The Essence of Marriage

Nathan Richardson

The continuing public debate over the definition of marriage has led many people to ask questions about marriage that they may have never thoroughly considered before. Many informative and thought-provoking pieces have been written on these questions, and it takes more than just a brief article to comprehensively address them. I would like to respond to one aspect of this debate that merits some attention: the essence of marriage.

Does Marriage Have Any Essential Characteristics?

Proponents of legalizing same-sex “marriage,” or as some more accurately term it, “genderless marriage,”1 must first establish that marriage is capable of redefinition. They must show that it has no inherent, universally identifying quality that necessitates its current definition, but rather that it is a variable term that means different things to different people, and therefore cannot be limited to the narrow definition of one group, such as with the term “stylish.” One writer recently asserted just that. Julian Sanchez, a contributor for the online magazine Reason, asks, “Does marriage, as some conservatives seem to suggest, have an intrinsic nature and a deep purpose that remain constant across millennia, such that changes in its form or meaning should be considered inherently suspect.” He concludes that “marriage has no ‘essence.’ There is no one function or purpose it serves in every time and place.”2

His line of reasoning follows that if marriage has no essential, defining characteristic, then it is not problematic at all to redefine it. In fact, according to author Stephanie Coontz, the recent trend to redefine marriage is a good thing, since “it reflects underlying economic, legal, and technological changes that are, in themselves, mostly desirable.”3 Many go so far as to say that resisting the move to redefine marriage is not only unnecessary, it is actually counter-productive and harmful because it prevents positive adaptation to meet the needs of progress.

What History Shows

In reviewing Coontz’s book, Sanchez lists many of the fascinating differences in the institution of marriage across time and culture. Some groups have flexibility in what roles a husband and wife filled in their marriage; others have more rigidly defined roles. Some cultures have arranged marriages; others let the couple decide. Some cultures enforce monogamy; others allow for more than one spouse of the opposite sex. Some use marriage as a way of assuring land transmission or inheritance of property; others do not. Oddly, Coontz concludes that this variety in marriage means that marriage has no constant characteristic.

The irony that Sanchez and Coontz are apparently blind to is that every marriage system Coontz describes involves (1) man-woman marriage and (2) rearing children. I have not read the book, but let’s assume the review is accurate and relatively plenary (of course, a book review by nature can’t cover everything). To have missed this constant in a book designed specifically to look for constants bespeaks either a lack of rigor on the part of the author or an important oversight on the part of the reviewer. They seem to assume that any difference at all means no similarity at all.


1. Monte Neil Stewart, “Two Vital Social Institutions and Bad Wounds,” draft paper, BYU Law Review Symposium on Contemporary Conflict of Laws Issues in Family Law, 1 Feb. 2008, In another article, “How You Can Explain Why Our Society Should Preserve Marriage,” Stewart compares marriage to two other social institutions, money and property, to show the harmful effects of the widespread redefinition that only government can enact.
2. Julian Sanchez, “Marital Mythology: Why the New Crisis in Marriage Isn’t,” Reason Magazine, 1 Jun. 2006.
3. Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (New York: Viking); cited in Sanchez, “Marital Mythology.”

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