Marriage: What It Is, What It's Not, and Why It Matters (2023)

The most recent proponents of marriage redefinition seek to change the meaning of marriage—so as to justify the recognition of a female-female relationship as marriage, for example—without asking the larger questions about the nature of marriage itself, and the government’s reasons for getting involved with the institution. Such proponents can’t see the marital forest for their progressive trees.

What, then, is marriage? Begin by considering what it can’t be, what elements are insufficient to define marriage. Marriage can’t possibly be “a relationship formed by people who love each other”—my siblings and I aren’t married. Marriage can’t be “a union of people who pledge to pool their resources, time and charity to each other”—the priests of Holy Cross, living in community at Moreau Seminary here on Notre Dame’s campus, are clearly not married. Marriage can’t be “the union of people who love each other and are sexually active with each other”—many who fit this description are clearly not married (such as college students who conscientiously put off marriage until “they’re ready”), and couples who fit this description are often unmarried or even sometimes married to different persons (as in the case of adulterous affairs).

In pinpointing marriage’s definition, or at least in laying bare the logical inconsistency of its common uses, attention to the usus loquentium yields telling results. Aristotle and Aquinas held that the usus loquentium, the way people actually use words, was a foundational point of departure for philosophical inquiry because it reveals how people really think about things. In regards to this issue, many SSM advocates think of a particular relationship that they think should qualify as marriage (two sexually, volitionally and emotionally involved members of the same sex) and extract a marriage definition from that case-in-mind. They use the word “marriage” to describe such relationships without realizing the inconsistencies of their usus loquentium.

The problem with such a strategy is that it does not represent how the typical SSM proponent truly thinks, because his definition corresponds not to considerations of the essential qualities of marriage, but to accidental qualities derived from a consideration of particular relationships. He derives a broad relational definition from a single type of relationship, rather than judging separate relationships (and the justice of a differentiation in law between those relationships) according to a fixed definition. Folks who maintain that any people who love each other and are mutually committed (in any number of ways) have a right to marriage don’t actually believe their own argument. They may adhere to such a definition when they have Jane and Jill in mind, and such a definition certainly entitles Jane and Jill to demand a marriage license; but they don’t have Jane, Jill and Janet in mind, even though such definitions also entitle these three. Such a definition qualifies as true marriages a number of other relationships that this SSM advocate would certainly not want to recognize as marriage. In this sense, many attempted definitions of marriage offered by SSM advocates are speciously arbitrary. Few who proclaim “marriage equality” are truly for it. Almost everyone who is “for marriage equality” only endorses the right of two people, or currently unmarried people, or non-related people, or sexually involved people, or people of a certain age, to get married; proponents of “marriage equality” are, by their own definitions, often proponents of unjust marriage discrimination.

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The government is not interested in recognizing, regulating, and promoting certain interpersonal relationships based only on their sexual, romantic, or charitable quality. The government clearly has no such interest, as can be evidenced by the fact that it does not recognize as marriage many relationships that actually fall under the penumbral definition of loving, stable relationships, such as cohabiting widows, heterosexual bachelor housemates, “friends with benefits” and so forth.

Appeals to “love” as the basis of marriage policy are off-base. If “love” (and I don’t use quotations to denigrate the legitimate charity shared between any given couple; I use them to suggest that such a term would defy all attempts at concrete qualification or categorization that the government could employ in order to affirm its existence) were the legal basis for marriage recognition, the government would have absolutely zero ground on which to deny a marriage license to anybody who asked for one, regardless of the structure or nature of one’s relationship; marriage would be Play-Doh in the hands of the people.

The most scrupulous proponents of the most recent push to redefine marriage offer this definition: “marriage is formed by two people who commit to an exclusive, permanent and faithful interpersonal union.” There are two glaring problems with this definition, considered as it commonly is, as the definition under which no relevant differences between conjugal marriage—defined by George et al (with my emphasis) as “a comprehensive union of two sexually complementary persons who seal (consummate or complete) their relationship by the generative act”—and non-gendered marriage can be discerned or upheld by law.

The first is that it is very difficult to see how this definition can justify the exclusion of polyamorous couples who desire to unite their lives in just the same way. What non-unjustly-discriminatory principle can justify defining marriage as a relationship between two people, rather than more or less than two (so long as the individuals involved share the aforementioned commitments), if the role of sexuality in marriage is one merely of pleasure and not of something more? Yet few (but not all) proponents of SSM are comfortable defining marriage as a union of three or more people.

