Marriage Is Not a Zero Sum Game

Last night I tweeted this:

Willing to bet Ross had to spend hours painfully crafting paragraphs 6 & 7 of this column. Obviously tortured over this.

And just what are paragraphs six and seven of Ross Douthat’s column today? They’re an explanation of the “sexual ideal” he believes we’re holding up when we ban gay unions and allow only traditional marriage:

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 you can sometimes tell if someone really believes something by how easily the arguments come, and these paragraphs pretty obviously didn’t come easily. Why are hetero marriages “uniquely admirable”? Why is the hetero version of domestic life superior? Why is lifelong heterosexual monogamy a microcosm of civilization? These questions aren’t answered because, really, they can’t be answered. Ross obviously wants to construct a secular argument here, and he doesn’t want to pretend that gays are evil, or destructive, or unable to create good families. So what’s left? A tortured attempt to pick and choose words that seem to say something but really don’t.

We can recognize and honor same-sex marriages without changing even slightly the recognition and honor we give to hetero marriages. This is not a zero sum game. We all end up better off when we allow everyone to form stable, lifelong marriages that are honored and cherished. This is, quite simply, a very, very positive sum game on a whole bunch of different levels. Conservatives have no trouble understanding this when the human system under discussion is the free market. So why so much trouble when the human system under discussion is the structure of family life?


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