We like to think that marriage is about love, but for the government it's all about sex.
Two of my friends recently got married in a great ceremony in a small chapel with amazing Byzantine tilework. It was a very romantic setting, even though the chapel was in the middle of a cemetery. This fall seems to be a busy season for marriages—everyone in my social set seems to have had a wedding to attend. For all the talk about how marriage as an institution is failing, it seems like the anecdotal evidence points the other way.
But why do we have marriages anyway? Why did society create the institution of marriage, and why does society spend so much time fretting over it—from courtroom battles to Say Yes to the Dress?
The editors of National Review, the leading magazine of the American conservative movement recently posted an editorial making their case for traditional marriage. They ask a fundamental, but difficult question: just why do we have marriages anyway? Their answer:
So at the risk of awkwardness, we must talk about the facts of life. It is true that marriage is, in part, an emotional union, and it is also true that spouses often take care of each other and thereby reduce the caregiving burden on other people. But neither of these truths is the fundamental reason for marriage. The reason marriage exists is that the sexual intercourse of men and women regularly produces children. If it did not produce children, neither society nor the government would have much reason, let alone a valid reason, to regulate people's emotional unions. (The government does not regulate non-marital friendships, no matter how intense they are.) If mutual caregiving were the purpose of marriage, there would be no reason to exclude adult incestuous unions from marriage. What the institution and policy of marriage aims to regulate is sex, not love or commitment. These days, marriage regulates sex (to the extent it does regulate it) in a wholly non-coercive manner, sex outside of marriage no longer being a crime.
This is not the answer that most people want. We like to think of marriage as being all about love. But legally speaking, it's not. There's no requirement that married people actually love each other. And it isn't about caregiving either: we let people divorce each other in most states for no other reason that they don't like each other. Marriage, in its legal sense, isn't about love or caregiving. It's all about the babies. The Danger In Putting The Kids First
Our culture has been trying to decouple marriage (and sex, for that matter) from reproduction. The problem with that is that you can't. Yes, not all married couples plan on having children—although some of them eventually do. And even infertile couples can adopt children. We like to think of marriage as being a celebration of love and caretaking—and while that's the core of marriage, that's not why the state recognizes it and supports it. 'Eat, Pray, Love' Author Takes On Marriage
If there's a theme that should be obvious in these columns, it's that the family is the bedrock of society. And you can't have a healthy family without marriage. Society values marriage not because of abstract values like love and companionship—but because society gets something out of the deal. And even though that sounds harsh, it's true. As National Review points out, society shouldn't be in the business of regulating our emotional relationships. That would just be creepy.
That view of marriage is hard for people to grasp. We want to think of marriage as being about people's feelings. And on an individual level, it should be. But marriage isn't just about the (hopefully) happy couple. The IRS doesn't have a filing category for married couples because the IRS is all about love and romance. Government supports marriage because it creates strong and happy families, which in turn create stronger and happier communities, which in turn creates stronger and happier units of government, which in turn lets government tax everyone until they're no longer happy or strong.
That's why the traditional definition of marriage matters. Because it's part of a much larger societal structure. And that's why messing with it, even if for good reason, can be dangerous. If marriage is the foundation of society, playing around with that foundation can bring the whole house down. That doesn't mean that we can't change marriage with changing times—but we need to ask ourselves if those changes are really for the better.