Beyond Marriage Equality: What Can We Do To Fix Marriage?

Welcome to National Marriage Equality Week. After today’s Supreme Court hearing on the constitutionality of California’s Proposition 8, marriage equality has been the topic du jour, and will remain so after tomorrow’s companion hearing on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). I certainly hope the Court sees these discriminatory laws for what they are, but even if it doesn’t, the battle for marriage equality has been won: public opinion has swung strongly and, given the numbers among young Americans, likely irreversibly in favor of marriage equality.

Anti-equality advocates, like Princeton professor Robert George and his co-authors, are attempting to cast this movement as an attack on the venerable institution of marriage. While these arguments don’t pass the smell test, more level-headed conservatives are right to point to a battery of statistics to suggest that the institution of marriage is in crisis for reasons quite independent of marriage equality.

The “marriage in crisis” framing generally leads to discussions about what could be done to save marriage as it exists today. But there’s a prior question: is the dominant, traditional vision of marriage really something we want to save? And if not, what would replace it?

If we assume that deep cultural forces are eroding the traditional, one-size fits marriage model based around norms like permanence and exclusivity, we should start talking about alternatives. That starts by imagining a way to preserve marriage’s social benefits while making it a more fundamentally freeing institution; developing a liberal vision of married life oriented around free choice and equal, mutually life-defining partnership. This move will require a shift in both government policy and social norms, but if we think the marriage crisis is, in fact, a crisis in need of addressing, developing an attractive vision of the institution is a necessary first step.

Taking philosophical stock of marriage requires first figuring out what, in fact, individuals and society need out of marriage. From the point of view of individual adults looking to get married, that’s clear: a defining relationship that allows them to chart the course of their life with a person they cannot imagine living without. According to a 2011 Pew survey, love is almost universally (93 percent) cited as a reason that people get married. A similarly large number of Americans cited a “lifelong commitment” (87 percent) and “companionship” (81 percent) as reasons to get married, suggesting love’s bond is seen as something more thoroughgoing than an emotional connection. Marriage, it seems, is something more like a fundamental and encompassing commitment to another person, a statement that two people want to be partners in all of life’s most important and difficult endeavors, ideally forever. It’s a loving tie, but one beyond mere love — call it commitment, for lack of more emotionally accurate word.

But the strong, seemingly innate human desire for commitment in this sense alone isn’t a good reason for the state to legally recognize marriages and sanction them with special tax benefits and legal privileges. The only plausible defense of civil marriage is that it promotes the health of children by giving them a stable environment to grow in. There’s some extremely strong evidence that, all things being equal, children raised in married homes are more likely to be better off; the American Association of Pediatrics (which recently endorsed marriage equality) believes the bulk of the evidence suggests marriage makes adult life less risk-prone, as a consequence creating a safer, healthier environment for kids to grow up in. There’s even some evidence that marriage lowers violent crime and gender inequality. This body of research makes me leery of calls to get rid of marriage outright or de-couple it from the state. Absent a clear idea of what would replace marriage, reform rather than outright replacement seems like the safer bet.

So to make marriage work, we need to develop a vision that allows adults to define their partnership in the way that matters to them while at the same time keeping home life solid and stable for children. How might that work?

Absolute free choice and open communication should be our lodestars. Instead of defining marriage by a specific set of norms, we should see it as an institution where two adults develop a shared, uncoerced vision of the good life, working out a mutually agreed upon ideal life on terms that both partners find fulfilling. This liberal view of marriage encourages marriage to be a place for, in John Stuart Mill’s memorable phrase, “experiments in living,” where couples chart their own course as equal partners, burdened only by social expectations that 1) neither partner forces the other to live on unacceptable terms and 2) that, if they choose to have children, they make sure to place the kids’ welfare first.

You might think that this liberal view is generally how people see marriage today. That may or may not be true, but making this ideal explicit in the public marriage debate (which it certainly isn’t now) helps us see just how far we are in terms of public policy and social norms from making it a reality.

The political barrier towards realizing the liberal marriage ideal is the most obvious: the fundamentally patriarchal character of contemporary heterosexual union, a reality sustained by public policy. It’s a point feminists have been making since the women’s movement began, but it still hasn’t been solved. Hangover social norms from the bad old days put a disproportionate onus on women to raise children, limiting both women’s ability to work outside the home and men’s ability to work inside it. This disparity, together with broader workplace sexisms like unequal pay, combine to put women in an economically weaker position, putting the marriage on unchosen, unequal terms. This creates what feminist philosopher Susan Moller Okin calls “a cycle of socially caused and distinctly asymmetric vulnerability” wherein women are, through neither partner’s free choice, funneled into an economically subordinate position.

This vulnerability limits the ability of heterosexual couples to define their relationship on their own terms, forcing them to live in socially defined boxes rather than negotiating the contours of their work/life balance on their own terms. This is a place where government policy can help: equal pay legislation and universal childcare are strong first steps towards freeing marriage.

But another aspect of marriage that requires rethinking is more of a cultural than political issue: sexual exclusivity. There’s good reason to believe that sexual exclusivity isn’t what all humans are naturally inclined towards; that while lifelong commitment, or “social monogamy,” is a basic human need, many people feel an equally basic need for a diverse set of sexual partners. If that’s true, then non-monogamy could be good for some (not all) couples for two reasons: 1) if both partners prefer non-monogamy, then it’s wrong for society to coerce them into being monogamous; 2) socially sanctioned non-monogamy could lower rates of infidelity and hence divorces caused by the breach of trust created by cheating.

Instead of shaming couples who choose non-exclusivity, we should recognize that, under conditions of clear and free consent, it’s healthier for some (not all) marriages to remain sexually open while emotionally closed. The majority of couples (I suspect) who find sexual monogamy integral to a meaningful relationship will remain free to do so, but those who feel the reverse should be equally liberated to live life on their terms.

This matters not because most marriages *should* be non-monogamous: to be clear, I actually think the vast majority of couples would, given the choice, remain monogamous. Rather, it’s that partners who feel like their marriage would be on better footing if they could have honest conversations about non-monogamy should be able to do so without fear of social pressure. Given rising adultery rates, there’s at least some reason to think more openness would address one cause of divorce.

But more importantly, it’s a matter of principle. If marriage really is about mutual self-definition, then partners should feel free to define the terms of their relationship in whatever way they see fit as long as they don’t hurt each other or their children. We should stop shaming non-monogamy not because we see it as our social ideal, but because it’s some people’s individual ideal. If marriage is to broadly be a Millian “experiment in living,” then non-monogamy should be one of the individual tests.

There’s a seemingly obvious contradiction here: if heterosexual marriages are currently unequal power relations, it might seem that lowering the level of shame surrounding non-exclusivity simply frees up men to coerce women into accepting their “need” to sleep around. That’s a real concern, and it’s why we need to retain social norms around marriage, but center them on consent rather than a defined set of rules. Social shaming should be directed towards people that coerce and bully their partners. Non-consent must be made into be the foremost marital ill in society’s eyes.

These suggestions only skim the surface of the ocean of questions surrounding marriage. But advancing the liberal marriage ideal is a critical task in making our society a better, freer place. Hopefully, a Court ruling in favor of marriage equality will help point the way.