Marriage as Sacrifice

This morning, as I was walking Mrs. Wigglebottom around the neighborhood and contemplating various things, I got to wondering about gay marriage.

If churches would still be able to define marriage any way they wanted–marriage in our church must be between Catholics only; marriages in our church must be between members only; we frown on interracial marriages; we disapprove of second marriages; etc.–then what does it matter how the state defines marriage?

How, exactly, is a secular straight marriage “ruined” by a secular gay marriage?

I had an idea, though, on my walk about tattoos.

There was a time not so long ago when people who had tattoos were outside of the mainstream of society in some way.  They were bikers or Marines or carnies or whatever.  The point is that they were doing something most people didn’t do and it made them visibly special.

The tattoo had meaning not just because of what it looked like, or the pain withstood in order to get one, but because having one set you apart.  It meant that you were a badass, willing to sacrifice in order to wear that ink.

Nowdays, tattoos are ubiquitous.  If your grandma goes out and gets a tattoo, you might think it’s cool or you might not like it, but you don’t think that your grandma has gone off and become a carnie.

On the one hand, the rise in popularity of the tattoo is nice, because it means that people who wanted tattoos before but didn’t want to send the “badass” message can now get them.  But on the other hand, it clearly means that the “badass” message is not completely obvious when one sees a tattoo.

I wonder how much of this feeds into our thoughts on marriage (not just gay marriage, but open marriage, and polygamy).  If marriage is, to many of the people in it, a sign of sacrifice, “Yes, I gave up other sex partners and I stopped looking for other loves and I pushed out of my mind the question of whether I’m happy with you or could have been happy with someone of my same gender and I have made a commitment to you that I will try to keep until we are both dead, whether or not I still love you at that point–I made this commitment that means I gave up other shit I might have liked better,” then it has value because of that sacrifice.

Do you see what I’m saying?

I think, for many people, marriage is not just a sign of their commitment to their partner, but also a sign of them turning their back on other possibilities.  And that turning their back seems like a noble sacrifice.

But if we understand straight marriage in this way, I think we can start to understand the opposition to gay marriage. 

Why is gay marriage a threat to straight marriage?

One, because it suggests that you don’t have to sacrifice major parts of yourself in order to be married.  Not to get sidetracked but can’t you see how the “marriage as great sacrifice” meme gets played out every time some jackass says, “Gays can get married.  They can marry women just like the rest of us.”?  In other words, since marriage is not first and foremost about love and caring for the person you’re with, but instead about sacrifice, why can’t gay people just make great sacrifice, too?  But if gay people can marry who they want without having to sacrifice great parts of themselves, it suggests that no one has to do that.  Marry who you want; make arrangements that suit you.

But two, and I believe that two, though it goes hand in hand with one, is more crucial for understanding the secular opposition to gay marriage, two is that, if people can marry who they want in arrangements that please them, I believe it makes straight people who thought that marriage was about sacrifice feel incredibly stupid.  Here they were making choices that were designed to show how much they were willing to offer up to marriage, even if it meant that they’d be vaguely unhappy most of their lives, when all along they could have chosen to marry who they wanted and worked out an arrangement that pleased them.

And people will tolerate a lot, but they don’t tolerate feeling like they’ve been made fools of.  And what would be more foolish than to marry in order to show your willingness to sacrifice the things that made you happy when you could have married because you are delighted in the person you’re marrying?

17 thoughts on “Marriage as Sacrifice

  1. Maybe also add in the history of the institution as a system of property creation, transmission, and control. In a society in which men make more money than women, putting two men into partnership gives that couple theoretically somewhat of a wealth advantage, an advantage that is exacerbated if they choose not to raise kids. And then where does that money go? It’s not predictably diffused to the young of the next generation — it might be, but it might also be concentrated and given to a member of their peer group or worse, the estate settled entirely on the surviving partner, making one REALLY wealthy guy. (I use men for this example because I don’t see the social hysteria about lesbian marriage that I see about male-male partnerships. Of course there is opposition and it’s hateful, but when preachers take to the streets, they are usually using Adam and Steve to get a rise out of the general public. It seems to go without saying for them that women should be owned by men.)

    And there’s also the general stink-eye about non-procreative sex going on for the “fucking for fun just shouldn’t be done” folks. It would make it a whole hell of a lot harder to label gays as somehow singularly oversexed or promiscuous if they get married and stay married (or not) for the same reasons and with the same frequency as straight people do.

