Editorial: The “Down With Love” Problem


The subject here isn’t quite on track with the 2003 Fox film (review link below). I am concerned with repeated observations by conservatives during the gay marriage debate that marriage is not primarily just about a satisfying committed love between spouses; it is a shared “common elements” institution in which all share in order to transmit intergenerational family responsibilities, especially raising children.  Furthermore, several books have recently maintained that marriage centered around love and personal private choice has only been in fashion for about two centuries in western civilization. Instead, marriage was always a vehicle of establishing social legitimacy, especially for the management of property. As such, it sounds a lot like a device to keep the rich and the poor separated.  I find these bald faced arguments and am surprised at their unapologetic tone, leaving their proponents open to charges of racism and maintaining a patriarchal system to keep a lot of people down! A few conservatives try to maintain some moral balance by edifying arranged marriages, and claiming that love of an assigned other person can be learned, like eating vegetables.


Should marriage be mainly about satisfying the psychological growth requirements of the partners, or should it be a social good?  Elsewhere on this site I’ve talked about the writings of Paul Rosenfels and his examination of polarized psychological growth in relationships. The social supports of marriage can actually undermine the creative processes of a relationship. This is most commonly understood in the homosexual community, but even many heterosexual couples feel this way and sometimes avoid tying the legal knot.


Libertarians have long argued that marriage should be a private contract between two adults that confers no special privileges that non-married people subsidize. The other side of the world seems, of course, to be about maintaining a society in which children can be raised and in which children will have confidence in their parents’ commitments.


What’s objectionable to me and many others is that people would get married just for social legitimacy, to get “credit” for something the way you get a grade in school. This would lead to a practice of “hiding behind marriage.”  For many people, being the head of a family is what they do best. This would be true for someone with no special unusual talents or gifts that he or she could deploy publicly as an individual. Such persons will resent cultural attempts to devalue marriage as a tool of social legitimacy. Some persons also feel that the religious and social honor given to heterosexual marriage, at the expense of those who do not get married (heterosexually) is necessary to for most couple to maintain lifelong mutual sexual interest beyond mere fidelity. The social approbation is part of the sexual experience. This would seem to require that “non marrying” people remain subordinate to married heads of families, an objectionable notion for many today but not necessarily in the past. Short of being a Leonardo Da Vinci, you need to get married and have a lineage (that is, vicarious biological immortality) to become a legitimate adult and full citizen in this view.


But let’s follow the logic through the way you prove a geometry theorem. (Don’t tell Donnie Deutsch this when he judges the work of Trump’s apprentices!  Geometry is boring, maybe??) Start with the premise that times are changing and that we all, whatever our personal ambitions and talents and erotic adult tastes, may be expected to do more to meet the real needs of others than has been expected in the past. This partly a matter of the “post 9-11” world. Social justice will be subsumed as a part of personal responsibility. Well, heterosexual marriage and parenting is the most natural way to get at this. Any new social policy encouraging a “pay your dues” philosophy will tend to give some “credit” or good karma for childrearing and eldercare that occurs within the nuclear family in the expected way. (Family is the most efficient way to take care of people. But logically, some of this should occur outside the nuclear family, too, to counter the misuse of the family as a perpetuation of unearned wealth.) The same attempt will be proposed for gay couples. What we will run into is that validating gay marriage and parenting seems, to some people, to demean what they have “achieved” by “success” in heterosexual courtship and marriage. If we can’t get past this, we will wind up with a world where the “commitment” between man and woman in a marriage is intrinsically tied to the social approbation their marriage gets. In principle, this could apply to gay marriage, but the lack of biological motive tends to weaken any such link. Rosenfels was right, in that homosexual relationships have much more to do with satisfying the emotional needs of the two adults than on the surrounding world; homosexual sex by itself provides no direct access or “link” to providing for others besides one’s own partner. In the straight world, many people see personal achievement in terms of patriarchal values, so what starts as a social obligation coverts to self-aggrandizement. The problem is, patriarchalism is supported as a personal value because it does lead to support of other, especially raising children. Likewise, the complementarity of heterosexual marriage is supposed to tie male sexuality to protection of others (or it did in past generations, much less so today).  A very real political threat can be the reservation of certain privileges (beyond what is done now) for “married people.”  The notion of abstinence outside of marriage, of (as on Seventh Heaven) “sex is only for married people” seems to confer married people a privileged status in exchange for their implicit responsibility to have and raise children. But this could get elaborated to reserve certain jobs and other perks for married people as well. Maybe the perks should be for people who have “paid their dues” in a larger sense.


One other observation that fits here is that relationships have become much more visible publicly than they used to be. For about three decades in the latter part of the Twentieth Century (starting with Stonewall) gays were pretty much allowed to live as they liked in urban ghettos, out of sight of suburbanized “families with children.” This sequestration encouraged the ideal of couples living very privately. Rosenfels, back in the 1970s, had encouraged his students to remain geographically isolated, preferably in New York City’s East Village, and to stay away from playing power games in the “adaptive” outside world. In the Nineties it all changed, as technology (most of all the Internet) drew people together and made them much more visible to one another. The Internet, in the language of Clive Barker (Imajica), would provide The Reconciliation. Private relationships would again have much more public consequences.


The notion that, for conventional marriage, love and social recognition must be linked, seems to violated mathematical dichotomy. It’s a bit of a paradox, rather like Einstein’s ideas in general relativity that an observer can affect something merely by staring at it. Knowledge that others value and will some give deference to your marital relationship seems to intensify the relationship (and in the gay community, knowledge that others respect one’s success in choosing a “partner,” perhaps literally on the dance floor, often has a similar public feedback). Yet, it you turn it around it looks very different, doesn’t it. Marriages based just on the idea of social prestige are likely to fail, or at least not remain monogamous.


And let’s be honest. Most of us want to think that our relationships matter to others, and that they seem “right” in some way. Whole “philosophical” theories regarding religious virtue, social obligations, and meritocracy can be developed to augment the reward of a personal relationship. People seem to have a need to establish some kind of superiority in some social area (starting with the family) in order to function well sexually.


Maybe this relates to the tremendous demands that marriage and parenting place, particularly after having young children (“the family bed”). Or particularly as the couple gets older or runs into various difficulties that would have originally detracted from sexual attractiveness. The belief that a relationship is particularly noble in the eyes of others becomes an important motive for having it and keeping it. But that demands attention and sometimes sacrifices, or at least the willingness not to distract it with cultural competition. Of course, it seems much better if a couple can deal with its problems itself, and if you have two whole individuals, fully self-actualized, before a marriage. That’s asking a lot. 


We’re left with the inescapable: the ability to maintain a lifelong committed marital-style relationship is a value that matters publicly. One thing we can do to reduce the anger over the gay marriage debate is to focus on the real issue: commitment. For example, allow the benefits of marriage only for one relationship in a lifetime (unless there is a death), and only once children are conceived or adopted. The “one per customer” rule would help restore some fairness.



©Copyright 2005 by Bill Boushka, subject to fair use


Review of Clive Barker’s Imajica


Review of Down With Love film


Review of Rosenfels books


Gay marriage editorial


Liberty editorial


“Pay your dues” editorial


Controversial issues page


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