Only the conjugal view gives marriage a distinctive shape — by highlighting orientation to procreation through bodily union. Steorts is welcome to suggest an alternative distinctively marital activity, to be shared between spouses and them alone as a unique expression of their form of communion, and its corresponding broader obligations. But I do not see how he can avoid either gerrymandering to include same-sex partnerships but not (say) triads, or relapse into an ideal that would trigger terminal claustrophobia in any normal person. But even as Steorts’s view expands the norms of marriage beyond recognition (and practicality), it rests them precariously on the shifting ground of deep romantic feeling — which varies, like all emotions, in quality and intensity. Moreover, because there is no reason that primarily emotional unions any more than ordinary friendships in general should be permanent, exclusive, or limited to two, these norms of marriage would make less sense on Steorts’s model. That is, it would make less sense why the experiential union of marriage should be maximal at all. Less able to understand the rationale for these marital norms, people would feel less bound by them. (See, for example, Andrew Cherlin’s The Marriage-Go-Round on how the rise of expressive individualism relates to the divorce revolution.) And less able to understand the value of marriage itself as a distinctive type of union, even apart from the value of its emotional satisfactions, people would increasingly fail to see the inherent reasons for marrying or for staying with a spouse absent consistently strong feeling — or, as for Partilla and Riddell, in the presence of strong temptations to form fresh “maximal experiential unions.”
Of course, marriage policy could go bad, and already has, in many ways. The issue of same-sex unions is not uniquely important, but it is the focus of a live debate whose results have wide implications for reforms to strengthen our marriage culture. Social and legal developments have indeed worn the ties that bind spouses to something beyond themselves and thus more securely to each other. But redefining marriage to accommodate same-sex partnerships would mean cutting the last remaining threads. After all, underlying people’s adherence to the marital norms already in decline are the deep (if implicit) connections in their minds between marriage, bodily union, and children. Steorts’s proposal would not just wear down but tear out this foundation — the basis for reversing other recent trends and restoring the many social benefits of a healthy marriage culture.
The conjugal view, by contrast, makes sense of marital norms, and makes them specific enough to be livable. For if bodily union is essential to marriage, we can understand why marriage is incomplete and can be dissolved if not consummated; and if it is comprehensive, we can understand why it should be, like the union of organs into one healthy whole, total and lasting for the life of the parts (“till death do us part”). That is, the comprehensiveness of the union across the dimensions of each spouse’s being calls for a temporal comprehensiveness, too: through time (hence permanence) and at each time (hence exclusivity).
Furthermore, fostering the conjugal view deepens spouses’ motivation to live by marital norms. Spouses who clearly grasp the orientation of their union to procreation and childrearing will want to make of their marriage the stable and harmonious context that children require. Sociology and common sense agree that this excludes divorce — which deprives children of an intact biological family — and infidelity, which introduces distrust and rancor and divides attention and responsibility, often with children from other couplings. (On the importance of marital stability and fidelity see, e.g., Shannon E. Cavanagh in Journal of Family Issues, Jan. 4, 2008, and Paul R. Amato and Stacy J. Rogers in Journal of Marriage and the Family, August 1997.) In relationships that lack this comprehensiveness and orientation to children, it is hard to see why permanence and exclusivity should be, not only desirable when not too costly (like stability in any human bond), but inherently normative for anyone in that relationship.
THE EFFECT OF CHILDREN
In so undermining marital norms, Steorts’s proposal would also adversely affect children. According to the best available sociological evidence (cf. the Witherspoon Institute’s “Marriage and the Public Good: Ten Principles”), children fare best on virtually every indicator of well-being when reared by their wedded biological parents. Studies that control for other relevant factors, including poverty and even genetics, suggest that (in the words of sociologists Wendy D. Manning and Kathleen A. Lamb) “the advantage of marriage appears to exist primarily when the child is the biological offspring of both parents.” Children reared in intact homes fare best on the following indices:
Educational achievement: literacy and graduation rates
Emotional health: rates of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and suicide
Familial and sexual development: strong sense of identity, timing of onset of puberty, rates of teen and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and rates of sexual abuse
Child and adult behavior: rates of aggression, attention deficit disorder, delinquency, and incarceration