The Meaning of Traditional Marriage
It was Friday morning and I'd just finished breakfast when the telephone rang. Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Counsel, was asking me to testify that morning before the Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee. As a clinical psychologist, I am sometimes called upon (on short notice!) by various organizations to defend or oppose pending legislation that might affect mental health. So when Tom's request came in, I cleared my schedule and went right to work on a presentation.
This time the issue was the definition of marriage. The pending legislation in this case, a proposed amendment to the state constitution, would limit marriage to one man and one woman. In doing so, it would deny eligibility for marriage to people in same-sex and polygamous relationships.
I realized this was a controversial issue. But as I was presenting my testimony, I never dreamed that it was so divisive it would end up deadlocking the Minnesota Senate. The Senate eventually adjourned without having addressed a host of other important bills just because they didn't want this issue brought to the floor for debate. By doing so, they prevented passage of a bill that would leave the definition of marriage in the hands of the people.
Minnesota isn't alone in wrestling with how to define marriage. The same debate is raging all over America. And extreme passion is driving both sides of the issue.
Why? What makes people care so much about this issue of defining marriage? It's the implications that come along with a definition of marriage that create such a stir. These implications are actually much broader than the one I addressed that Friday morning-whether or not marriage should be between one man and one woman-and have great significance for the future of traditional marriage itself.
In this book we'll talk about the many issues surrounding this great marriage debate. And you'll soon understand why some people are getting so fired up-on both sides of the issue. I'll also help you understand why this issue will be settled one way or another in the next few years and how that outcome will affect the future of your children.
Of course, none of this is new. Traditional marriage has been under attack in America for at least the past seventy years. And that attack has been successful in destroying many traditional marriages. About half now end in divorce, and half of those that remain intact are characterized by resignation or even misery rather than love and affection. Is it any wonder that couples are afraid to marry these days?
The Latest Wave
Court decisions giving those in the gay and lesbian communities the same right to marry as those in the heterosexual community are only the latest in a series of attacks on traditional marriage. We'll get to the earlier attacks in a moment, but for now let's consider the current battle under way.
Gays and lesbians argue that restricting marriage to a man and a woman is discrimination against them. So they view that restriction as a civil rights issue. Just as African-Americans were once relegated to the backs of buses because of their race, gays and lesbians argue that they are relegated to nonmarital unions because of their sexual orientation. What they want is to redefine marriage to include their preferred lifestyle.
There have been rumblings in the polygamy camp as well. They also try to make it a civil rights issue by arguing that none of us are wired for a single, lifelong relationship. After all, look at all the affairs that plague marriages these days.
At a time when so many marriages are filled with problems (consider the statistics I mentioned earlier), why are gays and lesbians so anxious to secure marital rights for themselves? Because, even with all its problems, marriage still offers many advantages over other relationships. Two of the most important advantages for married couples are stability and safety.
Historically, gay and lesbian relationships have tended to be rather brief, violent, and unhealthy. Because of rampant promiscuity, the spread of venereal and other diseases has resulted in notoriously short life spans. The same can be said of heterosexual couples who live together outside of marriage. Those relationships also tend to be brief, violent, and unhealthy-particularly when compared to relationships between married couples. So it's reasonable for gays and lesbians to identify marriage as one way to create stability and safety for their relationships.
There are also economic reasons cited-health care coverage and laws governing inheritance, for example. With mainstream acceptance of the "alternative" lifestyles, gays and lesbians increasingly want all the same privileges afforded heterosexual individuals in America.
So when the Massachusetts Supreme Court decided to grant marriage for gays and lesbians, proponents of such equality were quite optimistic. But along with the ruling came a firestorm of protest from those who see it as a threat to heterosexual marriage. Since that decision was made, the issue has created so much heat that it may remain near the top of the list of political issues for some time to come.
Why are heterosexual married couples getting so upset about something that may help gay and lesbian relationships? Why not share their safety and security with those who do not share their sexual orientation? The reason is that many advocates of traditional marriage see gay and lesbian marriage as a huge threat to the institution of marriage itself-and they're right.
But I also see the same-sex marriage debate as an unprecedented opportunity to draw attention to the relentless decline of traditional marriage in America and other parts of the Western world-and to stop that decline. If the issue of same-sex marriage forces us to look at marriage as something worth defining-and saving-I couldn't be happier that it has come to our attention.
