On bended knee

Pro-marriage revivalists praise matrimony as the way and the light. But are they bowing to a false god?

Published June 24, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

A marriage revival is sweeping the nation. With a host of new converts from actresses to sociologists touting matrimony as the one true path, marriage has shifted from a much-maligned, antiquated institution to an honorable, courageous endeavor, one that is said to ensure the health and happiness not just of our children, but of our country. As President George W. Bush and a gaggle of pro-family groups paint matrimony as the cornerstone on which America was built, marriage experts roam the country in ever-increasing numbers, proselytizing to all who'll listen on the pressing importance of upholding our duties as citizens by keeping our marriages strong.

These impassioned sermons spill into bestselling books that crowd the shelves at Barnes & Noble, while those few books for singles are primarily concerned with how to find someone to marry, real quick-like. Young people seem to want the traditional package again -- white dress, big wedding, extravagant honeymoon -- less a vote of confidence in the institution, perhaps, than a reflection of our love of spectacle as a celebrity-obsessed culture. Meanwhile, married couples -- from rock stars to next door neighbors to guests on Oprah -- bray endlessly about how they're willing to work hard to keep their marriages strong, the way people used to brag about being able to eat off their kitchen floors.

With everyone from Dan Quayle to Ozzy Osbourne embracing marriage with a conviction that borders on hysteria (and Quayle complimenting Osbourne on his parenting skills), one has to wonder: Why must we all live in pairs, under a legally binding contract? What horrendous fate befalls those of us who sally forth without a ring? Is marriage really the bedrock of our culture, or are we leaning too hard on a social construct that is fragile at best, given that it depends on the ability of two individuals to play nice for the rest of their lives?

Not only can't Uncle Sam and his badly behaved kids keep their sticky fingers out of the matrimonial pie, they want to tell us what kind of pie we should be baking in the first place. In May, the Alliance for Marriage introduced the Federal Marriage Amendment to Congress, to "send a positive message to our children about marriage, family, and their future" -- that positive message being that gay couples shouldn't be allowed to marry. The amendment states that "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman."

Matt Daniels, executive director of the Alliance for Marriage, explained his organization's stance: "Gays and lesbians have a right to live as they choose. But they don't have a right to redefine marriage for our entire society." In other words, if gay couples were allowed to marry, they would forcibly alter the sacred institution of marriage, damaging it beyond repair, so that other couples -- nice, normal, straight couples -- couldn't use it anymore.

If the sacred union of a man and a woman happens to involve a single mother on government assistance, best wishes flow from the public and private sectors. Not only do these marriages make our country strong, they boost the federal budget, or so goes the reasoning behind President Bush's recent welfare reforms that include $300 million for programs that promote marriage among single welfare mothers.

"Stable families should be the central goal of American welfare policy," Bush said in February. "Building and preserving families are not always possible -- I recognize that -- but they should always be our goal."

Inherent in this stated goal is the less lofty aim of cutting welfare costs by marrying off women who need government support. Unfortunately, the other program designed to remove women from welfare rolls -- the Welfare to Work program -- appears to be driving women away from the altar. Recent studies show that women who participate in the program are less likely to marry than women in traditional welfare programs. Apparently Bush's two plans to reduce support for poor single women just can't get along.

But even if these approaches could work in tandem, how, exactly, does the administration plan on encouraging single welfare mothers to wed? Wade Horn, the Bush administration's top spokesman on family issues, told the Sacramento Bee that when an unwed mother gives birth, the father is often asked to sign paternity and child-support agreements on the spot. "We ought to ask at that moment if it wouldn't be a good idea for them to get married," explained Horn. "We would refer them to pre-marriage services."

Ah yes, imagine that magic moment when the parents of a newborn child stop and turn to each other, as if for the first time, and say: "Marriage! Of course! Why didn't we think of that?"

So, while the Alliance for Marriage seeks to deny homosexuals the right to legal matrimony under the guise of "protecting the sanctity of marriage," President Bush is feverishly pushing marriage on unwed parents who didn't consider it and weren't necessarily in love in the first place. All of which highlights the question: Is a marriage somehow more sacred when the two people involved are married for economic reasons, or don't really want to be married at all?

To hear the authors of a slew of books on marriage tell it, love and happiness are now entirely beside the point. "Marriage is not designed to make us happy," writes Iris Krasnow, author of "Surrendering to Marriage," "it is God's way of forcing us to grow into responsible adults."

