Ask anyone why they got married (or why they want to get married) and you’ll likely get similar answers: Because we love each other. Because we want to make a life together. Because we’re best friends. Because he makes me happy. Because there’s no one else like her.
These are the reasons every married couple I know has gotten married. They’re the reasons Becca and I tied the knot. And they’re the reasons so many other unmarried couples, gay and straight, want to get hitched, too.
But for the vast majority of us, why we get married is altogether different from what marriage actually is.
Supporters of gay marriage have made incredible gains in popular opinion because they’ve managed to get the personal Why of marriage all mixed up with the institutional What. It’s a deliberate strategy, I think, and it’s a brilliant one. If it seems like we’re talking past each other, it’s because we’ve managed to get these categories mixed up. The popular understanding of—and, therefore, the popular conversation about—marriage has been entirely overwhelmed by Whys.
So to the marriage revisionists I simply say: Why is not What.
The problem with arguments for traditional marriage is that we almost exclusively respond to the Why with the What. (I won’t rehearse the What arguments here. The best source is the book What Is Marriage?: Man And Woman: A Defense.) We too often skip over the parts we all agree on and focus instead on what sets us apart: biological complementarity, oriented toward children, exclusive commitment, the public good. Those things are no less true, but they’re horribly unsexy.
It’s no wonder that, in the beauty pageant of the public square, we’re losing. Marriage revisionists promise to fulfill your every desire for committed emotional and sexual companionship, while we rail on about entering a contractual relationship that contributes to the public good. It’s like asking my five-year-old if he’d rather have a cookie or take his medicine—and I think we all know the answer.
So to the marriage traditionalist I say: Stop responding to Why arguments with nothing but What answers.
There’s an itch in every human heart, and we need to do a better job of scratching it. All of the Why reasons—love, commitment, companionship, fulfillment, pleasure—are within the personal freedoms and potential reach of everyone who wants them, whether gay, straight.
But when we ignore all this and respond with only the What of marriage, our audience falls asleep. It’s not their fault: our story can be a real yawner, especially when compared to the traveling personal pleasure roadshow and big tent emporium that’s sells out every night in the next town over.
Author Greg Forster wrote that:
[W]hen Americans hear marriage described as an institution that exists for reproduction, that bears no resemblance to their self-understandings and daily experiences of marriage. People don't recognize themselves in this mirror. And they understandably cringe to hear their marriages described as tools for accomplishing the public good… all [this] talk about “conjugal union," “coitus," “reproduction," and “the common good" comes across as obscure, irrelevant, and alienating.
If we want to keep the broader public engaged, we must do a more engaging job of speaking to the What while at the same time—and this is the important part—doing a better job of affirming the Why.
I got married because I love Becca. I did not get married because I wanted to contribute to the public good through my marriage. We had children because they’re the natural result of the healthy expression of our love. I did not have kids because it’s my duty to drive America closer to our 2.1 children per woman replacement rate.
Yes, we must continue to talk about the public good, about tradition and morality and all those What things that make a relationship uniquely marriage. But don’t do this at the neglect of those more relatable Why reasons that make marriage so personally worthwhile. Start with the Why first, and they might stick around long enough to hear us talk about What.
That’s why I’m so encouraged by the approach taken here at Marriage Generation. It’s a place for us to have conversations that affirm marriage, that draw attention to its beauty and purpose and possibilities. It’s helping those of us who stand for traditional marriage to paint a picture of this unique relationship as attractive, affirming and real.
So next time someone says, “Marriage is about love and commitment and joy,” our response should be “Yes, yes! Yes! It is at least that—and it is so much more.” We should begin by affirming that the common human desire for love and joy and commitment is unapologetically good.
It is good, but it is not a marriage.