Can Marriage Be Saved?

Can Marriage Be Saved?

Randall Kennedy, Edmund White, Laura Kipnis, Nora Ephron, Michael Bronski, JoAnn Wypijewski, Hilton Als


If you believe social conservatives, marriage in America has been under dire assault for more than a century–from adultery, divorce, feminism, birth control and now, apparently, gays and lesbians, who on May 17, the day Massachusetts began recognizing same-sex marriages, joined this at once venerable and fraught institution. Conservatives have a point; the percentage of married Americans has been in steady decline for decades. And yet, as the annual June hordes at the altar and the dramatic struggle for gay marriage attest, marriage continues to occupy a dominant position in American society. How does one make sense of this confusing marital landscape? We asked a range of writers and scholars to offer their thoughts. Should marriage be abolished? Reformed? How is it that marriage–despite its routine and oft-documented failures–persists as the focus of both our personal aspirations and political struggles? Their responses follow.    –The Editors


STRUGGLES FOR JUSTICE on behalf of racial minorities have often generated benefits that have enhanced the quality of life for society as a whole. Federal judicial monitoring of police practices arose from efforts to deter racist cops from beating confessions out of black suspects. The legal standards that provide substantial breathing room to publications that make mistakes in criticizing public figures emerged from efforts to safeguard newspapers against crippling libel actions brought by angry segregationists. Many of the key legal rules that protect demonstrators against arbitrary or discriminatory suppression were established by efforts to shield and encourage the black liberation movements of the 1960s. Some of the most impressive feminists and champions of gay liberation found their voices initially in campaigns for African-Americans and other oppressed peoples of color.

This pattern has continued with struggles to free marriage from invidious discriminations actuated by irrational or malevolent prejudices. In 1967 the Supreme Court belatedly invalidated state laws that prohibited people of different races from marrying one another. The Court announced its ruling in the most aptly titled decision in all of American law: Loving v. Virginia. On November 18, 2003, in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts made history by becoming the first American court to prohibit state officials from withholding marriage licenses from same-sex couples. In the course of its ruling, the Massachusetts Court referred repeatedly to Loving in an obvious attempt to tap into its popularity and legitimacy. Nowadays, after all, no national politician would dare support the laws that, for three centuries, prohibited interracial marriage.

The jurist who wrote Goodridge–a person who should be honored as the judge of the year–Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, is a South African-born white woman whose social consciousness was formed in the crucible of opposition to the apartheid regime and, later, through exertions on behalf of racial desegregation in the United States. Her court’s landmark ruling took effect on May 17, which happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. Symbolically and substantively, then, there are numerous threads that link campaigns against racism and homophobia at the marriage altar.

Unfortunately, there are some progressive African-American activists who oppose analogizing racial discriminations and sexual-orientation discriminations. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, for example, objects to the analogy, asserting that “some slave masters were gay,” that “gays were never called three-fifths human in the Constitution” and that “they did not require the Voting Rights Act to have the right to vote.” These objections should be swept aside. Yes, some slave masters were gay. But some were also black. And more to the point, some slaves were gay, as are a substantial number of black people who are descendants of slaves–a fact that Reverend Jackson seems keen to ignore. As for comparisons of legal standing, blacks and other racial minorities currently occupy a higher legal status than do gays and lesbians. In many locales, gays and lesbians are subject to open, unembarrassed and legally validated discriminations in terms of marriage, adoption, employment, housing, public accommodations and military service. Today, governments in America prevent no one from marrying on account of racial difference. But in forty-nine of the fifty states, gays and lesbians are wrongly prohibited from marrying on account of gender sameness. This is an injustice in which all Americans have a stake and against which all Americans should rally.

Randall Kennedy, a professor at Harvard Law School, is the author of Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption (Vintage).