To drive home her point, Krasnow has filled her book with chilling stories of infidelity and love lost. Like many of these authors, she seems to feel that most human beings are unruly animals who need marriage to save them from their own naughty urges. Forget the notion that love will lead us from temptation -- we need scary anecdotes and stern tones to prevent that. Krasnow pummels her readers with barrage of modern "We know you want to, but you'd better not" fables. Each one ends with an unwieldy lesson: "There are several hard truths to take away from Beatrice's story," says one. "Marriage is a sacred covenant that needs to be valued, not devalued. Illicit love can never really be satisfying. And, finally, if we do fall down, it is possible to pick ourselves back up." That is, if we never, ever tell our spouses what we did, and swallow down our guilt indefinitely, like Beatrice did. Ulcer, anyone?

Married writers of books on marriage ply us with clichés and unsubstantiated generalities, assuming, perhaps, that a marriage license is the only proof we need of their expertise. Experts, such as Robert Stephen Cohen, author of "Reconcilable Differences: 7 Essential Tips for Remaining Together from a Top Matrimonial Lawyer," deliver equally obvious bits of advice, like "Divorce is a life-altering and devastating process that should be avoided at all costs." This particular threat, invoked by one and all, is packed with ominous urgency that, when taken with the recent glut of books about the devastating effects of divorce on children, conjures marriage as deliverance from the fire and brimstone of those ungodly human relationships that remain unbound by legal contracts.

In her book "Married: A Fine Predicament," Ann Roiphe offers some insightful personal stories, a lot of generalizing, and some vague observations, all of which is punctuated by such ominous, weirdly disembodied statements as, "In marriage sex loses its novelty." "Sex can be withheld as a weapon against a partner in revenge for some other deed." "Even when a short marriage ends it feels like an amputation has occurred." When this short book ends, it feels like the long-awaited amputation of a gangrenous limb has occurred.

The bottom line for many of these authors is a prescriptive twist on "Misery loves company." If we managed to stay together, they tell us, then you should, too. Of course, there are the usual disclaimers about how divorce is sometimes necessary for those in physically abusive relationships -- a category that conveniently sidesteps the immeasurable range and breadth of emotional abuse that can occur in married relationships. But the overall thrust of these books -- and of marriage-related legislation in general -- is that there are no good excuses for avoiding marriage. One can almost hear the impatient blurt of "It's your funeral ..." being intoned by each of our myriad advisors.

Roiphe, for one, explicitly states that she is preoccupied by marriage in part because of her children. With all the modernity of a Victorian era aristocrat, Roiphe laments over her inability to marry off her daughters:

"As the mother of daughters, some of them still unmarried, I noticed that I was reading the wedding announcements with an indecent amount of attention. I read descriptions of weddings of people I didn't know and would never know as if hidden in the lines were a secret code that if I could decipher it would bring my children to their own marriages."

By the time Roiphe wraps things up with a letter to her daughters regarding their future marriages, we're beginning to wonder if such a fixation on her children's marriages doesn't indicate some restlessness and ambivalence toward the path she's chosen for herself. She writes, "You can't go on just doing as you please, just following your star, just flashing your pretty wings about the universe." Oh really? Says who? Whether this is good motherly advice or good old-fashioned jealousy, this book can leave you more determined than ever to flash your pretty wings anywhere you damn well please.

In the epilogue, Roiphe is overjoyed as one of her daughters announces her engagement, and as pedestrian as this anecdote may sound to some, her joy is surely not uncommon. Still, it remains unclear why Roiphe should feel so invested in her daughter's adherence to some preset notion of what love should look like, beyond a need to justify her own choices.

What makes us so suspicious of people who firmly state that they're not interested in getting married? In "The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families," James Q. Wilson's suspicions are on parade. He asserts that America is made up of two nations:

"In one nation, a child, raised by two parents, acquires an education, a job, a spouse, and a home kept separate from crime and disorder by distance, fences, or guards. In the other nation, a child is raised by an unwed girl, lives in a neighborhood filled with many sexual men but few committed fathers, and finds gang life to be necessary for self-protection and valuable for self-advancement ... In both nations, harms occur, but in the second, they proliferate -- child abuse and drug abuse, gang violence and personal criminality, economic dependency and continued illegitimacy."

