Politics & Policy

Not a Social Contract

Marriage is more than affection and good times.

On May 17, 2004, the state of Massachusetts began issuing marriage licenses to gay couples. The proponents of this redefinition of marriage believe it is a step toward complete state neutrality regarding marriage: neutrality among types of couples, as well as neutrality among religious and non-religious ideas about marriage.

But this is only a pretense of neutrality, and the legal definition of gay couples as married actually enshrines into law two presumptions about marriage. These first is that marriage is best understood as a contract between people who love each other; the second is that love is best understood as mutual affection. These are not neutral ideas; in fact, these presumptions aren’t even true.

These are precisely the concepts that have failed in such a spectacular fashion for straight people, and have collaborated to nearly destroy the deeper understanding of marriage as a lifelong mutual gift of self.


The idea that marriage is a contract has undermined more heterosexual marriages than anything, with the possible exception of adultery. The problem with sliding into the contractual view of marriage is that it shifts the focus from a generous sharing of the self to a narrow and stingy view of rights and obligations. A contract is a carefully orchestrated exchange of promises, spelling out specific duties for a specified length of time. The parties calculate in advance. They haggle over the terms of their cooperation to ensure that no one is cheated. When the purposes of the contract have been fulfilled, it ends.

By contrast, the sexual act involves the complete sharing of one’s body with another person. I entrust myself to my spouse. He entrusts himself to me. This is not a carefully orchestrated exchange of promises; this is an act of self-giving abandon.

Couples could never fully specify everything they do to make their marriages work. Viewing marriage as a contract shifts the orientation from pursuing the couple’s “common good” to pursuing the good of each individual. When a couple starts asking “What’s in it for me?”–instead of “How can I help?”–the marriage is in trouble. When an employer hears a worker say, “It’s not in my job description,” he realizes the worker is not really part of the team. When couples start behaving that way, they’re acting more like roommates than spouses.

The mistake here is to view every form of voluntary cooperation with mutual advantage as a contract or quasi-contract. American society should not institutionalize an error of this magnitude–common among economists–by claiming that any voluntary grouping of people can count themselves as married.


Viewing love as mutual affection has created the unrealistic expectation that we can judge the strength of our unions by our feelings. Many straight people hold this view. We stay married as long as we like the way we feel with the other person. But basing marriage upon mere feelings is a recipe for divorce–because feelings are fickle.

The alternative is to view love as a decision. To love is to will and to do the good of the other. This understanding of love sustains us, to the benefit of the whole family, children and parents alike.

I don’t feel very good when my husband confronts me with negative information about my behavior. But it is in my interest to hear what he has to say. He is giving me an opportunity for positive change. If I act on my feelings, I will run from him at exactly the moment when he is doing something of lasting value for me. I have to make a decision to love him enough to listen. He has to make a decision to love me enough to tell me the truth in a helpful way. It is love, not how we feel, that keeps us engaged with one another.

Similarly, when the good of our children is at stake, our feelings are simply not the most important consideration. It has been proven beyond any shadow of a doubt that the children of couples in “low-conflict” marriages do better if their parents remain married to each other. Many children don’t even notice that their parents are unhappy, or quarrelling privately. These kids are likely to be devastated by their parents’ divorce, which they see as an unexpected and unwelcome disruption of their lives. As parents, we make a decision to love, and to bear some discomfort for the good of our children.

Marriage requires a lifelong commitment, and cannot be easily set aside for light cause, as so many straight people have lately done. “But we love each other” doesn’t work as an argument for anyone to claim an entitlement to marriage, unless he understands that genuine love, especially married love, requires some sacrifice of feelings. Americans have no trouble accepting a sacrifice of our immediate pleasure in order to pursue a graduate degree, or to go to work in the morning. Likewise, we need to cultivate a shared understanding that our immediate feelings toward our spouses are not the ultimate factor in making marriage work.

Most gay activists do not share this view of marriage. This is not what they are arguing for, nor what they seem to want. Giving them what they ask for amounts to accepting false empirical claims, and entails a deep reordering of the fundamental meaning of marriage. This may be part of the causal mechanism behind the decline of marriage in Scandanavian countries, so ably documented by Stanley Kurtz.

And this is why homosexual marriage is just the icing on the cake. Making gay nuptials legal may itself be wrong, but institutionalizing a poisonous view of marriage for everyone–gay or straight–is where the most harm is wrought.

Jennifer Roback Morse is the author of Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn’t Work.


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