Do we care too much about marriage?

Do we care too much about marriage? August 13, 2010

This post is the last in a series on gay marriage.  Check out all posts in this series at the gay marriage index.

Senior year is a time of grad school applications, final papers, and secret betting pools on what couples will split up. Senior year is a minefield for pairs, since most seniors in relationships are carefully trying to avoid too much discussion of where they’ll be next year. Friends are quick to speculate about whether he’ll regret it if he gives up that fellowship so he can live near her job. We feel the need to gossip about how crazy she is to stay with her girlfriend since the job market near the girlfriend’s law school is terrible.

We recognize that people who are dating seriously should make major decisions in light of the decisions of their partner, but we afford few other relationships the same degree of gravity. Luckily, my boyfriend and I don’t need to worry, since he’ll be finishing his senior year at Yale next year while I get my master’s at Yale’s school of public health, but I don’t really feel like I’ve been exempted.

Since I’m staying at Yale, it’s already pretty much certain that I won’t be able to live with or near my friend and roommate Sarah next year. Even if it were possible, no one would attach the same level of expectation or importance to our ability to coordinate our post-graduate lives as we do to couples.

We regard the separation of friends as perfectly natural. When students are younger, we urge them not to choose a college based on staying together with a high school friend. I’d try to take this to a reductio ad absurdum, but the real world beat me to the punch. In an article in The New York Times, some parents were pleased to see a departure from the old practice of having ‘best friends.’

“I think it is kids’ preference to pair up and have that one best friend. As adults — teachers and counselors — we try to encourage them not to do that,” said Christine Laycob, director of counseling at Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School in St. Louis. “We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends.”


In recent years Timber Lake Camp, a co-ed sleep-away camp in Phoenicia, N.Y., has started employing “friendship coaches” to work with campers to help every child become friends with everyone else. If two children seem to be too focused on each other, the camp will make sure to put them on different sports teams, seat them at different ends of the dining table or, perhaps, have a counselor invite one of them to participate in an activity with another child whom they haven’t yet gotten to know.

“I don’t think it’s particularly healthy for a child to rely on one friend,” said Jay Jacobs, the camp’s director. “If something goes awry, it can be devastating. It also limits a child’s ability to explore other options in the world.”

Jay Jacobs doesn’t seem to understand that a friendship whose loss wouldn’t be at least a little devastating wasn’t much of a friendship to begin with. For whatever reason, our culture is persistently defining friendship down.

Denied the option of using friendship to denote intense bonds, I suspect some of the perverse ‘marriages’ featured in yesterday’s post may cling to the term at least in part to try to communicate that their relationship has worth.  The high profile fight about gay marriage, with all its attendant focus on the unique and essential relationship enshrined in marriage is probably accelerating this trend.

This isn’t a reason to oppose gay marriage, but it does behoove supporters to think about what can be done to curb this excessive regard for marriage and romantic relationships in general.  I still think civil unions for everyone would be a step in the right direction, but I’m at a loss as to what else I should be doing.  Any suggestions?

For a Catholic perspective on reviving friendship, check out Eve Tushnet’s essay “Romoeroticism.”  Oh, heck, just check out all of Eve Tushnet.

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  • NFQ

    "Senior year is a time of grad school applications, final papers, and secret betting pools on what couples will split up."I think this says more about the social atmosphere at Yale than it does about the nature of senior year in college. Just sayin'. 🙂