Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Love conquers all?

"Love conquers all!"  It's what the corpulent Ms. Cluck shouts in the Disney cartoon "Robin Hood."  It's also the cry that dominates the current cultural fracas about marriage, same sex marriage, and all the rest.  The signs outside the U.S. Supreme Court are filled with this thought, proclaiming that one should be allowed to marry whomever one wants, that marriage is a right, that "marriage equality" is somehow enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, etc., etc., etc.

I'm not going to take on same-gender marriage in this post.  I've addressed that issue adequately in the past (here, for example).

What has me more than disturbed these days is the cultural ignorance about what, exactly, marriage is, and why it may or may not be advantageous to extend marriage as a covenant relationship to same-gender couples.  We're not thinking very well about marriage these days.  While "equality" is dominating the avalanche of icons on social media sites like Facebook, few people seem to understand that there is more at stake in this debate than simply a question of people being free to express their love.

As part of this drama, many people have begun to say that the state has no business telling anyone who they can marry.

I beg to differ.

The government is that collective will designated and empowered by our Constitution to accomplish six purposes.  Those purposes, laid out in the preamble to the Constitution, are:

1. To form a more perfect union.
2. To establish justice.
3. To ensure domestic tranquility.
4. To provide for the common defense.
5. To promote the general welfare.
6. To secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.

These purposes are precisely why government has a vested interest in marriage.

Fact is, marriage has only a little bit to do with love, and we make marriage merely about love at our peril, as evidenced by this fact:

Ideas have consequences.

In my lifetime, this idea that you should marry whoever you love has grown in breadth and depth, and the consequences of this idea are all around us.  We have gone through a progression into the belief that romantic love is at the core of marriage, and these days into the odd idea that marriage is purely, only about love.  Shortly after this idea swept the country in the mid-20th century, divorce rates skyrocketed for the simple reason that romantic love ebbs and flows.  Starry-eyed couples that enter into a lifetime commitment on a wave of romantic love find themselves in divorce court a year or two later because they've lost that loving feeling.  (As a pastor, I have officiated at dozens and dozens of weddings, and I've walked through both the establishment and the dissolution of marriage with many couples.  It's heartbreaking.)  The first consequence of the idea that you should marry whoever you love is that suddenly we find ourselves in a place where far too many marriages end in divorce court.  They end up in divorce court because the couple enters into the marriage with the idea that their bond is based on love, and by love they mean the feelings they have for one another.  Marriages built in this way don't last, statistically speaking.

The second consequence to the idea that you should marry whoever you love is this: People fall in love with a wide variety of individuals who may or may not be able to responsibly partner with them in a marriage relationship.  In other words, a young woman might fall for that flashy young man playing video games, and suddenly she is blinded (by her love, we think) to the fact that he is immature, irresponsible, unable to get or hold a job, and sneaking a few recreational drugs on the side.  She loves him.  She believes it will all work out, that he will change, that he will become her Prince Charming.  Fact is, she's not really seeing him, she's seeing her preferred illusion superimposed on him.  (We also say "love is blind," remember?)  By the time she sees him as he really is, she might have a child or two and be co-signed on a mortgage that is more than the two of them together can really afford.  When he quits his job and walks away from her and the kids, what happens to all of them?

So consequence 2, part a, is this: marriage is designed to be a social contract that creates a stable household where two adults work together economically, emotionally, socially, relationally, and physically.  Society -- this means all of us -- has a vested interest in stable households headed by working adults who cooperate to make society better.  If we believe "you should marry whoever you love," we undermine the stability of married households and we jeopardize the wider health of society in every way -- economically, morally, emotionally, and more.

Consequence 2, part b, comes when children enter the picture.  You should marry whoever you love, and if you love them you should have sex, and more often than not the wedding -- the initiation of the legal and contractual part of the marriage -- comes after a lengthy pattern of having sex together, which occasionally results in pregnancy.  I know of few things that diminish the experience of romantic love faster than a month-old baby.  Add a little emotional immaturity or post-partum depression into the mix and things get really ugly, really fast.  The sensation of romantic love is gone, and we find ourselves in divorce court.  So more and more children, through no fault of their own, end up being raised in single parent households, doing the every-Wednesday-and-every-other-weekend thing with one parent or the other, serving as unwilling liaisons between ex-husband and ex-wife.  Instead of growing up with a sense of being protected and nurtured, children are forced into the role of helping to manage the household, carrying a large share of the worry about inadequate finances, and more.  I'm all for children taking on responsibilities, but those responsibilities should be given to children in a measured way by parents who are primarily teachers and equippers, not over-stressed and overwhelmed, desperately turning to their children for help.

Consequence 2, part c, comes when single parents realize that the divorce that seemed like an easy way out of an intolerable marriage has now left them in single-parenthood and now they find themselves in a trap with no way out.  As single parents, statistically speaking, they are far more likely to become a drain on society's resources rather than a contributor to social stability.

Please understand: I know and have a deep respect for many, many single parents.  They work amazingly hard to care for their children, secure an income, and contribute to society.  I stand in awe of what many of them do as a matter of course.  But that's exactly my point -- these single parents shouldn't have to do these amazing things in order simply to provide security for their children and maintain some level of contribution to the greater good.  Single parents are victimized by the consequences of the idea that you should marry whoever you love.  If we understood marriage and its importance, we would understand that these single parents should have a partner who is there through better and worse, who will not leave just because the feeling of love is temporarily gone.  The idea of "marry whoever you love" has put these single parents in a nearly impossible situation.

