Marriage Rules Beyond the Ken of Kids

This essay originally appeared in the Providence Journal on June 8, 2009. Given that periodical’s revamped Web site, the essay is no longer available online, so I’m reproducing it here.


The preschooler’s question at the dinner table probably wasn’t as new to recent generations as a parent’s first reaction might suggest: Can a girl marry a girl? It’s the sort of question that children ask — have always asked — as they assess the world and its rules. It’s a request for clarification of an inchoate understanding of what marriage is.
What was new to the American family, in that conversation, was the first grader’s response to her sister’s inquiry: Her friend’s aunts are married to each other. The government of the next state over was the first to answer “yes,” so there you go. A millennia-old process by which marriage defines appropriate, healthy relationships between the men and women whom boys and girls become is now obscured.
As with many challenges of the modern day, we who maintain a sense of marriage’s value as an opposite-sex, fundamentally procreative institution must be willing and able to correct society’s misdirection of our children. We must be able to explain to them our beliefs and long thought on the relevant issues, and we must be comfortable with the reality that our children will one day form and act upon their own conclusions. It serves no intellectual, spiritual, or rhetorical purpose to complain of the compounding nature of this burden. Still, observing such very direct examples of the effect that same-sex marriage will have on our culture and society is disconcerting.
That redefining marriage will indeed have an effect is a reality that a number of our compatriots wish not to face. With the escalating cost imposed by unfair accusations of bigotry, it is certainly easier to grab hold of emotional absolution. We all wish happiness for our homosexual friends and family members, but many of us allow the tint of that desire to cast an absurd light on wholly reasonable arguments, transforming them into something that they’re not. Scoffing at the notion that a particular heterosexual marriage will change midstream should homosexual relationships be called by the same name is a convenient way to avoid addressing the fact that traditionalists aren’t expressing that notion in the first place.
Supporters of same-sex marriage should consider the sisters introduced above, who even at their young age feel differently about boys than about their female friends. The “yes” or “no” offered at the dinner table sets the course for learning as they piece together a basic understanding of marriage that will underpin their related behavior throughout their lives. As pre-sexual youths, they learn mainly that their strange feelings toward boys are somehow — in the mysterious world of adults — associated with the concept of marriage.
Strange feelings become attraction, which progresses through sexual desire to the drive to procreate. In the traditional framework, the mystique of marriage encapsulates the entire cycle. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in the baby carriage. Thus has society woven ties of mutual care and responsibility between men, women, and the children whom only such pairs can bring into the world.
The consequence of providing a different answer to the initial question will be knowable only through the experiment that radicals are intent on conducting in the laboratory of humankind. (They’ll leave no control group, if they can help it.) Ironically, adults who dismiss the possibility that the strength of marital ties will suffer from the dramatic change do so on the basis of precisely the underlying sense that they wish to modify: They grew up with the traditional presentation of marriage, so their fully developed intellects can extend a mature conceptualization thereof to encompass homosexual relationships that mirror the image.
A child does not have the luxury of that perspective. Children have no underlying sense through which to comprehend that their “icky” feelings toward the opposite sex will ultimately form the foundation for lifelong relationships, consummated in the persons of their own children, linking humanity across generations. If, in that first encounter with the concept of marriage, they learn that a girl can indeed marry a girl if they want to, if they love each other, that fact isn’t an exception that builds on the institution. It’s a constituent part of the rule. Whatever marriage therefore is, for them, it is not intrinsically a relationship for those whose expressions of intimacy tend to turn them into parents.
Moreover, children have no context to differentiate their presexual feelings for the opposite sex from their deeper interpersonal comfort with and affinity for their same-sex friends. Saying that marriage is a relationship of love, in other words, doesn’t describe the form of love.
These abstractions are well beyond the ken of preschoolers, of course, which points to society’s reason for developing a straightforward cultural institution like marriage, about which rules and mythologies could develop. At the nexus of feelings and law and culture and biology, men and women come together in an irreducibly unique way, and erasing the language by which we teach proper responsibility will ensure that questions at the dinner tables of the future are of a more ominous tone.

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Sammy in Arizona
Sammy in Arizona
9 years ago

“” A millennia-old process by which marriage defines appropriate,HEALTHY RELATIONSHIP between the men and women”
Actually for almost ALL of millennia marriage was a property contract, were parents sold their daughter, many times against her will, to the highest bidder, Not what I would call a “Healthy Relationship”. And it was often one man and many wives
Just as it is no longer okay to beat a gay man to death for being gay, (except in Conservative countries, like Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libia and Syria)…so to, will it not be alright to discriminate against a gay persons right to the “pursuit of happiness”.
Justin, No one cares or even wants you to accept SSM, as long as you do not have the power to prevent it.

