Divorced From Reality

With little practical purpose, marriage is a powerful concept.

Washington’s Defense of Marriage Act might be “rational” in the eyes of the state Supreme Court, as it ruled last week, but as anyone who has been married knows, there is little rational about marriage.

Few cultural institutions are as emotionally loaded. One reason is that marriage is profoundly symbolic. Throughout the ages, people have been fascinated and moved by the power of uniting opposites: yin and yang, male and female, anima and animus, above and below. There is something magical in combing them into something greater than the sum of their parts. Such pairings can produce children, a sense of wholeness, even enlightenment. The alchemists were obsessed by such imagery and wrote of “chymical weddings” that they believed would produce gold or the philosopher’s stone in the womb of an alembic. In modern psychology, Carl Jung described this process as the path to psychic integration.

This is partly why the idea of gay marriage can create an archetypal dissonance even among straight people who are not especially homophobic: A man marrying a man or a woman a woman seems to break the ancient formula that generates some of marriage’s psychic fizz.

Marriage is also something we have romantic notions about. We’ve discarded many of the practical advantages of wedlock, regarding them as outdated, even shameful in our enlightened age. The more pragmatic a marriage is nowadays, the more tainted it seems. Think Anna Nicole Smith and Hollywood prenups.

Arranged marriages have mostly gone by the wayside—the bartering of brides for cattle is a relic. Marrying for social status still flourishes—the Sunday “Styles” section of The New York Times is living proof that positive eugenics lives (Harvard-educated Wall Street investment banker marries daughter of diplomat from Yale!). But social status today is less about wealth or heredity than about possession of cultural signifiers that concretize those ineffable qualities that make a “good” match (hip-hop producer weds Hollywood scriptwriter).

Birth control has removed procreation from the equation—the Legislature and the state Supreme Court notwithstanding. It has given individuals much more control over when and with whom to have sex and children. Science has also intervened to allow “sterile” couples to have kids with the help of surrogates and test tubes. Marriage and the biological ability to make children have been forever sundered. And a good thing, too: There are more children in need of parents than parents to go around. Thank goodness some gays and lesbians have come to the rescue by volunteering to be parents.

Marriage gets most of its juju from the illogical and irrational. Love, for example. Marrying for love was still a comparatively radical notion into the early 20th century, the kind of behavior best indulged in rural communes. It is now de rigueur. Even the seizing of a young trophy bride, say, Katie Holmes, is done under the manic couch-jumping insistence that it’s really about love.

People also marry for a sense of completeness, or to achieve “marital bliss.” Others marry to gain acceptance in their family and in society; there is still a stigma that attaches to people who go through life without a permanent partner. People also marry because they believe it is God’s will, that marriage is divinely ordained and sanctified, a religious act, if you will.

Today, these motivations are the most powerful and emotional reasons cited for the defense of traditional marriage. Social engineers claim it’s about the kids, but the heart wants what it wants.

In considering the rational basis for the Defense of Marriage Act, the Supreme Court was left looking for something that does not exist: a rational justification to match an institution driven by irrationality. The court seized upon the procreative imperative, but it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. If the state really wanted to promote more babies, it might do better to encourage promiscuity, polygamy, and polyandry. And if its goal is raising children in more stable environments, it could encourage practices, especially in light of our high divorce rates, that make it easier for “the village” to raise a child—such as universal day care.

There still are, of course, concrete benefits that come with marriage. There are rights of inheritance and property ownership; there are tax advantages. There is the right to be at the bedside of a dying spouse. These are important and difficult to duplicate outside of marriage without a lot of paperwork.

My longtime partner and I were married earlier this year after consulting with a lawyer about how to do this. We realized marriage was a legal shortcut of practical value. Yes, we mostly married for love; few people marry for the express purpose of being able to share a hospice. But deconstructing marriage helped me realize that the legal benefits, while unexciting in themselves, are not inconsequential. We didn’t need a piece of paper from the state to make our marriage feel important. But the civil benefits that came with that paper were real.

Such benefits don’t justify the special and exalted status that marriage has within our society. But they are valuable enough that denying them to same-sex couples is a form of discrimination that has no rational justification. Marriage as an irrational institution will be largely unaffected if its most pragmatic benefits are shared. The emotional and spiritual benefits are not within the power of the state to bestow, and we ought to rethink the wisdom of asking the state to sanction them at all.