Marriage and the Family, Nurture or Torture?


The Constitutional Precedents For Marriage Equality

The recent Supreme Court decision, Obergefell, et al v Hodges, gave same-sex couples the Constitutional right to marry in the United States.

In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy cites the many Supreme Court decisions that expanded the inclusiveness of marriage to a wider variety of same-sex couples and individuals—prisoners, interracial couples, and men behind in their child support payments—all of whom sought the right to marry, not because of their unique status, but, as Judge Kennedy makes eminently clear, because of the “right to marry in its comprehensive sense.”

Kennedy also cited decisions protecting the rights of homosexuals.

These two legal approaches were the guiding forces in leading the majority opinion to end the last legal barrier to “equal protection” and “due process” for same-sex “intimacy”—- all state laws prohibiting same-sex marriages. In addition, states will be Constitutionally compelled to honor all marriage licenses given out-of-state.

Aside from the legal and Constitutional issues framing the majority opinion, Justice Kennedy included in his statements a wide array of assumptions about marriage.

Marriage as a Venue for Stability, Harmony, and Nurture

One of those assumptions is that marriage provides a strong venue for “stability.” The stability factor can refer to all the “benefits” that have accrued to opposite-sex couples but that were historically denied same-sex couples. Those benefits can range anywhere from hospital visitation rights to medical (family plans), social-security benefits, and the right to file income taxes as a legally recognized couple.

Stability can also refer to the psychological grounding that marriage provides to couples and to any children resulting from that union.“Harmony” and “bi-lateral loyalty” were also referred to as qualities that marriage enhance.

“Harmony” and “bi-lateral loyalty” were also referred to as qualities that marriage enhance.

Kennedy describes marriage as a “keystone of our social order” and often refers to its “transcendent” nature. To reinforce the many positive narratives about marriage, he quotes De Tocqueville’s reference to the family as a “bosom,” a venue to escape the “turmoil of public life,” and an “image of order and peace.”

De Tocqueville, of course, mirrors the traditional conservative view of marriage as a nurturing place far away from all the frenetic noises of the outside world (In our day those noises have a wide range—competition and backbiting in the work place; the internet; the fear of lay offs; commuter traffic; food-store lines; mortgages and equity loans; taxes; automobile breakdowns—all the accoutrements of modern society).

Judge Kennedy, in many ways, is following what some might call the “party line” about the marriage narrative in Western society.

The Christian “Holy Family” Narrative

That story was constructed first by the Roman Catholic Church’s model of the  “Holy Family,” as the ideal paradigm of saintly calmness, and nurturing. The Medieval and Renaissance art world was swamped with paintings of  Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in beatific poses of serenity and family contentment (It is interesting to note that, in this narrative, Joseph, a prominent figure in the iconic Holy-Family tradition, is never mentioned in the New Testament after Christ was twelve years old. And there is definitely no testimony given to his death. Nor is he given any sentimental value in the New Testament as a guiding patriarch of the family).

The “Holy-Family” image gained a lot of traction throughout the history of Christianity, particularly Catholicism. Those of us who went to Catholic elementary and high schools in the 1950s certainly remember all the images and holy cards of that iconic family. In many ways, it was because of that image that our own families were often found to be wanting.

State Control of Marriage and the Evolving Secularism of Western Society

Because of the Disestablishment movement in the nineteenth century, Christianity lost its hold on having the exclusive right to legally marry couples. As a result, Western governments took over that role. (Many Christian clergy still resent the fact that the state has the only legal power to defer that role to them).

The state-controlled legalization of marriage, whether common-law or in a religious ritual, continues to be part of the ever-increasing secularization of Western culture, a reality obviously not missed by conservative Christians and Muslims throughout the world.

Divorce and separation laws have also evolved in the West. Barring any pre-nuptial agreements or proofs of incompetence or incapacity, there is a kind of no-fault movement occurring in the West that has resulted in the down-the-middle splitting of all economic assets and child-rearing rights in divorces and separations.

And yet, even within that increasing secularization evolution, marriage continues to have mythic value to most Americans.

And that mythic value revolves around the traditional notions of marriage as a place to grow in stability, order, harmony, nurturing, and, ideally, in adult communication and behavior.

“Not so fast,” as any trial lawyer might respond.

Family as a Source of Conformity, Abuse, and Co-Dependency

Aside from all the romantic songs, poems, and teen-age driven sentimental summer romance films promising “eternal love” or “’til death do us part,” there has been a continuing cynicism about some of the more blatant flaws of legally committed relationships we have come to know as marriage in the West.

Granted, we have evolved. Woman don’t have a monopoly on being exclusive care-givers and nurturers of their children. At the same time, women no longer have to take the silent-partner role dictated by the practice of coverture, a practice, historically, in which women had no rights within marriage.

But marriage and the family, over many centuries, has also reinforced the possibility of increasing conformity, if not repression, for many children and young adults. Once you are born “into” a family, more than likely you are joined at the psychological hip of that family. The chances of being severed from that hip, as we all know, are pretty slim. And the long-term psychological damage done by many parents has kept therapists in business for decades in this country.

