Politics & Policy

Marriage On Trial

Preserve and protect.

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, a professor of the humanities and history at Emory, died in early 2007. She left behind one last book, however, on marriage – advocating for it and its protection. Marriage: The Dream That Refuses to Die has just been published by ISI Books; here we excerpt Chapter 3.

On Tuesday, November 18, 2003, in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, by a 4–3 vote, ruled that, under the state’s constitution, same-sex couples have the right to marry — or rather, that denying them that right failed to meet “the rational basis test for either due process or equal protection.” In the words of the majority opinion, “[t]he benefits accessible only by way of a marriage license are enormous, touching nearly every aspect of life and death.” The majority concluded that the right to such benefits “means little if it does not include the right to marry the person of one’s choice.”

The decision explicitly appealed to Canadian rather than American precedents, thereby following the trend set by the Supreme Court — and celebrated by Ruth Bader Ginsberg — in Lawrence v. Texas. The influence of Canadian law and policy on the decision is clear, but the language also uncomfortably echoes that of Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania, in which the justices soberly announced that decisions about the meaning — in this instance, the value — of life were purely personal matters. And as others, notably Robert George, have pointed out, the disturbing evocations of due process and equal protection run through them all. In effect the courts have usurped the authority of the political process, assuming sweeping authority to legislate by fiat how we should live our lives — all in the name of our right to personal choice, which they celebrate as equal protection and due process.

The language of individual choice or individual right has proven extraordinarily seductive both as an invitation to do as one pleases with a clear conscience and as a deterrent against disapproval of the choices of others, which are grouped under the preposterously euphemistic blanket of “lifestyle” choices. Lifestyle choices, it turns out, include every imaginable sexual practice, including a new addition — “questioning” — as well as those older preferences which, not so long ago, were known by such judgmental terms as incest, pedophilia, statutory rape, necrophilia, and bestiality. Some older ones, like fornication and sodomy, seem virtually to have disappeared from our vocabulary. Lifestyle choices also include the choice to abort or not to abort, to marry or not to marry, to bear a child within marriage or outside of marriage, to cohabit or not to cohabit, and on ad infinitum. Logically, there is no reason not to add to this list polygamy and polyandry. The notion of marriage as the union of one woman and one man has been dissolved in a flood of options, reduced to the status of one “choice” among many. And if the gravest and most sacred features of human existence are reduced to matters of style, why should we care which styles others may choose?

We have reached a precipice, over which many seem eager to plunge, some maliciously, others blindly: Having reduced the most intimate personal relations, including those that have been our most reliable social bonds, to styles, we have banished morality from serious public discourse. The insistence upon viewing the world — including all forms of social and personal relations — from a purely subjective perspective has led us to embrace, as the Court in Casey encouraged us to do, the comfortable position that the weightiest questions about the value of human life are matters of purely personal concern — to be decided by each individual for himself or herself. With moral norms for personal relations swept aside like accumulated dustheaps and cobwebs, the ground on which to oppose same-sex marriage has been eroding. In the previous two chapters, I offered a functional and evolutionary view of marriage as a social institution, and it would be easy to assume that my intention was to endorse it. What could be more natural than to reason that, since marriage has constituted a primary social bond in different societies, it is only natural for marriage to continue to adapt to changing social, economic, and political conditions?

If changes in the larger social environment account for and justify changes in marriage, no era could be more promising than ours for massive change, and it is hard to believe that the proponents of same-sex marriage are not counting on precisely that logic to carry the day for their cause. The twentieth century arguably witnessed as much change as all of previous history combined. It assuredly witnessed a more rapid rate of change than any previous epoch, doubtless most dramatically in the realm of technology, but no less portentously in the realm of social mores. Until recently, all of the most visible social changes have concerned women, whose accelerating access to the full status of individual has decisively undermined the bonds of marriage and the bonds between parents and children.

Nothing could be further from my intentions than to blame women for our current woes. Much in women’s situation called out for redress, notably their subordination to men and their exclusion from countless opportunities for independent participation in the public worlds of politics and work. But the justice of women’s basic goals does not automatically justify the consequences that have ensued from pursuit of them. No less importantly, women’s campaign for greater individual rights and personal independence was almost always more symptom than cause of the great secular changes that were radically transforming the world. For example, women legitimately sought greater freedom within marriage, especially control of personal property or wages, and sought greater opportunities as married women within society at large, especially the right to specific forms of work. But it does not follow that the best solution to women’s demands lay in easier access to divorce — or even in greater freedom from pregnancy.

