Something is wrong, here. It’s suddenly become very normal to talk about marriage as a “right” and a “freedom” and that seems to me a rather impoverished way of talking about marriage. And yet, though one side (those opposed to gay marriage) often disagrees on marriage being a “right”, neither side can seem to get past this issue.
The “right” to be self-fulfilled
Let me try to articulate what I’m talking about: by talking about marriage as a freedom and a right, people are essentially drawing on a narrative like the very one I grew up with: when I marry, I want someone to whom I am physically and sexually attracted; I want someone who treats me well (in part because of their attraction to me) and who helps me reach my full potential as a person (can take me to the temple, etc); I want someone who cares for me like I care for them, who I can keep secrets with and who will share my life with me. I want… I want… I want…
Now, I confess: when I first got married, I wanted, too. I thought the same about marriage. I was looking for someone that would fulfill me – and I was fortunate enough to be mostly attracted to women, so I was looking for a woman. I hoped that, in getting married, I would find companionship and good sex and fun and positive emotionality and that my “self” would be enriched, etc, etc. Most of all, I hoped I would go to the celestial kingdom. I mean, who wouldn’t? In fact, I don’t know that there’s someone to blame for this perspective on marriage – it’s culturally pervasive and seems perfectly natural.
So whether you claim rhetorically that marriage is a “right” or not, few fail to see marriage this way – as primarily self-fulfilling. As a consequence, most people behave as though marriage were some grand privilege. And given our constitutional right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, no such privilege should be denied any American. That is, of course, if you demand (rhetorically or behaviorally) that we see marriage this way.
My own experience
But now that I’ve been married almost eight years, this narrative can no longer describe my marriage. Oh, I have a great companion, and there is a lot of positive emotionality – and other stuff that I’ve described above (maybe we’ll even go to the celestial kingdom!). But it’s a whole lot more, and that “whole lot more” is a whole lot more important than my own good feelings – my own wants – and frankly, more important than the celestial kingdom.
First of all, my marriage is about me learning to love someone completely different than I. By love, I do not mean “feel” love – I mean “give myself to”, “act charitable towards”, “forgive”, and “treat kindly”. Do you know how hard that is? It sucks sometimes, because she’ll do something completely offensive to me, and she won’t apologize, and I want her to suffer for it so she’ll feel sorry, but that’s not marriage – so I forgive her, I love her. And sometimes, she doesn’t even know she’s done something to offend me – those are the most irritating times, because I have to be gracious without her knowledge! I want her to know, to feel sorry (because she will if I say something), to hurt and to apologize to me – but sometimes, I just forgive her and let it go. It isn’t just, nor is it fair, but it is marriage.
And it’s made all the more difficult when you have to love someone of the opposite sex. Don’t lie to yourself, men and women are different in fundamental ways – even gays know this – and that makes loving harder. My wife doesn’t think the same way I do (in part because she’s a woman), she doesn’t act the same way I do (in part because she’s a woman), and she’s constantly getting in my way (in part because she’s a woman). These fundamental differences mean offenses come more easily and dealing with the offenses becomes more difficult. That is just a fact of being different sexes. I have to love her differently than I would a man – that’s marriage.
And then there’s sex. Do you realize that each and every time we have sex, there is the risk (unless she’s already pregnant) that she can get pregnant? Every time! That doesn’t happen in gay relationships – ever! And so our sexual relationship is just as risky as it is fun. Why risky? Because having kids just complicates the whole “loving thing”. To name just a few of the reasons: first there’s the pregnancy. For three months, she’s sick all the time. Not only do I have little idea what that’s like (I’ve never been pregnant), but it’s partly my fault – even if we planned on having a baby. So, I feel like I owe her something. But I can never repay, because I can never go through what she’s going through. So I’m constantly in her debt. Then, there’s the last three months, when she is no longer sick, but physically uncomfortable. She doesn’t sleep well, so she’s tired all the time; her big belly gets in the way of doing some of the things she likes to do; and her body goes through one of the most traumatizing transformations she’ll ever have to face. Then she has the baby and she can’t sit for more than a half hour at a time, she’s constantly feeding the baby who’s constantly hungry, and so on, and so on. Then, she’s no longer pregnant and our sexual relationship becomes risky again. And through it all, I still need to love her - and loving becomes so much more complicated, in part because she was the pregnant one, she’s the nursing one, and because I (as a man) couldn’t do that – that’s marriage.
And then there’s our community. The longer my wife and I have been married, the more we have come to realize that our marriage is not just our marriage, but it is a marriage that also belongs to the community. Without us, quite frankly, our community would be lacking in important ways; and without our community, our marriage would be lacking in important ways. So we have found it important to be – as a couple – an integral part of the community, to serve it when it needed and we could, and to give to the community our love. In other words, as we have learned to love each other, we have felt compelled to share that love with our community. And again, our differences (including gender differences) mean that we have different contributions to make – complimentary contributions to make, even. My wife, for instance, has a whole lot to say about child-bearing and helping women through that ordeal. I don’t have that contribution to make, but she’s got me to thank (or to hate) for giving her that opportunity. My unique contribution, on the other hand, might come because I have more energy (given my inability to be pregnant) to serve both manually and financially those around me. That’s marriage.
Am I still attracted to my wife? Yes, I am. In fact, I’m even attracted to her when she’s pregnant. But I’m also attracted to lots of other women (and, dare I say it, a couple of men), and I’ve come to realize that’s not the point of my marriage. If it were, I wouldn’t be writing this.
Does my wife “fulfill” me? Sure she does, and I’m glad for it. But so does my work, and so do many of my relationships with other people, though perhaps not to the extent of my wife. So maybe that’s not the point of my marriage.
The gay marriage debate
To those who think that marriage is a “right” and a “freedom” that I enjoy, I hope I’ve made it clear that my marriage cannot be reduced to some self-fulfilling legal arrangement, that grants me privileges – psychological, financial, etc. – otherwise unattainable.
To those who might disagree with the “marriage as a right” position, do you also see marriage as some self-fulfilling legal arrangement, that grants me privileges – psychological, financial, etc. – otherwise unattainable?
As it turns out, gay’s do have the “freedom” and the “right” to marry, given the above perspective on marriage. But here’s what that requires of them:
First, they would have to marry someone they aren’t attracted to. How does that sound to those who do not identify as gay? I can tell a number of stories of people who aren’t willing to put up with their spouse quite simply because, “I’m no longer attracted to her”. And many of these people are opposed to gay marriage!
Second, gays might not experience the same sort of fulfillment that heterosexuals find in a heterosexual marriage. Giving up on marriage because you’re no longer attracted to your spouse seems awfully superficial; but the issue of fulfillment is huge – especially with Latter-day Saints. Again, I have stories: how many women (and men) have run from the marriage that isn’t helping them reach their full potential? (“I told him if he didn’t come back to church, I’d leave him!”)
So what exactly is wrong? For one, marriage as a “right” is probably the wrong perspective to take. Marriage is not self-fulfillment, even when it is self-fulfilling. It isn’t about what you want, but about what you need to do. It is, at least in part, a deep obligation to love – to love a spouse, and one of the opposite sex, with all that that implies; to love a family, one that is naturally implied each time you and your spouse (of the opposite sex) engage in sexual intimacy; and to love a community, particularly in unique, gender-specific ways.
What else is wrong? Few of us who are opposed to gay marriage don’t want to live marriage this way. Instead, we spend our adult lives either (a), running from self-fulfilling marriage to self-fulfilling marriage; (b) we demand our spouse change that we might find self-fulfillment in our marriage (and consult any number of books that reinforce our entitlement); or (c) we live, quite miserably, the life we’re asking homosexuals to live, complaining to our neighbors about how horrible our marriages are in the same conversations where we talk about how horrible gays are.
I’m tired of listening to both sides of this thing. I’m tired of listening to the gays talk about my marriage as though it were some self-fulfilling relationship that brings me so much of life’s pleasures denied to them, because that’s not what my marriage is. But even more, I’m tired of Latter-day Saints who talk about my marriage as though it were some self-fulfilling relationship that brings me so much of life’s pleasures that they either share or are denied (depending, of course, on their own marriage).
It seems to me that both sides could stand to be a little more understanding.
Filed under: Politics, Relationships Tagged: | Celestial Kingdom, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, eternal marriage, gay marriage, gay marriage debate, Gender, marriage, marriage fulfillment, Mormons, Proposition 8, right to marriage, same-sex marriage, self-fulfillment, sexuality