Thursday, January 11, 2007

Why Would Civil Unions Harm Marriage?

I am in favor of civil unions, as I argued two days ago. I favor them despite the fact that I think they will contribute to undermining marriage. I have been asked by some respondents to explain why I think civil unions would harm marriage at all.

Some argue that if I am free to marry, what difference does it make if other people conduct their relations differently? I believe that we should tolerate many different ways of conducting our relationships. But this is not because they don't affect mine.

Marriage is a social institution. It works because society as a whole believes in it, and supports marriage as such. My marriage is not just made by my wife and me, but by the whole society. Marriage is one of the most powerful of social institutions because it has huge social support.

If marriage were treated as just another private contract (as it is in increasing danger of descending to), fewer marriages would be formed, more marriages would fail, and each marriage would be more tenuous because less taken for granted.

Marriage is the complementary union of a man and a woman to make and raise children. This is the social model for marriage, around which all actual marriages are arranged.

Civil unions are, I think, a species of intense friendship between people of the same type. A civil union is designed to benefit the couple. Children may be brought into the union, but they are secondary.

If some people pursue unions with their opposite sex partners to benefit just themselves, with only a secondary consideration for children, this undermines marriage. Not just that marriage, but marriage as an institution.

It is natural in an individualistic culture such as ours to recast social institutions to benefit me, rather than forcing me to discipline and sacrifice myself for others. Even without children, marriage entails the discipline of submission – mutual submission. With children, to that submission must be added self-sacrifice. It is hard for us to sustain this high standard of marriage anyway. We only make the task harder when we add a competing marriage-like relationship that does not entail the same kind of self-sacrifice, and may not even require self-submission.


Brett said...

1. Maybe you covered this elsewhere, but what about married couples with no children? Here I'm thinking of elderly people who marry, or of people who are infertile, or of people who make the choice not to have children for whatever reason. Are they also undermining marriage? If so, how? Do they not participate in self-submission and sacrifice?

2. My opinion is that your argument would be stronger if you dealt seriously with the explicit and implict economic aspects of marriage. Yes, this smacks of a "contract," but it is historically and actually impossible to ignore that marriage, like any power relationship between human beings, has economic dimensions. What you have done is claim that marriage has some essential characteristics that are inalienable and non-transferable to other kinds of relationships. The problem with such an argument is that it must be accepted on faith. Let's see some data.

Brett said...

I forgot to add to my first point that I am willing to accept that having and rearing children is a common, even normal, part of marriage. However, you still need to prove why this part of marriage so trumps other parts in your argument.

Gruntled said...

I am here, as in some of last week's posts, talking about the social norm of marriage as a whole. No actual marriage perfectly fulfills the whole norm. Rather, all marriages -- including childless ones -- are distributed around that norm. This does not diminish them morally in any way. The issue in this whole series is about which approximations are good, which are good enough, and which are not.

Marriage does, of course, have vital economic aspects. I think they serve the larger moral purpose.

Chairm said...

Gruntled your comment raises a question that I would put to all who support either civil union or SSM.

What is the proposed social norm for civil union or SSM?

Marriage is a social norm for all of society. Almost everyone marries and almost all marriages include children. It is society's relatively non-coercive means by which to integrate the sexes and thus encourage responsible procreation. From the ground-up it provides contingency for the strong tendency of men and women to produce children together. Society suffers when marriage suffers.

Is civil union or SSM to become a new social norm that would influence all homosexual people? Is it the new norm proposed for all couples -- both-sexed and one-sexed alike?

From what I've witnessed of SSM argumentation, SSM is not envisaged as a more than an item on a large menu of options. It is not proposed as a preferred arrangement for the same-sex attracted population.

If civil union, or SSM, is to be a new dominant social institution, at least for the same-sex attracted population, how would "good enough" establish it that way?

I think that Gruntled expects the participation rate in civil union, or SSM, to be low. So good enough may be his measure. But why must such a new thing approximate marriage, at all? I think it is soley because the homosexual activists have demanded it, politically, despite the low demand for it in practice. Whatever the motivations, the effect is to deconstruct marriage, the social norm, the social institution, the preferred relationship for creating and raising children. SSM argumentation sayso.

