In their forthcoming book on marriage, Robert George, Sherif Girgis, and Ryan Anderson warn (in context of their broader argument) that it serves no one’s interests to define marriage down to companionship, or to suppose the aim of the marriage license is “all-purpose personal approval.” Reshaping marriage may, in point of fact, further marginalize the unmarried if society reduces the conjugal bond to mere social inclusion.
One might further observe that the more we broaden marriage’s public meaning, the thinner it becomes for individuals, signifying less and less of distinctive value. An article in The Atlantic last week lends one such vision of marriage, with its public meaning lost in a cloud of private objectives. Millie Kerr coyly wonders why we don’t extend marital recognition to single persons:
Back in 2003, Sex and the City identified a cruel reality about single life: There’s no single-person’s equivalent of a wedding—a time when people travel from afar to bring you gifts and toast your life decisions.
Carrie Bradshaw said, “If you are single after graduation, there isn’t one occasion when people celebrate you” besides birthdays, which we all enjoy.
Despite a proliferation of single adults, little has changed since that episode aired nearly a decade ago: trips are not planned when we’re promoted at work, nor crystal glassware gifted when we buy our first homes. It seems that milestone celebrations are still reserved for couples and families.
It shouldn’t be that way, of course. NYU professor Eric Klinenberg wrote Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone to tell “the story of the biggest modern social change that we’ve yet to identify: the extraordinary rise of living alone.” Marriage rates have reached a record low, and adults are generally marrying and having children later in life. As a result, single people can expect later (and fewer) unions. But societal traditions are lagging behind this shift.
When will barometers of celebration reflect the growing number of singletons?
If recent conceptions of marriage have already pitched our ideas about monogamy, permanence, and gender complementarity, there seems to be no independent reason against excising marriage’s essential orientation toward the “other” as well. But if marriage’s contours are flattened such that the institution no longer involves a union, it seems fair to assume it no longer has any real meaning at all.
Perhaps Kerr and others who’ve entertained single-party marriage are tongue-in-cheek. But the reasons she posits for marital recognition in the first place reflect the fundamentally postmodern prerogatives of the marriage revisionist movement. Kerr is far from the only writer whose intuited vision of marriage is, as she says, “a time when people travel from afar to bring you gifts and toast your life decisions.”
This is the sort of thing that makes priests and pastors wince. Many of them, I suspect, would recommend against marriage for a person whose first aim was to be celebrated for reaching a milestone. (Jennifer Roback Morse has elsewhere argued the importance of distinguishing such private reasons for marriage from the more essential public ones.)
There’s a certain sadness to all this, as well. That a generation of singles has been left to wonder whether marriage is primarily about affirmation indicates a vocational insecurity not to be taken for granted.