What Marriage Is

First published at 365gay.com on February 19, 2010

An opponent writes, “What’s YOUR definition of marriage? If you’re going to use a word, you need a definition of the word.”

I doubt that.

After all, most English speakers can competently use the word “yellow,” but ask them to define the term (without merely pointing to examples) and watch them stammer.

And then try words like “law,” “opinion,” and “game” just for fun. It’s quite possible to have functional knowledge of how to use a term without being able to articulate the boundaries of the relevant concept.

Alright, you say, but as someone deeply involved in the marriage debate, surely the Gay Moralist has a definition to offer?

Yes and no. I have definitions to offer, not a definition.

The word “marriage” can refer to many different things: a personal commitment, a religious sacrament, a social institution, a legal status.

And even if we focus on one of those—say, the social institution—there are other challenges. As David Blankenhorn puts it: “There is no single, universally accepted definition of marriage—partly because the institution is constantly evolving, and partly because many of its features vary across groups and cultures.”

Blankenhorn makes this point in his book _The Future of Marriage_. It’s an interesting concession, since he spends much of the rest of the chapter railing against marriage-equality advocates for offering “insubstantial” and “fluttery” definitions that emphasize personal commitment over marriage’s social meaning.

Not surprisingly, his own definition emphasizes children:

“In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived as both a personal relationship and an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from the union are—and are understood by the society to be—emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents.”

Putting aside the odd claim that “marriage is…sexual intercourse” (rather than, say, a context for such intercourse), this is actually a pretty good description of what marriage typically is.

But the “typically” is key. On the very next page, Blankenhorn acknowledges a counterexample (raised by Christian theologians, no less): Marriage can’t be essentially sexual, since if it were, the Virgin Mary’s “marriage” to Joseph would not be a marriage. (And one could point to plenty of contemporary sexless marriages that are nevertheless marriages.)

Moreover, Blankenhorn’s own definition includes the hedge-word “primarily,” acknowledging that marriage has goals beyond providing for children’s needs.

My fellow philosophers are often enamored of analyses that provide “necessary and sufficient conditions” for concepts: definitions that capture all, and only, the members of a class. But I have yet to see anyone on either side of this debate do that for marriage, and I doubt that it’s possible.

The definition would have to be broad enough to include unions as disparate as King Solomon’s polygamous household; Elizabeth Taylor’s marriages to her various husbands; my maternal grandparents’ arranged marriage; Bill’s marriage to Hillary; Barack’s marriage to Michelle. It would have to make sense of metaphors such as the claim that nuns are “married” to Christ (traditional profession ceremonies even involved wedding dresses). And yet it couldn’t be so broad as to include just any committed relationship.

Are there necessary conditions for a union’s being a marriage? Sure. For instance, there must be at least two persons. (I say “at least” because polygamous marriages are still marriages, whatever other objections we might have to them.)

Beyond the “at least two persons” requirement, we find a host of features that are typical: mutual care and concern, romantic and sexual involvement, a profession of lifelong commitment, the begetting and rearing of children.

But “typical” does not mean “strictly necessary,” and for any one of these features, it takes very little imagination to think of a genuine marriage that lacks it. A “marriage of convenience” is still a marriage, legally speaking. A childless marriage is still a marriage. A marriage on the brink of divorce is still, for the time being, a marriage.

I am not suggesting that any of these scenarios is ideal. But our opponents’ objection isn’t that same-sex unions aren’t “ideal” marriages. It’s that they’re not marriages AT ALL. And that objection is much harder to sustain when one surveys the various overlapping arrangements—some with children, some without; some intensely romantic; some not—that we call “marriage.”

So what is marriage? For me, the standard vow captures it nicely, though of course not perfectly or completely. These are the words my parents used, and the same words I used with my partner Mark:

Marriage is a commitment “to have and to hold; from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish; ‘til death do us part.”

“Fluttery?” Maybe. But real, and important, and good.