incentivizing prospective parents to enter into binding legal agreements for the welfare of those children. But there is no legitimate state interest in incentivizing or ratifying purely companionate relationships — particularly those that cannot, biologically, produce children. The only reason for such tax breaks, certificates ratifying the relationship, the binding legal obligations that the marriage relationship entails, etc., is, well, children. We want to incentivize couples who have the potential for to have children to do so within a civil institution that the best environment for them. That’s the only real reason for the existence of civil marriage as a government licensed entity in the first place.
What about infertile couples of elderly couples, or perhaps those who elect not to have children at all? Well, Abraham and Sariah demonstrate that it is hubris to assume that we know with certainty who is too old bear offspring. Further, in the past, infertility was often considered grounds for a dissolution of marriage. I doubt that is usually the compassionate approach, but it does demonstrate the marriage was, at one point, only ever considered consummated with the generation of offspring. Also, from a conjugal perspective, older folks who married beyond typical child-bearing years were once expected to take upon themselves the parental roles of their predecessors in that family. If a man married a widow with children, he would step into the role of father, with all of those same obligations and responsibilities. And for those who elect not to have children at all, again, it seems strange for them to enter into a marital relationship in the first place, unless they have already adopted a companionate view of marriage (instead of a conjugal view of marriage). And if a reader responds, “Well, they got married so they can be chaste,” well, the same religious beliefs that compel chastity also teach us about our obligation to bear and raise children when possible. And, people can change their minds.
And, finally, what about the fact that same-sex couples can sometimes adopt children? Well, I believe that children thrive best with a mother and a father, and I believe that we should encode a preference for that arrangement into civil law — even if it means that children in families with two moms and two dads do not have married parents. I simply do not think the state has the same interest in preserving a relationship between two dads or two moms that it has in preserving a relationship between a mother and a father. Again, this is because of my belief that children thrive when they have both a mother and a father available to them in the home. Many politically-biased research communities are trying to leverage the prestige of science to claim that the gender of parents simply does not matter, but this research is inconclusive at best, and at worst riddled with methodological problems and epistemological hubris. But that is a subject for another post. (In other words, comments about the validity of research and children in same-sex families will be deleted, since they will distract from the main point of this article.)
People ask, “How does Sally and Janet getting married contribute to broken families?” On a granular level, it really doesn’t. On a personal level, I could care less if those two women call themselves married. It doesn’t personally bother me or interfere with my life and my marriage. But adopting same-sex marriage on a state or nation-wide level does contribute to the dissolution of family as a whole. And here’s how.
Right now, societal views are waffling between the two perspectives on marriage. We do stand at the crossroads. The changes in marriage law in decades past has put us at a crossroads. Part of this is because of changing social and moral norms of society. And part of this is because of changes in civil and legal tradition. The social and moral norms of society find reflection in our civil and legal norms, and our civil and legal norms help shape and inform the social and moral norms of society. And right now, neither we as a country nor the law have decided which definition (conjugal or companionate) of marriage is best suited for our nation. The law currently straddles the line by defining marriage between man and woman, but also making it a non-permanent legal obligation. Society straddles the line by implicitly holding a companionate view as a default, but also recognizing at times the virtue — if not also the quaintness — of the conjugal view.
I will fully admit that if we adopt a companionate view of marriage, it makes little sense to deny same-sex couples the opportunity to marry. It makes little sense to allow some companionate couples that legal ratification of their relationship, but not others. And so for those who already embrace the companionate view, I can fully understand why arguments in favor of same-sex marriage seem so compelling.
And that is precisely why encoding into law provisions for same-sex marriage will make permanent and explicit the companionate view of marriage as the official policy of the state, and leave to ash heaps of history the conjugal view of marriage. And since the law informs and shapes public conscience, it could easily tip the scales of societal opinion in that direction as well. We will have made an all-but-irreversable step in defining the welfare of children entirely out of our definition of marriage. This, to me, dissolves whatever public interest there was in involving government in marriage in the first place, and leaves marriage — as a civil arrangement — without a legitimate state purpose. It becomes just a plain old legal contract, no different in kind from civil unions currently available, and these civil unions simply do not protect children and families the way marriage (as a civil institution) is designed to.
I believe that if we adopt same-sex marriage, we would not be expanding an existing right to a larger population, but instead making explicit and encoding into law an ongoing redefinition of the very concept of marriage itself. And if the implementation of no-fault divorce — with its waffling step towards the companionate view of the marriage — can contribute so much to the dissolution of the family, then embracing the companionate view of marriage as the official policy of the state could have untold effects on future generations. And I believe that this will have deleterious effects on society as a whole. Those deleterious effects may not manifest themselves in the first decade, or maybe even the second decade. It may be a full generation or two before we can observe the fully societal impact of abandoning the conjugal view of marriage. So unfortunately, those who share our opinion may likely face a couple decades of “I told you so” before we start to truly see the change in societal norms that same-sex marriage can lead to.
And by that time, the present debate may be so distant in memory that people even then may not even connect the dots — just like people today rarely connect the dots between the present state of the family and no-fault divorce. Concerned citizens raised the alarm bells then as well, and were dismissed as fear mongers just as we are today. All of their predictions came true, but nobody today connects the dots. Few people recognize the subtle shift in the definition of marriage that occurred then, and because of the current civil rights rhetoric that dominates and flavors the conversation, perhaps even fewer recognize the more dramatic shift in the definition of marriage that is happening now. And so societal consensus may never fully vindicate our view, even if our worst predictions hold true. We may continue to be told that we were wrong, even if we prove to be right. But that’s ok. My goal is not to be on the “right side of history,” but on the right side of truth — even if that earns me the scorn of society in the present and in the future.
In conclusion, it’s not a matter of rights. It’s a matter of definition. Are we going to adopt as the policy of the state a conjugal or companionate definition of marriage? If you hold a strictly companionate view of marriage, I can see why the same-sex marriage arguments make sense to you. And conversely, I hope that you will see that because we hold the conjugal view of marriage, the arguments in favor of same-sex marriage make little sense to us. It is not a matter of hate or bigotry. It is simply a different understanding of the nature, purpose, and history of civil marriage itself, and the extent of the interests the state has in marriage. I hope we can put to rest the idea that we are motivated by hate, and instead acknowledge that those who support traditional marriage have a legitimate point of view, even if you disagree with our arguments.