We often hear that children are the reason for marriage: The physical union of a man and a woman often produces children. Marriage (in one form or another, but historically they’ve all been heterosexual) is the institution that every society uses to deal with the reality of children.
Further, society clearly needs children to preserve itself, and so children justify state involvement in marriage. But the regulation of merely romantic partnerships is (a) unnecessary and (b) kind of creepy. As a result, heterosexual marriage should be recognized and regulated, while the state should leave alone most other intimate relationships between adults. If the best that same-sex couples can manage is romance, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the state has no real business managing it.
The problem with this argument is that children-or-romance is a false dilemma. It may be that within the dilemma only the prospect of children offers a path to the civil right that is known as (civil) marriage. But the dilemma remains false, in that neither of its two possibilities really get at what most Americans seem to mean when they speak of marriage.
In this post I’d like to articulate and defend what I take to be our common, intuitive understanding of marriage. It’s one that certainly can include both romance and children, and it’s great when it does, but it doesn’t have to. I will not defend same-sex marriage, and at one point I will even question it. But on that, I will let you draw your own conclusions.
I think that marriage is about nurturing. That’s how I believe most of us actually do think about the institution. In general, we judge marriages as good or bad, as successful or as failed, by whether the two partners sincerely look after each other’s overall best interests. Marriage is not judged by babies alone. Or by romance alone. And certainly not only by a piece of paper from the state.
I suspect that whether we are liberal, conservative, or other, a steady, profound, exclusive commitment to nurturing is what makes most Americans intuit the existence of a marriage, with or without state involvement. If we found such a commitment between people living in Somalia, or in the far reaches of the Amazon, we would call them married. Even if they were childless, and whether or not they still (or ever) felt any romance.
Governments may recognize either some, or all, or none of these nurturing relationships, but even unrecognized relationships may still be nurturing in this deep sense of the word, and when they are, we will still find ourselves apt to call them marriages, even in spite of the powers that be. If our own government were suddenly to fall into anarchy, no one would think that all marriages had suddenly been dissolved. On the contrary, I think most married people would find their attention rather instantly riveted on making sure that their spouses and children were safe. Which would only be proper.
It should be immediately clear that marriage is not merely about choosing a steady sexual partner. On the contrary, it is a reciprocal agreement with another individual to look after the total well-being of that person, sexual and otherwise, and of any children that might come into the couple’s mutual care.
This total concern for another’s well-being encompasses all aspects of life – the spiritual, social, economic, psychological, and physiological best interests of the partner, not just the sexual ones. Ideally, it lasts from the time the marriage is solemnized until the death of one of the partners.
It cheapens the covenant to say that marriage is just about sex (or romance), or just about rights, or just about children. Marriage is about all of this — and more. Marriage is about care for the total person, so much so that no one else in all the world will be quite as important as one’s spouse.
It is true that friends, siblings, and even certain professionals (teachers, say, or healthcare workers) meaningfully nurture other people. Their nurturing is easily distinguished, however, from marriage: A marriage is a steady, exclusive, mutual, and chosen commitment to nurturing. Of the other types of nurturing just mentioned, marriage is closest to friendship. But everyone knows that marriage aims to be much more than that.
Taking nurturing to be the point of marriage also does a good job, I think, of sorting out where rights, romance, and children all fit into the modern marriage picture.
Neither the rights attached to marriage nor the presence of children within a household would make very much sense if we did not expect that household to be a supportive and enduring environment for personal growth, for adults as well as for children. We want the rights that commonly attach to marriage so that we may grow and develop in the ways that we and our spouses think best. (And yes, there will be a diversity of opinion on exactly what “best” means here. We’re all a bit different, so that’s as it should be.)
Whenever we can, we attach children to the marriages that produce them because we take it for granted that children need nurturing too, and that it is best given by two people who are habituated to it and who are already taking care of one another. I suspect that many find the arguments tying marriage to children – and making marriage only about children – persuasive because we so much want our children to have a nurturing bond as a foundation for their own growth, one that will serve as both a safeguard and as an example in later years. But we wouldn’t want children in the absence of that bond to be the foundation of marriage.
