A couple of years ago, in a genuinely sloppy and legally indefensible decision, the Supreme Court took it upon itself to re-define marriage, broadening the definition to include same-sex couples. There are a whole host of problems with a gay marriage regime, but there is also, at its heart, a fascinating socio-linguistic question as well, namely: do words mean anything? Does the word “marriage,” with heretofore applied exclusively to a union between a man and a woman, actually just mean, well, whatever? That was the gamble of the gay marriage crusade—that “marriage” means whatever we want it to mean, which is to say it means nothing at all—and, for now at least, it seems to have paid off.
But, to be fair—and in defense of gay activists—the word “marriage” had been corrupted long before the Supreme Court came along and corrupted it a little more. By way of example we have Meredith Maran in the New York Times, who write, appropriately enough, about her experience getting both “gay married” and “gay divorced:”
In 2013 I Googled “gay divorce lawyer” and found only “gay family law” attorneys. I called the one with the best Yelp reviews.
“I need to file for d — ” The word caught in my throat.
In many cities over many years, my wife and I had marched for marriage equality. We’d argued with the haters and we’d argued with the gay people who said that legal marriage would co-opt us, diminish us, turn us into a caricature of “normal” married people. We swore we could enjoy the rights only marriage conferred and still have our gender-fluid commitment ceremonies, our chosen-family configurations, our dexterity at turning friends into lovers and vice versa.
Divorce felt like more than a betrayal of my wedding vows. It was a betrayal of my people and our cause.
Leave aside, for now, the paranoid gay politics and focus on Maran’s first contention: the idea that divorce would be “a betrayal of [her] wedding vows.” As she writes, she and her partner vowed to “love, honor, and keep each other, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live.” As long as they both shall live: their marriage was supposed to last forever, until one or both of them died. And yet they ended up getting divorced, as many married couples invariably do.
The question is this: what does “divorced” really mean in this context? Two people pledged (vowed, even) to stay with each other “as long as they both shall live.” But now they’re split—and not just in the sense that they live separately, but that, in Maran’s own words, her marriage “didn’t last.” It’s over. But how can it be over, if indeed they made those vows with full consent and with every intention of seeing them through?
The argument seems to go like this: “Well, every married couple makes those vows, but sometimes things just don’t work out, and people need to be able to get out of a marriage that doesn’t work.” Okay, maybe so. But that seems to assume a priori that there is a possibility for divorce—which is to say that, for couples who are at least theoretically open to divorce, the vows aren’t made in total sincerity, that they carry with them an implicit back door that would allow for dissolution of the marriage. In which case we have this fascinating conundrum: are couples who (a) believe in divorce and (b) are themselves willing to divorce—are these couples actually married? Do the vows of these couples, which generally include a stipulation of lifelong commitment, really mean anything at all?
I would submit that the answer is likely no: that if your wedding vows include a tacit stipulation “…but only if things don’t sour,” then you’re not doing marriage right—or rather you’re not doing it at all. A “marriage” that can end isn’t a “marriage” at all; it is, rather, an arrangement premised, at its foundation, on convenience and potential transience rather than fidelity and unquestionable permanency: many things it may be, but a marriage it is not.
All of which is to say that gay “marriage” is not the first perversion of marriage to develop in our society; properly understood, it’s not even the most dire. A transient marriage culture is, in the end, far more of a threat to a healthy society than two women making vows to each other—indeed, as Maran shows, even gay unions aren’t impervious to the scourge of divorce. If we genuinely want to reform our culture of marriage, then we’ll likely have to begin by fixing not our marriage laws but the divorce laws that make a mockery out of marriages in the first place.