In Defense of Monogamy

Why gay unions can save the institution of marriage.

Conservatives say that same-sex unions threaten the traditional institution of matrimony, but the institution of matrimony is already in jeopardy, and homosexuality has nothing to do with it.

In December, the Pew Research Center released a study revealing what many people of my generation already know: Fewer Americans are choosing to get married these days than at any other time in our nation’s history. Barely half of adult Americans are married today. By contrast, when my parents were getting hitched in 1963, 72 percent of their peers were joining them at the altar.

Experts cite everything from the economy to the rise of women in the workforce for the decline. Both have surely played a role. Equally likely, however, is that a culture of divorce in the 1970s, combined with the increased focus on independence and personal fulfillment since then have made publicly committing to one person for life seem quaint and confining. After all, so many of us have witnessed marriage at its worst; and anyway, what if I change my mind?

As a result, today nearly four in 10 Americans say marriage is becoming obsolete, compared to just a quarter who said so in 1978. If the trend continues, in the future, marriage as a social convention may endure as little more than a footnote to the history of coupling in America.

And yet at the same time straight people are rejecting the institution of marriage, tens of thousands of homosexuals—many of whom are already in long-term committed relationships—are fighting for the right to partake of it. As a married heterosexual, let me just say I’m pulling for them. Contrary to popular conservative rhetoric, allowing gay people to formally acknowledge their commitment to each other won’t doom marriage; instead, it might just save it.

Why does marriage need saving?

It’s simple, really. If undertaken with earnestness and sincerity (both are key), long-term faithful monogamy can make us better people—markedly less self-centered and more inclined to give of ourselves. That’s because intimacy is a growth endeavor that inspires humility, compassion and selflessness, three of the most noble qualities a person can aspire to. Studies also show people in enduring monogamous relationships live longer, suffer less depression, commit suicide at lower rates and are, on the whole, healthier—both physically and emotionally—than their single counterparts.

So what’s that got to do with marriage? It’s hard to say, precisely, but there’s evidence to suggest married couples are better off than those who choose to be together without taking the plunge.

Studies funded by the National Institutes of Health find married couples are more financially secure, which leads to less stress and better recovery from stress when it occurs. Sociologist Dr. Linda J. Waite calls marriage a “wealth-producing institution” and says spouses benefit from “economies of scale” and shared risks, which lead to better financial and health outcomes.

Waite, who serves as director of the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago, explains that as a legally binding contract:

“Marriage is unique. Marriage is a public promise to stay together for life. Two people getting married promise—in front of their families and communities—that they’re going to form a new unit, that they will work together for the good of the unit, for each other’s good, for the good of any children they might have, for their larger family and for their community. People around this unit recognize the bond and support [it].”

I wasn’t always a true believer. At 41 and less than a year into my first marriage, I’m the last among most, if not all, of my friends to tie the knot. I’d like to tell you it’s because it took me that long to find the right girl; but the fact is, lots of guys marry the wrong girl, and I had plenty opportunities to do the same. Fifty years ago I probably would have done just that.  After all, for most of history (and in many parts of the world even today) marriage was a business agreement that brought together two people, two families or two tribes for the purpose of community building. The “right girl” wasn’t part of the equation. Couples were more likely to stay together, but there was little personal growth or development associated with marriage. Lucky for us we have the leisure today to create lasting bonds with people who can actually inspire our self-actualization and true personal satisfaction, making us—by default—happier and more thoughtful members of our community. Which is why I held out.

It’s also probably why so many people are giving up. See marriage isn’t easy when you actually have to work for it. In his bestselling book, The Art of Loving, noted German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm explains:

“Love … requires discipline, concentration, patience, faith, and the overcoming of narcissism. It isn’t a feeling, it is a practice. Love is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go.”

So why endeavor to love at all? Because, as Fromm also noted, “Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.”

Nonetheless, questions about the continued relevance of marriage—and even monogamy in general – have been popping up a lot lately. In her November cover story for the Atlantic, journalist Kate Bolick dissected the marriage gap from a macro level the way an options trader might analyze pork-belly futures, suggesting that the declining status of males in relation to their female partners has led to a skewed yield curve and an overall market depression.

She cites one study that found:

“In societies where men heavily outnumber women—in what’s known as a “high-sex-ratio society”—women are valued and treated with deference and respect and use their high dyadic power to create loving, committed bonds with their partners and raise families.”

Ok, I’ll buy that. But in commoditizing romance, Bolick reduces love to the level of consumerism where marriage becomes something of a silent auction where we vie for the best deal, one that requires the least amount of give for the most amount of take. I believe it’s that attitude that leads to the failure of so many marriages in America and is scaring so many people off. Too many newlyweds, both men and women, expect perfection in their marriages, and at the first sign of trouble—or sexual attraction to another human being—all bets are off, or at least they are in question.

My support of monogamy is not grounded in any religious tradition, nor is it based on the deluded notion that man “in the state of nature” (whatever that is) wouldn’t be screwing everything he could get his hands on. He probably would. Yet it’s as social creatures that humans have excelled, and through our social institutions that we certify our existence as something more than self-driven individuals. I believe philosophically that humans have the ability to better themselves and the communities around them, and that partnerships (be they heterosexual or homosexual) are the most effective avenue for doing so. And that, I think, is worth working for.