MARRIAGE HAS ALWAYS APPEALED to my heart (and even, oddly enough, to my crotch) and offended my head. For years, throughout my 20s, I longed to get married to a man, and the idea so excited me that I had to learn not to propose: I realized it was too much of a turn-on for me to trust it. The rhetoric of eternal love and marital fidelity thrilled me, though I was never faithful to anyone longer than a month. At the same time I knew that real marriage–the kind that actually existed between men and women and not in my same-sex fantasies–was primarily a legal and economic institution, a bride exchanged for cowrie shells or cows. Having seen my parents live through a difficult divorce, I knew perfectly well that when love evaporated what was left was rancor, a hit squad of lawyers and drained family coffers.

Nevertheless, from a practical political point of view I’m not sure that the breakdown of marriage has been of any advantage to women and children. On the contrary, the sexual revolution of the 1960s and the feminist revolution of the 1970s have had the totally unexpected and unintended result of depriving women of husbands’ support and pushing women into the labor market, where they earn about 76 percent of what men earn for the same work. Social changes have also left single mothers high and dry without alimony or shared parental responsibilities. Men have gained and women have lost; as Barbara Ehrenreich has argued, the end of marriage has been a practical disaster for women. Perhaps these inequalities will be righted when the feminist revolution is more thoroughly assimilated.

And what about gay marriage? At first my rational side could see no advantages to it. I belong to the 1970s generation of gay liberationists who thought that gays might provide straights with a new, superior model of association, long chromosomes of lovers, partners, serial husbands and fuck buddies that would answer the real complexity of human needs. We were all certain that the ideal of companionate marriage invented in the nineteenth century represented an unrealizable goal, especially when the claims of hedonism and self-realization that cropped up in the second half of the twentieth century weakened the ethic of self-sacrifice. Companionate marriage–in which just one other person was supposed to be helpmate, sexual partner, best friend, domestic manager and soul-sister for life–obviously was not something that came naturally to the vagrant human spirit. Only strong religious convictions and an inflexible self-discipline could make it work, as well as a sense that one was living not for pleasure but out of duty to the next generation. Once that model of marriage started to collapse, gays proposed their own molecular models of multiple partners. To be sure, our model emerged in the late 1970s because that was an era in which antibiotics had stilled our fears of venereal disease and AIDS had not yet appeared with a new fatal consequence to promiscuity.

AIDS in the 1980s killed off many of the gay men who’d been adventurous about their personal lives–guys who slept around, took it up the ass, tried out new positions, played versatile roles, experimented with drugs. It preserved those men who were too drunk or too fearful or too puritanical or too homely or too traditional or too stiffly macho to try out any of those fun new gadgets or practices. Whereas the only visible gay leaders in the 1970s had been the leftist liberationist crowd, AIDS in the 1980s flushed out of the woodwork conservative, middle-class men, the ones who’d had no stake in coming out previously but who now were forced by disease out of the closet. Once out, these middle-class men seized power and knew how to wield it. They brought to the gay movement their own conservative values–including a respect for the family and for marriage.

Until a year ago I would have sniffed at the gay pro-marriage movement as just one more effort on the part of gay neocons to assimilate with their white, middle-class, straight friends and relatives. But the uproar of the Christian right against gay marriage has won me over to the cause. Anything that Republicans and Christians hate so much can’t be all bad. The question for me is no longer one of lifestyle but rather of civil rights. Lesbians and gays should have all the same rights as straights. Some of the rights we gained earlier were peripheral (and often reversible), whereas marriage goes right to the heart of national concepts of community and the future. Civil unions are not as good as marriages precisely because they lack the quasi-mystical symbolism (and many of the rights of inheritance and adoption).

Curiously, perhaps the ardor and zeal that gays are bringing to marriage may renew the prestige of the institution even in the eyes of straights. And maybe gay male couples–who aren’t subjected to the compassionate, civilizing influence of women–need marriage to soften them, bring a note of humanity and kindness into their relationships.

Edmund White, who teaches writing at Princeton, has written seventeen books.