Indisputably, easier access to divorce, artificial contraception, and the resultant radical restriction of pregnancies increased women’s independence within marriage, their freedom to leave or to avoid it, and their freedom to pursue careers in the public sphere. But these putative “advances” decisively weakened marriage in ways that might have been avoided. Easing marriage bonds seemed appealing to many men, some women, and, in the long run, to employers, who benefited from the mobility of unencumbered employees. Especially after World War I, when women gained unprecedented social freedom and even the vote in several industrial nations, including Great Britain and the United States, the rapid increase in urbanization seemed to enhance the desirability of single individuals who could respond to new opportunities without the burdens of personal allegiances. This increase in urbanization also offered women growing opportunities to work and to live on their own. As feminists have been the first to point out, the opportunities for women during the interwar years left much to be desired, and improvement often had more to do with style than substance. But that reality made the apparent freedom of easier social mores and easier access to divorce all the more seductive — to cynical employers as well as to many women themselves.

For the rest of the twentieth century, the temptation to blame marriage for many of women’s disadvantages proved irresistible to many feminists, and no few women who did not initially identify with feminism found their arguments convincing. Campaigns for no-fault divorce, for example, passed in many states with little opposition, although a few astute social analysts, women as well as men, called attention to the costs, especially for less affluent women and their children, who typically experienced a decisive drop in income following a divorce. But the real blow came with Roe v. Wade, which has since stood as the cornerstone of the liberationist agenda. Independent of the heated — and uniquely important — debates about abortion, which increasingly have pitted the sexual freedom of the woman against the life of the child, Roe, combined with the mounting impact of the pill, delivered the knockout punch to the notion that a man should be expected to marry a woman he impregnated. Not for nothing did Casey piously affirm that women had become accustomed to working to support themselves — the justices seemed determined officially to liberate men and the state from any lingering obligation to do so.

Quite apart from the consequences for born and aborted children, the consequences for marriage, compounded by no-fault divorce, proved devastating. The marriage rate plummeted, while the divorce rate continued to rise, dramatically so in states that granted no-fault divorce. Today a mere 44 percent of American adults live in a heterosexual marriage, the divorce rate continues to hover around 50 percent, and those who live to age seventy or older are likely to spend more years of their lives single than married. In the view of Business Week, America has effectively become an “unmarried” country. Meanwhile, the disintegration of marriage is increasingly endowing the nation with unparented children: 33 percent of all children — and close to 70 percent of African-American children — are now born to single mothers, many of them young, underemployed or unemployed, woefully educated, and uninsured. The cynical may find in these numbers a strong justification for abortion on demand, but those most likely to live the problem would probably differ. African-Americans, in particular, are beginning to see the uncompromising defense of abortion at all costs and under any conditions as a not-so-covert form of genocide.

By now, at least some will have noticed that I have studiously refrained from talking, except in passing, about the relation between marriage and children and the importance of responsible procreation as the major justification for marriage. I have also refrained from dwelling upon the charms of marital bliss, readily acknowledging that marriages are as likely to be unhappy as happy, to which I should add that even the most loving marriages invariably have bad moments, and some may suffer months, or even years, of tension and unhappiness. Finally, I have frankly discussed the evolution of marriage and emphasized the ways in which it has fulfilled different social, economic, and political functions in different societies and in different epochs. Perhaps most significantly, I have said virtually nothing about religious teachings on marriage. My remarks could easily be read as a capitulation to — if not outright acquiescence in — a relativistic view of marriage: If it works, if it feels good, why not? If individual happiness is the measure of the good, then by what right do we oppose individuals having what they want?

