Last Friday, my social media exploded in rainbow hearts and bubbled over with messages that “love just won.” #lovewins suddenly became a top trending hashtag on Twitter. Because love is love, right?
Right. And marriage is marriage. They’re not even spelled the same. Friday’s improvement to U.S. marriage law was a huge deal, and a cause for celebration. But why was a Supreme Court ruling about marriage being flourished as a supreme triumph for love?
The answer is supposed to be obvious: love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage. But what if they actually do? The horse-drawn carriage was the result of artificially harnessing a natural organism to an invented technology, a pairing that suited certain purposes we had at a particular period in history.
So these days romantic love is harnessed to “traditional” marriage. I’m using scare quotes for “traditional,” though, because it only recently became traditional to marry for love. Marriage was more traditionally a property transaction in which women were presented by men to other men. This idea is still echoed today when brides are “given away” by fathers to grooms. But it seems almost any questionable attitude can seem charming as long as it’s part of a sweet celebration of love.
Perusing reactions to the Supreme Court ruling, an alien studying Earth might reasonably conclude that there is no important difference between love and marriage. And consider the language of the ruling itself:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. … [M]arriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. … [The] hope [of the petitioners] is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.”
Equal dignity sounds good. But did you catch the other message? The one about how the alternative to marriage is being condemned to live in loneliness? That’s quite sinister. Make it part of a sweet celebration of love, though, and somehow it’s good to go. The power of love is a curious thing.
In the rush to celebrate “love” when we mean marriage, we hide the damage done by the idea that love doesn’t count unless you’re married (and if you don’t marry you’ll die miserably alone). It’s true that living “in sin” is less stigmatized now than it was 50 years ago (provided you’re monogamous, committed and performing something like a marriage). But the root idea hasn’t gone away, as anyone knows who’s felt the pressure of family members asking “why you two still aren’t married,” or understood what Beyoncé meant when she said if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.
Conflating love and marriage obscures the people who are in love but still cannot marry for various reasons. It obscures the people who are in love and have no wish to marry. And it obscures the married people who receive nothing but abuse from their spouses.
It’s entirely possible to celebrate good times without trampling on basic conceptual distinctions that many people need for navigating life. Love and marriage can make a great team, but they can also be uncoupled. And you should always be suspicious of an institution you can’t disparage.
C.S.I. Jenkins is the Canada Research Chair in philosophy at the University of British Columbia, and is writing a book on the nature of romantic love.Report Typo/Error
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