Sammy in Arizona
Sammy in Arizona
9 years ago

Again I would like to thank the good folks at Anchor Rising, for allowing me to comment here. I know the pressure to ban me from commenting has been great. Its you web site, and I appreciate the fact that I comment only with your permission.
Be well all..with love Sammy

Mark
Mark
9 years ago

You have put quite a bit of time in this topic and I have always wanted to look further into this. When did government(US government/states/local) become involved with marriage? My assumption being that government became involved via two methods. One being that citizens sought remedy to not being allowed to divorce through their respective religion that sanctioned the marriage. Second being that, laws were written to give rights to spouses and to make actions such as tax filing easier by allowing married couples to file together to save time. I guess my question in general is when did something that started hundreds of years ago as such a non governmental activity become such a governmental activity.

Justin Katz
Justin Katz(@justin)
9 years ago

Mark,
The literature that I’ve read on the history of marriage and changes thereto hasn’t really traced it as an explicitly legal matter. My sense of the reason for that is that our notions of law have evolved, too, over the millennia.
I mean, if you look at ancient laws (Jewish law being among the first to come to mind) there are references to marriage, divorce, what to do with your brother’s widow, and that sort of thing. Rights of property and succession have almost universally incorporated marriage, I believe. In short, it’s not as if humanity has always had our modern concept of The Law and at some point incorporated marriage into it.
Indeed, one of the problems in the modern era, in my view, is that the law is being elevated as the source of rights and an appropriate means of adjusting the culture. It shouldn’t be; it should be one facet of a multifaceted society with counterbalancing influences on broader public policy expressed, as appropriate, in law, in culture, by religion, in the marketplace, and so on.
The argument against same-sex marriage (at least MY argument against it) is that its natural home is in the cultural and religious spheres, but that it intersects with the law, and the law should follow the culture, not manipulate it.

Warrington Faust
Warrington Faust
9 years ago

Not an expert, but I suspect that the “law of marriage” became codified after disputes over divorce and inheritance among the wealthy (the Pope’s refusal of a divorce created the Church of England). When “cases” of marriage were strictly religious, they were probably tried by the ecclesiastical courts which had equal standing with the civil courts. When the ecclesiastical courts were deprived of authority, their history of decisions was adopted in the civil courts. Just as our various states, with the exception of Louisiana, passed “reception statutes” which adopt the “common law of England”. So, it might be said that religious law became civil law. Origin was not the motivation, certainty of result was the motivation.
So, the law codified what were essentially religious rules because they were well understood and accepted. They were intended to provide “certainty of result”. Whether the marriage ceremony was religious, or civil, probably was not at the heart of the matter.
Justin makes a valid point “that the law is being elevated as the source of rights”. He is correct, societies are held together by a common morality, not a legal code. Laws should codify the common understanding, not attempt to create it. The idea is that people should be able to arrange their affairs to provide certainty of result in disputes. There are probably technical areas copyright, patents, etc were the law must break ground. But I think that even in those areas the real dispute breaks down to commonly understood “right and wrong”. I think it is significant that courses on the Common Law have been dropped from most law school curriculums.
It is American scripture that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,”. These are recognized by the law, they are not created by the law.

Dan
Dan
9 years ago

I would never ask that conservatives compromise their principles, but I feel the social capital cost of this particular moral crusade is too high to justify any theoretical benefit that it could have. The economic issues of our time are so much more consequential and threatening to our liberty than these piddling social issues, such as whether two women can “marry” (whatever that even means), that it would better to table this discussion until such time as central economic planning has been removed from our mainstream politics and returned the dustbin of history. Posts like these serve no practical purpose but to damage the vital-but-shaky alliance between libertarians and conservatives, and they are the surest way to alienate those who recognize the fundamental problem in failed states such as Rhode Island but are still sitting on the fence in terms of political alliance. I really believe the act of having this discussion does more harm than good at this time.

joe bernstein
joe bernstein
9 years ago

Why is it that I get the feeling “sammy”would like to spit in our faces when he sends thanks and good wishes?

Russ
Russ
9 years ago

“Children have no underlying sense through which to comprehend that their ‘icky’ feelings toward the opposite sex will ultimately form the foundation for lifelong relationships…”
And the ones who have no underlying sense through which to comprehend their “icky” feelings toward the same sex are better off ignored, eh? Justin conveniently ignores that one by framing this as a discussion with a toddler. Unfortunately (for some on the wrong side of this issue) kids eventually grow up.

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