And what about romance? It’s what draws us, when we are young, toward a life of steady devotion. It’s the genius of modern marriage to have taken youthful, impulsive romance and turned it toward this purpose. In the old days, money and family did the job instead, much as we may hate to recall it. A more conservative sublimation could hardly be imagined, one that takes even unreliable human passions and turns them toward something more enduring.
The enduring nature of the bond is especially important to the adults concerned, and it should not be discounted. The benefits run deep: Who wants to grow old alone? Who wants no one holding their hand in the hospital? Who really wants no one to dissuade them when they are enamored of a dangerous or ill-considered life course? And yet who can be the best judge of such, and who can do the dissuading better than a lifelong companion?
Marriage answers these questions with the promise that no matter how ill or how deformed we may become in old age, someone will stand beside us until death do us part. No matter what bad ideas we may seize upon, someone will be there to try to talk us out of them. Whenever we need companionship, or sympathy, or help, we will very likely have it. Marriage means someone else besides ourselves is looking out for us. People who have such people grow strong.
The nurturing model of marriage comports well not only with our common hopes for the institution, but also with Judeo-Christian ideas about love and charity. In the modern era, Judeo-Christian religions have seldom placed any great stigma on the infertile or associated any greater virtue with greater offspring. The most important part of these faiths, at least as this infidel understands it, is that we are to strive to love God and one another as we love ourselves. An all-encompassing, all-nurturing marriage is in this way of thinking a mirror of the relationship between God and man, just as all true forms of love reflect their source, which is God. At least for the religiously liberal, then, the nurturing view of marriage offers a path toward reconciling same-sex marriage and faith.
The nurturing model also explains why adultery is always a concern, but not always the end of a marriage: To go elsewhere for an aspect of nurturing suggests that something is wrong, to be sure. The problem might be bad enough that it’s not fixable, but in many cases, the couple can still work things out, and forgiveness is indeed possible.
By contrast, if marriage were solely about sexual fidelity, or romantic passion, it would be reasonable to end all unfaithful marriages immediately, no questions asked. That’s never been our standard, and it shouldn’t be. That overcoming adultery in a marriage is commonly thought a loving and redeeming act also suggests, once again, that sex is not the be-all and end-all of the institution.
I would even venture to say, although I am on more speculative ground here, that nurturing also explains why the government should take an interest in whether and how we get married.
I concede — happily — that the government has no interest whatsoever in regulating consenting adult sexual relationships. Government has every interest, however, in watching over individuals as they nurture one another. This is because while sex and nurturing are both natural rights that we all possess as human beings, it is far more difficult in a civil society to safeguard the right to nurturing.
In the decisions that nurturers make for each other, fraud and abuse may lurk at every juncture. Trust is essential: Nurturers must often act decisively at the very moments when their partners are most vulnerable and least able to act on their own. A situation like this cries out for an explicit, durable, and binding contract made in advance. Without it, fraud and abuse would run rampant. The contract, though, and the benefits that it offers, are not the basis of marriage; these exist only for the sake of protecting the nurturing relationship from interference.
Protecting the right to nurture requires more than merely looking the other way. The nurtured are vulnerable, and nurturers do things for them that non-nurturers must not be trusted to do. Our natural right to designate (or act as) a nurturer therefore leads directly to a civil right wherein the government distinguishes between designated nurturers (who may make decisions for us) and those who are not designated (who must not be allowed to step in).
To respect the desire of two individuals who wish to nurture one another, a government must make certain that its own laws do not interfere with their relationship. In consequence, much of what I view as good marriage policy consists of the state formally stepping aside and recognizing in advance an area where state authority is limited:
- The government has an obligation to respect our determinations about who should make medical, legal, and financial choices for us when we are incapacitated; about how we wish to dispose of our property on death; and about our decision to share childrearing responsibilities. When we declare how matters stand in these areas, the government must listen.
