Marriage is more than a “right”

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.

8 Responses

  1. Nice post, Joe. Way to keep this blog alive!

    Demanding a right of marriage reminds me of this passage from Susan Shell’s “The Liberal Case Against Gay Marriage” — see http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0377/is_156/ai_n6143562/?tag=content;col1 :

    If proponents of gay marriage seek certain privileges of marriage, such as legal support for mutual aid and childbearing, there may well be no liberal reason to deny it to them. But if they also seek positive public celebration of homosexuality as such, then that desire must be disappointed. The requirement that homosexual attachments be publicly recognized as no different from, and equally necessary to society as, heterosexual attachments is a fundamentally illiberal demand. Gays cannot be guaranteed all of the experiences open to heterosexuals any more than tall people can be guaranteed all of the experiences open to short people. Least of all can gays be guaranteed all of the experiences that stem from the facts of human sexual reproduction and its accompanying penumbra of pleasures and cares. To insist otherwise is not only psychologically and culturally implausible; it imposes a sectarian moral view on fellow citizens who disagree and who may hold moral beliefs that are diametrically opposed to it.

    Such considerations, and others like them, suffice to sustain the “reasonableness” of a legal distinction between heterosexual marriage and forms of gay civil union that might perform many of marriage’s tasks. It is neither irrational nor necessarily offensive to deem gay unions significantly less like a generative heterosexual union than is a marriage between infertile heterosexual partners.

  2. “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.”

    I thought the post was interesting and brought up some good points. I’m not sure what you meant by the above statement. Isn’t the point of the celestial kingdom that we have “increase” and can experience the love we feel for others eternally?

    That said, like you, I am also rather tired of the debate which seems to focus everything on the act of getting married and little on the process of being married.

  3. To begin with, with regard to “getting” married vs. “being” married, one can’t “be” unless one does the “getting” part first, at least so far as the government is concerned. And government is very much concerned because of the vast body of law that touches on marriage and family relationships. I don’t think I see the government getting out of the marriage business any time soon.

    From a “rights” perspective, I think the secular view (which is all we’re talking about with regard to gender-neutral marriage) from the governments point of view is: whatever the government has decided that it can prevent is not a “right”. If the government believes that it should not prevent something (and thank God that the government is still willing to admit there are things that it shouldn’t actively prevent) from occurring, then I guess one can say that one has a “right” to it.

    For good or for ill, marriage has been deemed to be a human right. And for good or for ill, it is not the government’s job to defend any religious outlook or point of view in our secular society. We Latter-day Saints are free to continue to preach that God does not sanction gender-neutral marriage, and that homosexual acts are seen as a sin in the eyes of God, but we are not free to codify that view or belief in our laws. We are still free to decide who is and who is not worthy to obtain a temple recommend for the purpose of participating in our religious rites. If you think that the government is going to enact the equivalent of another Edmunds-Tucker act for the purpose of forcing us to change our doctrines, then you can be assured that the LDS Church will not be the only church in America that will suffer such an attempt by the government to stick its camel’s nose into the tent of religion, which tells me that there’s no way it will happen.

    For good or for ill, our nation is (supposedly) committed to the idea of equal protection under the law, and as was said in both of the judgments that ruled Prop 8 (and before it, Prop 22) unconstitutional, “fundamental rights may not be submitted to [a] vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

    The only way around this at this point, so far as I can tell, is by finding someone able to poke holes in Judge Walker’s ruling and findings of fact. If such an Alma exists in our day who will be able to successfully argue down the secular Korihors of latter-day government, then he’d better be found on the double.

  4. Thanks for this post, it articulated a few things I’d been elusively trying to put my finger on.

    I do have an interesting perspective to this, however. I married someone who was not the type of man I’m attracted to. I became attracted to him after I’d decided to marry, but that was a conscious choice.

    I loved him. I wasn’t great at it, I was far from a perfect wife, but I tried so hard to love him, to serve him and forgive him in just the way you’re talking about. That ended up getting me deeper into an emotionally abusive relationship which I did not realize was abusive at the time. I ended up enabling him and his abuse got worse until I finally recognized it for what it was. Even through the counseling, court sessions, divorce and aftermath, I have loved and served him as well as I could without harming my children or myself. But, now my love has boundaries.

    So I think there is a balance, too. You can’t completely give up any expectation of self-fulfillment. But it shouldn’t be your focus in a marriage.

  5. E. Gee –

    That was a rhetorical statement. Often, when we “do it for the celestial kingdom” we’re just doing it for ourselves. I obviously agree with your own statement about the celestial kingdom, which of course would make my the “whole lot more” synonymous with a celestial being (or, couple, rather).

    Thanks.

  6. Mark, unfortunately what you point out is why I feel we’ll (those of us opposed to it, anyway) eventually “lose” the debate on gay marriage. I think part of my post is a coming-to-grips-with-that. At this point, I think I’m more worried about how we as members of the church live marriage.

    Although, I do have to say, the article that Dennis cites above by Susan Shell (which was, admittedly, much of my inspiration for this post) does a great job dealing with the issue from a liberal perspective. I endorse Dennis’ recommendation.

  7. At bottom, the LDS view of marriage is that its purpose is to prepare heterosexual couples for the eternities as glorified and resurrected celestial partners in the ongoing propagation and creation of eternal lives.

    One can hardly expect secular governments to treat marriage as we do, or to pass laws that would seemingly negate equal treatments under the secular laws, given that they do not share our beliefs in the purpose of marriage. We teach that anything less than an eternal sealing is not the ideal, so why we’ve embarked on this huge PR effort to play up “until death do us part” marriage is a bit beyond me.

  8. Silverrain –

    thanks for your comments; I had to give them a little thought before I replied. I don’t know if I have an adequate response, but here’s a shot:

    Often, when self-fulfillment is harped on, most people naturally see this as an argument for self-lose-ment. I don’t have to time to articulate what I’m arguing, but it’s not that. Here’s the idea practically: we are commanded to build the kingdom of God above all else. If we make a lot of money, we can thank God because we’re self-fulfilled, or we can thank God because we have a better opportunity to serve him – then go out and serve him.

    If we have a spouse that is abusive, how are we to build the kingdom? Once we have the answer to that question, we know what we should do for ourselves – that isn’t necessarily self-fulfillment, but defending the kingdom.

    I hope that clears it up a little.

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