A brief defense of an institution that really shouldn’t need defending.
I ran across a sentiment online yesterday that I found entirely incomprehensible: a strong antipathy to marriage from people who are on the conservative side of the political spectrum. This was not an attitude I had seen from that specific segment of the political population, so it struck me as particularly bizarre. Typically, anti-marriage talk has come from the more radical sections of the progressive movement, arguing either that marriage is a conservative institution that needs demolition, that it stigmatizes non-traditional relationships like polyamorous groups, or that it leads to an investment in the status quo when radical change is needed. More often than not, conservatives have been the defenders of marriage as a social institution; seeing this shift among people on the increasingly secular right is concerning for anyone who believes that marriage is good.
And yes, reader, marriage is indeed good! Let us count the ways.
Marriage has been one of the primary institutions of human civilization since at least the dawn of recorded history. All of the great civilizations of mankind have engaged in some form of the marriage rite, from the Egyptians, to the Chinese, to the Greeks and Romans, and through the modern day. Marriage has been a crucial ceremony in most major religions as well, especially in the Abrahamic faith traditions. Ancient pagan communities engaged in forms of marriage and many of our traditions originate from this long-ago past. For instance, throwing rice (or other grains) at a wedding, the bride wearing white, and having cake at the marriage feast all date back to the Roman Republic, more than 2000 years ago. These roots go very deep into the human past and our collective psyche.
Marriage as an institution likely began after the agricultural revolution, when hunter-gatherers settled down into permanent farming communities in the Mesopotamian basin known as the Fertile Crescent. The need to divide work, share labor, protect possessions, and grow a family made monogamous partnership an evolutionarily beneficial adaptation. It also reduced the destructive competition for mates that characterizes the animal world and which was not uncommon among humans in pre-agricultural times. As civilization developed, marriage became instituted in law, both civic and religious. These norms were incredibly beneficial to social cohesion, cultural resilience, and human flourishing.
There is something deeply human about the institution and this is obvious when looking through history. No matter the devastation of war, plague, or famine, marriage stayed relevant. When Rome fell, marriage remained. When Persia capitulated to Islamic warriors, marriage continued. When the Mongols thrashed their way across most of the known world, the devastated communities they left behind still engaged in marriage. This is not a practice that healthy societies throw away.
There are immense pro-social goods that come with marriage on a broad scale. It incentivizes stable partnerships, which tend to lead to higher income and stronger social bonds. It creates the ideal situation for family formation and the rearing of children. It helps build civic communities and organizations that are the foundation of Western, especially American, cultural life. It tends to lead to less poverty and violence, and more social and community responsibility. The bonds of matrimony are powerful and really do change one’s outlook on life – ideally helping transition from a self-centered conception of reality to a broader, more pro-social one.
Some critics ask why they should take on individual risk in marriage – the potential for divorce and painful, costly separation – for merely broad societal benefits? What’s in it for me?
First off, one of the reasons marriage (and child-rearing) is beneficial to the individual is that it undercuts this intensely narcissistic desire for everything to benefit “me” in the short-term. That sort of thinking is detrimental not only socially, but personally. The ability to think of others as well as oneself is a sign of personal growth and leads to better interpersonal skills and decision-making. Marriage, at its best, is the union of two people who love each other more than anything else; making that relationship public and cementing it under law is a wonderful way to tighten those bonds and commit to a long-term, lifelong project of love and family. It starts the individual on the path towards family formation in the most stable and secure manner humans know. It opens a new window into a world of relational connections, as does parenthood. These are even more necessary in a time where social atomization and isolation, fueled by technology, are on the rise. Marriage is also strongly correlated with personal happiness, a stable relationship that has been true over time.
But what about bad outcomes, like divorce or, in extreme cases, parental kidnapping? Bad outcomes for some people do not invalidate the general usefulness and purchase of the idea of marriage. Divorce is awful in most cases, causing serious issues for family, friends, and especially children. But the divorce rate is declining and has been for quite some time now, particularly on a per capita basis. This is a positive trend for the long-term health of the institution of marriage.
But even if divorce was more prevalent, that fact would not impugn the usefulness of marriage. We rightly promote the entrepreneurial spirit in Americans, despite the fact that upwards of 90% of start-up businesses fail. If we chose to look at that reality and cease creating new businesses, our economy would collapse within a few years. Likewise, society would be in dire straits if marriage was ended so as to prevent the potential for divorce. This is the epitome of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Other critics of marriage lament that laws allow for divorce, split property evenly, and provide alimony and child support for (usually) the woman in the relationship. These people are worth ignoring, as they see anything which properly reduces the legal dominance of men in marriage as a terrible thing. They view female autonomy as evil, and that seems like reason enough to discount their arguments. Modern marriage is seen as a problem because it is no longer fundamentally unequal. For some reason, I don’t think that people who believe this would be married or in a stable, partnered relationship even if those laws were changed to their liking.
To me, marriage should be promoted as a civic and social good, as well as an individual and family benefit. It helps in the formation of families, the raising of children, and the perpetuation of society and culture. I don’t think that government should subsidize marriage more than it currently does (via tax policy), but I would not complain if welfare benefits were reoriented to promote stable marriages. Unlike some other right-leaning folks, I am a proponent of marriage for any monogamous pair – gay or straight. The choice to marry and raise a family in a loving household is a wonderful one, and it should not be limited to solely a man and a woman; our society can use all the stability it can get at this point. I fervently hope that this anti-marriage sect on the right is completely unrepresentative, but I fear it may be more permanent. Defending marriage may seem unnecessary, but it sure can’t hurt.