Wilson asserts that this second nation falters because its inhabitants refuse to marry. "Family is the foundation of public life. As that foundation has become weaker, every structure built upon it has become weaker." How does he support this sweeping statement? By dumping on single-parent families, of course. "The children of single moms are more likely than those of two-parent families to be abused, to drop out of or be expelled from school, to become juvenile delinquents, to take drugs, and to commit adult crimes." Wilson concedes that single parents are often poorer, and that therefore some of these problems may be caused by poverty, but then cites a study that concluded that "poverty by itself accounts for about half of the differences in how children behave; the rest is explained by living in a one-parent family."

How can these two factors -- poverty and single parenting -- possibly be separated from each other? Wilson's book is filled with such tenuous leaps that, by the last chapter, add up to a nightmarish narrative: Soon our country will be subsumed by lowlifes, drug addicts and criminals who are "armed to the teeth, excited by drugs, preoccupied by respect, and indifferent to the future." What's the solution? Marriage, of course: "No matter how we arrange money incentives, we have not induced people to marry. And unless they marry, and stay married, the children will suffer."

So once again we hear the typical narrow-minded us vs. them reaction to difference: What's wrong with them? They're not like us. How can we fix them? By making them more like us.

Surely there are a large number of people who have perfectly sound reasons for not wanting to be legally wed, or for avoiding long-term relationships -- from career goals to creative pursuits to travel to anything that requires moving through the world without dependents. A mirror to Wilson's book might be titled "The Marriage Problem: How Our Families Have Weakened Culture." Such a book might explore the deplorable state of modern art, literature and philosophical thought, thanks to the overwhelming emphasis society places on building families. When families take precedence over art, over innovation, over ideas and lofty, evanescent goals that don't take the form of steady employment -- and therefore rule out the possibility of creating a nurturing environment for children -- how can our cultural arts flourish, except among the supernaturally rich?

Of course, few would argue that marriage is bad for people across the board. Most who are happily married recommend it strongly, one senses, for the peace of mind and the feeling of permanence that it brings them.

Perhaps it's not surprising that many of us would cling to marriage at this time in our history. After all, there is a loneliness to American life today. We often live thousands of miles away from our families, in cities where most public spaces are indistinct, impeccably designed by corporate creatives telegraphing class -- the towering pillars of the Banana Republic at the outdoor mall, the endless escalators and tiled walls of the multiplex. Jobs come and go, people move away at the drop of a hat, relationships begin and end and begin again. It's understandable that so many of us long for some feeling of permanent connection, some certainty of a relationship that could withstand the constant flux we experience, year after year.

But that fixation on one lasting connection may actually contribute to our inability to keep our marriages intact. If, in the back of our minds, we're fixated on marriage as the answer to all our woes, then we won't manage to invest enough in the jobs, people and places that do come into our lives, and they'll ultimately pass us by like billboards on the freeway. Building steady, permanent relationships with a wide range of people and fostering a sense of community that transcends romantic relationships may contribute more to our health and happiness than we can imagine. More and more people seem to believe this, as the definition of family broadens and bends to include endless variations on the nuclear model.

And it is these variations that seem to scare the traditionalists at the Alliance for Marriage. Their amendment states, "Neither this constitution nor the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups." This is the language of a country under siege, the kind of law that feels decidedly martial. And it is, ultimately, unrealistic. By recognizing marriage as the only legally binding relationship an individual can choose, and by pushing marriage on those who are economically and emotionally vulnerable and therefore are potential candidates for domestic violence and child abuse, the government puts undue pressure on a relationship that is, by all accounts, difficult to maintain, its permanence impossible to guarantee.

In the end, the mystical baptismal waters of family and country and faith and honor that the marriage revivalists praise simply boil down to a legal contract. Pro-marriage pundits fervently assert that we need federally applied binding to save us from our own worst urges. But how sacred is a vow that only remains intact under the constant threat of repercussions?

Despite the best intentions of those who vehemently spread the good word of holy matrimony, the current marriage revival can only be approached with the caution one reserves for cults that punish members who try to defect. For a true sense of permanence, two individuals must foster a faith in each other, on their own, private terms. Likewise, it is the deterioration of this faith -- not the deterioration of some higher sense of duty or moral obligation -- that causes marriages to fall apart. And faith can't be manufactured or legislated.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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