'the future of marriage' live-blog: introduction

Since I started guest-blogging for the Institute for American Values' Family Scholars Blog back in January, I've been meaning to read IAV founder David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage (Encounter Books, 2007). To the extent that David B.'s views on marriage equality have shifted since he authored this text it's outdated -- yet it remains an influential text. Furthermore, David himself has affirmed that he still believes in his central argument in the text: that access to marriage as a civil right (one "good") must be balanced with the rights of children to be raised by their biological male/female parents (another "good"). What he terms "goods in conflict."

So I felt that it was important to get a book-length sense of where he is coming from, as I have from reading his colleague Elizabeth Marquardt's One Parent or Five? study. So this morning at the local public library I checked out a copy of The Future of Marriage and sat down to read it with a cup of tea when we got home. I can tell right away I'll need to live-blog it, or a review will never happen (too much to talk back to / about) so I'm going to put together my informal thoughts chapter by chapter.

Here are my notes on the Introduction.

  • He makes the assertion that "marriage is fundamentally about the needs of children," as opposed to fundamentally about the needs of adults (2). I'm curious to see how this argument plays out across the book for a couple of reasons. First, because I wonder why we need to set up such a dichotomy (children vs. adults ... why not "marriage is fundamentally about the needs of human beings"?). Must it be an either/or? Second, if we were to accept that marriage, as a social institution, were "fundamentally" about the needs of children the question obviously arises as to the place in such a social institution for married couples with no children (and no capability for procreation and/or plans to  parent). Regardless of the sexual orientation of those non-parenting couples, one wonders how we understand their marriages. This is obviously a very personal question to me since I am a married person without a) the capacity to procreate with my spouse and/or plans to become a parent.
  • He introduces the "goods in conflict" framework, using the following example: "It is good to deter crime by punishing criminals; it is also good to forgive" (3). While he doesn't explicitly say so, I assume he believes this to be a self-evident example of two "good" things. I'd point out that this is not necessarily the case: not everyone agrees that either a) punishment actually deters crime, or b) that it is  always a good thing to forgive. Similarly, the two "good" things David suggests stand in conflict in the marriage debate are not always both seen as "good" goals. There are those who don't believe in privileging bio-parent families, and there are those who don't believe access to marriage for same-sex couples is a positive thing. So I will be interested to see how he speaks to this dis-unity on matters of social goods.
  • Why choose marriage as a key social issue? This is something I've been thinking about a lot since I started writing for FSB, where participants across the political spectrum seem to take the notion mostly as read that marriage as a social institution isn't only something we should all have the option to access, but also something which has broad social benefits. (The corollary to this is, of course, that marriage promoters spend a lot of time wringing their hands about peoples' reluctance -- at least the right peoples' reluctance -- to marry.). I obviously chose, in agreement with my wife, to become married. I do not, however, think of marriage as a blanket social good. I am skeptical of its powers for social betterment. If we are interested in enhancing the well-being of the greatest number of people, I don't think marriage promotion is a very efficient campaign -- nor do I like the way it overlaps so significantly with intrusive moralizing about peoples' personal life choices ("settle" for a man -- any man! -- before it's too late; marry your "baby daddy," "take responsibility" for your pregnant girlfriend, etc.). 
  • I was struck by the repeated use of the term "marriage" where the broader notion of "family" might actually be more appropriate? For example, "[Humans] have devised an institution to bridge the sexual divide, facilitate group living, and carry out reproduction. All societies have this institution. They call it 'marriage' " (5). I would have said, actually, that the institution in question is actually "family," and that "marriage" is one tool in the toolbox for creating family. It strikes me as a peculiarly American/Western way of conceiving of family -- as something that could be reduced to (or at least centers around) the married pair. In other times and places, the married pair has been subordinated to other familial structures. 
  • Does marriage "bridge the sexual divide" (5)? And what does that even mean? I actually suspect it means that the state of being married is society's way of ensuring that men and women (those oh-so-different creatures!) must  learn how to co-exist. I suspect this because it's an argument I've heard from sexual conservatives who preach gender complementarity. If we don't force hetero young people into "opposite"-sex pairings, what will the world come to!? Women and men won't know how to communicate or co-exist any more! For obvious reasons, I am skeptical that it is only through a normative culture of marriage that the differently-sexed members of our humans species would learn to get along.
  • David B. refers to the notion that marriage is "a commitment between two people ... an intimate, caring relationship ... an expression of love" as "inadequate" (9). Rather than "inadequate," I might have picked "flexible," or "big tent," or "pluralistic" (although one could quibble about the last, since it actively excludes more political-transactional notions of what marriage is for). It is interesting to me that David finds such general notion of marriage to be disturbing -- surely it leaves us all room to flesh out the particulars of our own family lives and values? To get too rigidly prescriptive about what marriage means for all people would be to define many people who currently marry out of the state of marriage. Which is not to say I don't, also, have boundaries in mind for what marriage is and is not -- but I think my line in the sand for actively policing those boundaries for other peoples' relationships falls in a very different place from David's. I will be interested to learn more about where his boundaries are (or were, circa 2007).
On to chapter one!


  1. I look forward to your further thoughts on this book. I read it about 5 years ago, when David was still opposed to same-sex marriage (and was one of the most well-known "civil" opponents of marriage equality).

    So far, I like your point here:

    "I would have said, actually, that the institution in question is actually 'family,' and that 'marriage' is one tool in the toolbox for creating family."

    Although I remember David acknowledging that there has never been One Universal Definition of Marriage, I also remember his book trying very hard to nonetheless fit marriage into One Universal Definition, effectively excluding all alternative notions and reasons for marriage. Cherrypicking seems to the apt word, even if that's not what he meant to do.

    In any event, I appreciated his relative civility in the book, but I wasn't convinced by his rather dismissive treatment of other histories of marriage (such as those written by Stephanie Coontz, whose book he called "superficial and unsatisfying.") He also referred to multi-volume histories as "suffering from serious shortcomings." But, I also remember his book relying, in part, on poets, philosophers, and creation myths as "evidence" for his conclusions about marriage, which seemed kind of subjective to me.

    So, I wonder if you noticed any of that, as a historian. :-)

    1. Hi fannie,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment! Yes, I definitely noticed the dismissal of historians' work (I haven't read Coontz' marriage book, but the other work so hers I've read has not led me to believe she is a "superficial" thinker!). And in reading chapters 1-5 (the "what is marriage?" chapters) I feel like there's a lot of playing fast-and-loose with the complex task of cross-cultural analysis. He often starts out qualifying things (things are "speculative" or difficult to universalize)...but then goes on to make very strong, universalizing statements. It's driving me a little batty. Particularly since I don't see the need for it; I don't understand this drive to find some sort of universal essence of marriage that fits across all and space.

      Um ... great. Now what?

      And if you've just defined something that's actively excluded me -- as someone married! -- from the essence of what marriage is, it doesn't seem like a very useful working definition (because it fails to describe some married people).

      I don't begrudge David B. the project of making meaning of marriage. What I resist is that he's trying to define it for ALL people in ALL times and places. Which just seems ... presumptuous. (Like, talk about "superficial and unsatisfying"?).

      Anyway -- extended thoughts in the next post on Thursday!


  2. Yes, I share your exasperation with the need to make universalizing statements about marriage, as I don't see such statements comporting very well with reality. Good point about the cross-cultural analysis - it seems like he was trying to fit his observations about other cultures into his limited, Western narrative.

    I read Coontz' book on marriage at the same time I was reading Blankenhorn's, so that was an interesting juxtaposition :-)

  3. Anna, I particularly agree with your point that in other cultural contexts "the married pair has been subordinated to other familial structures" and would add that the way married pairs are expected to interact with other pairs within broader families is something that varies enormously within the US let alone the broader "West".

    I haven't been posting much on FSB because there was a death in my family, but I'd been thinking about discussing that fact. As you pointed out above as well, one of the assumptions that David and many of his political allies bring to the table is that two people being married is good and is always good. This seems to echo the sentiment I remember some of the people who've married into my primary family network talking about - that within their families people were either married and happy, married and unhappy, or divorced and essentially no longer in contact. Often the presumption was that each of those status disintegrated into the latter.

    Within my sprawling family, divorce is common, but it can't be assumed to result in a familial division. One of my mother's parents divorced and remarried (in one case, several times) in most of those cases effectively enlarging the family with new step-children or half-siblings. Divorce isn't necessarily desirable of course, but as a force it mostly expanded the family and created a larger, more varied, and in my opinion more enjoyable family.

    So in a very profound way, it seems as though within families like mine, even those that are Christian, live in the US, and otherwise fit David's bill, the ways couples interact with each other and are in a sense subordinated to a larger family structure actively challenges several of the assumptions he made. If we don't fit into this orderly view of the family that David has, how on earth are people with other religious traditions, or who live in other regions of the world, or who otherwise differ going to mesh with his vision?

    1. First, Matt, my condolences on the death in your family. I wish you and your family well and hope you have lots of helpers to see you through the rough times.

      You bring up a really interesting point about divorce and remarriage and other ways of extending the family circle(s). I also think David B. and others at FSB frame divorce as always a failure (with the expected caveat regarding abusive situations). I'm not so sure about that. My mother experienced a first marriage and divorce (no children) before she returned to college and eventually married my father; my brother and his high school sweetheart were married during college but ended up divorcing (also no children), and he has since remarried. In both cases, these marriages were not abusive or wholly negative, yet it was also ultimately a positive thing that they dissolved. Could they have stayed together? Possibly -- with different resources or life goals. But all four individuals involved, in this case, have gone on to build fulfilling lives for themselves. We all have bumps along the road, and I think to make divorce ALWAYS a failure constrains people in those situations from making a least-painful decision for those involved.

  4. Re: Which is not to say I don't, also, have boundaries in mind for what marriage is and is not -- but I think my line in the sand for actively policing those boundaries for other peoples' relationships falls in a very different place from David's.

    Hi Anna,

    I found your blog through Family Scholars, which it seems is defunct now.

    I'd be interested to know what boundaries you would set, and what sorts of relationships you think *are not* marriage.

    Re: Rather than "inadequate," I might have picked "flexible," or "big tent," or "pluralistic" (although one could quibble about the last, since it actively excludes more political-transactional notions of what marriage is for).

    Is that the definition you would subscribe to, and if so, are you comfortable with excluding transactional notions of what marriage is for?

    1. Hello, Hector,

      I will have to think about how to respond to your question about boundaries. I experience definitions as much more descriptive than prescriptive; David B. seems to feel the need to have a one-size-fits all definition of marriage (even as he acknowledges there never has been one). As long as all parties able to meaningfully consent to the relationship (meaning they are over-age and not coerced into marriage) I don't really have a stake in how they define their marriage(s).

      In a loose-definition (rather than legalistic) way, I see marriage as a public acknowledgement by partners within an intimate relationship that they are choosing to build a life together, pooling material resources and offering mutual support for one another -- as well as taking responsibility for any dependents within their household (children, animals, elderly parents). It is a public framework for understanding otherwise unrelated adults as a family unit with shared material and emotional success and hardship.

      I'm not really sure I understand the second part of your question. If we're talking about a descriptive definition of marriage, then transactional reasons for marriage MUST be included for the definition to be useful. I personally wouldn't get married for purely material reasons, but I am not here to police other peoples' marriage decisions (as long as they are otherwise within the law and consensual).

    2. Oh, OK. I wasn't clear whether you intended on a descriptive or a normative definition of marriage. I think some of the confusion stems from the fact that some people generally take a 'nominalist' approach to concepts like marriage (i.e. marriage is the general term that includes whatever different people and cultures define as marriage) and others take a more Platonist approach (= marriage is the ideal form of which all actually existing marriages are deficient copies, and the task of defining marriage should be to try and elucidate what that hidden ideal is).

      The second part of my question was because I thought you endorsed Blankenhorn's definition even while it included transactional marriages. I seem to have been wrong though. I think your loose definition works pretty well, more or less.

      I think it's also important to remember that there are always going to be marriages of which we *disapprove* (interfaith marriages, same-sex marriages, remarriages, transactional marriages, etc.) but that doesn't mean we want to law to prohibit them. Some people might disapprove of Christians marrying Jews, for example, but also think that other people have the legal right to make decisions that they disapprove of.