Marriage Unconstrained: In Which I Argue with Myself

So I don’t know if you noticed, but that Pixar/gay marriage post was really two posts awkwardly yoked together by a cartoon about singing volcanoes. And some of the latter half of the post, especially, made Christian marriage sound like a social-improvement project: Live in mutual self-gift, mirroring the love of Christ and His Bride the Church, because it will lead to a stable bourgeois society. I have these studies showing that surrender of self-will is good for child educational outcomes….

That approach is misleading in a lot of ways. On the other hand, I don’t want to completely ditch it: It’s important that marriage–its norms and expectations, more than its explicit legal benefits–is one powerful cultural response to the fruitful/destructive volcanic force of eros, and especially heterosexual eros. It’s important that out of the many [ETA: current!] cultural institutions that try to channel the lava, marriage is typically one of the gentlest.

[EDITED: I kept editing and rethinking the bit that used to be here and decided I was just wrong, so I have posted a retraction here. On with the rest of the post!]

But so, let me offer a series of counterthoughts, which I’ll pose against my earlier post without retracting it. These are I think the more important set of points, at least for Christians.

* A lot of different paths could lead a person to support gay marriage. I focused on Justice Kennedy’s rescue-from-loneliness passage because it did fit so well with the Pixar short; and it clearly speaks to something real in our culture. I’ve already seen one person say she’d like to use it in her own wedding vows.

But by moving so quickly to “marriage as constraint for eros” I made it sound like gay marriage would be an example of unconstraint, when of course sexual restraint for gay people has been one of the arguments in favor of gay marriage. The concept of gay marriage has many fathers; and many of those fathers died of AIDS. I think the biggest way that the AIDS epidemic fostered the gay-marriage movement was by teaching both straight society and gay people ourselves that we were capable of the most sacrificial and tender care for one another, in the face of total societal rejection. Care for the dying was its own argument. But there’s also of course an element of reaction against the ’70s gay-liberation culture of hedonistic sex.

Can I say that it’s especially weird that I kept saying “our” at the end when I meant “heterosexuals”? Carried away by rhetoric, at best; and because of that, I missed a chance to honor some of the elements of gay culture and the gay-marriage movement that deserve honoring.

And actual gay people’s actual gay marriages are generally the result of their longing for greater constraint. We long for the ties that bind. That unslakable human longing for sacrifice and constraint may not always be an accurate guide to moral action, but it is always sublime.

* Ross Douthat has written about the weird confluence of the Supreme Court’s exalted paean to marriage as the sole haven in a heartless world, and a culture which has retreated from marriage. But these two things go together. When fewer people marry, it makes sense that our view of marriage would become more idealistic.

After all, the more marriages you see, the more marital problems you see. If none of your peers are married, and none of your peers’ parents are (still) married, you might imagine marriage as a refuge from the rampant human jackassery you see all around you. You might, and this I think is the stronger analysis of Americans nowadays, think marriage is only for people who have already outgrown their jackassery (as if we ever do). And you will simply have no opportunity to learn just how lonely marriage can be.

Right now most Americans want to get married. But our image of marriage is sort of like the reverse of that old saw, “The church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.” We think marriage is so important and exalted that we aren’t ready for it–and the horizon of “ready for it” can shift based on your class background, so it stays tantalizingly out of reach.

* If you get married “too early,” in lots of big swathes of America–not all, there’s definitely a ring-by-spring culture of relatively early and often unsuccessful wedlock as well–everybody will scold you. This is the other thing, that we’re not a hedonistic culture at all. We’re an intensely sexually moralistic culture. There are rules, the rules exist because people believe they will lead to economic and familial stability, and the fact that many of the rules have very limited contact with reality doesn’t keep us from enforcing them with shame and fearmongering. (“If you don’t live together before marriage you’re just stupid and setting yourself up for divorce.” <- say what you like about sociology, but at least sociological studies haven’t come up with this one.)

We are trying hard to constrain heterosexual eros. We have basically two ways to do that: the purity culture, with its used-chewing-gum sex ed; and the moralistic pressure for premarital sex, cohabitation, and marriage as reward rather than foundation. And both of these distorted sexual cultures are enforced through shame and judgment.

Catholic school kids should read Kristin Lavransdatter in sex ed, is what I’m saying.

* Some of the rules probably do lead to economic and personal stability, though. I’ve seen studies suggesting that having lots of children is correlated with various negative outcome measures for the kids. Ditto stuff like staying in your poor neighborhood even when you make enough money to move out. The more a globalized, capitalist society structures itself around the expectations of delayed marriage, long stretches of credentialing education, constant availability (whether that means just-in-time scheduling or willingness to move across the country), dual-income households, and small family sizes, the harder it is to maintain extended-family bonds and form lasting, exuberantly fertile marriages. Which leads me to my next point….

* It’s a little weird that intra-Christian discussions of marriage usually assume that Christian marriage will lead to middle-class stability. Does Christian practice usually stabilize secular cultural institutions? We need to avoid the left-wing sociologists’ trap of defining moral virtue as “the behaviors which lead to economic and social well-being.” Who do we think is doing more to stabilize society: the unemployed couple having their sixth child, or the diligently-contracepting neighbor who thinks maybe she’ll have a child once she finishes her nursing degree? The answer is, “That’s the wrong question.”

Marriages that burden society may still be the site of sanctification for the participants. Christian marriage is not for the competent. If your lava is just flowing all over the place like crazy, congratulations, you are the target audience of the Christian faith. Go to church lol.

It’s not that it’s “okay” if your marriage doesn’t actually constrain your sexual desire. Unconstrained eros is not healthy for children or other living things. But it’s okay if you’re not okay. Your marriage can be a channel of grace for you and your spouse even if you never stop jackassing it up.

Have I mentioned that Catholic school kids should read Kristin Lavransdatter in sex ed? Although you should feel free to blame me when we raise a generation of girls with fetishes for the serially-penitent.

* And finally, a point a(n engaged) friend of mine made: Marriage doesn’t cure loneliness. But there’s more to say than that. It’s good that marriage does not rescue the spouses from their loneliness, because this loneliness can break them out of the shell of self-satisfaction. I’ve seen this with non-religious people as much as with the faithful: Marital loneliness is so painful and bleak, but it can also be the seedbed of patience, mercy, and service to others.

And Christians find that marital loneliness can lead the spouse to God. In disappointment (with our spouse or with ourselves), failure, and confusion, we learn to rely on Him. The turmoil of the heart is itself a prayer. The arrow must eventually find its haven in the heart of the target.

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