If you “happen” to be part of a family that is, for the most part, psychologically healthy, you are one of the lucky ones (and even that is no guarantee that you’ll turn out alright). If your mom is a crack addict or your father is an abusive alcoholic, then it will be an uphill battle to survive as an adult with a mature, mentally stable, and emotionally balanced persona.

Families are also miniature cultures. Some have chosen to blend into the larger culture (consumerism, the internet, popular television and film, theists); some have chosen to opt out entirely, or in part, from the dominant culture (Amish, home-school advocates, no-cable-tv families, atheists); some, because of bad luck or bad choices, are trying to get back into the larger culture (the unemployed); and other families just ride out their lives with no plan or no clue what purpose they might give to their lives or the lives of the children.

The “nest” is a common metaphor for families. It is a very open-ended poetic analogy because it can also mean an over-protective, co-dependent, helicopter-parent environment in which adolescents take a much longer time to mature and to become independent, responsible adults (the economy, of course, plays a large factor here forcing many post-adolescents to stay with their parents. The Affordable Care Act has certainly deferred to this reality when post-adolescent children can now stay on their parents’ health insurance until twenty-six).

Families, Old Age, and the Culture of Individualism

At the other end of the spectrum, the United States, like other more economically advanced countries, is now confronted with the reality of its aging population. Because Americans are living longer, the elderly are now the fastest growing age sector in the United States. Even the definition of old-age is shifting, along with all the other age categories (what constitutes middle-age in the United States is a clear indication of the shift in definitions; “middle-age” now appears to have moved into an ever-increasing upper range of a person’s fifties. And “old” is now being redefined to include more people in their nineties and over).

The US economy is a double-edged sword here. On the one hand, it continues to keep the American cultural value of “individualism” alive and kicking. Because more adolescents are going to college, necessitated by the advancing requirements of a college degree, we are a producing a culture in which an increasing number of people are “defining” themselves by their careers, not by their family roles. So much so that their work often becomes the main source of their identity.

It is not unusual, for example, for professionals to see themselves as doctors, lawyers, CEOs, actors, writers, or even clergy, not as fathers, mothers, or adult children of aging parents. The larger society is more apt to see them in their professions than in their personal lives. And when many of these careerists retire, they often move away from their adult children (if their adult children remain in the places of their births) to establish independent lives in sunnier, elderly-friendly communities.

The current post-Great-Recession economy is also increasing the age limit at which people can retire. As a result, we are losing a section of the elderly population that could have closer bonding relationships with their grandchildren. When a grandmother is still working at the local 7/11 or Walmart, a son or daughter can’t rely on their parent to baby-sit or take care of a sick adolescent.

Same-Sex Marriages Now in the Loop of New Realities to Face

The opening of marriage to same-sex couples has certainly been a good thing, on so many levels. But it also brings to gays a host of new problems that they, too, will have to confront if they choose to have children. And, even if they don’t, they will now have the added dimension of a “partner” in the ever-increasing expansion of what it means to be middle-age or elderly in this culture.

And gays will also be confronted with the same challenges that heterosexual couples have had and will continue to have in society. Their child-rearing or or married-couple status will also be confronted with the same marriage narratives that same-sex couples continue to struggle with.

They can choose to, or by default, stay in the mainstream culture, or not, and at any level (totally or partially). If they choose to have children, they then will have to choose whether or not that role will complement or be in conflict with their identities in the work world (or who is going to be the stay-at-home parent, if that is the parenting model they choose).

And same-sex married couples who decide to parent will have all the other issues related to what it means to grow old in this culture.

In the end, anyone who decides to marry and/or to have a family(the chances of that happening are much greater than the chances of being single), will certainly experience all of the challenges of being in a committed, legal relationship: the economy, peer pressure, consumerism, careerism, work, inter-personal relationships, aging, and the cultural value of individualism (both in the partnered relationship—with or without children—and in the large culture).

It ain’t over ’til it’s over, as they say.


3 Responses to Marriage and the Family, Nurture or Torture?

  • Very thoughtful, John.

    I am convinced that if my parents were, say 20 or even 10 years younger – born as baby boomers instead of Depression babies – they would not have gotten married, at least not to each other. They couldn’t see, or rather, refused to see, that there were ways to live life and live your lifetime without pairing off with the boyfriend/girlfriend they happened to be with when they reached their early 20s, or with the ‘best’ they could convince to marry them.

    And, in the culture and the time they grew up in (steel mill working class), the meme was that the spousal relationship, after a brief ‘honeymoon period’, was one of mutual misery but unquestioned cultural obligation (cf “Andy Capp”).

    • Larry, Amazing isn’t it. I think you are so right about the Depression-born paring off with the “mate” their with and living out their lives in “mutual misery.” I once described that generation and some of the baby Boomers as mastering this definition of love: “Loyalty with resentment.” John

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *