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The Pursuit of Happiness
It's high time we redefine the terms.
Commencement 2004

The week this issue goes to press will go down in history. This Monday, May 17, the state of Massachusetts joined Belgium, Holland, Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia on the short but growing list of places that recognize same-sex marriages, culminating a series of U.S. state and judiciary decisions to extend marriage rights to gay couples. In the last decade, from Hawaii (1993), to Clinton’s Defense of Marriage Act (1996), to Alaska (1998), Vermont (1999), Texas (2003), and finally Massachusetts (2003-2004), there has been no shortage of measures and countermeasures to settle the issue. Despite the plethora of legislative precedent, however, we are still a far cry from resolution. The definition of marriage remains disjointed and participants in the debate continue to speak past one another.

Witness, for an illustrative example, the reactions to Monday’s announcement. MSNBC finds “Conservatives outraged,” while journalist Andrew Sullivan foresees “an end to emotional segregation.” Conservatives fear the death of traditional marriage, while supporters of gay rights are elated that gays finally have a chance at full-fledged marital bliss. One sees tolerance and freedom and the other sees apocalypse. Why the drastically different interpretations? Will the two sides ever find common ground? A careful analysis of some conservative arguments against gay marriage (arguments more interesting and accessible to both sides than the Bible-thumpingly reductionistic “it’s unnatural” or “God hates it”) may shed some light on the discord.

One need not thump Bibles (whatever that looks like) to recognize that marriages center around families. As an institution, the family persists throughout human history for a good reason—because it works well. The family is crucially important to society as the primary structure through which children learn about love, loyalty, courage, relationships, and a whole host of important values. In short, it is the best way to inculcate virtue in the future generation. It is no coincidence that as the traditional family degrades in the wake of growing divorce rates and single parent homes, society’s moral sensibilities have grown more ambiguous and apathetic. We have become more individualist, isolated, and unwilling to argue absolutely about right and wrong. All of this is fairly uncontroversial – yes, divorce is bad; sure, single-parent homes are inherently less stable than their twoparent counterparts. So what?

Relaxing taboos on divorce and single parenthood led to many itinerant, unhappy children being shuttled back and forth between homes. In a similar vein, our acceptance of cohabitation as a norm led to the pervasive belief that marriage is something to put off until later, a time in one’s life when a wholly different set of rules applies. Conservatives argue against cohabitation because if a couple is fully committed to one another, what should keep them from getting married to fully enjoy the ramifications of that commitment? Why subject oneself to the possibility of heartbreak by living with someone who would lose nothing by walking out? In the long run, cohabitation encourages stagnant relationships and largely fails to make people happy.

There are two kinds of romantic relationships. First is the kind bound solely by professions of love, which are nice and fluffy for the moment but predicated on the risk of failure whenever either partner “lose[s] that magic feeling.” A small problem could break the couple apart at any moment.

The second, much greater kind occurs when two people share themselves fully with one another— and since that means committing fully to someone else, it implies considering marriage. Fully sharing one’s worries, joys, and sorrows with a special someone is, for most of us, the best way to ensure happiness. After all, only the rare person is happy alone. Cohabitation undermines this level of commitment just as unsuccessful lifestyles of serial-monogamy leave many single parents divorced, alone, and unfulfilled.

Many conservatives examine these marriage-degrading trends and conclude that all experimentation with the traditional household leads to disaster. Since our past attempts to restructure the traditional home have hurt people’s ability to be happy in the long run, the argument goes, gay marriage is far too dangerous an experiment. Same-sex marriage seems to come with too much noncommittal, non-monogamous, promiscuous baggage to keep marriage the emotionally fulfilling institution we want it to be. According to this argument, we need to “save” heterosexual marriage (or the institution’s paltry remnants) from this damage.

The other argument conservatives make is also about happiness, but it targets a third party: children. Married people who raise children generally end up happier; the shared project of procreation endows relationships with emotional fulfillment. Overall, older couples who never had children are less happy with their lives. This makes sense from both the evolutionary and psychological perspectives: these people have not passed on their values to another generation and have not engaged in the most emotionally fulfilling project we know— parenting. The stories and lessons of their lives end with their own death. They have no reassurance that some part of them will live to sustain and build on those memories in the future.

Since it is more cumbersome for gay couples to raise children, it is therefore less likely that they will incorporate this mission into their understanding of marriage. In that case, marriage becomes merely about the love between two individuals and includes no requisite for child-raising. This means that accepting same-sex marriage will expand the population of people who end up in unhappy, childless marriages. The Massachusetts Supreme Court directed its legislature to define marriage as “a voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others,” but it is not just about the spouses—it is inherently also, and perhaps even more so, about the children. Conservatives who fear that gays will not care enough about raising children reject same-sex marriage for this second argument, whose crux, like the first, is familial commitment.

That being said, I still support gay marriage—with some caveats. It is illustrative of our growing individualism that we first seek legislative precedent for same sex marriage and only afterwards (if at all) do we bother to sort through the nature of the institution we have expanded. We care more about action for action's sake than about resolving the potential problems of those actions. Before we move on to gay marriage, we must redefine what we mean by marriage in the first place, addressing the indelible necessities of commitment and childbearing in our definition. Not until we restore this understanding can we claim to have ended "emotional segregation," because marriage without commitment or children is just not as emotionally fulfilling as it would be otherwise. Massachusetts has handed homosexual couples an amorphous institution which has no guarantee of making them happier, and may likely leave them unfulfilled.

Contrary to stereotype, traditionalism does no imply believing that traditions have inherent value. Rather, it means looking to traditions as heuristics, realizing that there are good reasons why those traditions have worked, and examining those reasons as the ones best corroborated by history. In this light, it is imperative to understand that traditional, heterosexual marriage has not worked solely because we have defined it as the union of a man and a woman. Rather, it has worked for the underlying reasons traditional marriage entails. It works because it requires spouses to pledge mutual commitment to one another and to engage in the shared, mutually fulfilling project of parenting. If we do not want to hand the gay community just any institution, but one that is emotionally fulfilling, we need to reassess the institution of marriage as it applies to everyone. Only when we revive our notion of marriage in its traditional, most fulfilling sense may we call the legalization of gay marriage an end to emotional segregation. We must refrain from handing over a broken institution until we agree to join together in its reconstruction.

Contact the Editor at diana.feygin@yale.edu.


 
 

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