This is Part 2 of the article; read Part 1 here.
What Is Marriage Really For?
Law professor Marcia Zug’s revelatory book You’ll Do: A History of Marrying for Reasons Other Than Love raises a lot of questions, including the most foundational of all: what was marriage originally for? What was its meaning before government incentives and creative desperation got their hands on it? Is it romantic love, as most Americans suppose?
If the primary purpose of marriage is love, then I agree with Zug that the government’s decision to privilege marriage over singleness is unfair: it discriminates against the unmarried (whether they are single, cohabiting, or part of an “alternative family structure”), and it does so for the sake of a privately defined relationship—which honestly sounds absurd on its face. Why on earth would the government be involved in rubber-stamping and rewarding adults’ feelings? As marriage advocate Jonathan Rauch notes, “Love helps make sense of marriage emotionally, but it is not terribly important in making sense of marriage from the point of view of social policy.”1
Zug nods to popular opinion (first comes love, then comes marriage), but holds that
Since America’s founding, marriage has primarily been a rights distribution mechanism. This remains the principal purpose of marriage, but that doesn’t mean it should be. Marriage is an imprecise and unfair method for determining the allocation of rights and benefits. Decoupling these rewards from marriage would alleviate this unfairness. It would also, truly, make love the purpose of marriage. It might also make marriage obsolete.2
By saying that marriage isn’t really about love, but that we could make it so by removing marital benefits, Zug reveals the paradox at the heart of this discussion: making marriage about love counterintuitively reduces both its value and its frequency. “Legally, love is irrelevant”3 to marriage, Zug admits. Something highly pragmatic lies at matrimony’s core, which can be uncomfortable to admit (not least because marriage without erotic and agapic love sounds awful).
I agree with Zug that marriage was not originally for romantic love, even though love makes it bright and beautiful. Matrimony (matrimonium = the making of a mother) was about and for children: the “allocation of rights and benefits” Zug refers to are actually aimed at kids (through their married parents). The central component that makes marriage make sense historically is its procreative potential and caregiving responsibility.4 That doesn’t mean that every married couple can have kids, but it does mean that every married couple is in the kind of relationship that is specifically structured to create and nurture children (whether they do so or not).
…Then Comes the Baby in the Baby Carriage
Marriage’s original evolutionary, cross-cultural purpose was organized around the sexual asymmetry between men and women, and the blessing/problem of procreation. Women get pregnant; men don’t. Mothers need support from their own kin, of course, but also from the child’s father. A child born out of wedlock isn’t simply one woman’s problem, it’s everybody’s problem: “it takes a village to care for a new mother,”5 especially if the village is picking up the father’s slack (hence the historical stigma against premarital sex).
Children, though conceived and raised privately, constitute a fundamental public good, and it’s certainly within the government’s interest to do what is best for them.
As David Blankenhorn, author of The Future of Marriage, writes:
Marriage as a human institution is constantly evolving, and many of its features vary across groups and cultures. But there is one constant. In all societies, marriage shapes the rights and obligations of parenthood. Among us humans, the scholars report, marriage is not primarily a license to have sex. Nor is it primarily a license to receive benefits or social recognition. It is primarily a license to have children.
In this sense, marriage is a gift that society bestows on its next generation. Marriage (and only marriage) unites the three core dimensions of parenthood—biological, social and legal—into one pro-child form: the married couple. Marriage says to a child: The man and the woman whose sexual union made you will also be there to love and raise you. Marriage says to society as a whole: For every child born, there is a recognized mother and a father, accountable to the child and to each other. …
Summing up the cross-cultural evidence, the anthropologist Helen Fisher in 1992 put it simply: ‘People wed primarily to reproduce.’6
In contrast, You’ll Do presents marriage as a resource suck that perpetuates inequality. Zug’s priority is equity between individual adults—the leveling of the playing field such that the choice “to marry or not to marry” is treated as a matter of indifference. She seeks to reduce harm to people who fall outside the social norm of heterosexual marriage. She sees governmental encouragement towards marriage as a societal cop-out rather than as a legitimate part of an attempt to strengthen the familial fabric and “connective tissue” that exists between the lone individual and the collective state.
