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Arguments over same-sex marriage and other challenges to conjugal tradition have brought into stark relief our degraded ability to describe the realities of family and the marriage culture.

Legal reformations of marriage such as no-fault divorce, for instance, have crippled discourse by redirecting the recognized purpose of marriage away from the family as a unit, and toward the accommodation of the desires of individual adults. Arguments proffered by today’s supposed marriage gurus increasingly define “successful” marriages as those in which adults report satisfactory levels of emotional fulfillment. It follows that children have been given a lower priority in marriage disputes.

This refocusing gives rise to claims such as “Love makes a marriage,” once heard in divorce courts (as an explanation) and now heard (as an argument) in same-sex marriage debates. While love certainly sustains a good marriage, civil authorities are, as yet, uninterested in inquiring about this and other private purposes of marriage. As suggested by the use of this idea by same-sex marriage lobbyists, who trumpet marriage’s private purposes over its public aims, our society is fortunate that the state is uninterested, but that is no guarantee it will not be in the future.

With the reshaping of families through divorce and the prospects of gender-neutral parenting in same-sex marriages, love and emotional fulfillment have”at least in the popular imagination”moved perilously close to gaining status as the kind of things civil law takes interest in”rights, and not mere interests. As Ronald Dworkin has often quipped, “rights are trumps”, and while the state may encourage marital virtues such as affection and exclusivity, rights are, on the other hand, subjects of enforcement.

Something of an exposition of the attitude that love makes a marriage took shape in a New York Times “Weddings/Celebrations” column the week before Christmas. Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla, both married, Upper West Side professionals, met each other through their children’s kindergarten and, struggling with increasing mutual attraction, exercised their emotional rights as trumps indeed, and so crassly as to make clandestine affairs look prudent.

As Riddell and Partilla explained, their choice was fixed: They could either give in to their feelings for each other, or suppress them and live dishonestly. Further moral confusion seemed evident, with Riddell feigning a crisis of conscience: “Why am I being punished? Why did someone throw him in my path when I can’t have him?” The two soon abandoned their spouses and children and married each other, hoping, apparently, for the best.

To be sure, the couple’s alleged decision between adultery and dishonesty was a false one, and their reasoning solipsistic. But what if their story is not just an anomaly? What if our culture’s emphasis on personal satisfaction in marriage helped tip their mental scales in favor of adultery and against the needs of their children for stability and parents with imitable marital commitment?

Is our divorce culture and the impulse behind redefining marriage a sufficient explanation for this behavior? No. But they do encourage people like Riddell and Partilla, while traditional marriage doesn’t.

If emotional fulfillment is a right, we ought not to allow anything to obstruct it, even moral principles”or vows. The moral drama the Times put on display is the product of a culture that doesn’t know how to articulate what marriage is, and is therefore not equipped to comprehend, much less live out, marital necessities such as self-sacrifice, or even postponement of gratification.

Many, for instance, can hardly imagine why a man might freely choose to become a monk, forgoing spouse and family. And yet those who are horrified at the life of a monk should be horrified at marriage, for while the monk gives up all the women in the world, the married man also gives up every woman in the world, save one. That is the kind of love marriage demands“not the kind the Times celebrates in stories like the “Weddings/Celebrations” column.

Perhaps this depleted idea of love is why many”even while praising marriage’s messianic role for same-sex couples”have abandoned marriage altogether without abandoning some hope for some relationship like marriage, but less binding. In France, for example, a 1999 civil union law intended to accommodate gay relationships has been opted into mostly by heterosexual couples, desiring the law’s minimalist and easily frangible civil commitment.

Still more concerning is the apparent disintegration of what might be called our “marriage conscience.” What sort of thing doesn’t merely counter, but offends our concept of marriage? Are there any acts we believe we cannot do because they would harm our marriages? Is there nothing in marriage that cannot be trumped by the demand for emotional fulfillment?

As political scientist Matthew J. Franck observed on Wednesday at Public Discourse , revelations about Columbia professor David Epstein’s incestuous tryst with his daughter left pundits of all affiliations at a loss for ethical arguments against incest. Sure, there were the usual, tin-eared utilitarian arguments against it, citing birth defects and the evolutionary psychology of disgust, but few mentioned incest’s offense to the human good of marriage or friendship. Even if we haven’t lost our marriage conscience, we’ve certainly allowed it to depart from the common language of our culture’s public discourse.

If against even the universal taboos against incest, the appeal to emotional fulfillment and “love” has become a powerful argument, how can marriage survive? After leaving his wife and three children for Riddell, John Partilla poignantly remarked, “I did a terrible thing as honorably as I could.” As though boldly acknowledging one’s error somehow makes it more palatable, his strange attitude of reluctance was tempered by his fear that adultery was inevitable, and therefore not worth avoiding with moral courage.

It’s hard not to discern the moral tragedy of a society that has lost its marriage conscience, given just how frequently the Riddell-Partilla account plays out every day, though in less sensational ways. But greater, it seems, is the moral tragedy of a generation that sees what that loss means, and just might not attempt marriage at all, instead seeking arrangements that mimic marriage’s perks without demanding its commitment. And one of those arrangements is, unfortunately, marriages that can be easily dissolved.

Liberals have taken great advantage of this loss of hope, hotwiring the already weakened civil institution of marriage for use as a vehicle for social change, besides sharing something like John Partilla’s sense of inevitability. Change in marriage is coming, they say, so we ought to accept it uncritically or risk falling on history’s dark side. Many conservatives have also lost hope in marriage, perhaps yielding to defeatism or scarce moral courage. People, they insist, deserve to be happy, and any restrictive idea of marriage cannot be allowed to get in their way.

The inevitability of marriage’s decline”or of John Partilla and Carol Anne Riddell’s free decision to abandon their families for a love interest they felt they should not resist”is as culturally invidious as it is philosophically fallacious. But hope and moral courage toward marriage are not the sort of virtues the culture encourages when its public discussion of marriage is colored by this politically expedient despair, and the blind and self-serving belief that being happy is the only thing that matters.

Kevin Staley-Joyce is an assistant editor at First Things .


Devan Sipher’s “ Carol Anne Riddell and John Partilla ” from The New York Times .

Matthew J. Franck’s “ Incest and the Degradation of Our Vocabulary ” from Public Discourse .

Scott Sayare and Maia De La Baume’s “ In France, Civil Unions Gain Favor Over Marriage ” from The New York Times .

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