Repost: On Nurturing as the Purpose of Marriage
[Note: This is a revised version of an essay I wrote in 2005 for my now-defunct old blog. It’s still foundational to a lot of what I believe about marriage and marriage policy, and a commenter asked to see it again. So here it is.]
We often hear that children are the reason for marriage. The physical union of a man and a woman commonly produces children, and marriage, the argument goes, is the institution that every society uses to deal with this reality.
Further, while society clearly needs children, and while this may justify state involvement in marriage, the regulation of merely romantic partnerships is both (a) unnecessary and (b) creepy. Same-sex couples may love each other sincerely, passionately, or even romantically, but that’s still not enough to bring in the state. All these couples have is romance, and perhaps they should be happier that the state isn’t involved. Romance doesn’t need state help. Only children do.
The trouble here is that “children or romance” is a false dilemma. I’d like to assert, and then defend, what I take to be the common, intuitive understanding of marriage, which certainly can include both romance and children, but doesn’t have to.
Marriage is about nurturing. That’s how we think of an ideal marriage. That’s how we, in our culture, judge marriages in the real world. A steady, profound, exclusive commitment to nurturing is what makes most people intuit the existence of a marriage, with or without state involvement, with or without children. With or without romance. Government may recognize either some, or all, or none of these nurturing relationships, but even unrecognized relationships may still be nurturing in this sense, and therefore be genuine marriages.
In the rest of this post, I’m not going to defend same-sex marriage (indeed, at one point I even question it). Instead, I’m going to explore the ideal of the nurturing marriage, and ideal that, curiously, everyone seems simultaneously to embrace and ignore. In talking about real-world marriages, the ideal is everywhere. In talking about marriage policy, it’s nowhere.
And why? I think it’s because the language of state privilege — or romance or babies — is easier to speak. Nurturing is harder to talk about. Yet if we want the laws to reflect our intuitions, we have to do it.
Marriage is not, after all, merely about choosing a steady sexual partner. On the contrary, it is a reciprocal agreement with another individual (and often with God), to look after the total well-being of that person, sexual and otherwise, and of any children that might come into your mutual care.
This total well-being encompasses all aspects of life, including the spiritual, social, economic, psychological, and physiological best interests of the partner. 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 just about rights, or just about children. Marriage is about all of this — and more. Marriage is a complete, all-encompassing, nurturing relationship. It’s about care for the whole person, so much so that no one else in all the world is quite as important.
(In the following, I will use “nurturing” to refer only to these sorts of relationships, even while, for example, siblings may nurture one another in the far more casual sense of the word. These are emphatically not the sort of relationships that I mean — although I do concede that the understanding of marriage offered here can’t entirely rule out a brother-sister coupling without invoking the outside help of genetics.)
Neither the rights attached to marriage nor the presence of children within it would make very much sense if we did not expect marriage to be a supportive and enduring environment for personal growth, for adults as well as children. We want the rights so that we may grow and develop in the ways that we see fit; we attach babies to marriage because we take it for granted that babies need this kind of nurturing too, given by two people who are habituated to it and already stable in the environment it provides. It does not denigrate childrearing to say that it should take place in a nurturing environment… does it? This is what we are often urged to believe, in effect, when opponents of same-sex marriage portray the debate as one of children’s needs versus adults’ desires.
And 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 hate to recall it. A more conservative sublimation could hardly be imagined.
I also suspect that many find the arguments tying marriage to children persuasive because we so much want our own children to have a nurturing bond as a foundation for their own growth, one that will serve as both a safeguard and an example for later years. Indeed, most of us wouldn’t have it any other way.
But the great benefits that children get from marriage do not exhaust or interfere with the great benefits that adults may also derive from it. Who really wants to grow old alone? It is perhaps the bleakest question in all the modern world. Marriage answers it with the promise that no matter how ill or how deformed we may become in old age, someone will stand beside us until the end. Next to this, the thrill of having a new sex partner is negligible.
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 greater virtue with greater offspring. The very best of the Christian message, at least as this infidel understands it, is that we are to love one another as we love ourselves. An all-encompassing, all-nurturing marriage is a mirror of the relationship between God and man, just as all true forms of love reflect their source, which is God.
The nurturing model likewise explains why adultery is always a problem 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 shows 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 indeed 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 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 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 never 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 nurturers (who may make decisions for us) and non-nurturers (who must not be allowed to step in). Contrast this to sexual rights, which are extended to adults who can meaningfully consent, in any combination of gender and number, and you will see that there really is no conflict between a hands-off policy for sex and a formal codification for marriage.
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 a nurturing marriage relationship either:
- 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.
- 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 alien adapt to our culture. It is doubtful any other could be more competent here.
- 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 U.S., 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. While many married couples face penalties that they should not have to endure, Scott and I would have saved hundreds of dollars last year — 2004 — if only we could have filed our federal taxes as a married couple. Neither situation is just, and all should be equal before the law.)
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 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, but this is a minor quibble compared to all the rest.
In closing, I imagine most people are expecting I’ll offer some inspiring words in favor of same-sex marriage. I won’t. One might even argue, consistent with this model, that homosexuals 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 requires a woman, and vice versa. Yet while this may be true for a great many people, it does not necessarily follow that it is true for all, nor does it follow that the exceptional cases somehow injure or degrade the ordinary ones.
The goal of my post has simply been to show how “marriage is about kids,” “marriage is about love,” and “marriage is about rights” all fail to address some of the most important aspects of the institution, and how a new model — marriage as the total nurturing of one other person — explains the institution much better than any other. It’s on a model like this one that future discussion of same-sex marriage, or any other issue relating to marriage, should be discussed.
 One never hears, of course, about gays and lesbians (like me) who do have children. But I am told that the law is a big, blunt instrument. I take it to mean that, in practice, the law is always large enough to obscure the faults of any argument, no matter how weak it may be.
 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 — agreements that, in all cultures and religions, are termed “marriage” or an equivalent.