  2. I’m going to take a page out of Bridgett’s book – the one where she says “It seems to go without saying for them that women should be owned by men.” I’m going to guess that one of the reasons that the people who get their knickers in a twist over gay marriage do so because it effectively reduces a male to a female role – and you wind up, effectively, with a man owning a man. Once that happens, God knows what’s next – the unthinkable possibility of a woman owning a woman? Or, worse, a woman owning a man.

    Or, you know, nobody owning anybody, because it’s about partners.

  3. I’m not sure that I do see that sense of marriage as sacrifice among the anti-gay-marriage crowd, though. Not among the men, certainly. I really see those folks as having lines drawn in their heads, lines that are so important that people who cross them are disgusting in a creepy-whitish-sluglike-thing-that-crawled-out-from-under-a-rock kind of way. And I think that’s all that’s necessary to explain the “I’m threatened” response: if slugs can marry, it does kind of make a mockery of marriage.

  4. B, I think Bridgett may have the right of it. Your take doesn’t quite jive with me because if you and I got married, what makes you think I wouldn’t want commitment and turning your back on other possibilities? Why is that not an equivalent sacrifice in either type of marriage? (Your awesomeness aside) I think you might be overplaying how much marriage=sacrifice, and how that would be different in different pairings. Sure, it’s hard work, but I’m not convinced it’s considerably less work in every other kind of pairing except heterosexual.

  5. Oh, hell, I’m sure that there are bunches of people who conceive of marriage as necessary domestic drudgery and sexual sacrifice and maybe that explanation flies for them. But for those that don’t experience marriage like that, there probably are other things going on as well. I’m all about multi-causality when it comes to figuring out why humans can be so mean to each other. We’re self-justifying creatures, always looking for reasonable explanations to dress up our sluggy prejudices.

    Here’s an idea, though. We’ve talked about what low regard some of these people have for men in the first place. Might they truly believe that men are on the whole incapable of the sexual constancy required by their vision of marriage — and that putting TWO men together would double the likelihood that there will be no sexual exclusivity in the union?

  6. … since marriage is not first and foremost about love and caring for the person you’re with, but instead about sacrifice…

    You lost me here. Doesn’t Love imply Sacrifice? To die to yourself, to give up, to endure pain and discomfort, and many irritations for the sake of another. I just do not see how genuine love can be separated from sacrifice.

    Now,this does not preclude gay people but I question your understanding of love. Aren’t you really talking about pleasure? Seeking pleasure is about loving yourself and, in moderation, is healthy. Loving another is a different ball game.

  7. Hmmm. I’ve definitely known people who thought of relationships in general, and marriage especially, in exactly that way. The Ex was like that. Toward the end of our relationship, we had long, drawn out arguments about just this. A relationship should mean turning your back on possibilities with other people, period. And if you’re doing something that makes your partner uncomfortable (talking to certain people, participating in certain activities, expressing certain opinions…), no matter how irrational you might think their discomfort is, you should stop, period… because being with someone means sacrificing everything else for them. They are the most important person/thing in the world to you.

    … that didn’t work for me. I mean, aside from the whole identifying as poly or poly-possible, I just philosophically cannot get there. I’ve always thought that being primary was far more important than being only. It means so much more for a person to choose you even when there are other options, when they have other friends, when they’ve had other lovers … when they have to think about whether they’re really happy doing this and not doing something else… than to have someone choose you because they can’t or won’t explore anything else.

    To be clear, I don’t mean that poly-structured relationships are inherently better than other kinds. I think those are just as fraught, and I think it’s perfectly possible to extend the exact same kind of limiting, exclusionary thinking to them. I mean that free choices are more significant than unfree choices, period.* And that I have a really hard time conceptualizing a relationship that’s defined by ‘I won’t’ to be as good as one defined by ‘I’d rather.’

    (Which would be (a large part of) why he’s The Ex, instead of the current, and why y’all see Breviloquence instead of him.)

    The thing is, he’s not religious. I mean, his family is nominally Unitarian, but all that means is that they go to services for Christmas and maybe Easter, and that he has a passing acquaintance with the language and basic concepts. And politically, he’s for gay marriage and the like. The framework of relationship-as-sacrifice seems to be more pervasive than just certain religious sects… I think it’s actually kind of the other way around. Rather than certain religious leanings or political thoughts leading to or heralding that particular mode of thought, I think that people who think that way are more likely to find themselves nodding along to opinions put forth by certain religious and political positions.

    Going off in a slightly different direction, he was also very much a Nice Guy. I think the framework of relationship-as-sacrifice ties in pretty strongly to that kind of thinking. Both of them premise the formation (and maintenance) of a relationship on action (“I’m nice, I listen to her, I don’t treat her like those Bad Guys… so why doesn’t she love me?” “We’re in a relationship, so you shouldn’t act like that any more.”), rather than attraction or emotion. Of course it’s necessary to have both, and you should be respectful of your partner… but the causality in these cases seems a little messed up. You act this way because it’s What You Do, not because you love or respect the other person.

    That sort of thinking… the thought that actions define relationships rather than emotions… seems to lead well enough to the thought that gay marriage will ‘hurt’ straight marriage. If marriage is the thing that happens when a man and a woman act a certain way toward each other, than doing it differently means that you’re messing it up. You can’t have a marriage between a man and a man or a woman and a woman because then you can’t do What People Do in a marriage… the action set is all wrong.

    For those who are particularly broad or specific in their action frameworks (“Marriage is when people sleep together with each other, live together, share income and raise a family”), you can totally allow for different combinations… but many of the people who think in terms of strict sets of actions also think in terms of strict sets of roles. “I don’t look at other women, you don’t look at other men.” instead of “We don’t flirt with other people.”

    … or something like that. I should really get back to work.

    * Or for the libertarian crowd, choices made within a framework where a wide range of possibilities are easily and (relatively) equally available are better/more significant/more free than choices made within a framework where there are fewer choices or where choices are unequally available, particularly when that framework is structured such that some choices are so unequally avbailable as to be impossible or prohibitively dangerous. While one may argue that such choices are still free, I don’t believe they’re as free, or as analytically useful for determining people’s true preferences/feelings.

  8. You lost me here. Doesn’t Love imply Sacrifice? To die to yourself, to give up, to endure pain and discomfort, and many irritations for the sake of another. I just do not see how genuine love can be separated from sacrifice.

    Now,this does not preclude gay people but I question your understanding of love. Aren’t you really talking about pleasure? Seeking pleasure is about loving yourself and, in moderation, is healthy. Loving another is a different ball game.

    See, that’s the thing. It’s not that love doesn’t involve sacrifice at one time or another… that’s just a part of negotiating being around other people. Sometimes someone sits in the chair you wanted to sit in, or wants to go to a movie you don’t particularly want to see, or makes something for dinner you’re not fond of. You deal. And if it’s a person you love, you stretch a bit more and try to make it fit, because you love and respect that person.


    It’s about your love for each other, not sacrifice. If the whole point to your relationship is that you ‘die to yourself’ (I get the religious context, but that’s a different tangent entirely, for me) … that’s … what’s the point? You should be willing to do whatever for your partner, and they should be willing to do whatever for you… but it should be premised on the fact that you love each other and want the best for each other and want to make each other happy, not the fact that you are in a relationship. It’s the difference between, mm… I’m really blanking on the words right now (and I can’t just dig out my Kant at my desk….), but to use a rather awful metaphor, it’s the difference between cleaning your room because it’s right and you like having a clean room, and cleaning your room because you’ll get in trouble if you don’t. They may both be simultaneously true, but which one has primacy is important.

    Okay, I really have to get to work now.

  9. I completely disagree, Martin. I mean, sure, marriage sometimes involves putting another first, regardless of personal cost, but I do not think that Love should be confused with marriage. Throughout history, and even today, throughout the world, marriage is seldom a result of love, as least as we define it here. I’m constantly amazed by how many people bring unreasonable expectations to marriages, hell, to almost any relationship. Man, this is too hard for me to elaborate upon with any hope for brevity. I guess what I mean to say is that the minute we equate love with sacrifice, we have diminished it’s value.

  10. Yum. I love comments that give me a lot to think about. So, I want to pick and choose and say that, yes, what Mag is getting at is what I’m getting at, I think. I myself am guilty of it, and so I think there’s something to be said for the recipe-following mind-set of some folks. Mix one man with one woman in these certain ways, cook for this long, cut up into these ways and voila! A marriage.

    But I also think y’all are onto something with how much gender roles–and I mean specific and core gender roles–play into this as well.

    Martin, you ask a good question and I both want to mull over your point and disagree with you. I’m not sure someone can do both of those things at the same time, but I’m going to try.

    First, I agree that anyone in a relationship is going to make sacrifices for that relationship.

    But I don’t think that I agree that love is sacrifice. I think that sacrifice can be an easily recognizable byproduct of love, but I don’t think it’s exactly the same thing.

    I see a lot of marriages based on mutual sacrifice in which both partners appear, from the outside, to be rather miserable. Now, they could very well love each other, I suppose, but marriages I’ve seen that are based on love don’t seem to spew misery into the air like that.

    And yet, surely, if you love someone, you are willing to make sacrifices for them. But it seems to me that it feels good to make those sacrifices, because it brings your loved one comfort. Sacrifices that lead to misery might be a clue that you’re on the side of something that is not love.

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  12. Yes yes gender roles, thanks B. But first,


    yes the “about” is everything, yay for that… put another way, if someone else’s happiness is as important to you as your own, then sacrifice is inherent as sometimes you have to choose. But choosing to sacrifice your happiness for someone else’s must be compared to the alternative, that is, the other option is to see someone you love unhappy, and the reason you make the “sacrifices” is that it is still the least painful option. It is not selfless. It is a selfish response to a committed state.

    And gender roles. I was wondering where that was going to come up. I don’t experience the sacrifice angle in my encounters with those disinclined to support gay relationships. I rather see the following world view:

    Start with a respect (perhaps inordinate) for tradition. It goes like, “the accumulated wisdom of ages gives us a very good starting point for how to live.” Then take a dichotomous view of the world, make it yin/yang if that is more amenable to leftist (myself included) sensibilities. Active energy, healing energy. View gender roles as natural/God-given expressions of these necessary life forces. View marriage as a combination of the “natural” “strong, confident, decisive” masculine provider and the “nurturing, sensitive, understanding” feminine. A natural merging of halves that creates a universal whole, which in turn is capable of reproducing those gendered halves for children of either sex.

    The linchpin of the whole rationale depends on seeing traditional gender roles as natural/necessary/healthy, and seeing M-M / F-F relationships (as well as “bitchy” women and “henpecked” men) as destructive and punishable deviations that undermine these scripts handed down from wise elders/God as to how to live.

    I see the point of divergence as being the relative healthiness of traditional gender roles for those carrying them, relative to other available models. If you accept the value of the traditional roles, a lot of the objections follow. It’s the value of the roles that I question.

  13. Martin, you ask a good question and I both want to mull over your point and disagree with you. I’m not sure someone can do both of those things at the same time, but I’m going to try…

    I think you can. Love is a mysterious subject.

    Speaking of traditional marriage, I do believe that if people, especially men, had a greater willingness to sacrifice then very few people would ever get divorced. In that sense an unwillingness to sacrifice is a far greater “threat” to marriage than gay marriage. The vast majority of divorces and unhappy marriages – speaking from my understanding of genuine Christianity and my own experience – are the result of a failure of male leadership. In short, when a wife is unhappy it is usually the husband’s fault. Christian husbands were commanded, by St. Paul, to love their wives like they love their own bodies and to be willing to lay down their own lives if necessary. At the very least that means treating your wife with respect, listening to her, making sure her needs are met, that she is getting enough rest, and that you appreciate her. That, for a man, is being Christ-like. He was a servant-leader.

    The men I know who try to do that are happy and have good marriages. As St. Francis said it is in giving that we receive. If men give of themselves they will receive. So, yes, true love implies sacrifice, but it is joyful (I think the concept of “happy” is less precise).

  14. Two things, one long and one short.

    The short: if putting another’s pleasure first gives you pleasure, is that really sacrifice, or is it just another avenue to pleasure?

    The long:

    And people will tolerate a lot, but they don’t tolerate feeling like they’ve been made fools of.

    Hot damn, that’s a loaded statement! The logical question from that premise is “how will you respond when you find you’ve been made the fool?”

    Will you rage against the machine that fooled you? Will you quietly (or otherwise unobtrusively) resolve never to be fooled again? Or will you add your efforts to the machine so that being the fool remains the status quo?

    I am reminded of a scene from HBO’s “Carnivale.” The carnies charge the rubes a few cents a head to see the “Man-Eating Chicken.” When the rubes enter the tent, they see a man eating chicken. The carnies assuage the rubes’ indignation by eliciting their silence with the assurance that the next group of rubes will pay twice as much for the privilege of being fooled in the same manner.

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