In his column last November, David Brooks’ argued for gay marriage on the premise that it would channel gays into monogamous relationships, and that monogamous relationships are healthy and fulfilling. If gay couples want to be faithful and monogamous, Brooks opines, conservatives should be doing all they can to encourage and support them.
He’s partly right. But he’s mostly wrong because he doesn’t go far enough.
Noting that marriage is in crisis, for example, Brooks notes that:
every human being in the United States has the chance to move from the path of contingency to the path of marital fidelity — except homosexuals. Gays and lesbians are banned from marriage and forbidden to enter into this powerful and ennobling institution. A gay or lesbian couple may love each other as deeply as any two people, but when you meet a member of such a couple at a party, he or she then introduces you to a “partner,” a word that reeks of contingency.
You would think that faced with this marriage crisis, we conservatives would do everything in our power to move as many people as possible from the path of contingency to the path of fidelity.
Brooks is wrong both on the facts and his underlying assumption. He forgot (doesn’t know?) that homosexuals are not the only “human beings in the United States” without the “chance to move to marital fidelity,” as Brooks defines it. People born with sexual preferences for siblings, to name one class, are similarly denied the option of marriage to the ones they love, as are first cousins. While we don’t know the number of Americans with familial sexual preference, we can assume the number is not insignificant given that 20% of marriages were between siblings in ancient Egypt, where the practice was accepted. But because modern society has shamed and demonized people with familial attraction into the closet, or into self-denial in order to accommodate society’s bigotry, every prominent supporter of equal marriage rights overlooks them.
Cynics might believe that Brooks doesn’t actually support equal marriage rights, and tolerates discriminating on the basis of familial sexual orientation. Some skeptics go so far as to wonder out loud if the uber marital-egalitarian Andrew Sullivan — who has failed to offer a single criticism of laws that prohibit fathers and daughters from marrying, even after the daughter is 18, in the thousands of sentences he’s written on equal marriage rights — has omitted this class not out of ignorance, but out of bigotry! The scandalous charge is hard to swallow. To think that the self-proclaimed champion of equal marriage rights regardless of sexual orientation is criticized for, of all things, discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation!
If the charge is true, and Andrew has sadly failed to deny or otherwise respond to the accusation, perhaps Andrew, or at least David, can explain why they support laws that discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Those born with sexual preferences for their family members deserve an explanation. (By the standard Sullivan uses against defenders of traditional marriage, he’ll have to prove that people with familial attraction “are not fully human.” It’s a really tough standard.) Trusting that he won’t be able to show that they’re not human, maybe he’ll argue that familial attraction is perverted. Unnatural? Brooks will certainly want people with familial attraction to be ushered into monogamous marriages like his.
But more important than overlooking those with familial attraction, Brooks’ central premise contains a devastating fallacy: he equates monogamy with fidelity.
Brooks is right that fidelity is a linchpin of succesful marriage, and all of the virtues Brooks ascribes to marriage are the result of a meaningful, trusting, soul-sharing relationship. But he’s wrong to think that someone can be faithful and loving to only one person, and there are historical and contemporary examples that convincingly demonstrate that marriage needn’t be based on exclusivity to be rewarding. Polygamous, polyandrous and polyamorous relationships aren’t monogamous, by definition, but partners can still be perfectly faithful.
My great-great-great-grandfather, John Johnson, was a Mormon polygamist jailed by the US government on charges of “co-habitation.” He had two wives, both of whom loved and accepted the other, and to whom John was perfectly faithful. John was the first polygamist to die while incarcerated because, in the words of the news story the day he died, “his conscience would not allow him to make any agreement to obey the law in the future, because it amounted from his standpoint to an annulment of a contract with his plural wife entered into before the status, which brought conviction against him had been made a legal offense.” It’s a mistake to refuse to call grandpa’s devotion and commitment to his wives “fidelity.” I fear that Brooks (and Sullivan) believe my grandfather was unfaithful because he had two wives. No doubt Brooks meant no offense. In trying to redirect his readers’ attention from gays to a new bogey-man, he unthinkingly focused on faithful polygamists like my grandfather.
Conservatives like Brooks and Sullivan will surely agree that it was wonderful that my grandfather’s second wife was married, loved, and cherished, rather than alone and lonely. Even Andrew would concede that she was fully human, and once we agree to that, what more needs be said?
But polygamy is only part of the conservative crusade. Brooks and Andrew have overlooked the tremendous need to embrace group marriage. This is where Brooks has it completely wrong. Not only did he mistakenly equate fidelity with monogamy, he shockingly believes that monogamy is the solution to the marriage crisis. Yet the divorce rate has grown exponentially since the US Congress made monogamy the only recognized marriage in the United States in the 1800s. Today, about 130 years into our monogamy experiment, about half of all people who try a monogamous marriage change their minds. With success like that, what’s failure?
Unaware of the source of their problem, however, victims of failed marriages typically blame themselves, thinking they weren’t fit for marriage. But besieged by incessant cues on the superiority of monogamy in romantic movies, television, media, and the law, they decide to try again, frequently only to fail once again.
Even those who stay married are frequently unhappy. Americans spend billions of dollars every year on counseling, books and escapes designed to help them make their monogamous marriage bearable. The reason married people so frequently don’t enjoy each others company, especially as seniors, is precisely because they get too much of it.
Clearly, monogamous marriage doesn’t meet the needs of many, many people.
Brooks praises monogamous relationships where partners, unable to find inner substance, resort to defining themselves by excluding everyone else. Like preschoolers, they haven’t learned that life’s true joys aren’t in possessing something, or in having something others don’t, but in sharing beautiful and precious treasures. Sharing is a noble virtue, and monopolizing something as valuable as a person’s personality, affection, kindness, and love, shows a glaring indifference to the rest of humanity. Love, like all goodness, dies when hoarded, and blooms when shared. To learn more, read Understanding Opposition to Polyamory.
Cheating in monogamous marriage is rampant, and increases the transmission of STDs. Many polyamorists, unwilling to deny their sexual orientation, are invested in committed, healthy marriages to multiple spouses. Rather than support these relationships, the law places them on unequal footing, suggesting that they can return to “valid relationships,” i.e., monogamy, if they like. “Gays should just find a pretty girl and settle down,” anyone?
Conservatives should stop encouraging polyamorists to enter monogamous marriages — leaving a wake of estranged partners, hurt children, hard feelings, and years of regret — and help them build the committed, loving, healthy, and stable relationships they want and need. Fidelity is the principle that underlies conservatives’ view of marriage.
Marriage is a living, breathing institution that adapts with the times. David Brooks and Andrew Sullivan should lead us to the future.