- The government ought not to compel the separation of nurturing partners merely because one is a foreign national. The citizen in the relationship must be expected to help the immigrant adapt to our culture. A nurturing life partner would want no less, and it is doubtful that any other could be more competent.
- The government ought not to demand testimony from one nurturing partner against another; having developed (or at least promised) the lifelong habit of supporting one’s partner, impartial testimony cannot be expected.
- The government ought to institute a formal process for registering a nurturing relationship, if only so that the above rights may be unambiguously secured. This should ideally be an act distinct from the various religious rites of marriage.
- The government ought to institute a formal process for ending a nurturing relationship; while marriage for life is generally recognized as the ideal, some mechanism should exist for those who have determined that they will never reach the ideal owing to insuperable obstacles.
As to the tax incentives and/or penalties that accrue to married partners in the United States, I have no strong opinions — except that they should all be abolished. (I will note in passing, however, that they fall quite unequally on people of different incomes and different distributions)
This, to me, describes the heart of marriage, its reason for being, and its connections to sex, family, spirituality, and the state.
For heterosexuals at least, I would have to say that our government has done a fairly decent job. It’s provided a good solid package of rights that apply to those who wish to contract nurturing relationships between two people of opposite sexes. I would fault it, but only slightly, for blurring the line between the religious rite of marriage and the civil status of marriage, which ought to remain separate. But this is a minor quibble compared to all the rest.
But here’s where things get odd. In talking about real-world marriages, I find that the nurturing ideal is everywhere. In talking about marriage policy, I find that it’s almost nowhere, on any side. Conservatives make marriage all about babies. Liberals make marriage all about romantic love. Libertarians make marriage all about state privileges – and then they ridicule it. (Yes, I do love my tribe. But sometimes they need a friendly kick in the butt.)
Why this strange failure of our discourse? I think it’s because the languages of state privilege — or romantic love or babies — are easier to speak. Nurturing is much harder to talk about. Talking about nurturing means talking about ourselves when we are at our most vulnerable. Bringing it up in the midst of an argument is daunting. It shows off our weaknesses and our impending mortality. Yet if we want our marriage laws to reflect our intuitions, I do think we have to talk about nurturing.
As promised, I will resist the temptations I have to defend same-sex marriage in this context. You may decide on your own whether same-sex marriage stands or falls by the terms that I have outlined above. One might even argue, consistent with the above, that same-sex couples aren’t capable of the lifelong nurturing that marriage demands, or perhaps even that this nurturing has something intrinsically heterosexual about it: To care for a man positively and in all cases requires a woman, and vice versa.
The most I will say at the moment is that these claims require a great deal of defense, and that any proper defense of them will need to take sexual orientation seriously. Effectively channeling the sex drive is also a part of nurturing. But this is an argument for another time.
The goal of my post has simply been to show how “marriage is about kids,” “marriage is about love,” and “marriage is about state-granted rights” all fail to address some of the most important aspects of the institution, and how a different approach — marriage as the total commitment to nurturing one other person — explains the institution much better than any other. It’s on a model like this one that I believe future discussion of same-sex marriage, or any other type of marriage, should unfold.
 This is a revision of an essay I wrote in 2005 for my now-defunct former blog. It’s still foundational to my thinking about marriage. It seemed appropriate to repost in light of the added attention that same-sex marriage, and marriages of other kinds, will be getting very soon in the United States.
 One seldom hears about the gays and lesbians (like me) who actually have children, and who may need marriage for their children. But I am told that the law is a big, blunt instrument, and that it can’t possibly cover all the odd cases like mine. Somehow, though, the law always manages to obscure the faults in any argument. Do we suppose that that’s its purpose?
 A conservative might say that the government has a positive interest in encouraging our nurturing partnerships; as a libertarian, I am content to argue more modestly that the government, as a servant of the people, has a duty to respect the essentially private nurturing agreements that we make with one another.