Monday, December 6, 2010
What Marriage Has Become
Marriage was formerly defined by religious doctrine and moral tradition. Marriage was seen as the divinely ordained and established estate which existed not so much for the pleasure, happiness, or fulfillment of the husband and wife, but for the sake of need -- both individual and societal. Those married were expected to embrace the full weight of commitment to childbearing, religious attendance, distinctive sex roles (i.e., breadwinner/homemaker) and lifelong sexual fidelity to each other. This was not about the desire or happiness of the couple but of an estate and roles that were essential to the society and necessary to the health, safety, and life of those married.
Something changed, however, and that change is at the root of the movement toward gay marriage. It began with America's shift from an agricultural nation to an industrial one, in which men and women began to work separately and were disconnected. This left marriage as an institution "badly bloodied" and forever changed. Men went off to work, women were left at home to their work, and the home was no longer the center of the family's life or identity. Women worked alone "in a functionally diminished home," in which "advertisers, manufacturers and educators" moved in to assist those homemakers, Mr. Christensen writes. The American home transformed from the hub and center of family activity, into "incidental parking place," where, from 1950 on, family members met to consume goods and relax.
The religious foundation of this understanding began eroding in the 1960s until today we think of marriage almost entirely in secular terms -- even among religious folk. The rebellion of the 1960s, the sexual revolution and availability of cheap, reliable birth control devices, the entry of women into the workplace, and an intellectual attack on the understandings of marriage and family inherited from the past all ravaged what marriage had been. What had been understood as an arena for self-sacrifice became the domain of self-gratification. Increasingly, marriage became a place where self-interest must be constantly asserted and rights must be carefully preserved less they be abridged by the spouse.
The roles were blurred until the family had several providers and no one to nurture the place of home as hub and center of the family life. The limitation to one or two children as well as the creation of a whole new category (DINK - dual income no kids) made family into something very different than it was a half century before.
With no fault divorce, marriage could be ended as easy as it was entered into. Wendell Berry called husband and wife "two careerists who share the same bed." Sex became one of the few things that tied husband and wife together and it has proven too weak to support the burdensome weight of pleasure that has been placed upon it.
Once marriage became "bereft of a healthy home economy, frequently devoid of children, and threatening to dissolve at any moment" and yet remained the most convenient way to get insurance, employment and government benefits (i.e., Social Security), it became an institution "that homosexuals finally wanted" to participate in, Mr. Christensen writes. (quoted from Cheryl Wetzstein of the Washington Times)
This shadow of what marriage had been, has become the marriage that people want -- gay or straight -- or, perhaps, more accurately, the marriage they will settle for because it appears that this is all there is left. A very interesting take on this very timely subject of debate, court redress, and legislative change.