The second and more potent problem with such a definition is this: It is abundantly clear that the government has no interest in formally recognizing such relationships. Prior to clamoring for “marriage rights,” SSM proponents should ask themselves: Why would the state be obligated to legally recognize and publicly affirm a very specific type of relationship when it doesn’t do this for most other types of relationships? Why do we even speak of marriage licenses at all, rather than friendship licenses, neighbor licenses, romantic couple licenses, coworker licenses or cohabitation licenses (such as one that college roommates or professional athletes staying at a hotel for an away game would possess)? The marriage debate is, or at least should be, about what marriage is and why the government cares about it, not about the personal or moral status of individuals who want their romantic-sexual relationships publically and legally acknowledged and blessed by Uncle Sam.

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The government recognizes marriage—and has attached over 1,100 financial and legal benefits to it—because marriages involve and advance a very societally and culturally salient interest in a unique and uniquely important way: the procreation and rearing of good citizens in an optimal setting. This is a chief reason the government is in the “marriage business” at all; the government wants to publicly promote and incentivize this pre-political, human institution, and not others, because the government has long known and legally acknowledged that as the family goes, so goes the nation. The nuclear family is the building block of society, and the government knows this. This is why the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, in section 3, defines marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife” and a spouse as “a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife.”

Let me make clear that ensuring an optimal living environment for children is not the government’s primary reason for recognizing conjugal marriage through policy, as if the state’s rationale in promoting some relationships to the status of legal marriage were only a consideration of the best living environments. The state doesn’t recognize or promote some “types” of relationships as marriages on the basis of their demonstrated capacity to raise successful children. Were that the case, then any alliance demonstrated to be optimally or excellently equipped to raise children well would deserve recognition and promotion to married status.

But this isn’t the case. Even if cohabiting widows, for example, were proved by social science to be best at raising children, it wouldn’t follow that these widows were married to each other, or that they have a right to consider themselves married, or that they have a right to marriage recognition by the government, or that their relationship can even be a marital one. Rather, marriage is a pre-politically-recognized institution that the state has historically chosen (and ought) to publicly recognize for reasons including the “optimal setting” reality.

Indeed, the Supreme Court has affirmed the legal impetus—an intrinsic connection between marriage and procreation—for enshrining conjugal marriages in the law numerous times. Just a handful of many similar statements from the Supreme Court, as mentioned in the terrific pro-marriage work by the fellows over at Princeton, illustrate this point nicely. Let those who think the marriage/procreation connection was a desperate last-stand argument dreamed up by panicking conservatives in recent decades take note of these legal, historical affirmations of that principle:

“Marriage is the foundation of the family and of society, without which there would be neither civilization nor progress.”

“Virtually every Supreme court case recognizing as fundamental the right to marry indicates as the basis for the conclusion the institution’s inextricable link to procreation.”

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“The first purpose of matrimony, by the laws of nature and society, is procreation.”

“One of the two principal ends of marriage” is “the procreation of children under the shield of the law.”

“Marriage exists as a protected legal institution primarily because of societal values associated with the propagation of the human race.”

It is for these reasons—an acknowledgment of and respect for the pre-political institution of marriage, which is by its nature oriented toward and fulfilled by child bearing and rearing and an interest in promoting and protecting this cornerstone of culture as a matter of serving the public and common good—and not questions of the quality, however measured, of same sex relationships, that the government has a vested public interest in retaining in its legal understanding of marriage the biological reality of sexual complementarity.

Some SSM advocates argue that since studies have shown that married individuals are happier than non-married individuals, more people should be allowed to get married. Such studies are certainly a reason for affirming a sound marriage policy and a sound marriage culture. But they are not and should not be a reason for “expanding the marriage pool” so that more people can be happier and the government can benefit from a more productive citizenry. The “broaden the marriage pool” argument fails in part because eradicating the norm of sexual complementarity from the public understanding of marriage will undermine and detract from the very purpose for which the state legally recognizes marriage in the first place (as the Supreme Court quotes above display), and will furthermore undermine other marital norms already badly damaged.


