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Marriage: What Is It Good For?

It occurred to me that my desire in the previous post to emphasize my agreement with the conservative position that marriage is more than a private, individual decision may lead to some misunderstanding of my view on the benefits of marriage.

I don't subscribe to the "marriage at all costs" idea, in which having people wed is of overriding importance. People like Maggie Gallagher are, I think, too quick to see divorces as iinstances in which people fell out of love and lacked the pressure (internal and external) to stick it out and make things work. There are many bad marriages, just like there are bad parents (a fact that calls into question the presumption that biological parents are always the best ones). Any sort of interpersonal relationship involves a tradeoff between the need to pick the best situation and the need to make the most of the situation you've picked. We don't think much of people who chronically get tired of their job a week after being hired and go looking for something else, but we're also skeptical of the idea that someone can or should commit irrevocably to a single career. The rate of divorce, and the reluctance of some people to get into a marriage, in and of themselves tell us nothing about whether we've hit the optimal balance between "make it work" and "find a better situation." They also tell us little about whether and what structural changes we can make so that people can more easily find good situations and more easily make them work.

I don't presume that marriage is for everyone (indeed, most of my discussions of marriage include the unstated assumption that I'm talking about people who want to be married). Marriage is a useful institutional structure that can meet a lot of the needs and desires many people have. It's convenient for both the spouses and for people around them to be able to refer to a generalized, pre-constructed template as a rough model for their relationship. It's quite difficult to have a unique conception of each couple's relationship, particularly in the case of people you don't know well. Of course, there's also a danger in slavish devotion to the template that leads one to ignore, or squash, a couple's unique variation on the general model.

Related to that, marriage is also not an all-or-nothing proposition. The legal ramifications generally are, but the social factors -- commitment to one's partner, recognition of and support for the relationship by others, etc. -- can be more fluid. Society can accomodate some variability in how people relate to one another.


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