We need to acknowledge that romance-only marriage is new and different. Photo: Mario Tama
Marriage throughout most of human history has rarely been between a man and a woman. Instead it was between a man and a woman, their respective families; their children; their community and/or church; and since the advent of the modern nation, the state. Romantic love was unknown in marriage as anything other than a happy and unexpected byproduct. And yet now conservatives seem to consider romantic love the only basis on which to build a marriage.
Now that gay marriage is legal, we need to look deeper. Does the current popular understanding of marriage - that it is an arrangement between two people, serve families, communities and our nation? Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wrote that the real social contract … is the ''partnership'' between the generations … a partnership not only between those who are living, but between … those who are dead, and those who are to be born''. Until the second half of the 20th century, society was built on the foundation of marriage that fulfilled its obligations to the couple and their families; to generations past, present and future; and to community and state.
In most Western countries, the sexual revolution broke this contract between the generations and the state, heralding the advent of contemporary marriage. Romantic love, however, is fleeting, almost half of all heterosexual marriages based on it end in divorce.
Traditional marriage, a term much abused by conservatives in particular, was the bridge that spanned the generations. It functioned as an offspring factory, in which the parties understood that they were part of something larger than themselves. They subjugated their individual needs for the benefit of the wider group. Parents made sacrifices for their children.
Any notion of individual freedom did not, until recently, absolve adults of their responsibility to their spouses or offspring. Marriage between two people based on romantic love cuts its participants off from their own past and future, trapping them in the present.
Lewis H. Lapham, former editor of Harper's Magazine has said, ''if you're lost in the perpetual present … there's no cause and effect, it's the eternal now … ''
In the eternal now, in love with ourselves and our partner, adrift from the past and future, romantic love too often leaves us wanting, hence the current form of marriage is doomed - whether gay or straight - from the start.
Basing marriage on romantic love between two individuals and expecting a good outcome makes as much sense as feeding children only processed sugar and saturated fat and expecting them to grow up healthy.
The law surrounding marriage based on romantic love is centred on escape, on ending, and on division of property once that inevitable end comes. Desire-based marriages ignore the welfare of children and their stake in their parent's marriage. It ignores the stake bride and groom's parents have in the marriage. And it negates the stake the wider community has in the success of that family. Marriage, as Messrs Weiner and Spitzer learnt the hard way, is a public matter complete with a legally binding contract for good reason. Successful marriages increase wellbeing for couples, children, communities and nations. They were the glue that held Western civilisation together and kept it on top. Today's marriage can longer do this.
Even David Brooks has come to glimpse the limitation of marriage based on romantic love between two people. In his 2003 polemic, The Power of Marriage, which urged conservatives to insist on gay marriage, the conservative New York Times columnist spoke of marriage as a ''sacred contract'' between two people who love each other. He saw it as an antidote to promiscuity, which he described as ''spiritual suicide''. The brides and grooms of Brooks' argument had no parents, and no children. They were merely two people trapped in the present faced with a decision as to whether to be faithful or not. Their responsibilities and obligations did not extend beyond themselves and each other.
Recently however, even he has paid lip service to the greater obligations of marriage. ''Maybe there will be social codes so that people understand that the act of creating a child includes a lifetime commitment to give him or her an organised home,'' he said on April 1, 2013.
When viewed as a bridge between the generations, and a contract with families, children, community, church and state, marriage is a far weightier and important contract than validating two people shagging.
Now that gay marriage is legal, however, we need to acknowledge that romance-only marriage is new and different. The larger question still needs to be addressed: what is marriage? If it continues to be an arrangement between two people based on romantic love and indifferent to any obligations to the generations, I have to wonder why gays want to embrace it?
Jillian Abbott is an adjunct English lecturer at the City University of New York, and Long Island University, Post Campus.