Why? The norms that govern any relationship or institution serve to make more achievable the goods that are realized through the coordinated activities of the members of that relationship or institution. Relational norms, including marital norms, are intelligible vis-à-vis relational goods, since norms correspond to and serve the able pursuit and attainment of those goods. The norms (rules, practices, or operative principles) that structure the activities in pursuit of some goods shared by, say, roommates (amiability and camaraderie), teammates (victory) or coworkers (efficiency) exist for the sake of those goods. So too, marital norms (monogamy, exclusivity and permanence) support and make most possible the full living out of a couple’s coordinated activities in pursuit of the shared goods that constitute a marriage, including the essential good of procreation.

So, the gendered reality of marriage is not the only facet of marriage at stake. It would be naive for anyone invested in the marriage debate to dismiss the vocal SSM advocates who have articulated a desire to abolish not just the gendered reality of marriage but the other marital norms as well. A particularly striking, but not at all uncommon, version of this argument is made by a fellow Notre Dame student in his recent Letter to the Editor published in the campus newspaper the Observer. “I would just love to see the broken institution of ‘traditional marriage’ suffer a hard uppercut to the face,” this fellow concludes—and he believes same-sex marriage to be the fighter capable of delivering such a blow. Whether or not all or even most proponents of SSM share this sentiment is not a relevant question. What is relevant is whether enshrining SSM in federal law, and thus further embedding it in our cultural understanding of marriage, will in fact be an “uppercut to the face” of conjugal marriage and undermine the norms of exclusivity, permanence and monogamy that most SSM advocates rightfully cherish. I agree with those many SSM proponents who see that it will be.

In marriage, two people unite their lives in shared activity in pursuit of goods that they cannot attain as individuals—these goods include the procreation and raising of children, two of the primary reasons the state is involved in marriage in the first place. Notice that such a good cannot be attained by two members of the same sex; and such a good is exactly what the government wants to affirm and support through marriage policy. So the government’s interest in marriage is not served by the affirmation of same sex relationships as marriages.

Does the conjugal view of marriage seem idealized to many, even most? Certainly. Do many modern Americans actually understand marriage this way? Certainly not. And yet the further we’ve strayed as a society from the conjugal understanding of marriage, the worse off marriage is, unarguably so, as divorce rates and other harrowing statistics describe. Unpersuasive is the argument that “we don’t really think of marriage this way anymore” and should consequently reject rather than revert to this understanding. The “way we think about marriage” nowadays hasn’t borne much fruit for the generations living in the wake of the sexual revolution.

In summary, the state has no public interest in promoting just any sort of pledged, mutually enriching relationship (think of the Holy Cross priests), or sexual relationships (such as polyamorous ones) or environments in which children are raised well through committed, loving adults (a community of religious sisters operating an orphanage) through its marriage policy. Other policies or exemptions may exist for these relationships or institutions, but nobody considers them marriages; indeed some are closer to monasteries. Marriage policy exists to bind parents to their children within the stability of the family; to encourage the lifelong and exclusive binding of father and mother together in commitment to not only themselves but to the fruit of their union – the future citizens of our nation. While data on the effects of same-sex parenting are generally considered, even by SSM proponents, as non-reliable at this point, empirical research over and over again has shown that children fare best across the spectrum of well-being when they are raised by their biological parents in an intact home environment.

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The state has an interest in recognizing, not obscuring, the intrinsic nature and goods of marriage. The state has an interest in promoting the marriage culture, instead of distilling or distorting it any further than it already has through a variety of legal and cultural degradations. Law makes normative and powerfully shapes belief and morals; belief and morals guide and inform actions; and the collective actions of the nation’s citizens create, constitute and cultivate culture, including marriage culture. Public policy will play a powerful part in determining the future of marriage.

Demanding that public policy recognize as marriages any relationships that do not and cannot, whatever their merits, moral fabric, social value or personal meaningfulness, contribute to the ends for which government has acknowledged and affirmed marriage through public policy in the first place, is a bad idea. Both the intrinsic goods of marriage and the pursuit of the cultural, societal and individual goods that marriage policy promotes are undermined by any attempts to strike the intrinsic connection between parents and procreation from the books—which is exactly what is happening now.


What is marriage and why does it matter? ›

Marriage is the beginning—the beginning of the family—and is a life-long commitment. It also provides an opportunity to grow in selflessness as you serve your wife and children. Marriage is more than a physical union; it is also a spiritual and emotional union. This union mirrors the one between God and His Church.

Is marriage important Why or why not? ›

Marriage is a powerful creator and sustainer of human and social capital for adults as well as children, about as important as education when it comes to promoting the health, wealth, and well-being of adults and communities. For most Americans, this is news.

What are the 3 important things in a marriage? ›

What Are the Three Most Important Things in a Relationship?
  • Intimacy. You may think of the sexual aspect of relationship when you hear the word intimacy, but this relational building block covers so much more. ...
  • Commitment. ...
  • Communication.
May 28, 2021

What really matters in a marriage? ›

Marriages take work, commitment, and love, but they also need respect to be truly happy and successful. A marriage based on love and respect doesn't just happen. Both spouses have to do their part. Below are some important keys to work on each day to make your marriage successful.

What is the true meaning of marriage? ›

A commonly accepted and encompassing definition of marriage is the following: a formal union and social and legal contract between two individuals that unites their lives legally, economically, and emotionally.

What does God say about marriage? ›

Marriage is ordained of God

God instituted the husband-wife relationship as an equal partnership with Adam and Eve (see Genesis 2:24). Marriage is central to God's plan for our happiness during this life and our eternal happiness in the life hereafter.

What is the main reason for marriage? ›

While love may be the biggest reason people marry, it's not the only one. In general, people make the commitment to spend their lives together for more than a single reason. Every couple chooses to commit to marriage because it serves their needs and supports their values and dreams.

What is the most important reason for marriage? ›

Among married and cohabiting adults, love is cited more than any other reason for why they decided to get married or to move in with their partner: 90% of those who are married and 73% of those living with a partner say love was a major factor in their decision.

What are the 7 stages of marriage? ›

Marriage therapist DeMaria and co-writer Harrar present a short guide to the seven stages of marriage-Passion, Realization, Rebellion, Cooperation, Reunion, Explosion and Completion-along with techniques for "feeling happy, secure and satisfied" in any of them.

What are the four pillars of marriage? ›

Safety, Faithfulness, Commitment and Reliability are 4 pillars of trust every marriage needs. If any one of these is missing, the roof starts caving in and the relationship starts to deteriorate. Marriages thrive when both partners feel safe and secure.

What makes a man happy in marriage? ›

"Just being in a relationship and being committed to it, just showing up every day is an expression of [his] love," Chethik said. So what makes a man happy in a marriage? "Acceptance and appreciation. We want to be needed," he said.

What are the 5 important things in a marriage? ›

These elements, more than any other benefit of marriage, may be what some people are seeking—and waiting for.
  • Connection. Most of us want to connect with others in some way. ...
  • Commitment. ...
  • Giving. ...
  • Respect. ...
  • Trust. ...
  • Intimacy.
Aug 18, 2016

What are the 3 types of marriage? ›

On the basis of number of mates marriage may be classified into three types such as Monogamy, Polygamy and Endogamy or group marriage.

What are the 5 principles of marriage? ›

5 Principles to Build a Happy and Successful Marriage
  • Always tell the truth to each other.
  • Always listen to what the other person has to say.
  • Eliminate criticism from your relationship.
  • Eliminate bracing for the victim position when arguments come up.
  • Living in thankfulness and appreciation.
  • Listen to the entire conversation.
Apr 13, 2022

What is the main reason for marriage? ›

While love may be the biggest reason people marry, it's not the only one. In general, people make the commitment to spend their lives together for more than a single reason. Every couple chooses to commit to marriage because it serves their needs and supports their values and dreams.

Why is getting married so important? ›

It gives you a partner for life who will be beside you through good and bad. It gives you a person who would be there with you through your life struggles. Marriage teaches you that you can cherish love forever. A long-time commitment that can give you a chance to grow better with someone you love every day.

Why is marriage so important to society? ›

Marriage promotes the common good by building families and raising children. Those of you who have children know that every day that goes by is about selfless acts in nurturing children.

Why is marriage important legally? ›

In the U.S., most states require a legal marriage in order for a couple to exercise spousal benefits such as filing a joint tax return, sharing financial accounts, and so on. Marriage has many benefits. And it doesn't necessarily just mean having a joint bank account.


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