February 5, 2012

To Wed, Or Not To Wed?

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Two news items recently caught my eye. The first, appearing in the January 30 edition of The Sun, described a study by Cornell researchers arguing that married couples are less happy than cohabiting ones. The second, appearing only a few days later, announced the University’s decision to hold same-sex marriages in Sage Chapel. This was depicted as a positive step for Cornell’s LGBTQ community, leading readers to believe that the author had missed the first story.

Upon further reflection, the disconnect between these two stories is consistent with an intriguing fact of our public life: With the exception of conservative Christians, the most vocal champions of marriage are gay couples. A group once totally devoted to subverting traditional institutions now demands full participation in them. Indeed, even as the rate of straight marriage plummets, the most prominent gay rights groups prioritize the extension of marriage to a large demographic. What’s going on?

There are three probable explanations for the gay community’s enthusiasm. This first is the novelty of it all. The legal recognition of same-sex marriage is unprecedented in history, so it’s natural that gays are excited. Of course, this excitement will likely wear off within a generation; as the public intellectual Irving Kristol once memorably asserted, “Let the gays have marriage. They’ll hate it.”

Another is that certain segments of the gay community still wish to subvert traditional institutions. By extending marriage to same-sex couples, our society concedes that one of our most fundamental structures needs revising.  Furthermore, it helps eradicate the perceived “heteronormative” character of our public institutions.

The third and most sympathetic explanation suggests that gay couples support marriage for the same reasons their straight counterparts have for millennia: It enables them to sanctify and make permanent their commitments, and sets the stage for rearing the next generation. This sentiment was nicely expressed by our Student LGBTQ representative, who maintained that the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York “put some realism into what a relationship could potentially be.”

I doubt you’ll ever hear a straight Cornellian describe marriage with similar language, especially not in public. In addition to the fact that our ability to marry is most certainly not novel, we’re generally unfamiliar with the language of obligation. We’d prefer to talk about what we’re entitled to rather than what is required of us. It’s therefore hard for many of us to become enthusiastic for an arrangement that demands permanent commitment. In fact, it makes us anxious: The aforementioned study showed that 67 percent of cohabiting couples were not getting married because they were concerned about divorce.

At this point many of us wish to “live our lives” before we settle down. We want to travel, see the world, have vaguely-defined formative experiences. This is based on the assumption, mistaken in my view, that marriage is a culmination and not itself an ever-unfolding adventure.

Similarly, we suspect we should only marry once we’re absolutely certain we’re making the right decision. We think we need to discover exactly who we are and what we wish to do before we can begin giving up parts of ourselves for another person.

I think this is misguided, as marriage is a profound declaration of humility. It forces us to acknowledge our incompleteness, to recognize that our lives are missing something fundamental. It tells us that our individual designs and our carefully cultivated personas are lacking, and that we can only truly discover ourselves through the encounter with another.

Far from requiring absolute assurance, marriage asks us to joyfully accept uncertainty about what lies ahead, and to let our lives be directed by something other than the particular principles we hold dear. Of course, we’re never in full control of our lives; the people around us shape us in ways we rarely recognize. Marriage reminds us that we cannot exist independent of them.

It’s no coincidence that Aristotle believed that the family is the foundation of political life. More than any other cultural institution, marriage shows us both the deep and lasting attachments that motivate societies to work together as well as the limitations of that work, given our inability to completely understand and shape our circumstances. In other words, marriage enhances the democratic character of our society.

This helps clarify the gay community’s insistence on marriage and dissatisfaction with civil unions. Marriage is not simply about producing and rearing the next generation — cohabiting couples can do this quite successfully. To them — and as it should be to straight people — the specific institution of marriage has unique value. The particular relationship that marriage represents inextricably links this most important institution’s survival with the endurance of our society.

Judah Bellin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin