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Is Marriage Rational?

In the debate over who can marry, both sides imbue the institution of marriage with an importance it neither deserves nor possesses.
 
 
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Back in 1983, I sold my own wedding. My mother, a lifelong New Yorker, refused to make a trip to California, so in exchange for moving the location of my wedding to Long Island, I received from her a tidy cash payment.

At the time, I found nothing strange about selling my wedding because I was deeply cynical about marriage as an institution. As a child of the '60s counter-culture, I equated marriage with the Vietnam War -- some sham ceremonial act, like saving the world from communist hordes, that actually had nothing to do with mental health, romance or commitment, but was rather one more way that mass society sought to colonize our minds.

I am not kidding, and, believe me, I wasn't alone. Back in the day, most of my friends saw marriage as a strange ritual, honeycombed with contradictions. Marriages were stultifying, burdened by adultery and inequality. They were invitations to divorce. Of course, as the idealistic 1970s gave way to the pragmatic Reagan years, some of my best friends also got married, though like me with the stipulation, "I don't need the government to sanctify my relationship."

In the context of my own cynicism about marriage, the current fervent pursuit of the right to marriage by gays and lesbians is perplexing. But equally perplexing is the defense of heterosexual-only marriage by judges and religious conservatives. In the debate over who can marry, both sides imbue the institution of marriage with sanctity and an importance that it neither deserves nor possesses.

I don't say this simply because I had the most painful divorce in human history. (Well, maybe not as painful as the fellow in Manhattan who recently blew up his home -- with himself in it -- to stop his wife from getting the place in the final dissolution.) Certainly, failed marriages are no justification for the end of marriage itself. Even I remarried, three years ago, though once again cynically, in order to help my new life partner gain permanent residency in the United States. There are unquestionably practical benefits to marrying. That's why I'm in favor of gay marriage as a legal matter. But in favoring a more liberal criteria for marriage, I worry that we lose sight of the wider and weirder problem of permitting government to validate our most personal social partnerships.

During my lifetime, many good people expended much effort trying to stop the government from lording over the private lives of romantic partners. When I was 12 years old, for instance, a court struck down the ban on blacks and whites marrying. In my 20s, laws against homosexual sex began to collapse. The whole trend seemed downright sane: Get the government out of the bedroom.

By my later 30s, in the 1990s, the privileged status of marriage as an institution had nearly vanished. Children of unmarried parents, once stigmatized as bastards, were now born "out of wedlock," which sounded much nicer and reflected an end to the stigma of unmarried women bearing children. Employers and government, meanwhile, began to recognize "domestic partnerships," handing out equivalent benefits to couples who claimed to have the same sort of binding commitment and mutual regard as husbands and wives. Later, these same benefits were extended to same-sex partners, and for good reason. Gay couples deserve the same effective legal protections and benefits as straight ones, married or not.

All these changes highlighted the essential arbitrariness of marriage, undermining fatally the claims that romantic partnerships must be endorsed by God in order to qualify as moral or legal. The government accepted that marriage was purely civil and subject to the same rules of procedure as any other. Of course, the implications of this principle have delivered us to our present conundrum. If we do not exclude gays from adoption, or employment in a police force or attendance at Giants games, then we cannot exclude them from marriage either.

I accept the implications of the principle. At the same time, I pine away from the good old days when it seemed marriage was doomed as a legal institution and a social ideal. Obviously, the challenge to marriage has receded, if not vanished altogether. As a ceremony and a social reality, marriage reigns supreme. But, rather than celebrate the hegemony of marriage, I submit that we are rather stuck with this peculiar institution in much the same way as we are afflicted by death, disease and taxes. In the battle over who gets to marry and who doesn't, we would be wise to remember that, wide or narrow, the circle of marriage brings pain as well as joy and sometimes more of the former than the later.

G. Pascal Zachary, a frequent contributor to AlterNet, is the author of " Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century ."