The Future of Marriage

Posted: Mar 21, 2007 10:58 AM
The Future of Marriage

"For sheer cultural illiteracy and intellectual vacuity, nothing can top the debate over the meaning of marriage taking place in the United States of America in the early years of the 21st century." So says David Blankenhorn in his striking new book, "The Future of Marriage", and he should know.

For 20 years, David Blankenhorn has been at the forefront of our national conversation about marriage. His first book, "Fatherless America", named a new problem: When adults embrace for themselves the right to choose any family form they want, children lose their fathers.

"The Future of Marriage" can be read as a cry of frustration at how gay marriage has hijacked the marriage debate. (Full disclosure: David was my boss for a decade.) Gay marriage appears to make even very smart people pretty stupid about marriage itself. In a court brief recently, 30 professors of history and family law told judges that marriages are "committed, interdependent partnerships between consenting adults". Gee, how does that definition differ from, say, a law firm? Or a co-op, for that matter?

Love, you say?

"I am not an unusually gregarious person", writes Blankenhorn, "but I have 'expressed love' to quite a few people in my life. I am involved in a number of mutually supportive relationships, many of which, I am sure, enhance social stability. But none of this information tells you to whom I am married or why."

What gets left out of this discussion? Sex, says Blankenhorn, for one thing. The striking thing about human beings, from a biological point of view, is how preoccupied we are with sex. Eros is not necessary for making babies. On the whole, nature has disfavored it as a reproductive strategy. Chimps mate promiscuously, but only when a female signals her fertility. Unlike other female mammals, women conceal rather than advertise ovulation.

"This biological innovation had radical social consequence", writes Blankenhorn. "These sexy biological innovations" are "fundamentally about creating the couple that will raise the child."

"To survive, every human culture must find ways to attach and reinforce human erotic yearnings to the double-bonding process: the man and woman to each other, the man and woman to their child. Marriage has a special status because performing this task is urgently necessary to the entire society, and not just the man and woman who do it."

The same-sex marriage debate tends to deconstruct marriage out of existence: Marriage turns out not to be anything in particular, just a word for two people in some kind of close relationship seeking something called "benefits" from government.

Certainly it can no longer be the one thing it has always been: society's special acknowledgment that channeling men and women's erotic yearnings for each other -- for intimacy, closeness, sexual desire, companionship, economic support and children -- is necessary, not only for the couple but for the whole society. To get to gay marriage, this is the idea that must go.

And indeed in the final chapter, Blankenhorn offers new evidence on how hard it is for the same society to endorse gay marriage and to retain a simple concept like "people who want children ought to be married." We cannot prove, he says, that gay marriage causes this decline; all we can show is that around the world, the two ideas stand or fall together.

The more you conceptualize marriage as about adults and our rights, the more sense same-sex marriage makes. The more you see marriage as a necessary social institution for bringing men and women together to make and raise the next generation, the less sense gay marriage makes.

The really big question, Blankenhorn points out, is not gay marriage per se, but whether we can and will reconstruct marriage as the crucial institution that connects Eros and generativity. Anyone interested in that question needs to read this book.