The Role of Romantic Love in Defining Marriage

Credit where it’s due to the National Review, for mounting what is, at least to me, the most cogent and rational defense of the restrictivist vision of marriage I’ve seen in some time, accomplished without referencing religion even once. That said, it’s typical National Review writing — lots of big words to hide small ideas — and certainly falls apart in due course. But it remains worth review and response.

The authors’ operative thesis seems to be that there exists some unique type of marital love that can only exist between a man and woman, as ultimately deriving from the procreative power. (This is nothing that hasn’t been heard and rejected by a growing number of courts: setting aside proffered philosophical justifications for the limitation, its over- and under-inclusiveness dooms it as a limiting criterion.) Along the way, the argument also rejects, by necessity, romantic love as a justification for marriage.

It’s true that, for gay marriage to make sense, the institution’s justification must rest almost exclusively on romantic love. But that’s a shift that’s long since happened, such that we’re stuck with its (overhyped) consequences regardless of whether we let men marry men. A trip to the theater will prove as much: we no longer marry to have children, to join families, or to cement power. We marry to love. And for that desirable transformation, we can blame Disney as much as “The Gays.”

And yet we’re told a number of reasons why romantic love is an undesirable, or insufficient basis to support the institution of marriage. For one, apparently, romantic love is selfish. (Has the author has ever been in love?) The article leads with a description of a micro-scandal that erupted this past December, when the New York Times spotlighted and celebrated, in their exclusive “Vows” section, the marriage of a couple who met while both were already married… to other people. This American Life previously covered the same phenomenon. To the Review, heartbreak and broken families are the results of basing marriage on exclusively romantic love, which is fleeting, and readily transferable.

I don’t buy it. Blaming broken marriages on shifting modern morals, and yearning for an idyllic bygone era, has a distinctively underthought Miniver Cheevy quality to it. If we hear about infidelity more “these days,” it’s because we hear about more everything “these days.” But more — and here’s where the Review proves profoundly internally inconsistent — if this is true, it’s not a problem that can be solved by legalizing some unions, and forbidding others. Each couple must decide for themselves why marriage matters to them. Some will choose bad reasons; those unions may fail. Banning some marriages, as a way of banning a basis for marriage, will miss the target, do nothing to arrest a decline in personal morality (if such a thing exists, which I do not concede), and accomplish the same legislative coercion that other Review authors inelegantly style “fascism.” Aren’t conservatives supposed to reject legislation as a way of controlling emotion?

Second, we hear, love is fleeting. Well… sometimes… certainly not always. But so is the reproductive power, and while the fact that some loves don’t endure may speak to the rarity and value of true love, it fails to rebut its reality.

So we come to the author’s critical point: that if marital love equals romantic love, the institution is diminished and trivialized, reduced to a special case of friendship (a thing defined by “degree”), when it should instead be unique and set apart by something firm from all other human relationships (a thing defined by “type”). Our author settles on reproduction as that signifier.

This is a narrow way to look at love. A change of degree can accomplish a change of type. As anyone who’s fallen in love with a friend — and who hasn’t? — would tell you, the depth of emotion hardly suffers for its origin, and there is a point along that continuum, a kick galvanic, where the character of feeling changes, and there’s no going back. Like progress in Kuhn’s paradigm of scientific revolutions, emotion flows over the channel lock, into a new way of thinking. And when it does, there’s no risk of confusing lover with friend.

More, settling on reproduction as the sole distinguishing factor between marriage and lesser relationships proves too much, and ignores reality.  First, if the reproductive act so transmutes mere love into Love that it, alone, is capable of sustaining the institution of marriage, as a corollary, gay love can never be anything more than a pale shadow of straight love… and I thought we’d moved past the pathological view of sexuality. Second, marriage is what we make of it: we don’t need the law, or God, or anyone to tell us that marriage should be special. It is special. Each couple takes the institution and makes it their own, using distinctions as varied as the human experience to separate their marriage from the other meaningful relationships in their shared lives. True, some distinguish it by having children together; but more distinguish it by raising children together. The only consistency between married couples is that all view their marriage as conveying something important.

Remember, we’re only having this debate because more people want to get married than we’ll currently allow. This is a good problem for an institution to have.


  1. “It’s true that, for gay marriage to make sense, the institution’s justification must rest almost exclusively on romantic love.”

    Couldn’t then that same justification be used for a variety of other marriages? Plural, incestual, etc?

  2. Probably as to polygamy. I think it’s pretty hard to oppose polygamy based on the morals or philosophy of relationships; but the former justification wasn’t very helpful on that either. I’d kick the job of restricting to the law.

    1. So we’re clear that the justification for any marriage of any type is strictly based in love. Back then to whether or not the state can make a valid case for restricting plural marriage or sibling marriage based on the values of modern society.

      1. “So we’re clear that the justification for any marriage of any type is strictly based in love.”

        I disagree. Marriage is entirely a social and cultural construct. There are societies currently in existence that still practice both polygamy and arranged marriage. Are you suggesting those people are not “really” married? Were people before the 17th century not truly married because they were born before the advent of companionate marriage?

        1. You’ll have to direct that question to Ames. I was simply making sure I had his point correct.

        2. “Any” in Mike’s comment works a mischief that I’d overlooked. I meant marriage today, in the United States.

    2. Right. And the way I would structure the legal argument is that there’s no due process right to marriage absent protected class status; and gay = protected class.

      1. I’m thinking pluralists could easily meet that standard based on sexual orientation and/or religion.

      2. Nah. “Many” isn’t a sexual orientation. And religion won’t get you a substantive right to which you otherwise aren’t entitled. Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990)

        1. “‘Many’ isn’t a sexual orientation.

          Says who?

        2. Says anyone acquainted with the word’s definition :). Sexual orientation references an innate preference for one gender over the other.

          1. Bisexual – how do you explain that?

            And honestly, how long before sexual behavior or sexual identity also become protected classes? Not long I think.

          2. Sexual identity will get there shortly. That’s my point. Bisexuality will live between the shadow of the two protected classes, I’m sure. That’s not a hard question.

            Sexual conduct is something entirely different. “The class of people who do X” never supports strong legal protection outside of due process.

            1. Bu bisexual is a protected class now. And one could easily claim their sexual identity as ‘pluarlist’.

            2. Haha, nope. This might be a distinction that’s obvious to lawyers but inobvious to the rest, so the fault is mine for not clarifying.

              But the way the protected class should be phrased is, “men and women who, as a matter of identity, relate sexually and romantically with members of their own gender.” Let’s assume that to be true, and that bisexuals come within the definition.

              The question called next is, can the right to marry be granted to straight couples, but refused to this class? As a matter of equal protection law — not due process — the answer is no. Again, let’s assume that’s true.

              The government can then equalize “up” or “down,” by, respectively, granting same-sex marriage licenses, or getting out of the marriage business altogether. On that legal rubric, number simply never enters the equation, because there’s no independent due process right to marry, and no way to balloon the class definition to cover polygamists.

              1. But Ames – if we acknowledge bisexuality as a protected class AND acknowledge modern mariage is based on love…isn’t it completely rationale to assume that you could have a situation where three people, all bisexual, fall in love with each other? Then what?

              2. The philosophical justification is distinct from the legal expression thereof.

                And, it’s not like your guys’ purported justification forces out polygamists, either. If the justification is “procreation,” then, well, shouldn’t polygamy be favored, even?

                1. You’re forgetting that I am completely okay with polygamy. I’m just waiting for you to acknowledge that it is on the horizon.

                2. Oh, but it’s not! I can’t see how you escape this… why not make the argument yourself, and I’ll tell you where it falls apart, or if it doesn’t?

                  1. I think I already did above…

                  2. You said the legal justification covers polygamy; I explained why it doesn’t. You said the philosophical justification does; I said maybe, but that doesn’t matter. I don’t see an answer to the latter point, or an independent argument.