Zug agrees that children need government support, but she wants to subtract marriage from the equation and simply benefit parents, treating marital status as irrelevant. She says, “The rights and benefits that attach to marriage are intentionally designed to create inequality between married and unmarried parents,”7 which she sees as discriminatory. But marital benefits do not create inequality between families so much as reflect a natural inequality (which exists regardless of laws and benefits) and then throw weight behind what already we know works: kids tend to thrive most when raised by their own parents in a low-conflict marriage. According to economist Melissa Kearney, author of The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, “Parents affect their children’s lives and shape their outcomes in ways that government cannot fully make up for.” No check can sufficiently compensate for an absentee father. To end marital privilege would be to create a policy that acts as though all family arrangements are equally good for children, when this is simply not true.8
Freedom or Dismemberment?
You’ll Do is largely chronological, beginning with early American marital exploits and ending with stories involving artificial insemination, same-sex marriage, and cohabiting celebrity couples. But the enormous transformation that the Sexual Revolution wrought on the definition, stability, and purpose of marriage isn’t dealt with sufficiently.
Severing the marriage-sex-children connection through technologies that can prevent and create kids at will dissolves both the traditional reason for getting married and the rationale for the government to support it. The technology shock of the Pill created space between formerly intertwined realities; some call that space “freedom,” but its flip side is dismemberment. These forces, which underwrite marriage based on feelings rather than marriage for family, are indeed (as Zug puts it) making marriage “obsolete.” She may shrug over this, but Christians can’t: marriage is not only a morally charged reality for us, but a theologically charged one, as I’ve written elsewhere:
The Bible is saturated with romantic, marital, sexual, and procreative imagery in which the Creator woos and weds his creation. The union of heaven and earth (Rev. 21), of Christ the bridegroom and the church his bride (Eph. 5:21-33), is (to me) the most beautiful of the numerous metaphors in Scripture for the mystery of our salvation. Traditional liturgies are structured with nuptial symbolism in mind, hence the Eucharistic invitation: “Blessed are those called to the marriage supper of the Lamb,” as the male priest (in persona Christi) makes a sacrificial offering for the good of the feminine (bridal) church. Some Christians even consider marriage a sacrament, something that goes beyond a merely human institution and a durable social technology, to become a means of God’s grace. It’s not just a picture of heaven and earth’s nuptial union but an active participation in it.
Pull on that thread of procreation and the whole marital sweater starts to unravel.9 Prior to the 1960s, the law presumed that marriage meant sex and sex meant babies. Marriage wasn’t about the couple, it was about the result of the coupling. The law was privileging that, not the people themselves. The law’s intention was never to stigmatize singles but to support those who create and care for children. But we don’t see that trajectory anymore—both abortion and contraception have changed our perception by “[turning] every pregnancy into a choice; into an object of an isolated individual’s pursuit of self-interest.”10
Once pregnancy prevention technologies saturate a society, having children looks less like a public good and an act of hospitality, and more like a lifestyle choice (and why should society underwrite your expensive “breeding habit”?). And so we arrive at another paradox: the use of family planning methods (whether natural or artificial) on a small scale as a prudent marital practice is an undeniably good thing for women’s educational and professional achievement, but contraceptive technology bears undeniably bad fruit when adopted on a mass scale by married and unmarried alike. The wholesale swallowing of the Pill is only now revealing its bitter aftertaste—the redefinition and devaluation of marriage.
We keep on using the word “marriage,” but it no longer means what we think it means. Marriage has been steadily transformed “in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined.”11 No wonder many will shrug and say, “Why bother getting married? It’s just a piece of paper. I don’t need the government to tell me that I love you.” Indeed. But, kids or no kids, you might want the government to give you a tax break.
Marriage Is Not Just Another Lifestyle Option
Marriage rates are declining in all but the well-educated upper class.12 About 50% of first marriages end in divorce, as do 67% of second marriages, and 73% of third.13 About a quarter of American children under 18 are living in a single-parent home,14 many young people don’t know the art of flirtation and how to form intimate relationships that lead to marriage,15 and the birth rate has fallen below replacement levels.16 This instability is bad for all of us, married or not.
