The Evolution Of Marriage

A piece predicting the state of marriage in the foreseeable future sent a shiver up Rod Dreher’s leg yesterday. The gist of the piece?

[T]he future of marriage … may turn out to be a lot like the Christian Right’s nightmare: a sex-positive, body-affirming compact between two adults that allows for a wide range of intimate and emotional experience. Maybe no one will be the “husband” (as in, animal husbandry) and no one the chattel.  Maybe instead of jealousy, non-monogamous couples will cultivate “compersion” to take pleasure in their partners’ sexual delight.

Well, you learn a new word every day. Rod runs with this notion and focuses on the fate of children:

If marriage as an institution is culturally redefined entirely to suit the desires of adults, and that is considered a virtue — as Jay Michaelson hopes for — then the children raised in a society like that lose out.

Rod rightly doesn’t blame marriage equality for this, but rather sees marriage equality as a product of this shift. And, look, in so far as marriage is about raising kids, then the potency and importance of monogamy is a point well-taken. But I tend to think the worries are overblown. I very much doubt that parents of toddlers will be engaging in compersion any time soon – not least because they’re always so fricking tired. Maybe gay dads might be tempted to have a few discreet and consensual dalliances, but my own sense is that the act of parenting tends to make them more like straight couples than other gay ones. In fact, I’d argue that the differences between gay and straight marriages are minor compared with the differences between marriages with kids and marriages without them. A new study just shed a little light on that:

Research has shown that a new mother’s brain activity changes after having a baby. Turns out, gay men’s pattern of brain activity also adapts to parenthood, and resembles that of both new moms and new dads, in findings published Monday.

As for childless couples, my own view is that we should chill out on their sexual lives. Most straight ones will be largely monogamous, most lesbian ones super-monogamous, and gay male couples will negotiate their own paths – but the point is that each will find their own equilibrium. On that possibility, Rod intones:

You can have freedom, or you can have stability, but you can’t have both.

I think that’s way too crude a formulation. The question is not a totalist either/or for anyone. It’s a question of balance between the two. Married mothers balance children and economic freedom all the time – and many find a compromise that works, which is why divorce rates have declined. It may also be that for gay male couples, total monogamy may lead to less stability, not more. Men are men, after all, and any honest assessment of marital history would record plenty of extra-marital sex by the husbands. With two men in a marriage, rigid monogamy over a lifetime might therefore actually destabilize the union. With two women, monogamy may be easier, and child-rearing more obvious a priority. The point in all these relationships is not, it seems to me, to support a single rule of “stability” over “freedom”, but to find a sustainable balance between the two in the modern world, and to take the best care of children as possible. How they do that is best left for the couples to decide, in private, because every couple is different. But the best compromises lead to the best marriages.

Perhaps that’s why bringing ideology into the question marriage can be so fruitless. We’re all humans, living in a much different world than humans have been used to for the vast majority of our time on the planet. And in those circumstances, best to let the couples adapt, as best they can, as the institution evolves, as it must and as it always has, to meet the needs of adults and children.

I have confidence in that human evolution, which is why I am not a theocon. I am a conservative.