National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  January 23, 2004

Many models of marriage can and do exist


It starts with a man and a woman, stuck in a cake, glued at each other’s sides. Freezer burn may ruin the cake, but not even death will part this bride and groom. This is traditional, black-and-white, male-and-female, all-or-nothing marriage.

And half our nation is in mourning for it.

Marriage is splintering into a thousand different shapes. There are -- as there have always been -- marriages of convenience and marriages of common law; arranged marriages and platonic marriages and polygamous marriages. There are couples living together who gauge how married they feel by their mood (and whether their partner left dishes congealing in the sink). There are marriages in front of God and everybody, marriages that do the modern equivalent of waving blooded sheets because the couple believe the entire community has a stake in their union. There are marriages with prenuptial contracts so coldly detailed even the justice of the peace blanches.

And now there are same-sex marriages and an array of quasi-religious, loopholed legal arrangements to either bless the partners or give them health insurance.

It is the latter category that has unhinged everyone, causing such a stir one might think procreation had been outlawed and not just nudged off center.

The Roman Catholic objections I understand -- or at least acknowledge. But why, I wonder, do these unions pose such a generalized threat to heterosexual marriage? Even the most superficial glance at the most traditional marriages of the ’50s shows them stuck together with different kinds of glue. Some couples were bound by a commonality of interests; some by physical passion; some by parental expectations, demographic sameness and a shared history; some by pure habit or matching sweatshirts.

Marriages are no different from friendships: They exist in varying degrees of intensity, some lives overlapping in virtually every detail, others intersecting once or twice or meeting at the edges. The human personality contains far too many variables to expect a single model in any relationship category. I feel more threatened by couples that grocery shop together and do the taxes together and choose the same entrée at the restaurant than I’ve ever felt by couples who are both male, or both female.

The key, it seems to me, is recognizing what glue is powerful enough to bind your lives together and then honoring that bond, filling the cracks, scraping clean what crumbles, smoothing the sharp edges so no one gets hurt. Kept in good repair, any relationship can stay strong. Forget the details: God lives in the bond itself, and the resilience it makes possible.

Sometimes mixing two different sexes does work like epoxy. But that has more to do with the consolations of set norms and societal approval than any biological predestination. I’ve long sympathized with same-sex couples who can’t exclaim, “Just like a man!” or roll their eyes at “Women!” Those separate categories neutralize the everyday tensions and differences inevitable in any relationship, diffusing them across an entire gender so they need not be taken personally. An etiquette can be invoked when one is weary or uncertain; customs and expectations keep the script moving; there are even standard gifts that read instantly as symbols of affection.

Same-sex couples have to invent their marriages from scratch while the crowd outside their window jeers and predicts failure, claiming ownership of the very concept of abiding union.

And no one urges heterosexual marriage more avidly than those who are bitter within its confines.

I do believe marriage should last a lifetime; not only is love more fulfilling as it deepens, but it is nerve-wracking to imagine years of effort dissolved by someone clapping and announcing, “I divorce you” three times -- or hiring a good lawyer and signing a piece of paper. Yet I have urged friends to split because the damage done is greater when they stay together and slowly gouge out each other’s hearts.

Maybe I’m a polygamist -- I don’t believe a marriage ever really ends, but I do believe people should separate, and I can’t rule out remarriage. So there: simultaneous multiple monogamies, one expressed, the other tacit and historical. Yet another version of marriage to add to the list.

And why should we mind that the list keeps growing when we no longer insist that a bride be a virgin upon pain of death or forbid marriage to a nonbeliever? I can’t even remember the last time someone insisted that a guy marry his brother’s widow.

Wedding guests fall silent the minute the bride and groom take hold of a single knife and slice deep into the sugar and lard. Later they will carefully remove their tiny models, rinse them off and tuck them into a drawer, comforted by their fixed smiles and plastic permanence.

Flesh changes over time, and so do the rules that govern it.

But we can keep our models forever.

Jeannette Cooperman is a freelance writer living in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, January 23, 2004

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