The Marrying Kind

The Case for Same-Sex Marriage

by William N. Eskridge Jr.
Free Press, 296 pp., $25.00

Virtually Normal: An Argument About Homosexuality

by Andrew Sullivan
Knopf, 209 pp., $22.00

For most Americans today, acquiring a spouse is the most important task in the years after high school. You are supposed to find someone you love and who loves you, to get to know each other and confirm that you are compatible, and then move into shared quarters and take up a common life. Ideally, you and your spouse then stay together, in the formula of the Book of Common Prayer, “so long as ye both shall live.”

If you want to start a family, your spouse is the person with whom you will have and raise children. This is one reason sex is important to marriage. But you may not want to raise children and (while this may distress your parents) that is your right. Sex still remains important. It is a natural and pleasurable expression of marital love; which is to say that marital love, at least as most of us now conceive of it, is largely erotic.

But your marital relationship will, of course, affect almost everything you do; it will be central—especially if it goes well—to the meaning of your whole life. As you grow old and look back, you will be looking back on a life lived together. Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra is so often quoted because he captures this promise so exactly:

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made…

It is a vision expressed with a more prosaic eloquence by Genora Dancel, one of the lesbian partners in the suit against the limitation of marriage to heterosexual couples now pending before the Supreme Court of Hawaii: “I want to be able to say at the end of my life that I had loved somebody really well for a long time.”

This image of marriage belongs to a narrative of romance that has deep roots in Western culture, but it became a possibility for large numbers of men and women only with the emergence of a sizable middle class. Its ascendancy reflects the triumph of bourgeois romance, in which, like the horse and carriage of Sammy Cahn’s lyric, love provides the motive power and marriage the natural vehicle.

This narrative—with its emphasis on lifelong monogamy—is, for the many who believe in it, an ideal, not something they can be sure of sustaining. Half the marriages in America now end in divorce. Casual observation (reinforced by TV soaps and sociological surveys) confirms that one of the reasons for this is that the commitment to exclusivity—especially on the part of husbands—is difficult to maintain. But this ideal is not only at odds with reality; it is wildly at odds with most traditional conceptions of marriage.

First of all, in earlier Western societies—as in most societies everywhere else—marriage was the creation of a relationship not between individuals but between families, a fact still signified by the role of the father in “giving away” the …

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