A Disaster in the Making
Over the past seventy-five years, the meaning of marriage in America has been changing so slowly that few have been aware of the change. So it takes a little work to uncover the traditional meaning of marriage. Let's start by considering the wedding vow itself.
A minister usually asks the groom some variation of the following question: "Will you take this woman to be your wife, to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to her so long as you both shall live?"
If the groom makes this promise, the minister asks the same question of the bride: "Will you take this man to be your husband, to live together in the covenant of marriage? Will you love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health, and, forsaking all others, be faithful to him so long as you both shall live?"
When the bride agrees, the minister announces that, based on the promises the couple have made to each other, he can pronounce them husband and wife. So it's reasonable to assume that these vows describe what it means to be married in the traditional sense. A closer look reveals qualities that may be expressed in the following definition:
Traditional marriage is a permanent (as long as you both shall live) and sexually exclusive (forsaking all others) relationship of extraordinary care (love, comfort, honor, and keep, etc.) between a man (to be your husband) and a woman (to be your wife).
This is what almost every marriage vow has declared down through the ages. For thousands of years couples have known that these are all essential for a successful marriage. By definition, then, a traditional marriage is (1) permanent, (2) sexually exclusive, (3) characterized by extraordinary care, and (4) between a man and a woman.
A Greater Purpose
This definition of traditional marriage drawn from common wedding vows provides a pretty clear picture of marital expectations. But what it doesn't show is the primary goal of traditional marriage-to raise the offspring of the husband and wife in an environment of safety and security. Wedding vows don't explicitly state that objective, but each of the four parts of the vow itself assists couples in becoming successful parents to the children they help create.
In all honesty, when I married my wife, Joyce, I wasn't thinking about children at all. I assumed we would raise children, but I didn't marry her with that goal in mind. I married her because I was in love with her, and I wanted us to share our lives with each other.
Yet looking back on forty-two years of a very romantic and happy marriage with Joyce, I can see clearly that, apart from our relationship with God, our children have been the most important result of our marriage. And by keeping our wedding vows, we've helped make our children happy and successful. I also realize now that if our children had turned out to be unhappy and had been failures in life, Joyce and I would have been miserable despite our love for each other and an otherwise great life together.
That's the way most couples feel about their offspring. They want their children to have every advantage in life. And the greatest advantage of all is being raised by parents whose marriage is permanent, sexually exclusive, and characterized by extraordinary care for each other.
Granted, there are other important reasons to marry. Most people, like Joyce and me, marry because they're in love, and they want to spend their lives together. Even if a couple doesn't have any children to raise, or if they raise children who are not genetically related to both of them, marriage has so many important advantages over nonmarital relationships that it's certainly well worth having. But as important as those other advantages are, they can't compare to the advantage that traditional marriage gives children.
So as traditional marriage has been under attack, children have been the primary victims. When the divorce rate climbed from 10 percent to 50 percent in the 1960s and '70s, many argued that the children of divorce would be just fine. Some even argued that they would turn out better than children raised in traditional families. But now the results are in.
The attack on traditional marriage has had a devastating effect on children. There are many ways to measure this tragedy, but one of the most impressive is crime. Our prisons are bulging at the seams with men and women who have not been raised in traditional families. And their population grows by the minute. By contrast, the number of those in prison today who were raised in a traditional family is much smaller.1
Consider the cost of educating children raised in traditional families compared to the cost of educating those raised without their biological mother and father. Anyone with any experience teaching will agree that the difference is staggering. And has all of the added expense helped? So far we've found that no amount of money for special programs can compensate for the value of being raised in a traditional family. We will probably spend billions of dollars in the future to try to compensate for the value of lost traditional families, and not one dime of it will help. The Federal "No Child Left Behind" program ignores the fact that the children left behind are those not raised by their biological parents. It's not the schools that have left them behind-it's their parents.
On average, those who grew up without the benefits of a traditional family earn less, produce less, are less educated, are not as healthy, and are not as happy as those who were raised in traditional families.2 Seeing these results, many social scientists have changed their tune. They are now beginning to recognize the value of traditional families and are trying to save them. But is it too late? Have we gone too far in destroying the values that made traditional families thrive?
In this book I'll describe how our culture, state legislatures, and the courts no longer support the type of marriage that provides children with the safety and security they need. I'll show how they've eliminated the permanence of marriage by creating laws that encourage divorce. And I'll explain how they've undermined the sexual exclusivity of marriage by creating laws that encourage infidelity.
