The Marriage Debate
The conjugal view of marriage leaves us just as free for companionship.



The marriage debate is not about homosexuality, but about marriage. Upholding the truth about marriage doesn’t deprive anyone of the joys of companionship, as many supporters of same-sex marriage suppose.

In What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense and in various follow-up pieces, we have argued for several ideas: Reducing marriage to the more general category of sexual domestic partnership is a deep mistake. Marriage — the human good that marriage law should foster — is rather a union of persons at every level (mind, heart, and body) and for the whole of life, inherently oriented to family life. Properly understood, such comprehensive union requires a man and a woman. The common good depends on enshrining this “conjugal view” of marriage in law; the argument for redefining marriage contradicts itself, and embracing it would harm the common good in definable ways. And the state’s reasons for recognizing marriage as a male-female union are based not on some obscure ideology or private interest, but on the human good, which reason and experience lay bare.

We have also addressed challenges to the conjugal view based on analogies to interracial unions (at some times and places banned, wrongly, in connection with programs of racial subordination) and infertile unions (widely and rightly recognized). And we have answered two prominent arguments for legally recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages.

One of these arguments concerns practical interests like tax treatment, inheritance, and hospital visitation. Yet we’ve shown, in the book and in later pieces, how people’s practical needs can be met without redefining civil marriage.

Another argument is from simple equality. Here we have appealed to widely shared understandings to show that same-sex relationships — whatever view one might have of their morality or value — lack essential features that make a true marriage, and that make marriage a matter of public interest. There is no inequality in treating fundamentally different sorts of bonds differently. And revamping marriage to mark some people as normal would only further marginalize those who (for whatever reason) remain unmarried.

Of course, we do not deny the long and tragic history of cruelty toward people attracted to members of their own sex. They have known ridicule, discrimination, even violence. So a supporter of same-sex marriage might yet ask: Legal benefits and abstract principles aside, should we not revamp civil marriage to give these historically marginalized men and women the uniquely fulfilling joys of companionship?

The personal fulfillment that many find in marriage has become the most prominent argument against the historical view of marriage. (See, for example, this post by Andrew Sullivan.) Here we sketch that argument in its most sympathetic form, so as to answer it fully and directly, sensitive to its concerns.

In a mobile age, people want continuity. Our spouses — permanent breakfast partners, reliable sources and objects of interest and affection — anchor us. What we do alone has less verve than what we share. Spouses are witnesses to our adulthoods; they are our living and dynamic diaries. We want knowing consolation and informed advice: Spouses have license to plumb our past and present and our most private ambitions. We want the security of a first responder in emergencies, ready counsel in distress, company in defeat, and, for every personal victory, a two-way tie. Spouses typically provide all these goods.

Besides, marriage itself is a school of virtue. As fear gives way to surrender, as the exhilaration of surrender gives way to laboriousness and then to the serenely familiar, we mature. Stretched across another life’s peaks and troughs, our ego is unraveled. What we want from our spouses, we learn ever more to give. In vacations and bedside vigils, grand projects and modest self-denials, our spouses call forth in us new excellences, somehow making us feel all the while that we are most at ease, and most ourselves, when they are near.

Now then, the supporter of same-sex marriage asks, shall we deny all this to the thousands of men and women in same-sex relationships?

We shouldn’t, and we don’t. Whether or not these companionate ideals are all equally healthy to seek, all in one bond, and all specifically in marriage, the general desire that animates them — to know and serve one who knows and serves us — is the desire to love. No aim is nobler.

But traditional marriage law denies these companionate ideals to no one. It does not discourage anyone from seeking them. Its more specific view of what makes a marriage can even liberate us for emotional intimacy in other bonds. And even if companionate bonds are impaired if deprived of public status, it does not follow that they require legal status. Remarkably, then, one of the most common and powerfully felt objections to conjugal-marriage policy is also one of the easiest to answer. The law simply has much less to do with this than people commonly suppose. We can unpack this all.

Note first that, however the debate about redefining marriage is resolved, two men or two women will still be free to live together, with or without a sexual relationship or a wedding ceremony. (None of this is true, for example, of bigamy or polygamy — crimes rightly punishable by imprisonment.) The debate about same-sex civil marriage is not about anyone’s private behavior, but about legal recognition. The decision to honor conjugal marriage bans nothing.