Real Marriage
From the March 21, 2011 issue of NR


Let’s try again. “Maximal experiential union” plainly suggests a sharing, to the greatest possible extent, of experiences. Now the word “experiences” could mean activities: e.g., drinking a Sauternes, climbing Kilimanjaro, making love. Or it could mean the psychological qualities, or states of mind, attendant on our activities: e.g., pleasures of taste, a sense of thrill, erotic desire and satisfaction. Which sense does Steorts mean? 

He says that marriage requires “facing major life events jointly” and is deeper where it includes rearing children — i.e., sharing activities. But then he declares that “any union of two persons who are in love” — who have a certain mental quality of experience, certain feelings — “is deeper than that of any two who are not, even if they have reproduced . . . because only in romantic relationships can persons fully and reciprocally share themselves.” (And, though trumping in importance shared activities, such romantic desire for, and “existential commitment” to, the other’s whole person must be fostered in “the experience of sexual intimacy.”)

Steorts never resolves and perhaps never notices this ambiguity in his account. My best guess is that he sees two people as married (as having “maximal experiential union”) if they fully share themselves; and that this requires being in love (i.e., having certain feelings for each other), being sexually intimate, and being committed to sharing as many activities (“life events”) as possible. But even so polished, Steorts’s theoretical lens would distort our vision of social institutions as well as persons, and thus of valuable private as well as public norms; the conjugal theory fares better on every score. 
First, Steorts’s view of marriage as maximal experiential union misconstrues what is essential for marital love. After all, if a certain emotional state (being in love) were necessary, as Steorts suggests, then it would be impossible to commit sincerely to marriage. For this would require promising to keep up feelings, over which you have no direct control, and you can’t sincerely promise to secure what you can’t control. Moreover, true unity depends on the presence of a genuinely shared good, but feelings are inherently private. (As Steorts admits in another connection, “each of us is trapped in his own experience.”) So feelings can only give valuable texture and depth to individuals’ separate appreciations of another good, which is shared. That is why fixation on feelings can make love degenerate into selfish (even if reciprocal) gratification.
Marriage is before all else a matter of the will: two people’s commitment to act for each other’s good and to cooperate in ways specific to their form of love. Urgent desire and ecstatic delight, while often important motivations, are best seen as a valuable bloom on marriage: indicative of health and appealing in themselves, but seasonal at best. That is why spouses aren’t any less married after 50 years than on their fifth day — or after a long day on the job than on a libidinous Saturday morning. That is also why it would have been in no way “dishonest” for Partilla and Riddell to stay with their spouses and children.
To escape the seductions of sentimentalism, we must reject Steorts’s sharp distinction between marital communion (“the experience of two people who are in love”) and marital activities (“reproduction and its consequences”). To include same-sex partnerships as marriages, Steorts distinguishes marital communion mainly by the first — sexual sentiment or desire — understood without any inherent reference to organic bodily union, its orientation to procreation, or the kind of life-sharing that these realities call for. And to make this conceptual separation of romantic desire from its inherent fulfillments plausible, Steorts suggests that we might have formed sexual relationships even if our species reproduced asexually — a fantasy that your scientifically minded sixth-grader could dispel. 
In reality, the connection between personal communion and joint activity (in any bond, marriage included) is less like that between two trees growing in the same soil (often lumped together, but really separate) than that between a single tree and its branches: A tree is built up and extended by its branches, which give it distinctive shape; and species of trees can be picked out by their distinctive branches. Just so, personal communion is built up and extended by joint activities, which give it distinctive shape; and types of communion can be picked out by the joint activities that distinctively embody them.


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