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The problem with marriage today – is me

By W. James Antle III
web posted August 11, 2003

Columnist Wendy McElroy calls it the "what is marriage quagmire," but she wrongly attributes it entirely to government policies and disagreements between politicians. In truth, we are witnessing the unraveling of the social consensus that surrounds marriage in this country and the politics of it are only a symptom.

This has all been brought to the forefront once again by the debate over same-sex marriage. Should the law continue to define marriage as a union between one man and one woman? Or should it instead be reformed to recognize "family diversity" by including other types of unions, such as those between gays and lesbians.

Predictably, this has been cast as a debate over homosexuality in most reporting and commentary. But most fundamentally, it is a debate over what marriage is and why we as a society recognize it. John Derbyshire recently wrote in National Review On-Line, "As with the mechanical habit of driving a car, the social habit of marriage needs to be internalized while young, and thereafter not thought about too much." Maybe so. But it is very much a topic of discussion now and this will require us to think long and hard about it before we reshape our most vital social institution in ways likely to yield consequences we have yet to even anticipate.

At present, the debate is mainly between two competing views of marriage. Maggie Gallagher articulated one in an article entitled "What Marriage Is For" in the Weekly Standard: "The marriage idea is that children need mothers and fathers, that societies need babies, and that adults have an obligation to shape their sexual behavior so as to give their children stable families in which to grow up." The other was noted by E.J. Graff when, writing in the Boston Globe, she pointed out that same-sex marriage "will be just another incremental step in the ongoing transformation of marriage into an egalitarian institution based on love."

Both of which sound like worthy goals that no one could possibly be against, until it becomes clear that we can't always have both. While many of the advancements in this "ongoing transformation" have been positive, especially for the adults involved, it is also clear that a number of them – the liberalization of divorce, to cite just one example – have come with great social costs as they have done anything but strengthen marriage as an institution. Romantic love isn't always the sturdiest of human sentiments. What happens when my desire to be intimate with the person I have the strongest romantic and sexual feelings for, feelings I sincerely understand as love, conflicts with my obligation to provide the most stable environment for my children to grow up in? It is a dilemma faced even by Episcopalian bishops.

Yet that isn't even the only challenge marriage faces. As a social ideal, it may remain important but it is less attractive to economically secure adults than it has been in the past. Feminists would argue that this is because independent women now understand that they do not need a man to complete them. The men's rights movement would contend that this is because men fear that divorce courts stacked against them would ruin their lives if their marriages went bad. But the many people may have a simpler motivation still to avoid marriage: They are creatures of habit already living comfortably as single people.

I should know. I am a living example. I'm a bachelor with a good job that pays reasonably well. The overwhelming majority of my income, which is augmented by political writing, is disposable. I'm no wild playboy; I'm culturally, morally and even theologically conservative. In the abstract, I see marriage as something I want for myself, something that would complete my life. But if I told you that at this moment in time, I long for the day when I enter into holy matrimony, I would be lying. I don't really have any interest in getting married in the near future.

I want to spend my money on me. I want to do the things I like to do. I don't want to have to get out of bed on Saturday, mow the lawn or build tree houses. I fear that I am often a charter member of the "Cult of the Self." Any ladies out there reading this column would probably tell me not to worry. By admitting all this publicly, I have probably rendered myself unmarriageable.

Obviously, it is easy to imagine any number of changes in life circumstances that would change this attitude. But our cultural focus on personal satisfaction can make marriage, with its ethos of obligation and shared sacrifice, difficult. It's difficult even for people who believe in traditional marriage as an institution and want to defend it.

Difficult choices nevertheless are sometimes the right choices, for us individually and for our communities at large. People are more likely to make these choices when their behavior is celebrated and affirmed, supported both by the culture and the law.

That's why this discussion must be about more than politics. It can be challenging to reexamine first premises, but that's exactly what we need to do in thinking about marriage. We are not just thinking of ourselves – we are thinking about how future generations will be raised and shaping the institutions that will mold them.

W. James Antle III is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • The marriage quagmire by Wendy McElroy (August 11, 2003)
    The expansion of marriage to same-sex couples is dominating debate these days and Wendy McElroy says she has a simple solution to the issue

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