José Solano said...

In your desire to be tolerant you have invented this category you call "good enough." I've already demonstrated that if you are talking as a Christian that category really does not exist. Only perfection is "good enough." One cannot make a compromise with sin. Sin must always be repudiated and the sinner must repent. Being a part time adulterer is not "good enough." In non-sinful situations all sorts of compromises can be made. A city wishes to build a bridge, some want it so long or so wide others want it smaller, so they may compromise and settle for a certain size. There is no sin involved in this negotiation.

Christians must not live a sort of schizoid condition in which we teach that Christ wants something of us but we are willing to offer society something diametrically opposed. At best it's a confusion, at worse it's sheer hypocrisy. Why on earth should Christians want to promote and encourage homosexual relationships?

"Civil unions are, I think, a species of intense friendship between people of the same type." C'mon, gimme a break! You're talking about society affirming and providing special privileges and benefits for homosexual men or women engaging in anal and/or oral sex. Let's get over the euphemisms. You're not talking about two brothers or two friends living together in a non-sexual relationship. Or are you?

Maybe you should be talking about some sort of domestic partnership in which the homosexual practices of those living together is not the specified criteria for granting privileges and benefits.

I've repeatedly mentioned that if you are specifically supporting providing benefits to homosexuals you should simply call it what it is, The Homosexual Relationship Special Benefits License. Then take that to the people and let them vote on it.

Now, I must add that I fully agree with what you have said about complementarity, the danger of civil unions undermining marriage, what marriage and family entails with regard to submission and self-sacrifice, etc. I sense Christ at work in you and all that's needed in this area is tightening up the nomenclature a bit.

Later I may comment from the purely secular perspective on why any societal affirmation of homosexual practices is harmful to society.

Many blessings to you.

Mark said...

So you're labeling MY marriage, in which my wife and I have decided not to have children, as harmful to marriage? Or as 2nd class?

Thanks for the insult.

I guess we shouldn't have gotten married at all, but just lived together.

Mark said...

Let me add to this.

If you feel that the production of children is essential to a marriage, then I think you're in the wrong denomination. You'd be much happier with the Catholics.

Gruntled said...

No, that is not what I said or meant.

Alan said...

"We only make the task harder when we add a competing marriage-like relationship that does not entail the same kind of self-sacrifice, and may not even require self-submission."

With respect Gruntled....I don't think you have any idea what you're talking about here. No self-sacrifice and no self-submission? Was that written specifically to insult, or was it just an off the cuff comment that you didn't consider as carefully as the rest of your writing in this series? The arrogance of that statement is a complete contrast to the other things you've written so far. How precisely do you presume to judge the sacrificial nature of someone else's marriage?

You've made quite an elaborate straw man here. First you define civil unions as some sort of private contract, as if that's the type of "civil union" anyone is actually interested in, and then you argue why your particular skewed understanding of such an institution would undermine marriage. Frankly, all you've done is provide even more reason that we should be talking about marriage, and marriage only.

Stuart Gordon said...


So this is why it's hard to be a centrist - you get shot at from every side!


Mark said...

"If some people pursue unions with their opposite sex partners to benefit just themselves, with only a secondary consideration for children, this undermines marriage. Not just that marriage, but marriage as an institution."

That's EXACTLY what you said. I can't speak as to whether or not it's what you meant.

I have to question how you avoid self-sacrifice in your marriage on issues that don't involve children.

Stuart Gordon said...

Regarding the primacy of children in marriage:

I'm a Presbyterian minister and have performed a few weddings in my day. I have noticed how the Presbyterian liturgies have changed over the years to make "children" an optional subject in statements on the purpose of marriage and in prayers for the marriage. I think that change is worth noting.

The case that Gruntled seems to be making, regarding children, is that the norm for marriage includes the reproduction and rearing of children. You might make this case theologically ("Be fruitful and multiply," or any of the OT references to the blessing of children or the curse of barrenness) or sociologically (as Gruntled does).

I cannot deny that it offends those who decide not to have children. I cannot deny that it constitutes a challenge to their decision. But I don't think that Gruntled is dismissing such marriages as lacking their own value; he seems to be saying, unapologetically, that such marriages are for themselves and do not serve the larger social purposes of marriage.

For those who would have children but cannot, such a case seems cruel. Again, I believe that Gruntled is talking about a norm, not a law. Clearly, there would be no aching heart in an infertile couple if they themselves didn't WANT to live according to that norm.

As an officiant of weddings, I have begun reclaiming the language about children, because even though raising children is not the only way to be married, it is the norm. It is what society needs; it is what Scripture endorses. For those who will not or cannot have children, there are many other opportunities to live lives of hospitality and service. Those lives simply aren't the norm.

Mark said...

Stuart - the question is:

Do heterosexual marriage voluntarily without children hurt the institution of marriage?

You also might want to check your assumptions at the door on WHY a couple chooses not to have children.

Alan said...

A real problem here is that each side has decided to lay all their chips on a woefully inadequate definition of marriage -- definitions that are so inadequate as to make them straw men, or worse. For example, Gruntled seems fixated on procreation and the opposite sex aspect. But I think he's only used the word "love" twice in this whole series. If that fact alone doesn't stop you in your tracks... well, perhaps we're simply talking about two completely different things: Gruntled's ideal of a bloodless arrangement between two people in order to procreate and my ideal of a loving, nurturing, supportive, Godly covenant between two people.

Furthermore, he acts as if marriage is completely a choice, rather than something that "God has brought together" through His Providence. And, when he mentions other important aspects of marriage such as mutual sacrifice, he arrogantly suggests that gay people are somehow incapable (genetically?) of such sacrifice.

Attempting to distill what marriage really is down to one or two elements or some sort of pithy sound-bite definition allows one to focus on those aspects that simply affirm one's prejudices and deny marriage to anyone who doesn't measure up to one's simplistic definition. It would be like me proposing that the key component of marriage is the aspect of mutuality. Since that's (in this hypothetical argument) the key aspect of marriage, obviously then gay marriage is superior to straight marriage, because men and women can never experience the same kind of mutuality as two men or two women. That's a silly argument. Yet it is precisely the same kind argument that has been used throughout this discussion, against not only same sex marriage, but now we see, by extension against any marriage not exactly "like mine."

Mark said...


I think you've hit the nail on the head.

Gruntled wants everybody else's marriage to look "like mine". He holds his personal experience up as the gold standard and tries his damnedest to get others to become like him.

This is the height of arrogance and also the primary motivator in the conservative playbook. Homogeneity is the key (not between partners, between couples). We'd all be better off if we lived the ideal 50's "Mom stays home, Father knows best, 2.5 kids" life.

Sorry, but I don't buy it. There are many paths to God, and there are many domestic arrangements that are productive, positive, and faithful.

José Solano said...

Hi Stuart-Gordon,

I think your interpretation of what Gruntled has stated is sensitive and valid. People clamor about the add-ons to marriage that are not related to the fundamentals, the sine qua non of marriage. You cannot have a marriage without complementarity and the very function of complementarity is to design the human being for the possibility of procreation. The two are inseparable.

No one issuing a marriage certificate can be analyzing whether or not married people wish or do not wish to procreate. That is really their business and they can change their minds. Nor can we be determining their fertility or setting age limits. This is a silly argument to include those who lack the essential elements to form a marriage. The "norm" you speak of is what society must go by.

I did have a difference with Gruntled in terms of wording nevertheless. We cannot measure either the intensity of friendship or the degree of "love" to bless a marriage. We have a commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves whether or not we are married. This love is expressed differently with children, with our spouses and with our friends. As Christians this love should be growing as part of our sanctification process.

José Solano said...

One more problem with enacting civil unions for homosexuals. See "New Jersey Civil Unions & Discrimination Law" at

Stuart Gordon said...


The limitations of space in a blog often create misunderstandings and incomplete communication. I'll confess that I bring assumptions and fuzzy thinking, something which, unfortunately, I do even when I have all the time in the world and all the space.

You may have decided not to have children for a host of sacrificial reasons. In the same way, lots of people choose to have children for lots of selfish reasons. I perceive that this discussion centers around large-scale perceptions of the institution of marriage. In such a discussion, there simply will be varieties of experience in relation to the big picture.

I think that the discomfort created on this point is legitimate, that it is based on a real difference of perspective. I would hope that we can acknowledge it without too much anger. Yes, I do think that Gruntled is presenting a norm for marriage into which he happens to fit. And yes, you do represent another perspective, "There are many paths to God, and there are many domestic arrangements that are productive, positive, and faithful." We just can't get around that difference.

Personally, I cannot speak from knowledge about the claim that marriage is harmed by marriages that choose to have no children. I'm working through this myself, and my thoughts aren't set in stone. I do offer my developing opinion that marriages without children depend upon the existence of marriages with children as the norm, in order for the institution of marriage to endure. Take away children, and one of the primary means of marital maturation, faithfulness, and blessing is eliminated. Absent children, the institution of marriage ceases to be what it is.

I'm not saying that any marriage without children isn't marriage. I'm saying that I think marriage with children is the preferred way, for the sake of the institution itself, and is not to be rejected without good cause.

José Solano said...

"Absent children, the institution of marriage ceases to be what it is." True. Absent children there is no need for society to grant special privileges and benefits to marriage. The relationship could simply be any old friendship or familial relationship. The biological complimentarity with the possibility for procreation that it implies is the reason society offers privileges and benefits to marriage.

Alan said...

I'm struck in this discussion by the various ways we have used the word "ideal" in this discussion as it relates to the choices people make (or more rightly put, the choices people are called to make) in their lives.

For example, in an earlier post, celibacy was mentioned. In comparing celibacy to marriage it was recognized that neither is an "ideal" for everyone -- some are called to be celibate, while others are called to be married. The number of people called to be celibate is small and is not seen as a threat to marriage.

On the other hand, in this thread, there is either the "ideal" of having kids, or the lesser state of childlessness. Perhaps some people are called not to have kids and instead put their energies to other equally worthwhile pursuits. The number of married couples who choose not to have children is small, but they're somehow seen as a threat to the institution.

I'm just not understanding the inconsistency of the two positions.

By the way, the kids thing is such a non-issue ... plenty of married gay couples have kids and the numbers are increasing. Sure, most gay couples do not currently have kids. But I doubt anyone here is going to argue that gay marriage would be fine as along as the couple promises to have kids. :) So, perhaps we should drop the pretense that the procreation argument is real. Also, it's disingenuous to argue that gay folks shouldn't be able to get married because they can't have kids, without acknowledging that the denial of gay marriage basically denies them the opportunity to adopt.

Mark said...

"I would hope that we can acknowledge it without too much anger."

Let me be clear - if you attack my marriage, I will be angry - like a Momma lion guarding her cubs. It's much the same reaction that Carolyn and I have towards someone who tries to get between us. Relegating our marriage to second class status IS an attack.

While we don't have kids we have survived well beyond the average - 12 years married and 19 years in our relationship. Many (but clearly not some here) would consider our marriage to be a shining example to hold up to others.

If not having kids makes the marriage worthless (or less than others), then what is the impetus for fidelity? Why be exclusive? Why not require celibacy? This gets awfully close to the "sex is only for procreation" argument professed by the Catholics.

Gruntled said...

Stuart, I thank you for saying most of what I would have in reply. I am talking about the main reason that the institution of marriage has a special status in society. I am not attacking anyone's marriage -- all actual marriages, mine included, deviate in some respects from this social norm.

Chairm said...

What would be the main reason that the homosexual relationship should have a special status in society?

Marital status is a preferentials tatus. Thus, whether SSM would be enacted as marriage or as civil union, the claim is for a preferential status.

* * *

As for children, well, first consider current practice.

Most, by far, of the child population in same-sex households got there by migrating (with either mom or dad) from the both-sexed relationships that created them (typically marriages). Maybe 5% were adopted (but many those children were adopted by the mother or the father's same-sex partner). So any reduction in such marriages would reduce the child population in such households.

Less than 5% more were attained via third party procreation such as with IVF or ARTs. It is very doubtful that such methods could possiblely make-up for the lack of children from previous both-sexed relationships.

These data points, together, reflect the larger picture: 97% of the adult homosexual population does not reside in same-sex households with children. Taken together, this is the virtual inverse of marriage as it is practiced throughout the world, including here. Almost all men and women aspire to marry; almost all do marry; almost all women who marry do so during their childbearing years; and almost all marriages have children. Maybe less so currently than in the past, but that can change in either direction.

I do think this bigger picture must demand an answer to the question asked about the purpose for a special status for the presumptively homosexual relationship.

An answer must take into account the differences between male and female same-sex relationship types. Flattening the differences, in terms of attaining and raising children, means that the proposed status is further removed from the core of marriage, and from the nature of humankind, than we are told to believe infertile couples might be.

For those who think infertility is equivalent to the lack of one sex or the other, please explain how a same-sex couple can be considered disabled by infertility if no such couple can be fertile in the first place.

And consider the effort necessary (both medically, socially, morally, legally) for a fertile couple to remain childless by choice. Not so for the one-sexed scenario. Redrawing the lines to exlude the childless, whether they are so by choice or by misfortune, would still not include the one-sexed twosome. So the SSM argumentation appeals to absolutes: if even one childless married couple is allowed, then, the line must be eraised rather than redrawn. It is an odd way of viewing social institutions and an even more bizarre way to treat lawmaking.

As for choice, people can and do change their minds; procreatoin can and does happen despite the best laid plans.

As for infertility, maybe 10% of married couples experience it; and half of those already have children. Most infertile, or subfertile, couples do not resort to novel high tech solutions -- usually they just adjust their behavior to increase their fertility. The very few who are born with sterile conditions, or who suffer sterility due to medically necessary treatment, such as surgery for cancer, suffer a permanent disability. Piling onto their troubles, as some in the marriage debates tend to do, does not advance the argument for SSM.

The infertility argument is a straw man that no SSMer can truly defend based on the objective facts. Rather, it is raised as a way to push the buttons that invoke compassion for the disabled (or for the elderly) while evading the strongly implied equivalence of homosexuality and disability. If homosexuality is not a disability, then, form over function must be the real basis for raising the issue.

And by its form, each and every one-sexed relationship (whether homosexual or not) is as sterile as a lone person acting solo. This constant feature of the one-sexed scenario stands in sharp contrast with the both-sexed scenario in which fertility varies by a multitude of factors ranging from misfortune of ill-health (i.e. disability in its varied forms) lifestyle (such as diet) and age (i.e. the normal physical maturation of the human being). Each and ever fertile couple experiences infertility during part of each month of their childbearing years. Nothing of the sort can be claimed by any one-sexed twosome.

So on one hand the constant sterility in the form of the one-sexed relationship; on the other hand the variability of fertility of the both-sexed relationship.

And this also points to the bigger picture: there is one human race and its nature is two-sexed; the nature of human generativity is both-sexed. Marriage, at its core, combines these two aspects of the nature of humankind. It does so as a social construct and to deny its core is to demote marriage as a social institution.

Whether it is by enactment of SSM or merging civil union with marital status, abolishing the man-woman criterion of the preferential status accorded marriage would seperate society from the nature of humankind.

I don't know of any time when this is a good idea.

So return to the challenge of justifying a special status, preferential treatment, for the nonmarital alternative of the homosexual relationship type. Does it entail the new ideal for all adult homosexual individuals in this culture? It is not now practiced except on the margins of the homosexual population. It clearly makes children a marginal option, as well.

So if marriage is only whatever fits this ideal for the homosexual relationship, then, explain how this new fangled, and far from widely established, ideal should replace the marriage idea that combines integration of the sexes with responsible procreation.

Piggybacking on the core of marriage while denying its centrality is not going to answer the challenge. That would only exacerbate the flaws that are intrinsic to SSM argumentation.

Brian said...

"If marriage were treated as just another private contract (as it is in increasing danger of descending to), fewer marriages would be formed, more marriages would fail, and each marriage would be more tenuous because less taken for granted."

Can you back this up with science or statistics by an unbiased group of researchers?

If you can't, then I find at least this argument to null since it cannot be proven scientifically or at least through deomgraphic/sociological research. Which potentially means that the rest of your argument is also null.