It was a pretty game. Saturday a week ago pitcher Cole Hamels no-hit the Chicago Cubs in his last game as a Phillie. It was great. Embarrassing, perhaps, for the Cubs, especially when, in the top of the eighth, two runs scored on a throwing error following a deflected pop-up. But that didn’t matter. The Phillies won the game with Ryan Howard’s 3-run home run in the third inning.
Many see the Supreme Court’s ruling on same-sex marriage as a home run, winning the game for gay rights in America. In truth, it’s just the double that adds on a few more runs to a game already won. The victory for same-sex marriage was won a long time ago, 200 years or so, when the real revolution, the idea that marriage should be based on love, gained a foothold and made the legalization and embrace of same-sex marriage inevitable.
I recently finished reading Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, by Stephanie Coontz. Her main idea is that marriage has undergone a profound shift, not so much in these last several years, but in the last two centuries. (Coontz’ wrote the book in 2005, when only Massachusetts permitted same-sex marriage, but she is responding to much of the debate going on at that time about the importance of marriage and the government’s role in upholding the institution.) The shift has been from marriage based on practical and economic factors to marriage based on love.
For most of human history you married because you needed to. There was simply no way to survive as a single person. You needed the help of another person and the work of the children the marriage produced. Marriage was also an important way of strengthening and protecting communities. Families were allied through marriage, gaining each other’s support and assistance for living. Whole communities were united, even nations when royal families intermarried to establish bonds of peace. Marriage was especially crucial for women, who had no means of self-support or even safety without it. It was far too important a business to leave to the vagaries of love so marriages were usually arranged. If the couple did love one another that was an added bonus to be envied. But if not, perhaps they would learn to love one another.
All this began to change in the 18th and 19th centuries, as economic conditions shifted to allow couples to live more on their own, without the need of extended kin. With industrialization, and with new opportunities for women to earn money on their own, without a husband, marriage became much less necessary for survival. Legal rights of women and of children also altered the landscape of marriage and family. And so the idea of marrying for love became a much more achievable goal, and eventually was seen as really the only good reason to marry.
Today, when many delay marriage, or simply don’t marry, is a new and unique moment in human history. We have an unprecedented ability to live alone. We can control the size and timing of our families as never before. A single man does not need to cook to survive. A father does not need to know how to build a house. Sexuality can more safely be expressed outside of a marriage commitment because of birth control. And even if a child is born out-of-wedlock, that child no longer lacks the full legal rights of any other citizen; the different legal status of children once called “bastards” is a thing of the (not so remote) past.
In this brave new world of marriage, I did not need to get married because I had to. I got married because I fell in love.
Coontz says that this new love-based marriage explains the divorce “epidemic”. It is easy to equate being in love with the feeling of being of love, and if the feeling passes I may conclude that I should not stay married. In fact, it could seem almost wrong to do so. At the same time, although love-based marriages are inherently weak, being based on what we often regard as no more than a feeling, we also derive more pleasure and joy from our modern, love-based marriages than our ancestors could have imagined possible.
Finally, if marriage is now about love, and not about economics, or family connection, or even all about having biological children, then how can we deny the right to marry to two people who romantically love each other? On the logic that we have adopted over the last two centuries, we really can’t.
Those of us who do not support same-sex marriage and believe instead that marriage is for one man and one woman have entered the debate too late, and on the wrong basis. If we want to stand for truly “traditional” marriage, which is not marriage as practiced in the 1950’s but that which the world knew before the 1700’s, then we need to oppose the love-based marriage. It is that shift to love being the main thing in marriage that has led to the prevalence of divorce, and to the acceptance of same-sex marriage. If we want to “save” marriage we need to turn away from the ideal of romantic love.
And yet, who really wants to do that? We have fully adjusted to the real revolution in marriage and expect people who marry to love each other. Love has indeed won.
The 1997 movie Titanic exposes the shift in marriage quite well. The dilemma that threads through the movie is whether Rose, the scion of an upper-crust family down on its luck, should go ahead and marry her fiancé, the much richer and classy Caledon Hockley, so her family might regain its stature, or whether she should follow her heart and marry young peasant, Jack Dawson, with whom she has fallen in love. It’s a no-brainer at any time. Prior to the 20th century, the majority of people would say she needs to marry the better man, Cal. How can she put her own ephemeral happiness above the well-being of her family and future? But today, we root for Jack, the poor urchin, telling Rose to follow her heart, family be damned. Love must win.
The Supreme Court did not redefine marriage with their ruling. Marriage was redefined many years ago, as a relationship based on love. That’s the real revolution.