Changes in Marriage and the Big Picture

12 Apr

Two Sundays ago, Ross Douthat, the New York Times’s resident conservative, wrote a column about the relationship between gay marriage and the general decline in what he calls “traditional” marriage. While later careful readings make show Douthat never explicitly draws a causal arrow between same-sex marriage and the decline in traditional marriage, he is certainly bringing attention to the possibility. No matter how tightly worded the column may be, its very focus on same-sex marriage was bound to generate a response.

After several critics took shots at the column, Douthat composed a three-part response on his blog. The blog posts were, in my opinion, far more effective than the original column, in part because of their composition: instead of seizing upon a hot-button issue and trying to cram it into a broader theory, they considered the theory and let the consequences of the theory—of which the same-sex marriage debate is one—flow from it naturally.

The second blog post traces the history of the decline of the “traditional” model of marriage, “which seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy in a permanent union,” according to the National Marriage Project, with a “soul mate” model that puts one person’s love for another first and foremost. It shows how the latter model seems to have some serious consequences; while educated and wealthier classes tend to do just fine, working-class and less-educated Americans struggle to conform to the new model, leading to dramatic increases in divorce and childbirth out of wedlock, which tends to only exacerbate inequality in later generations. This is certainly a problem, and one that tends to unite both liberals and conservatives, even if their diagnoses of the causes and possible remedies vary wildly.

The third and final post is the strongest of them all, as it begins by mentioning everything that has pushed against the “traditional” model of marriage. There’s the state of the U.S. economy over the past forty years, which has made stable employment for younger people—particularly the white working class—much more difficult. There’s the impact of the feminist movement, and greater female participation in the work force. There’s contraception, there’s popular culture, and there are cultural norms that posit marriage as something one does once one is settled in life. Some people even trace it all back to the origins of modernity, and the early philosophers and revolutions responsible for aspects of the American project. As I mentioned in the post about the championship-winning goal, we can plausibly go back to the dawn of humanity finding events that affected later events that somehow lead up to the present day. The complexity of causes at play is nearly impossible to sort out, and Douthat recognizes this:

But I also think culture and economics, ideas and incentives, are all entangled at a deep level, working in cycles and feedback loops rather than in simple causal arrows — and thus it’s a mistake to treat changes in what people believe, and particularly the sweeping generational changes in how Americans conceptualize the links between sex and marriage and procreation, just as epiphenomena of economic pressure. (Emphasis mine)

Near the end of the second post, Douthat admits that same-sex marriage is not the driving force behind the decline in traditional marriage, but is rather a result of many forces. However, he also plausibly argues that the current push for same-sex marriage feeds back into the push toward the “soul mate” model, and that it would behoove society to step back for a moment and recognize that there might be more at stake here than just some ideal of love between two people. As just about all of us can attest, sometimes love can hurt, often in ways we never anticipated when we first fell in love. It is never as easy as it seems.

Of course, one could rationally argue that love between two people forever trumps those more complicated implications whose causes and effects are rather murky. This argument has considerable merit, in my opinion. There is always the question of what we can control, and with so many interplaying cultural and economic forces driving family instability in the 21st century United States, it seems silly to mount the defenses of traditional marriage strictly along the same-sex marriage front. Doing so cannot possibly stem the tide, and only invigorates a long-marginalized minority into greater action as they rally behind the simple, controllable, winning battle cry of love. I would also like to believe there is a way to reconcile an older, more stable vision of family life with such changes as same-sex unions. (I’m sure people have tried to do this, but I haven’t read or weighed them extensively yet.)

However, we can’t ignore the broader debates completely, and very few supporters of same-sex marriage seem to have grasped the magnitude of the movement their cause is wrapped up in. Douthat ends his series by saying “no one can predict the future,” and while I agree, it is fairly clear to me that history is marching in a certain direction: toward individual freedom, with little regard for societal implications. Same-sex marriage supporters (and opponents) often embrace some aspects of this push while scorning others, and few people seem to appreciate how tightly interrelated they all are. This, of course, is a very complicated subject that deserves its own post (if not a treatise), and I’ll have one along in the near future.

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