Wars of the Ring: Revisioning Marriage in Postmodern Culture
by Dan Cere, Montreal Gazette,
March 30, 2002

A recent symposium at
McGill University (Montreal, Canada) attempted to resurrect a discussion about marriage (Wars of the Ring: Revisioning Marriage in Postmodern Culture, March 22-23). The symposium was a modest attempt to begin a conversation. It brought together academics, public policy theorists, and politicians from very diverse perspectives: liberals and conservatives, feminists and traditionalists, young and old, married and single. The speakers were drawn together by a shared sense that something was missing in our discourse on marriage both in popular culture and academic theory. We seem to be at a loss to be able to articulate effectively the distinctiveness and significance of marriage as a unique social frame that serves the world of heterosexual love, bonding, procreation, and family.

Speakers pointed out that since the 1950s the central bonds of marriage (e.g., its permanence, its fidelity, its procreative potential, etc.) have been loosened.  At each stage the experts assured us that the ``reforms" would only have a very modest and beneficial impact on marriage. The experts have been consistently wrong.  Divorce rates have soared, marriage rates have declined, birth rates have plummeted, cohabitation rates have increased, out of wedlock births have shot up, fewer and fewer children are reared from birth to adulthood by their biological parents.

The depth of the erosion of marriage was illustrated by Liberal MNA Geoffrey Kelley's brief but incisive survey of the seismic demographic shifts that have taken place in this province. He points out that most of the academic analysis of the ``Quiet Revolution" has focused on the political and economic changes within Quebec since 1960. However, Kelley argues that nothing compares to its revolutionary demographic transformations. In the 1950s close to 100% of Quebecers were married by the age of 50, today only 33% get married. Despite the fact that only a minority get married, nevertheless divorce rates are still spectacularly high. Close to 60% of all children are now born outside of wedlock. Our birth rates have dropped from one of the highest in the Western world in the 1930s to the lowest (1.5). The vast majority of children (67%) will grow up without one of their parents for some significant period of time. The erosion of long-term conjugal bonding has been deep and this has had a profound impact on spouses as well as children. Finally, Quebec family policy has collapsed into a one-dimensional strategy: a 1.5 billion government investment in day-care.

At each stage of the ``reforms" to marriage and family life the communities and individuals sympathetic to the core bonds which sustain marriage were typically disorganized and confused. There were vague warnings about potential problems accompanied by pleas to stick with the tried and true. The response was tentative, frustrated, poorly argued, and poorly communicated. There was no real investment in the debate and little in the way of consolidated intellectual effort.  This embarrassing performance left the field clear for advocates of reform who had done their homework to press forward. 

In North America one of the few articulate pro-marriage positions to be put forward has been the ``case for marriage" argument. Over the last ten years,  David Blankenhorn and Maggie Gallagher, two of the intellectual leaders in the U.S. debates, have spearheaded an effort to highlight the social scientific evidence for the benefits of marriage. Marriage scores better on a whole set of statistical indicators such as relationship stability, emotional well-being, health, longevity, and financial success.

However, both Blankenhorn and Gallagher used this symposium to signal their growing dissatisfaction with this utilitarian line of argument. Both suggest that while the statistics are true, nevertheless this ``family values" discourse is too colourless, too defensive, and too predictable. Gallagher argues that its ``marriage is hard work" rhetoric fosters a dismissive attitude to the erotic and the passionate dimensions of conjugal love. 

Family values discourse may be actually contributing to our cultural apathy about marriage by obscuring the more radical and startling characteristics of monogamous marriage. Marriage is an erotic bond that bridges the sexual divide within the human species. It is a bonding that sinks its roots into primordial and powerful heterosexual instincts and rituals within human nature, yet is rich with symbol, myth, and culture. It is a procreative bond that generates human life through the biological fusion of male and female flesh. It is a genealogical bond that reaches back into time through its ancestors and forward to the future through its descendants. It is a bond that insists on the rights of offspring to a stable relationship with their biological parents.

The lavish complex experience that marriage attempts to support is obscured in current legal debates. The ``Canada Panel" led by Senator Anne C. Cools examined the fundamental changes to federal law now being proposed by the recentReport of the Law Commission of Canada on Close Personal Adult Relationships to the Canadian Parliament. This report attempts to restructure Canadian law on the basis of a recently developed model of human relationships known as ``close personal relationship theory". This theory argues that all intimate relationships between two persons, whether homosexual or heterosexual, are basically cut from the same cloth. They operate according to the same dynamics and meet similar needs, therefore they should be treated the same in law. This flatfooted academic argument runs roughshod over any distinction between homosexual and heterosexual bonding in an effort to create a one-shoe-fits-all-sizes category. It demolishes any meaningful recognition of difference. Legal experts have now come up with the bright idea of restructuring Canadian law and marriage on the basis of this skewed academic theory of human religionships.

A number of conference speakers noted that we have reached yet another frontier in the debate about the bonds of marriage. Same-sex advocates would like to see the male-female bond deleted from the core definition of marriage, or, at least provisionally, to establish parallel conjugal institutions such as the ``civil unions' association proposed by the Quebec government. Communities and individuals committed to marriage once again seem confused and tongue-tied before this profound challenge to this core identity of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. 

The real heart of the debate at the symposium was the contention that our social policy and theorists do not have an adequate language to speak to the thick complexity of marriage as the unique form tailored to the social ecology of heterosexual love, permanent bonding, procreation, and nurturing of children. Our social and legal theorists are now applying very narrow and distorting conceptual frameworks such as ``close relationship theory" and ``social constructivism" to the discussion of marriage and sexual intimacy. These mind-sets simply do not do justice to, or make sense of, the deep social ecology of male/female bonding.  They do not, and probably cannot, explain the role of marriage as a unique cultural context for the multi-layered dimensions of heterosexual bonding. We need a new vision, we need a new language.

The most bizarre thing is that Canadians are being asked, once again, to tamper with the core bonds of marriage in order to fit marriage into the narrow conceptual frameworks now popular with our contemporary intellectual elites. The shoe should be on the other foot. Canadians should be insisting that our social policy experts and legal theorists go back to the drawing board and do their homework. They need to work up language and concepts strong enough, and rich enough, to begin to get at the significance of marriage; not to deconstruct marriage in order to fit into the crippled and one-dimensional views of human relationships that happen to be in intellectual fashion.  

The symposium exposed a profound frustration with the limitations of our experts' discourse on marriage and a deep suspicion that new proposals for ``reform" are being built upon these weak and flawed intellectual foundations. To our politicians and public policy experts it is sounds an alarm to stop the tortuous deconstructing and demolishing until we get a much better understanding of the strange treasures dwelling within the core bonds of this perplexing and enigmatic form of life.