Consequence 2, part d, comes when over the long haul, single parent households are unable to provide for themselves or their children or the wider society at the same level as married households.  Check out the statistics (this article is a good place to start) on the relative levels of poverty in single parent households.   Track the statistics on poverty, next, to see where that leads us as a society.  Everything from the incredible drain on limited government resources due to increasing dependence on government healthcare and food assistance, down to statistics on increased mental illness and crime, to the much harder to calculate void left by all these households who are so consumed with their own lack that they have a hard time giving to any cause beyond their own needs.  These statistics rapidly become a tragic downward spiral, and the single parent households (especially the children) become the primary victims.  (Anecdote:  I know a man who was leading a discussion group for twenty-two inmates in a local prison a few years ago.  When he asked the twenty-two men what one thing they would have changed about their upbringing, twenty-one of them said, "I wish I would have had a father in my life."  The twenty-second man said, "I wish I would have had a family.")

The third consequence is that as a culture, we recognize all these other negative side-effects.  Rather than take out our assumptions and definitions of marriage and reexamine them, we have more or less ditched the institution of marriage itself.  Marriage seems like an antiquated ideal, sort of like the neighborhood butcher shop or a telephone that is attached to the wall with a cord.  It was fine for my parents, but not for me.  So basically, it looks like this:  If the idea is to marry whoever I love, and that's the only benefit to me getting married, why get married at all?  Why not just set up housekeeping together, share space, share bed, share kids, share life, without all the institutional garbage?  As a pastor helping couples prepare for their wedding, it is a rarity for me to meet a couple that has decided to live separately until they're married.  More often than not they have stretched their finances and bought a house together and often they have a kid or two before the question of marriage ever comes up.

This third consequence doesn't seem like a big deal until you start to see the consequences.  I know couples that have established a household together, but whenever anything goes wrong, he threatens to move out.  There's zero emotional security.  I know households where the romance between -- what do we call them, boyfriend and girlfriend? -- has ended, they've separated, but both their names are on a mortgage and they have to figure out how to sell the house together and split the profits (or the leftover debt) when they can't stand to be in the same room, and maybe she's got a restraining order against him.  I know families where mom and dad have separated, each have a new boyfriend or girlfriend moving in, and because of the ugly divorce one parent or the other can only have supervised visits with the children.  Restraining orders become the solution to a host of ugly problems.  Do you doubt that these situations are unstable and potentially violent?  Ask any cop what the most dangerous, most unpredictable kind of calls are -- and you'll hear a host of horror stories about what they call "domestics."

Fact is, our society set up expectations for marriage a century or two ago, slowly, over a long time of considering ideas and their consequences.  Divorce laws came onto the books over time as marriages began to dissolve more rapidly, and these laws were primarily intended to protect children -- the most vulnerable and least culpable in the dissolving family -- as well as wives, who tended to be more vulnerable than husbands and more dedicated to children.  Now most families facing dissolution don't have the protection of divorce court, partly because they thought marriage was an outmoded, unnecessary idea.

Our society is reaping the whirlwind of an idea -- the idea that you should marry whoever you love.  If we were smart, we would begin to explore what it means for marriage to function as a social contract that benefits society.  Government has a vested interest in stable marriages.  Our states, our nation -- we the people -- have a vested interest in marriages that are viewed not just as a context for romantic love, but as the foundational building block of a healthy human society.

Love conquers all?  Marriage as a vehicle for personal expression?  Marry whoever you love?

I thoroughly enjoy those times when my wife and I get to enjoy the delights of romantic love.  But if that was all that held us together, we wouldn't have nearly enough to go on.  No way on earth our marriage would have survived for more than twenty-three years.  We'd have joined the parade of statistics long ago.  I am so thankful that we know marriage to be about so much more than our love conquering all.  I pray that our society can begin to dig deeper -- much deeper -- into these questions.


  1. All should remember the plan of God in marriage that started from the first couple, Adam & Eve. "For better going to worse" after God allowed them to pack up and leave paradise because they can't give up their pride! See God did not alter anything despite their sinfulness but allowed them to express their marriage commitment in the worse time. God still pursuing His plan of salvation...through marriage of man and woman!

  2. I am almost afraid to post a comment.... state sanctioned marriage is different than church ordained marriage. The state is a legally binding contract between two people. It binds them financially. The church binds them spiritually. You don't have to go to a member of the clergy to be married. If ministers were the only ones who could solemnize a ceremony... this would be a different conversation. However, it is a legal document... that everyone should have the right to pursue. If you want to take that document to the are welcome to do so. If the member of the clergy doesn't want to perform a ceremony they can say "no" which they can do so now. I am not finding any compelling reason why marriage equality should not be the law of the land. There is also nothing in my religion that says they should not have access to the legal option of marriage.

  3. Apologies! I have not been keeping up on responding to comments since Easter. It's been a busy few weeks for me. Tukod, I agree that it's important to recognize marriage as part of God's plan. But we also recognize that God uses the authority of the state as a means to create order in a chaotic world, and the state has to take very seriously these decisions about things like defining marriage! And "Anonymous" I agree that there's a difference between having a marriage solemnized merely by the state or by a religious organization. Both, however, result in a state-sanctioned "marriage", and in the end the state has authority to define marriage in order to create a stable, orderly society where resources are well used and children, especially, are cared for appropriately.

    Another question that's been in the news the last few days occurs to me here: You say that the clergy can refuse to perform a wedding, and that's true. I've done it, not for same-sex couples but for heterosexual couples who I felt were making a very bad decision. But what about the florist in Washington state who is being sued because they won't provide flowers for a homosexual wedding? What about businesses that have a strong opinion about their own willingness to endorse certain behaviors on ethical or moral grounds? It gets to be a pretty sticky situation.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts -- and sorry I didn't respond sooner!