We need policies that make marriage a financially and legally beneficial arrangement for all social classes, so that marriage can function again as a foundational cornerstone for family formation rather than just a capstone for those already wealthy and secure. Within the system of industrial capitalism, parenting is costly in terms of both money and time. But if too many people opt out of married parenthood (or are prevented from entering into it by cultural and financial impediments), then we’re all in trouble.
We can see what this looks like in South Korea, which has reached a population “death cross” where deaths outnumber births, and empty daycare centers are being repurposed as elder care homes. Italy, Spain, Japan, and most other industrialized nations, including America, aren’t that far behind. What looks like individual choices close up, looks uncomfortably existential when you zoom out far enough. “We might all be making a mistake, together,” writes Dean Spears in the New York Times, “when instead of taking care of one another, we make it hard for people to choose larger families.”
On a personal level, I encounter many single men and women who would like to marry and form a family, if only they could find a worthy partner17 before fertility wanes (dating apps are making things worse). Telling unwed hopefuls (as You’ll Do implies) that when the government encourages marriage, it’s a backhanded way of saying, “I don’t give a sh*t about you,” is more cynical than accurate. The fact is that most Americans want to marry (81%) and nine out of ten U.S. adults either have children or would like to. There may be those who feel pressured to marry when they’d rather not, but the number of those today who experience pressures preventing them from marrying are far greater.
Government-granted legal and financial benefits for marriage aren’t an abdication of responsibility or a Band-Aid solution, but an act of trust in that vital intermediary layer between the state and the individual: the subsidiary level of the family that thrives on virtue and duties of care. As Jonathan Rauch writes:
Marriage is a deal between a couple and society, not just between two people: society recognizes the sanctity and autonomy of the pair-bond, and in exchange each spouse commits to being the other’s nurse, social worker and policeman of first resort. Each marriage is its own little society within society. Any step that weakens the deal by granting the legal benefits of marriage without also requiring the public commitment is begging for trouble. …
If marriage is to work it cannot be merely a “lifestyle option.” It must be privileged. That is, it must be understood to be … a general norm, rather than a personal taste.
Marital vows implicitly extend beyond the individual couple to the broader community. Marriage is a promise to be the social glue that keeps society functional, loyal, trusting, safe, and cared for, and it does so in part by promising to be “the first resort” for one’s family, and also by welcoming children into the world and entrusting those children to the future in an act of hope (contrast this with the despair of those who say, “How could I bring a child into a world like this?”). Marriage has a rooting effect; lasting marriages are ports in a storm that deserve support commensurate with their contributive character.
It is probably impossible to privilege marriage in a robust way that recognizes its social obligations to the larger whole without simultaneously allowing free riders and pragmatists to slip in the door, be they the gold-diggers, con-artists, wife-beaters, or social climbers like those who populate the pages of You’ll Do, or admirable do-gooders like Zug’s great-aunt Rosie, or poor folks just barely scraping by who wed solely for a shot at security.
The call for justice—to give each his or her due—and the equal dignity of citizens cannot mean that we treat all choices (marital, sexual, or otherwise) as if they were equally beneficial to children and the broader community. Of course we need to notice the unequal contexts that individuals start from: we are not all dealt the same hand of cards, and some folks need more help than others. But support for the down-and-out should not be pitted against support for the very institution that creates society and glues it together. I can’t imagine a more self-defeating idea.
