Real Marriage
A reply to Jason Steorts


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.

For this reason, we learn something about a relationship from the way it is sealed or embodied in certain activities. Ordinary friendships center on a union of minds and wills, by which each person comes to know and seek the other’s good; thus, friendships are sealed in conversations and common pursuits. Scholarly relationships are sealed or embodied in joint inquiry, investigation, discovery, and dissemination; sports communities, in practices and games.

But marriage, on the conjugal view, is a comprehensive union of two sexually complementary persons who seal (consummate or complete) their relationship by the generative act — by the kind of activity that is by its nature fulfilled by the conception of a child. So marriage itself is oriented to and fulfilled by the bearing, rearing, and education of children. The procreative type of act distinctively seals or completes a procreative type of union.

That an orientation to procreation distinguishes marriage from other unions does not mean that procreation must be the most important aspect of a marriage, much less its sole point. Comprehensive union itself — of mind, heart, and body; permanent and exclusive — is of great inherent value, and distinct from the value of general friendships (unions of hearts and minds).

But even this comprehensiveness is achieved only through generative acts. Thus, we can see marital union’s procreative orientation in its essential structure, onto which cultures (and couples) graft other practices according to circumstance and taste: Having committed to engage in the generative acts that unite them bodily, spouses cooperate in other areas of life (intellectual, recreational, etc.) at least to the extent that this would be needed for fostering children’s overall development, and in the tasks of parenting where children do come. And these activities are truly shared goods — unlike the inherently individual feelings that color spouses’ experience of them.

Steorts’s “maximal experiential union” model, by contrast, would distinguish marriage from other friendships by differences in the degree, not the type, of good shared. In understanding that good so broadly (united experience), it recognizes just one currency of love in action, which we are to spend to the maximum on our spouse. That is, here as elsewhere, Steorts’s view makes sentiment controlling. It distinguishes “types of intimacy” by their emotional qualities, but not at all by the kind — only by the amount — of sharing in goods or activities. This is what makes Steorts’s view subversive of important marital norms and bad for all concerned: Taken seriously, it would make the marital norms of permanence and exclusivity at once impossibly demanding and poorly grounded, in a way that threatens to undermine the good of spouses, children, and the unmarried.

First, Steorts’s view makes these norms impossible to meet — if in permanently and exclusively committing to a “maximal experiential union,” two people promise to maximize the number of experiences between them, and only them, till death do them part. Then a man would effectively be committing adultery every time he golfed, cooked, discussed art, or shared any other meaningful experience with anyone besides his wife — that is, every time he fostered another friendship. If spouses were not each other’s best hobby partner, physical trainer, intellectual interlocutor — indeed, everything to each other — their marriage would be defective. This impression would make spouses more likely to find their union by turns strained or wanting as judged by an impossible standard.

March 21, 2011    |     Volume LXIII, No. 5

Books, Arts & Manners
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .