In his column in today’s The New York Times, Ross Douthat reflects on the implications of last week’s federal court ruling overturning California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage. He notes that what we call “traditional marriage” (a husband and wife—and their children—living together as one unit) is an invention only a couple of centuries old. Before that, “married” couples and their kids lived much more communally, usually in an extended family. Douthat also points out that there are many viable ways—both within Western culture and in other cultures—that the sexes live well together, and raise their children well, other than our traditional American-style marriage. He then reaches a startling, if subtle, conclusion about our traditional marriage. It’s worth quoting here in full:
The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights. And a culture in which weddings are optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially connected to procreation, has no business discriminating against the love of homosexuals. But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.
Douthat seems to be saying, “Look, traditional marriage is clearly irrational in this day and age, but it’s still worth preserving because it derives from uniquely Western ideas about love and commitment.” Defending traditional man-woman marriage while simultaneously refusing to bash gays for wanting to participate in it, Douthat indicates that the institution enjoys a “unique and indispensable estate” within Western culture.
There comes a point in a culture, however, when the gap between people’s ideals and their actions becomes so enormous that the ideals, instead of being inspirational, and helping us to be better than we are by nature, become cumbersome jokes, mocking us as we struggle to be good and decent human beings. With the passing of the Middle Ages, when life was no longer organized by fiefdoms, medieval ideas of courtly love disintegrated. Similarly, in contemporary times, when the feasibility of a wage-earning husband supporting a wife and family all by himself has become next to impossible for the majority of American families, romantic ideas of romantic marriage cannot long persist.
Still, couples—both straight and gay—continue to be in a marrying mode, blithely ignoring the statistics and going for traditional weddings. Brides, especially, spend heaps of money on that white dress with the virginal veil, while grooms buy tuxes and families throw extravagant parties where friends and family observe the exchange of vows. Increasingly, however, “I do” means something more along the lines of, “I do—right now, at any rate. Mind you, I sincerely believe this ‘I do’ right now, during this wedding ceremony, where I’m saying it in front of all of you.”
Although Americans overwhelmingly say they still believe in American-style marriage, they nevertheless divorce at a rate of around 50 percent. The Bible Belt in the southern part of the U.S. experiences, as it happens, divorce rates that are among the highest rates of divorce in the country. Since “traditional marriage” is not quite the pillar of Western civilization fundamentalist Christians make it out to be, the United States has the lowest percentage of children growing up with both biological parents in the Western world—hardly what you’d call ideal. The American ideal of marriage is vanishing in the fading, barely visible light of June and Hugh Cleaver, boogying to the trashy new rhythm of “Real Housewives of New Jersey.”
In this context, I think it would help to have a more reasoned, less theologically constrained, discussion about what a healthy “postmodern” family might look like.
Real American families are desperate for a new set of ideals for what can help them thrive instead of succumbing to dysfuntion. So why not begin to speak much less about “forever” romance and much more about firm contractual obligations toward property and the rearing of children? Granted, that doesn’t sound as elegant or beautiful as the aftermath to a big church wedding with a champagne reception under a billowy tent on a vast green lawn. But precisely worded legal commitments, entered into with at least as much care and seriousness as a young couple leases a car, are better than a lot of histrionic “Marriage = One Man + Woman” rhetoric, and the broken promises left in its wake. Broken promises are neither elegant nor beautiful.