Thursday, August 12, 2010

What I like about that Douthat column

Here are the crucial paragraphs:
This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos. 
The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.
I think that is right: That is what I committed to when I made my marriage vows. It is the vow I reaffirm every time I tell my Serpentine Friend I love her, every time we go to bed together, every time we solve problems together and even every time we just sit here in this office together. If on our wedding day I had thought "This seems pretty good to me right now but I can't honestly rule out that maybe someday I may no longer feel suited to this person and maybe I'll need to get out," then I wouldn't really be married.

A vow made with our fingers crossed, even figuratively crossed, is no vow at all. A marriage vow is not a vow that I love you now but a vow that I will continue to maintain and cultivate that love until death.

If I can't do that I might fool myself and others into thinking I'm getting married but I'd be lying. I might have a piece of paper from city hall but that would be a moral fraud even if it weren't a legal one. Worse, I'd be doing something awful to the person I'm only pretending to marry.

Furthermore, I would quite bluntly say that if you can't sign on to that, don't get married. Just don't. Go live together because although that may be a sin it is a far lesser sin than marrying someone and not accepting the mutual surrender and the rituals, sanctions and taboos that go with it. If you can't do it, don't get married. If you have the least reason to suspect that the person you are going to marry does not mean to make this level of commitment to you, call the marriage off.

That is not the law of the land and maybe it should not be the law of the land. There is no law, for example, against sexual infidelity, but that doesn't change the fact that sexual infidelity is one of the more horrible things you can do to a human being.


  1. I think that everyone who gets married does so with those intentions. The problem as I see it after 25 years of studying this, is that the majority of couples who get divorced should never have gotten married in the first place. When I talk to couples who have been married for 30 years and want out, its clear to me that they were headed for trouble from Day 1. They never knew what questions to ask, never knew how to recognize "red flags" never discussed important issues beforehand and primarily they didn't know themselves. For most of them they were "in love with love" or this "ideal" that Douthat proposes, and here are some of the comments I have heard: "I married her because she was italian and I could bring her home to my mother;" "he made a good living and could support a family;" "we found the right condo that we could afford;" "my parents wanted grandchildren;" and (I hear this a lot) "all my girlfriends (or sisters) had gotten married so I thought it was time." I think that Douthat's view of marriage is naive and very unrealistic, and sets up an ideal that few have ever achieved, and has created misery for many who have genuinely tried to live up to that. On a personal level, when my parents were divorced after thirty years and I was a grown man my mother told me that when she knelt on the altar with my father when she was 21 she knew that she was making a mistake but went through with it because she thought that's what was expected of her. So this is far more complex than Douthat would have us believe. I have known only two couples in my lifetime who to all appearances came close to meeting Douthat's ideal: my aunt and uncle who were married for almost 50 years when he died 8 years ago. Interestingly, each of their two children have been married and divorced twice. The other couple I know are good friends who married in 1997 both over the age of 50, his second marriage, her third. With all due respect, what he's talking about is straight out of Chick Lit.

  2. You know, this got me thinking about something I've thought about before. That is, what messages parents send their children about what to look for when choosing a mate. Many--maybe most--parents of daughters want them to marry "up" -- find someone who will "take care of them" and, while it might be crass, who can really argue with the intentions behind that? They don't want to have to worry about their daughters once they get married, or worse, have them move back in with them with grandchildren in tow. I rarely hear of parents talking about love or committment, maybe they're more concerned with practical realities, especially today, of struggling to raise a family. On the other hand, some people are attracted to others precisely because they're not the kind of person their parents would approve of. I know of at least one situation where a white girl married a black man, and I don't think its a coincidence that her parents railed against black people all the while she was growing up. These "messages"--subliminal or overt--are rarely recognized by adult children when they're in that situation, its not until many years later after the marriage has fallen apart, if they look back and reflect does it become apparent to them. And it doesn't matter how long they've been married, it can be 5-10-20 or 30 years.