Both Marriage and Religion Bind
As I mentioned in part one of this article, Zug intentionally cuts out consideration of “religious marriage” in her examination of transactional American marriage practices. But excising religion from marriage’s meaning is as unhelpful as excising procreation from it. The word “religion” assumes piety and reverence for the Sacred; it derives from re (again) + ligare (bind, connect).18 “Religion” not only binds people to God, it binds people to one another under one ethos, a common moral obligation, and shared worship. “Communion,” with all of its multiple meanings for Christians, is a decent synonym for “religion,” the coming together of the many into one.19
Christian religious communion (which addresses the problem of multiplicity and the need for unity through love instead of power) is, when it’s healthy, the highest form of what is actually ubiquitous if we had the eyes to see it: a nation is the coming together of the the many into one (e pluribus unum), but so is a city, a neighborhood, a school, a basketball team, an orchestra, a knitting club, a family, a marriage, and the conception of a child. It’s not surprising that the decline in lasting marriages and in the birth rate is mirrored in the decline of civic participation, community clubs (like bowling leagues), and church attendance, along with increasing political polarization and personal isolation.20
These are not distinct phenomena, but merely the same process occurring at all levels of society: we are suffering from a loneliness epidemic. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” Yeats wrote, in the most succinct description of modernity I’ve ever heard. Secular modernity is a social condition that lacks “glue” while idolizing freedom and autonomy. Our culture prefers options—and having those options treated as equally valid—over communion, with its limits and obligations (and this means that those who do want to form lasting relationships will have a harder time doing so). You’ll Do criticizes the government for “fetishizing marriage,” but I see such laws as the residue of a world that had a meaningful center, where at least some things still held together and we wanted them to—a world where communion wasn’t obsolete, but was one of the things that made life worth living.
In her insightful article “Singles in the Pew: What the Unmarried Know about Church as Family,” Gina Dalfonzo describes the importance of intentionality for forming and maintaining the sibling-like bonds of love and friendship that Christ calls us to as part of His church. Just as a marriage doesn’t exist solely for the couple but for the sake of welcoming children, so the family as a whole is likewise only itself when it is open, hospitable, and welcoming—when there’s a seat at the table and a spot in the pew for the single person. Whether married or not, everyone needs friendship and communion, and everyone needs to offer this generously to others. Whatever bond that we as couples, as families, as churches, as friends, are blessed to enjoy, we have for the sake of making room for someone not yet connected. We can’t let communion turn in on itself like an ingrown toenail.
The truth is that when you say, “I do,” it’s not really about you. I grant that this is the “idealized conception” of marriage that You’ll Do nods to at the same time it encourages us to flatten the legal difference between wed and unwed. But this ideal enshrines service—“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48 NIV).
What does it say about us if we choose to scrap laws that reward and support both giving back and paying it forward? We shouldn’t be giving less to the married, but rather expecting more hospitality and generosity from them. Zug didn’t convince me that turning marriage into a planned obsolescence in the name of fairness and adults’ private feelings is a worthy trade. To reach Zug’s conclusion, I’d have to buy in to her implicit premise: that marriage is solely a man-made legal tool we can take, leave, or modify to taste. But my theology obligates me to see marriage’s “handiness” as secondary to its holiness.21
Abusus Non Tollit Usum
I’m glad I read You’ll Do: it made me think through my assumptions, and articulate and defend them in a way I’d never had to before. It gave me a greater understanding of those whose circumstances make transactional marriage choices look appealing, even necessary. I agree with Zug that something must be done to help struggling unwed people reach a place of financial security and social connectedness. But I can’t agree that removing marital privileges is the right way to accomplish this. The wellbeing we all long for can’t be found by degrading the gravity of our bonds and obligations; it can only be found by drawing more people into communion of all kinds.
I don’t think a longstanding general norm—that traditional marriage is good for society and deserves practical support—should be abandoned because of the inevitability of exceptions or of people who take advantage, even if I do find some of those tales shocking or saddening.22 Like I learned in my middle school days of brain-storming new uses for old things: abuse does not negate proper use, even if it does make for eye-opening and fascinating reading.
- Jonathan Rauch, “For Better or Worse? The Case for Gay (and Straight) Marriage,” The New Republic, May 6, 1996. The irony of quoting from an advocate for same-sex marriage (which I disagree with) about the importance of marriage for society is not lost on me, but he’s too well-spoken to pass up. ↩︎
- Marcia Zug, You’ll Do: A History of Marrying for Reasons Other Than Love (Lebanon, New Hampshire: Steerforth Press, 2024), 4-5. ↩︎
- Ibid., 1. ↩︎
- The key word is procreative potential (not actuality): not all marriages are blessed with children, and there is much about fertility that is mysterious and beyond our control. But the marital sexual union of a man and a woman is the kind of union that could potentially produce children (whereas a same-sex couple is not “infertile” in the sense of suffering a disorder from a healthy norm, but is rather by nature the kind of union that cannot procreate). ↩︎
- Erika Komisar, Being There: Why Prioritizing Motherhood in the First Three Years Matters (Kindle: TarcherPerigee, April 11, 2017), 180. ↩︎
- David Blankenhorn, “Protecting Marriage to Protect Children,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 19, 2008. ↩︎
- Marcia Zug, You’ll Do, 213. ↩︎
- Linda J. Waite and Evelyn L. Lehrer, “The Benefits from Marriage and Religion in the United States: A Comparative Analysis,” NIH National Library of Medicine, PubMed Central, January 6, 2009. “Children raised by their own married parents do better, on average, across a range of outcomes than children who grow up in other living arrangements.” ↩︎
- Read Justice Alito’s dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (legalization of same-sex marriage) in which he points out that “the tie between marriage and procreation has frayed.” ↩︎
- Marc Barnes, “Abortion and the Reformation of Male Strength,” New Polity, July 25, 2022. ↩︎
- David Blankenhorn, “How My View on Gay Marriage Changed,” The New York Times, June 22, 2012. ↩︎
- Valerie Schweizer, “Marriage: More than a Century of Change, 1900-2018,” Bowling Green State University, National Center for Family & Marriage Research, 2020. ↩︎
- Christy Bieber, J.D., “Revealing Divorce Statistics In 2023,” Forbes, August 8, 2023. ↩︎
- “Census Bureau Releases New Report on Living Arrangements of Children,” February 3, 2022. ↩︎
- Kate Julian, “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” The Atlantic, December 2018. “[T]he delay in teen sex may have been the first indication of a broader withdrawal from physical intimacy that extends well into adulthood.” The decline in sex is really “a decline in couplehood among young people.” The article cites porn and masturbation, along with the ubiquity of (and disgust over) anti-intimate hook-up sex, among the reasons why young people are having trouble pairing up long-term. ↩︎
- Melissa Kearney, Phillip Levine and Luke Pardue, “The Mystery of the Declining U.S. Birth Rate,” Econofact, February 15, 2022. Also, Rich Mendez, “U.S. birth and fertility rates in 2020 dropped to another record low, CDC says,” CNBC, May 5, 2021. ↩︎
- Anna Louie Sussman, “Why Aren’t More People Marrying? Ask Women What Dating Is Like,” The New York Times, November 11, 2023. Not only is there a growing educational, financial, and political mismatch between men and women, but many men can’t meet women’s basic standards: “For as long as people have been promoting marriage, they have also been observing that a good man is hard to find. … Unless we pay attention to the granular experiences of people in the dating trenches, simply advising people to marry is not only, frankly, obnoxious for the many women out there trying; it’s also just not going to work.” Whether this marriageability gap is a result of women “becoming the men [they] wanted to marry” (Gloria Steinem), or of technology making physical labor obsolete (the move from a brawn-based to a brain-based economy has given working-class men the shaft), remains to be seen. ↩︎
- Religion, New World Encyclopedia. ↩︎
- Etymology of Religion, Online Etymology Dictionary. ↩︎
- Jonathan Pageau, “Symbolism Is About Reality, Not Just Cultural Norms,” YouTube, May 5, 2022. ↩︎
- Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2012). Moral systems are built on six foundations: 1) Care/Harm, 2) Liberty/Oppression, 3) Fairness/Cheating, 4) Loyalty/Betrayal, 5) Authority/Subversion, and 6) Sanctity/Degradation. My view of marriage prioritizes sanctity and loyalty; Zug’s view prioritizes fairness and harm reduction. ↩︎
- Jonathan Pageau and Jordan Peterson, “Identity: Individual and the State versus the Subsidiary Hierarchy of Heaven,” ARC Research, October 2023. “We are constantly enjoined, in this postmodern world, to view exceptions as a form of heroic resistance to pattern; to view the anti-pattern itself as ideal, and the pattern as nothing more than oppression, in the service of a counter-productive hierarchy of arbitrary power. … The identities destroyed by this tactic are always the intermediary patterns—sexual identity, family, nationality, and religious affiliation” (12). ↩︎