Can we save marriage by redefining it?

A peculiar case for redefining marriage posits that the institution can be strengthened by redefining it. More people will then, the argument goes, want to marry or at least will want to strengthen marriages generally.

The challenge is that the new legal understanding of marriage codifies the idea that marriage is about what adults want over any other non-personal consideration, including the opportunity of children to be reared by a mother and father who are married to one another. Such an assumption about the nature of marriage makes efforts to rein in the negative effects of radical personal autonomy in other aspects of marriage law.

While some suggest that there will be greater support for strengthening marriage if we stop worrying about the meaning of marriage, the efforts to gather a broad coalition around the proposition that an undefined or redefined concept of marriage needs strengthening must, at some point, deal with difficult questions.

What does it mean to strengthen marriage? Does that involve discouraging divorce and cohabitation? Those would certainly seem to be core objectives.

Why is strengthening marriage an important priority? Is it because we want to ensure that children are reared by their own mother and father in a stable relationship (marriage)? That is as valuable a goal as it is possible to imagine and one of the chief reasons that disparate cultures through recorded history have recognized a marriage institution.

Do we want to encourage men and women whose relationship may result in children to marry so that children born to them are more likely to experience a meaningful relationship with a mother and father? Is marriage valuable because it can provide a mother and father for a child who would otherwise be deprived of that opportunity? Do we want to discourage the creation of children through unstable couplings by signaling that marriage is the normative setting for the intimate relationship of a man and a woman? Again, these kinds of interests have been served by marriage throughout time.

It will, however, be difficult to square these goals and purposes with a marriage institution drained of substantive content, leaving the only legal purpose of marriage the public valorization of private choices.

If adult values are what is valuable, why should we favor marriage over cohabitation anyway? If a child’s connection to a mother and father are unimportant (as it must be if we do away with the shared public meaning that has institutionalized that connection), why should we be concerned about divorce?

Is “strengthening marriage” just a way of saying we want to make marriage more pleasant or enjoyable for those who choose to marry?

Of course, marriage can use all the support it can get, but does that support have to come at the costs of abandoning its social role? Even people who are not attracted to someone of the opposite sex may recognize that a marriage institution that brings men and women together is socially valuable. This is the position of some French citizens supportive of “gay rights” but opposed to redefining marriage.

Take a less emotionally fraught example. If we redefined marriage to completely remove the element of permanence, say by defining it as a term-specific relationship (perhaps five years), what would strengthening marriage look like? Keeping people from divorcing at 4 ½ years? Why would five be so important? What would the role of other, social, interests be in such a scenario?

Strengthen marriage? Of course, but strengthen the institution that has nurtured civilization. Don’t try to “save” it by redefining it into meaninglessness.