Sorry this is late, but what could be better on Valentine’s Day than pouring kerosene on a fight about marriage? This post is part of a debate on gay marriage. In the last installment, my friend Matt argued that endorsing gay marriage means endorsing the foundations of divorce culture. So now it’s my turn to be prescriptive about marriage. To start with a recap of what kind of marriage Matt opposed, let’s go to the videotape (John Barrowman in Company):
We’ll look not too deep,
We’ll go not too far.
We won’t have to give up a thing,
We’ll stay who we are.
We’ll build a cocoon
Of love and respect.
You promise whatever you like,
I’ll never collect.
Before I narrow down my argument to focus on gay marriage, I want to say a little about why people enter into marriages in the first place. One much talked about facet of marriage is the over 1000 rights and privileges allotted to married people by the government. This is the visiting each other in the hospital, joint custody of children, use of pension kinda stuff. All of which is important (and much of which, in a perfect world, you would be able to share with people just by private contract).
But all of these rights and laws exist for a reason beyond our desire to be able to order our own affairs in some libertarian way. They exist because the law is trying to make adjustments for the fact that some non-blood relative is now your family. In fact, all the legal protections and ties people like me agitate for make it very hard to disentangle yourself from this person, even if the emotional bond is gone. So why would you choose to let yoke yourself so tightly to someone else?
It has to be something more than present pleasure, or even an expectation of pleasure in the future. Marriage puts a major constraint on your future self. You’ve entangled your finances, your feelings, your friends, and possibly children. Usually, when I try and limit my options in the future, I don’t do it just because I happen to particularly like the options currently on the table, I do it because I’m trying to stack the cards in favor of character development.
In the most mundane example, a student might have a friend change their facebook password during exam week, so she won’t be tempted to procrastinate. The student limits her choices for her own good and trusts her friend to side with her past self, even if her present self begs for just five minutes on the site.
So what kind of partner do you want, if s/he’s going to be the major, constant constraint on your character for the foreseeable future? It’s not enough that s/he makes you happy, s/he needs to make you good. And vice versa. So good conversation and good physical chemistry aren’t enough; on top of that you want someone who makes it feel easy and natural to be the person you ought to be.
And if you’ve gotten that right, you don’t want to let future you weasel out of the plan you’ve made. Just like the girl giving up facebook, you want to be sure that past you’s decision is going to stay binding on future you. Divorce or separation shouldn’t be impossible (it’s possible you seriously miscalculated), but it should be a very costly and slow-moving option.
Not all of these ideas are baked into secular marriage the way they’re embedded in sacramental marriage, but they’re not incompatible with most worldviews. Because atheism is just a negation of one class of metaphysics, it doesn’t preclude signing on to this idea of marriage. Of course, it doesn’t preclude signing on the impoverished idea of marriage that Matt was railing against and John Barrowman’s character so perfectly illustrates at the beginning of this post, either.
Marriage isn’t under attack, but it is in flux. It wasn’t so long ago that gay marriage was opposed by a lot of people in the gay rights movement because they didn’t see any reason to cleave to the traditions of heterosexuals. Plenty of my straight secular friends aren’t sold on traditional, for life at least, marriage, either. The old ways have lost their authority with us, since they’ve had a terrible track record on most questions to do with gender. Luckily, a marriage that goes beyond mere gratification and contentment can be pitched on it’s merits.
To sell us on sacramental marriage, Matt would have to make us all Catholics, and gay marriage may very well be impossible inside that framework. But if his goal is to stand athwart mainstream divorce culture yelling STOP! he should stand with most of me and endorse gay marriage in the model I’ve outlined. He’s welcome to join me in going even further and recommending people consider gay covenant marriage.