WE LIVE IN ANXIOUS TIMES, conjugally speaking. Given recent census data, the condition of marriage has been declared a civic emergency, since as goes marriage, so goes the future of civilization–or thus conservatives fear. But what of all those thankless marrieds doing their best to uphold this flailing institution, especially those for whom the term “happily married” does not entirely apply? A 2003 Rutgers University study reported that 40 percent of married Americans do not describe themselves as very happy in this state. This is rather shocking: such a large percentage of the population pledged to lives of discontent and emotional stagnation, because that’s what’s expected, or “for the sake of the children,” or various other rationales. Contemplate the everyday living conditions that follow such trade-offs: households submersed in low-level misery and soul-deadening tedium; the reek of unsatisfied desires and unmet needs; a populace downing anti-depressants like M&Ms, or other forms of creative self-medication from double martinis to serial adultery.

Though what if luring a populace into conditions of emotional stagnation and deadened desire were actually functional for society? Consider the norms of modern marriage. Take monogamy, its fundamental organizing premise. The presumption here is that desire can and will persist throughout a lifetime of coupled togetherness, but what if it doesn’t? Apparently you just give up sex: Desire may wane, but those vows must remain intact. (Though let’s not forget what a lot of investment opportunities sagging marital desire provides–Viagra, couples porn, the therapy industry–dead marriages are actually rather good for the economy.)

Consider next the panoply of regulations and interdictions that underscores domestic coupledom–rules about everything from how you load the dishwasher, to what you can’t say at dinner parties, to how you drive. What is it about marriage that turns nice-enough people into small-time dictators, whose favorite marital recreational activity is mate behavior modification? What is it about modern coupledom that makes criticizing another person’s habits and foibles a synonym for intimacy? (Or is it something about the conditions of modern life itself: Does domesticity become a venue for control issues because most of us have so little of it elsewhere in our lives?)

Then there’s that American relationship mantra: “Good marriages take work.” How exactly did the rhetoric of the factory become the default language of coupledom? Is there really anyone for whom this is an attractive proposition, who after spending all day at a job, wants to come home and work some more? (If ours is a society that promotes more work to an already overworked population as the solution to marital discontent, who really benefits from an ethos of overwork? Typically not those performing the labor.)

If modern marriage has transpired into a social institution devoted to maximizing obedience and the work ethic while minimizing freedom and mobility, to renouncing excess desires (and whatever quantities of imagination and independence they come partnered with) in exchange for love and companionship, clearly there are social advantages here: The psychology of marital stasis is remarkably convergent with that of a cowed work force and a docile electorate. Who needs a policeman on every corner with such emotional conditions in effect?

Given that “wanting more freedom” is the contemporary euphemism for leaving such marriages, the ascendancy of gay marriage as a political demand has a depressing side to it. Resource distribution issues aside (which could be the case, were this the political fight being fought instead), the mainstreaming of homosexuality aside (with the kissing up to mainstream values it necessarily entails), of all possible social claims to advance, why this one now? If “wanting more freedom” were treated as a serious political question rather than a euphemism, no doubt different social claims would be forefronted. (Working less instead of more?) And should such claims be advanced, what other social contracts and vows might be up for re-examination, what other unrewarding social institutions would have to start watching their step?

Laura Kipnis is the author of Against Love: A Polemic (Pantheon).


ONE OF THE THINGS THAT DRIVE ME NUTS is that people always say that one in two American marriages ends in divorce. This isn’t exactly true. What is true is that every year there are twice as many marriages as divorces, but this doesn’t mean that one in two marriages ends in divorce. (Unfortunately I can’t really explain why this is so, any more than I can explain short selling, but trust me.)

I have a whole collection of statistics of this sort, statistics that persist in spite of the fact that they’re untrue. One of them is that one in eight Americans will have worked for McDonald’s. Another, which was stated categorically the other day on NBC, is that one in three New York men is gay. Another one, and I’m sorry to say this in the pages of The Nation, is the number of people who are killed by landmines (one every twenty-two minutes), and I don’t even want to get into incest, which for a while was alleged by some feminists to have happened to one in two women.

The statistic about marriage persists, of course, because although it isn’t true, it feels true. There’s a huge amount of divorce. Divorce is the news about marriage, and has been for the past fifty years. Divorce is the news about the culture, too, even though we tend to think that things like television and the Internet are the news about the culture. Divorce is probably going to turn out to be the reason for everything. And unlike television and the Internet, which may or may not be “good things,” divorce is bad. It’s bad for women and it’s bad for children. Show me an assassin or a serial killer whose parents weren’t divorced and I will show you an anomaly.

On the other hand, I have been divorced twice, and thank God.

Happy marriages aren’t all alike, but most happy marriages aren’t particularly interesting. But divorce is. Love is bland; the end of love is riveting. Love is serious; the end of love is farce. Love is mysterious and elusive; the end of love is specific to a fault. And when love ends, in the hands of lawyers, you can often see things about marriage that sometimes make me wonder whether half of American marriages (whether headed for divorce or not) aren’t, for the most part, performances.

My friend Merrill Markoe once wrote that one of the most compelling reasons to hope that gay marriage becomes legal is that gays may end up doing for marriage what they do for run-down neighborhoods: restore it to its original splendor. No question that the photos of gay couples getting married these days are far more moving than those perfectly posed pictures of men and women in the Sunday Styles section. Gay couples are usually celebrating love that has lasted, which is, of course, the hard part about marriage. It will be a long time before there are half as many gay divorces as there are gay marriages, but long before that happens, there will be a statistic about it that won’t exactly be true.

Nora Ephron, a writer and director, is currently working on the movie Bewitched.


LIVING IN CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS–a city so committed to being in the vanguard of the right-to-marry movement that it opened the doors to City Hall at 12:01 am Monday, May 17, to be the first municipality in the United States to issue state-sanctioned marriage licenses to queer couples–I feel that I am often in the eye of the same-sex marriage hurricane. While I have mixed feelings about the fight for same-sex marriage–which range from a 1960s gay liberation-instilled distrust of the institution to a cheerful acceptance that “equality under the law” has to be a good thing–there is one aspect of all this that drives me crazy. Now that many of my 40-60-year-old lesbian and gay male friends are getting hitched (many opting for the traditional wedding dinner and party they cannot afford), I wish them well. But I also wish they would be more honest about their motives.

My friends are, for the most part, women and men who have a history of political activism and who, even a decade ago, would have been dead set against looking for the state’s imprimatur on their intimate relationships. Yet they are rushing to the altar. Sure, civil marriage will provide gay couples some benefits that are now granted to heterosexuals–but until the federal government recognizes same-sex marriage, the scope of these benefits is quite limited. The rush to the altar is so strong that I can only think there is another reason; despite their stated countercultural politics and commitment to lesbian-feminism and gay liberation, these friends have a deep-seated, sentimental attachment to traditional marriage, with all its emotional weight and social trappings.

Equally surprising to me is that, to a large degree, this is a gendered affair. In fact, close to 75 percent of marriages that have taken place (legally) in Boston and (illegally) in San Francisco have been between women. (In my extensive social and political circle of friends, I know of only two males couples who have decided to get hitched.) Clearly there is something about state-sanctioned marriage that is more appealing to lesbians, and probably women in general.

And why not? These are women who were raised on Barbie–that rubberized icon of femininity, whose most sublime apotheosis was as a beautiful Bride–and who were caught up in the first wave of commercial propaganda of the postwar Wedding Industry. Is there any doubt, in anyone’s mind, that we live in a society that is completely dominated by a Marriage Culture that tells us from the age of consciousness that the only way to be happy is to be married? And that women are the primary targets of this cruel myth?

From my vantage, the fight for same-sex marriage is as much, if not more, about the brainwashing of Americans by the $70-billion-a-year Wedding Industry as it is about equal rights. Over the past sixty years it has been impossible for women and men–although most of the Wedding Industry’s advertising is aimed at women–not to be affected by the over-the-top consumerism that has warped people’s minds to make them believe that marriage is the only valid relationship. Sure, most of my friends are not buying $12,000 wedding dresses or $2,000 wedding cakes, but we are living in a political dream world if we don’t believe that the intensive commercialism and consumerism that unites Marriage Culture to the Wedding Industry touches all of us. According to Cindy Sproul, co-owner of, an online wedding gift registry for gays, gay newlyweds want the same thing heterosexuals want. “They want to wear tuxes, they want to wear gowns, they want traditional weddings. They want the same things: a DJ, a florist, a caterer.” Of course gay people, and especially lesbians, want to get married: They have been told to do so their entire lives by a culture that is hellbent on promoting a dyadic family unit and by a form of consumer capitalism that is as avaricious as it is overpowering.

Feminism has astutely dissected how the fashion and “glamour” industries have devastated women’s lives. They have scrutinized how commercialism of all kinds has harmed women. Yet, as far as I can tell, the gay and lesbian community has refused to discuss how the Wedding Industry–from Bride’s magazine to the newly minted “same-sex marriage greeting cards” that are selling briskly in gay bookstores–has influenced our lives. Marriage means many things to many people. But to willfully refuse to examine how marriage is deeply connected to–and propelled by–consumerism is both dangerous and destructive.

I am less worried about state-sanctioned marriage–there are some useful benefits here that are awarded to heterosexuals and not to same-sex couples–than I am about consumer-sanctioned marriage.

Michael Bronski is a writer, critic and journalist. His last book, Pulp Friction: Uncovering the Golden Age of Gay Male Pulp (St. Martin’s), was just awarded a Lammy Award for best anthology. A visiting professor in women and gender as well as Jewish studies at Dartmouth College, he has been active in the Gay Liberation Movement since 1969.


CAN MARRIAGE BE SAVED? Why, it’s saved every day, the good old-fashioned way, by divorce and adultery.

The mistake is in believing those things to be outside the marriage system, spanners in the works or, from another angle, bold, “transgressive” enunciations of sexual liberation. Of course household to household, divorce or adultery may mean any of that. There are real tears and sighs of relief among that 50 percent of straight married couples who dissolve their contracts, and real excitement (tears can come later) among the majority who tryst in spite of vows. For capital-M marriage, though, they are beside the point. Divorce saves the institution of marriage the way an escape clause saves the institution of the business deal, freeing the partners, in the bargain…for another marriage. I’ll never forget a feminist friend explaining, among the positives of her divorce, that her little daughter, who at the time liked nothing better than to play bride, would not have to endure the example of a loveless marriage spoiling her own dreams of a white wedding and the happy-ever-after.

No one talks this way about adultery. It promises no new beginnings, no second chance for monogamy, for the “good marriage” this time, with the good wife and good husband in which no one is ever insecure, ever needy beyond the embrace of home, ever even intrigued; in which everyone is happy, while happiness wreaks its impossible demands. Yet adultery rarely brings absolute rupture. Most adulterers don’t leave home for wedded bliss with their lover. What adultery brings is something harder, a confrontation with the lie and, beyond the bric-a-brac of forbidden love, with plain old desire in a monogamy system in which sex is currency, withheld as punishment, doled out as reward, or sometimes just another thing on a To Do list that is already too long.

Of course, the lie is more comforting than its unmasking, and so the “other woman,” ghoul of married women’s fears, is a hornèd thing, symbol of failure, delusion, selfishness. The dark angel, she is as necessary to the totem of the ideal wife as hellfire is to heaven. But is it reasonable, or just an article of faith in the marriage religion, that apostates must all be cynics or manipulators? A woman I know, single, 50-ish and by chance or design long involved with married men, answered the question this way:

“The fact is a lot of us are single and the longer we insist on that the smaller the pool becomes of single interesting men. Now, the boxes lined up conventionally for someone like me are celibacy, computer dating, husband-hunting, broken heart. No thank you. So I see these men, and let’s just say we engage in a free love. I don’t expect them to leave their wives. I want their interest and their care, intimately, mentally, and I offer them the same. They go home to their wives. I don’t know what they say or do about that, and it’s not my business. They love their wives, or need them, or need their families, or need the image of themselves that comes along with twenty-five years of marriage or whatever even if love is dead, and maybe it was never alive in the first place. Or maybe it’s good, but how much can it give? Life demands a lot, you know, and sometimes a person just needs to be weak. Or just needs, wants, a different kind of loving. We act as if comfort were evil–and curiosity, God forbid! For the time that I’m with these men I know something deep and loving occurs. Apart from everything else, I am their intimate friend. We’re talking years here. The Dr. Phils of the world would say that I’m a fool. The gay men I know get it completely. The women mostly I don’t discuss this with. It isn’t perfect, but nothing is. And I’d be lying to say I never want for more. In the pie-in-the-sky there’s always the ‘great love,’ the soul mate and comrade and lover combined. It’s a wish; it happens or it doesn’t, and, let’s face it, most of the time it doesn’t. But we live in a tyranny of the couple. Only single people understand this. And I guess what I resent most is the assumption that there is only one way for love, and if you haven’t found it, or if your man ‘strays’ or if you are the one he’s ‘straying’ with, then you’ve failed. I don’t think these guys’ wives have failed any more than I think the men have or I have. The supposed experts on love can hawk all the stuff they want about commitment, denial, avoidance, and people can lap it up and repeat it back to their single friends and their children. But at the end of the day there’re all these broken marriages, all these broken hearts, all these needs unmet. The rules for love everlasting are a bit like the rules for making it in the opportunity society, where really nothing is equal and nothing is fair.”

Maybe instead of asking whether marriage can be saved, we might think about how love is achieved, and not just couple-love, contract-love, but love in common too?

JoAnn Wypijewski is a writer in New York City.


MY BEST FRIEND DIED IN 1990. This is the first time that I have been able to type, let alone say, those words. We met at Columbia University in 1981. That was the year a report surfaced in the New York Times about a mysterious “gay” cancer that was claiming a number of lives–lives that seemed to have very little to do with ours, which were lived among the groves of metropolitan academic pretension. Barthes was big, but our very own Professor Karl-Ludwig Selig was bigger. He offered a course on Pasolini, whose epic film about the degradation of the soul, Salò, was being screened at night. Columbia was a boys’ school then. Together we sat in our tweed jackets, chinos and penny loafers, watching Pasolini’s critique of marriage, fascism and the lengths to which perversity takes us, in mind, body and language. In the film, the most beautiful couple–both virgins, a boy and girl barely out of adolescence–are married by a salacious “priest,” and then “defiled” by two older members of the cabal. The old man takes the young boy, and a hardened whore takes the young girl. It is a terrible moment, filled with lilies.

I don’t recall if I saw this film with my friend or not, but it was certainly among the films that we discussed at the time. I can’t imagine what it meant to us then, before we had married one another in our hearts, but I’m sure the effect of the film was terrifying. After we finished the school year (he graduated and I did not), we both got jobs working in the art history departments of Columbia and Barnard, respectively. Every day, after work, he came over to the Barnard side of the campus where I worked. He’d slip out of his loafers and put his big white feet on my desk as he read the paper and smoked (you could smoke in offices then). He had just broken up with his first boyfriend. One afternoon, as we walked to the subway, I told him how much I loved him, and forever. I suppose it was a marriage proposal of sorts. We never discussed it, but the promise of that afternoon never left us.

I have never been interested in public vows of affection. I have never, to my knowledge, ever left my friend, in spirit or mind, even after his death. I can’t imagine that if we had stood up in a room full of people and exchanged words of fidelity in front of a priest that it would have been much different than what we knew we were to one another: partners for life.

Hilton Als, a staff writer for The New Yorker, is the author of The Women (Farrar, Straus & Giroux).

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