The short answer, as we are reminded every day, is that the desires of individuals conflict. Pray remember that Thomas More’s Utopia postulates as stern a government as the one that prevailed in Calvin’s Geneva. As in the case of slave women, who enjoyed freedom from the authority of a husband only to suffer the authority of the master, the illusion of freedom in one realm more often than not veils a more ominous authority in another. The greater social and sexual freedom enjoyed by college students today appears to result in more instances of “acquaintance” rape and even “domestic” violence than occurred when they were subject to more supervision and regulation. The unfortunate by-products of their increased freedom have included a veritable explosion of student-life bureaucracies, which, instead of imposing parietal rules, impose mandatory diversity training sessions and untold hours of indoctrination in acceptable attitudes and forms of behavior. Yet only the obtuse can fail to recognize that the diverse members of our society cannot possibly all have what they want at the same time, and in many cases not even sequentially.

Since the incidence of divorce rose after World War I, the emphasis on individual wants has grown ever more insistent. The boom of the 1920s promoted an unreal atmosphere of limitless possibilities, but the stock market crash of 1929, followed by the long decade of the Great Depression and then the four years of World War II, introduced a harsh dose of reality. The Depression encouraged, when it did not force, the deferment of marriage for many young couples, and if the onset of the war prompted many to marry and even to start childbearing, the real baby boom did not take hold until the war’s close. The late 1940s and the 1950s blossomed into what many now nostalgically view as a golden age of family life, not least because the United States was also enjoying economic prosperity, unprecedented opportunities for home ownership, and a marked expansion in higher education, including for women.

The 1960s brought a revolt against this purportedly idyllic prosperity. The Civil Rights Movement led the way, but the student, antiwar, and women’s movements followed in quick succession. As early as 1963, Betty Friedan had published The Feminine Mystique, detailing the woes of the middle-class suburban wife, imprisoned in material comfort, a stifling marriage, and mind-numbing responsibilities to children. In retrospect, it is striking that the beginnings of social and economic security for American workers, including unprecedented possibilities for African Americans, coincided with the first explosions of restlessness and boredom for middle-class women.

At the time, it often appeared that easier access to divorce was benefiting men rather than women, primarily because men could take up with a younger second wife, leaving the first with diminished financial resources, the responsibility for children, and little or no preparation for gainful, much less challenging, employment. One feminist novelist after another chronicled versions of this story, but, tellingly, the vast majority of them represented it as positive. However much the woman lost and whatever her initial fears and pain, she was represented as gaining a new lease on life — her first taste of the freedom to become truly herself and perhaps to discover a previously unimaginable happiness with a new marriage, a younger male lover, or even another woman. Beyond the pages of fiction, and not always within them, things did not automatically end so well, and in real life, they took a high toll on children.

The escalating failure of marriage since the 1960s may fairly be told as a story of the betrayal of children. In the United States, in which divorce affects roughly half the children who are born into marriage, it is often considered in poor taste to dwell on the negative impact of divorce. Divorcing parents are quick to reassure themselves that their children will be happier if their parents are happy — happier than if they had to live with parents who were constantly fighting. In most cases, they are wrong. Short of violence and abuse, most children strongly prefer to live with both biological parents, no matter what the parents’ own preferences. Numerous studies have demonstrated the importance of the presence of a father in the life of a boy, and it now appears in such studies that the presence of a girl’s biological father is the most important influence on the healthy development of her early sexual experience.

Judith S. Wallerstein, James Q. Wilson, Mary Ann Glendon, and others have argued that the cost of divorce for children may be prohibitively high. Following the children of divorce for ten years, Wallerstein found that “‘half saw their father or mother get yet another divorce, half found that their parents stayed angry at one another, and half became ‘worried, underachieving, self-deprecating, and sometimes angry young men and women.’” Meanwhile, “one fourth experienced a sharp drop in standard of living; few were helped with college expenses; and most felt rejected by at least one of their parents.” Thus, as James Q. Wilson, discussing Wallerstein’s work, concludes, although some children have done fine after divorce, “most did not, and this problem persisted well into adulthood.”

The news about the harmful effects of divorce has not been welcome in all quarters. The very frequency of divorce has led some school counselors and social workers to discourage negative references to it, lest they “stigmatize” the children of divorce. Sadly, the children, who are the most knowledgeable experts on the subject, are unlikely to find anything surprising in the claim that divorce is hurtful to those children who experience it. More sadly yet, too many children understand that they were never the primary purpose of a marriage that was intended to further the happiness of adults. Many adults do nothing to correct this perception, and their preoccupation with their own happiness — whatever it may cost others — echoes the theme of obsessive love that dates back to Tristan and Isolde. My point is not to dismiss the importance of love as an incentive to marriage, much less the importance of love between man and wife. But I do suggest that, however beautiful and valuable the initial impulse of romantic love, a marriage demands considerable sacrifice from both parties, and the arrival of children demands even greater sacrifices from both fathers and mothers.

Our society has betrayed and abandoned its children. Their sexualization alone should be enough to indict our culture for terminal decadence. It is pointless to attempt to hold individual parents accountable for the countless ways — including unspeakable violence — in which children express their despair and frustration, or simply their bad character. Bad parents assuredly exist. But even the best parents have difficulty in holding their own against the forces of the larger culture, which has little regard for the intrinsic human value of children, much less for their distinct needs. The disintegration of marriage bears a heavy responsibility for the devaluation of children, mainly because we have somehow managed to reverse the time-honored sensibility according to which children were the fruit, gift, and blessing of a marriage. Our culture is more likely to regard them as marriage’s trophies or its burdens and to reject them if they fail to meet expectations or prove too heavy to carry. And it does not help that the women’s movement, in its campaign to free women from primary responsibility for children, has effectively demoted the care for children to work fit only for servants.

Traditionally, many societies saw children as the main point of marriage, and King Henry VIII was not the only king — or the only man — to repudiate a wife who failed to bear him an heir. In his time and long thereafter, the presence of an heir — overwhelmingly assumed to be a male child — was intimately linked to the transmission of a special form of property, in Henry’s case a throne and kingdom, in most cases, land. Thus, although the power of fathers over children might be formidable by today’s standards, both fathers and heirs were also, in some sense, trustees or stewards of an estate that had preceded and would outlast them. Not incidentally, previous societies were also very much concerned with the problem of reproduction in general. If male heirs seem paramount to some, the mere existence of surviving children was seen as essential to all, for their absence would threaten the society with rapid decline.

Today, these concerns rarely carry much weight, and few people probably even think of them. Property has become increasingly difficult to transmit and almost always takes the form of mobile wealth rather than land, much less a kingdom or even an estate that has been in the family for generations. For these reasons and others, children have lost much of their practical value. And this declining practical value may help to explain some of the disregard they suffer. But not all. For the deeper value of children — confirmed by so many couples’ frantic recourse to fertility treatments — is psychological and seems to reflect parents’ desire to perpetuate themselves, even if only in a single child. The problems arise when the desire for children does not translate into the desire to spend time with them, shepherd their development, and place their needs before the demands of the external world.

There are many reasons for the declining importance of children in many people’s view of their lives, and nowhere is that decline more apparent than in the couples who choose to forgo children entirely because they do not want the interruption, bother, or expense. Sometimes, perhaps frequently, couples who decide not to have children simply do not feel themselves ready to shoulder the responsibility. In other words, to borrow James Wilson’s formulation, they are not sufficiently “grown up” to embrace adult responsibilities.

I can foresee the howls of outrage: How dare I or Wilson or anyone else judge other adults’ maturity and sense of responsibility? Such judgments bear a disquieting resemblance to the moral judgments that have been banished from our discourse. Yet when we consider the current plight of children in our society, moral questions insistently impose themselves. And those questions relate closely to the crisis in marriage, although not primarily in the ways one might expect. It is impossible to exaggerate our moral failures to children, but ultimately those failures are society’s as much as individual parents’. We have indulged ourselves with a culture that puts the individual — “me, me, me” — first at the expense of all competing obligations. Under these conditions, binding ties dissolve into matters of personal choice that may change without warning or concern for the consequences to others.

The problem of whether adults do behave like grown-ups returns us to the problem of marriage. It would be easy, although not without provoking outraged dissent, to chronicle the innumerable, and sometimes devastating, woes inflicted upon children. But the exercise would only take us further from the core problem of marriage. The intimate relation between marriage and children has historically been an article of faith, and the Catholic Church teaches that a valid marriage must be “open” to children, who must be welcomed, treasured, and raised in the Catholic faith. But even the church does not say that the bearing of children constitutes the essence and primary purpose of marriage. Presumably confusion arises because of the emphasis on openness to them, including the condemnation of artificial contraception and abortion.

Notwithstanding the overriding importance of responsible care for children, who merit unconditional love, the essence of — and primary justification for — marriage lies elsewhere. Marriage is an intrinsic good in itself because it bridges the difference between the sexes, uniting man and woman in “one flesh.” In the Catholic Church, marriage, like baptism and holy orders, is a sacrament that marks a sacred rite of passage — entry into a fundamental commitment that binds the individual to a larger purpose and community. And although marriage unites two distinct and morally responsible individuals, it is no more about the individuals than it is about their union into one — a marriage that unites and transcends their individual purposes and desires, which henceforth are to be fulfilled in, through, and in concert with the other.

One of the smartest of the many recent commentaries on the Goodridge decision and the future of gay marriage noted that ultimately same-sex marriage will prevail because these days too many Americans, in small towns as well as in big cities, know one or more gay people and often know gay couples. The more accustomed Americans become to knowing gay and lesbian couples, the more likely they will be to accept their right to enjoy the same opportunities for happiness as everyone else. In effect, although the author did not put it this way, the collapse of public moral standards and the vast expansion in the notion of individual rights are making it increasingly difficult to deny anyone’s right to fulfill his or her desires, whatever they may be. In our revolt against the allegedly unjust and discriminatory authoritarianism of morality, we have lost any ground from which to draw moral lines.

The demands for same-sex marriage flow logically from the moral tenor of our culture, and nothing in that culture arms us to resist them. Above all, having first acceded to the primacy of the individual over any semblance of a group, we are now capitulating to the non-negotiable demands of sexual desire. Nothing, in this climate, could be further from the dominant cultural sensibility than the idea that sexuality per se and pro se offers a woefully impoverished definition or measure of the individual. As our culture has loosened the bonds of sexual repression that allegedly thwarted the development and happiness of individuals, it has increasingly succumbed to the notion that no sexual desire can be denied. If you couple this assumption to the notion that marriage exists only to serve the interests and comfort of the individual, you are left with few weapons against the advance of same-sex marriage.

In an ominous development, the largest corporations, according to Business Week, are beginning to understand and adjust to this trend. Some are now offering benefits to a variety of domestic units and, in the process, are effectively displacing marriage as a special relationship or union. The consequences of this tendency, combined with our “me, me, me” cultural ethos, will soon end in the destruction of marriage. Oh, marriage will survive as one “lifestyle” choice among many, but as no more than that. And, make no mistake, that form of survival will amount to destruction, which is precisely the goal of the activists who are fighting for the legalization of same-sex marriage.

Many Americans, who come to see same-sex marriage as just another step in marriage’s evolution, will accept the public pronouncements that they are doing no more than supporting “fairness” by extending some valuable benefits to people of the same sex who happen to love each other and wish to live together without shame or stigma. What could be more innocuous? But for the hardcore activists, the real goal is the destruction of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. They aim to discredit all forms of authority — especially God and nature — that dare to tell people how to lead their lives. In the view of queer activists, desire, like love in Carmen’s “Habenera,” knows no law — nor should any be imposed upon it.

In the current climate, the appeal of their position is not hard to understand, especially since most of those who accept it do not begin to understand its implications. If anything, the defense of same-sex marriage looks like yet another logical step in the gradual increase in freedom for all members of society. And since activists, the courts, and the media overwhelmingly encourage this deception, we may readily understand that many people may come to see same-sex marriage as another blow against outmoded and illegitimate forms of authority — a blow for freedom and equality. Buying into this view, however, they will remain blind to the ways in which they are playing into the hands of vast governmental and economic powers. The freedom for gays and lesbians to marry will decisively contribute to disaggregating all of the remaining social institutions that provide the foundations for any collective resistance against political and economic domination.

Contrary to many prevailing views, marriage is not the seat of oppression but rather the last best ground for resistance against it. In binding men and women into loving relations and shared purposes, marriage acknowledges the reality of sexual difference even as it works to bridge that difference and lay a foundation for a vital and, yes, grown-up social life.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”


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