                    1. If sexual orientation is a protected class – so is bisexuality. That’s the foot in the door.

                    2. Are you making the argument that bisexuals are more disposed to polyamory than others?

                      If so, I believe this is the point where it’s traditional to offer something called “data”. Because that assertion doesn’t seem at all obvious to me.

                    3. I’m not suggesting they are more inclined towards plural relationships BUT if a desire for men AND women is a part of their sexual orientation then it seems more possible they would have a case that marriage law must support that inclination.

                    4. You’re pushing the definition to a literal extreme that’s not really contemplated. Do you know any people who’re bi? It’s sort of an either or thing.

                    5. Actually, I think the problem might be that you’re viewing sexuality as a binary system, with bisexuality existing as some special case. That’s not really how that works. It’s better to view it as a gradient. You and I happen to inhabit the heterosexual side; others, exclusively the homosexual side. Bisexuality is an in-between thing. At least, based on people I’ve known.

                    6. I know at least three people who consider themselves bisexual. And one of those was actually involved in a plural relationship.

                      I don’t know why you think that i’m considering sexuality to be binary. My whole point is that you’re legally ignoring the potential romantic wishes of a third group.

  3. “…some unique type of marital love that can only exist between a man and woman, as ultimately deriving from the procreative power.”

    I agree that this is pretty much the argument that all marriage equality opponents ultimately fall back on, but they’re wishy-washy about it. That argument never seems to be used to say that marriages should dissolve after menopause or that elderly people unable to have children or even unable to have sex should be denied a marriage license.

    1. The original article, too, does a pretty crappy job of explaining that away. I honestly thought this would be one of the more fleeting justifications, once people thought about it.

  4. Ames – also a side note: WordPress has a feature when linking where you can specify the link will come up in a new window. Makes it a lot easier when reading your cited material and goign back and forth with your post. It’s at the bottom of the pop-up box when you paste the link.

    1. Oooh noted. Thanks! I always just ctrl-click and expect others to do the same.

      1. I do too but a lot of folks don’t know that trick.

      2. Yeah, I’ll do that now. Very clever of WP.

        1. While you’re in the technical stuff anyway, could I bother you to drop by Appearance -> Ipad on the Dashboard and uncheck the box there? (It’s called “Display a special theme”, but I think it’s the only one).

          It’s a fancy “Ipad-friendly” theme that WordPress decided to unilaterally impose across all their blogs a while back. Unfortunately, it’s really bloody annoying.

        2. As soon as Apple ships the damn thing I too will have an iPad! I’ll do it now.

  5. The interesting thing about marriage is how it changes over time. Before Jane Austen (or thereabout), no one would have thought to connect marriage with romantic love, because people got married for much more prosaic reasons – mostly to create a legal framework for dealing with property and legal privileges, as well as for protection (especially of women).

    Procreation certainly had a role to play as well, but in a sort of roundabout way: You obviously didn’t have to get married to procreate, but you did have to be married to ensure a somewhat orderly transition of your assets to the next generation, i.e. your recognized heirs. Again, property and privileges are at the center.

    Of course, most of this dates from a point in history when the state either didn’t exist at all or wasn’t strong enough to be relied on for that sort of protection. In the modern world with the stronger state (and, not least, effective probate courts), such concerns are perhaps less crucial, but not quite gone, if only because the state has in a sense adopted marriage as a useful legal framework for handling them. For some reason, though, they rarely seem to get much mention in these discussions, even though I think they get much closer to the heart of the matter than arguing about marriage is a “maximal experiential union” or “a unique form of friendship in being comprehensive and inherently oriented to procreation”.

  6. dave boudreau · ·

    LOVE is a many splender thing and that alone should allow more than one wife! This comes from a person that just celebrated 47 Years with the same women and YES I still dig her. I think about the loves lost, the people I could have made happy and they me!

  7. Mike, above:

    I’m not suggesting they are more inclined towards plural relationships BUT if a desire for men AND women is a part of their sexual orientation then it seems more possible they would have a case that marriage law must support that inclination.

    But marriage law that allows for both single- and opposite-sex marriages would support it. What do you think would be necessary beyond that?

%d bloggers like this: