Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Marriage Wars: The Real Fight is Over Moral Superiority

The marriage wars are about moral superiority.

Have you seen the "Gathering Storm" ad? It is the latest from the anti-gay marriage machine. Set against a grey, lightening-pocked, ominous background, it begins with the words: "There's a storm gathering. The clouds are dark and the winds are strong and I am afraid." It continues with one person after another (actors, all) declaring that same-sex marriage advocates are a threat. "Those advocates want to change the way I live," says one.

The ad touched off a televised maelstrom, with pairs of pundits yelling at and over each other with arguments that go round and round and never seem to come to any sensible resolution. The key question that befuddles gays who want to marry, and straights who have no problem with that, is this: How can one person's marriage threaten another person's? How is that even possible or plausible?

As Mike Barnicle asked when he was guest hosting Hardball, "I still don't get it. How, you know, if the couple upstairs, Ray and Tommy - what do they have to do with my life downstairs?"

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The predictable arguments are trotted out: God doesn't want it. Marriage is for procreation. It is the foundation of civilization. By now, all of these are high hanging curve balls for the batters on the other team who have been swinging away at these pitches for so long. (See, for example, this parody of the "Gathering Storm" ad, and this blog.)

Even if granted, though, none of the anti arguments answer that puzzling question - what does one person's marriage have to do with another person's? Just how, exactly, are gay marriage advocates going to "change the way [opponents] live?"

They aren't. But they are a threat nonetheless. If advocates were to succeed in achieving complete cultural and legal acceptance - maybe even celebration - of same-sex marriage, something truly significant would be lost by the other side. It is not something that those opponents can see or feel or hold in their hands, but they cling to it nonetheless. It is their view of the world.

Both sides have a worldview and wish fervently for theirs to prevail. Among some of those who oppose same-sex marriage, marriage really does have a sacred place. In their minds, it truly is the bedrock of civilization (anthropologists be damned!). Getting married is, to them personally, a transformative experience. It doesn't just make them more mature or more adult or just different from those who are not married - it makes them better.

That, I think, is the real reason why some (though not all) of the opponents of same-sex marriage are so vehement. It is why they feel so threatened. To open the door of marriage to gays is to let them in on the one resource that opponents are most reluctant to share (especially with gays) - their own sense of moral superiority.

The dark and scary motif of the gathering-storm ad aptly expresses a genuine sense of foreboding. Even though the arguments in the ad may be bogus, the fear is real.

If it really is a sense of moral superiority that is at stake, then it is also easy to understand the passion on the side of the advocates of gay marriage. The GLBT community has been so vilified for so long. They've been scorned as moral misfits. Now imagine if the mantle of marriage - the official, legal, federal, no-holds-barred kind - could confer instant respectability. No, not just respectability - superiority. MORAL superiority. Who wouldn't be tempted to reach for that diamond ring?

The marriage wars are not only about the moral high ground. I think there are sincerely-held motives on both sides that are worthy of respect. On the side of the opponents, they often are religious ones. On the side of the advocates, there is the wish to lean against that long arc, and bend it toward justice.

There are weighty practical matters as well, such as the 1,138 federal rights and protections afforded only to heterosexual married couples. The LGBT community is currently protesting their unequal opportunities in their very own tea party. The press release notes, for instance, that "LGBT individuals are blocked access to their partner's social security benefits, often making retirement financially difficult, if not impossible." The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) is another example. Official marriage would mean that LGBT people could take time off under that policy to care for their partners.

I'd never stand in the way of non-discrimination, so same-sex marriage has my vote. Still, I don't like this route to fairness. Any attempt to achieve social justice simply by expanding membership in the Married Couples Club is always going to come up short. As a single person, I don't have access to anyone's social security benefits, and I can't leave my own for anyone else - they just go back into the system. Were I to fall ill, no one can take leave under FMLA to care for me, nor can I tap its protections in order to care for a peer who is especially important in my life. Where's the justice in that?

Fortunately, there is growing momentum for more inclusive approaches that do not make the marital door the sole point of access for caring, sharing, and fairness. The "Beyond Sane-Sex Marriage" project, Canada's "Beyond Conjugality" project, and Nancy Polikoff's Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage book are just a few of those efforts. Now there's a storm I'd like to gather in my arms and run with!

I started writing this post because Jen, a Living Single reader, asked whether I thought that people on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate were making arguments that are matrimaniacal. Were they, she wondered, viewing marriage as an all-purpose magical solution to everyone's problems? And, she asked, isn't all this incessant promotion of marriage, in a way, a devaluing of marriage?

I like Jen's questions. So much so, that I concluded the first chapter of Singled Out by raising just those sorts of issues:

This is not a book about the "plight" of singles as victims, but about their resilience. Obviously, I'm going to moan about the many ways that singles are viewed and treated unfairly. I've already started. But I will not end with the predictable "woe is us." Instead, I will express pride at how well so many singles do despite all the singlism and the matrimania. Singles, by definition, do not have that one special Sex and Everything Else Partner who is supposed to fill up all of their empty spaces with happiness, maturity, and meaning. Yet, as we will see, the singles who actually are miserable and immature and who believe their lives have no meaning are the exceptions. How can this be? And if married people so obviously have so much going for them, why do they need swarms of scientists, pundits, politicians, experts, authors, reporters, and entertainers making their case for them? (from p. 27 of Singled Out)

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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