With the values of permanence and sexual exclusivity removed, the battle is now raging over why we should keep marriage between just a man and a woman. Marriage is slowly turning into little more than a temporary and promiscuous relationship between any two (or more in some cases) people-and children are the ultimate victims of this "evolution."
Four Essential Ingredients
I've divided this book into four parts, each focusing attention on one of the four basic elements of traditional marriage. Although the catalyst for this discussion is the issue of same-sex marriage, I'll save that subject for last.
Part 1: Extraordinary Care
In their wedding vows a couple promise to "love, comfort, honor, and keep" each other in any of life's circumstances: "in joy and in sorrow, in plenty and in want, in sickness and in health." Couples making this promise don't intend to care for each other only when times are good. They promise to care for each other when times are bad as well. And if, at the time of the wedding, one of them refused to make that promise, few would be willing to go through with the ceremony.
I've spent my entire professional career teaching couples how to provide that kind of care for each other because it's absolutely essential in creating a happy marriage. It's also essential in creating an environment for children who will grow up to become happy and successful. So in this first section of the book, I'll describe the three aspects of extraordinary care and explain how they lead to a happy marriage. I'll also explain how our me-first culture discourages extraordinary care in marriage and how you can provide that care despite what society teaches.
Part 2: Sexual Exclusivity
When a couple marry, they promise to "forsake all others" and be "faithful" to each other-sexually. Faithfulness in marriage is so fundamental to the marriage agreement that when the vow is broken, most marriages go into a freefall. Infidelity ranks as one of the most painful experiences of a betrayed spouse's life. Anyone who knew at the time of their wedding that their spouse would eventually have an affair would refuse to marry that person. It's that important to remain faithful.
But affairs do not harm just marriages-they also harm children. A child also feels betrayed by a parent who cheats and then lies about it. Can you think of a worse example to a developing child than an unfaithful father or mother?
Yet our laws encourage infidelity in marriage. Instead of protecting marriage from interlopers, the law protects the interloper. And because there are no laws against it, affairs have increased to such an extent that the majority of marriages now fall victim. Part 2 of this book will give you an overview of how this has happened and what can be done to change it. It will also show you how to protect your own marriage from the threat of infidelity in spite of laws and cultural values that encourage it.
Part 3: Permanence
A couple who marry promise to remain together "as long as we both shall live," and that promise is essential to marriage for a host of reasons. The most important reason is that stability and continuity are required for raising children successfully. If a couple were told on the day of their wedding that they would divorce when their children were young and needed them the most, they would stop the ceremony. Even if a couple knew they could only avoid divorce until their children became adults, I'm not sure they would agree to be married. That's because marriage creates interdependence-both spouses come to need each other in order to thrive. A divorce at any stage of life rips them apart, damaging both of them.
The relentless attack on traditional marriage that began in the 1930s started to affect the divorce rate in the 1960s and '70s. The cultural emphasis on self-centeredness during those decades caused couples to file for divorce in unprecedented numbers. But instead of passing laws to encourage couples to care for each other and restore their marriage, laws were passed making divorce easier than it had ever been. An unhappy spouse no longer needed a reason to break a commitment that had profound implications to children and to society. Instead it could be broken without justification.
In part 3 of this book, I'll show you how no-fault divorce laws were enacted and the effect they've had on traditional marriage. I'll also explain what you can do to avoid divorce despite the current laws and culture that encourage it.
Part 4: One Man and One Woman
In part 4 we'll focus our attention on the most important reason for limiting marriage to one man and one woman-the fact that it's the best way to raise happy and successful children. No one can replace a father and a mother united in marriage who love their children and love each other.
Since gay and lesbian marriages have only been legal in some countries for the past few years, we don't have much information about how well they actually work out in practice. And we have even less information about how well children turn out when raised by a same-sex couple. But we do know that children tend to do very well in a traditional family. In the 1960s and '70s we were told that children would do just fine after their parents divorced. But the experiment failed, and millions of children were the victims. Why experiment with the future of children when we already know what works?
Throughout this book, I'll challenge you to understand the importance of your wedding vows and to take them seriously in spite of the fact that our laws and culture do not. I'll also challenge you to do your part to try to change existing laws that threaten traditional marriage for the sake of future generations of children.
I know these seem like pretty lofty goals. But I'm convinced that we now have an unprecedented opportunity to defend traditional marriage and its value to children and to society itself-an opportunity we can't afford to miss. It all starts with you.