Let us start from the premise that there is nothing elementally good, stable, or rational about modern love and marriage, no matter what the twin paternal institutions of Church and State tell us. Premodern marriage did hold some society-wide benefits, uniting kingdoms and ensuring inheritance and lines of power, but it too had its drawbacks—namely, that there was no way to know empirically who the father of any child really was, and, with infidelity an expectation rather than an exception, the bond of marriage was the only thing keeping all of Western civilization from being nothing but a big collection of bastards.
Introducing romantic love didn’t help anything. Now we are bastards in love. To prove how much we love each other, we might spend more money than the gross domestic product of Mauritania on a single party, to which we invite people we don’t know, who give us money for proving our love in this way. Usually we make a big show of “going before God” in a church to declare our love and the bride wears a big white dress, which at one time would have signified her virginity, but since nearly 70 percent of us now live together prior to marriage, even though it is said to be explicitly frowned upon by the God before whom we are going to prove our love, I’m not sure what those parts mean and I bet nobody else is either. The trouble is compounded when you consider that somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of first marriages, e.g., those that are most likely to pull out all the stops, end in divorce—and nobody seems to expect them to give back all that money that they received for doing all of this in the first place! This surely is one of the most bizarre and misguided social customs in history, and I am certain that future cultures will ask a collective WTF over it.
And then there is family. We are told that the family is the foundation of society, but this is never explained aside from the simple arithmetical fact that the family is the smallest existing social unit. Even the notion of “family” is ill defined. Plato had some weird ideas about it, suggesting in The Republic that “wives and children” should be held “in common” and that random babies should be removed from their homes and raised in public nurseries. It wasn’t until Christianity tried to reign in sex that marriage became the basis of “family” life, and even then Christian fathers like Sts. Paul, Augustine, and Thomas Aquinas thought it was better just to avoid the whole mess and stay celibate. In fact, in Christian theology marriage may be the only legitimate place for sexual relations, but those relations had better be strictly for purposes of procreation because “lust,” even within the sacred bonds of marriage, is forbidden. You can have sex with your spouse but you can’t want to have sex with your spouse. Judaism is a little more forgiving on the issue; married people are allowed to enjoy sex, but the point is still to make babies. Biblical Judaism orders men to have two wives, but he only has to provide for the first one. Laws of infidelity in the Bible did not apply to married men, but married women who strayed were subject to execution. Islam has even more complex marital customs depending on sect and local custom, but in general once people are married, sex is promoted—theoretically, anyway—as a valid way to express affection whether or not a baby is the goal. That, at least, is refreshing.
Meanwhile, the secular types haven’t done much better with their ideas about marriage and family. Consider Charles Manson. He made his Family out of a collection of unrelated mentally ill young people who agreed to go on a killing spree for him. Hurray for socially sanctioned kinship ties! Single parents are always held up as a Bad Example of How Not to Do a Family, even though at least 27 percent of children in the United States lived in a single-parent-headed household in 2010. This year, which I am certain will be known in centuries to come as The Year Everybody Went Nuts, a state senator from Wisconsin introduced a bill to classify single parenthood as a form of child abuse. I am not sure what he thought we were going to do with the 27 percent of American children that his bill would have affected. Widows and orphans have been traditionally left out entirely of the definition of “family.” Let’s just shunt them off to a factory somewhere. And the rest of us have at least one family member who makes us think we would rather swallow a flaming piece of charcoal than sit next to them at Thanksgiving dinner. So even though sociologists and permanently unmarried priests might agree on what a family is, the rest of us appear to be at sixes and sevens over its very definition and would really rather just make our own families out of the few people we know that we don’t consider to be total idiots or raging maniacs.
Which, of course, is what gay couples have been doing all along. If you’ve ever wondered why gay couples look so goddamned happy and well rested and why their holiday parties are so much more fun than yours are, I’ll tell you: It’s because so many of them have chosen their own families instead of living inside the ridiculous pressure-cooker of anxiety, obligation, and resentment that we lovingly call marriage and family. And yet they still want what the rest of us have. If you’re straight, doesn’t that make you feel like shit, considering how abysmally we’ve represented? It should. Because even though you, my heterosexual friend, may be caught in a sticky morass of oddball rituals and feelings of confusing ambivalence over what it all means and whether or not it’s okay to lust after your own wife, if you are lawfully wedded in the United States of America in 2012, you enjoy no fewer than 1,138 rights, benefits, and legal protections that your equally committed but not lawfully wedded homosexual brethren are denied.
For crying out loud, can’t we end this farce already, straight people? Or, as Elaine Benes once observed about giving up her single life on Seinfeld: “Jerry, it’s 3:30 in the morning. I’m at a cockfight. What am I clinging to?”