What Makes a Marriage? Love, Sex, or Comprehensive Union


Prof. Charles Reid thinks love makes a marriage. He claims we think sex makes a marriage. In truth, comprehensive union makes a marriage. And getting marriage right matters for everyone.

Earlier this month, at the annual Fall Conference of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture, two of us (Girgis and Anderson) participated in a public conversation with Professor Charles Reid on the subject of “Marriage, Catholicism, and Public Policy.” There, Reid amiably defended his view that two men or two women can form a marriage, and that civil marriage should be redefined accordingly.

In a follow-up piece in the Huffington Post, Reid attributes to our book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, the argument that sex is what makes a man and a woman permanently bonded and hence married. Against the obvious point that one-night stands don’t make a marriage, he claims that we would invoke marital vows but never really stop to consider what might motivate such vows in the first place. If we did, Reid argues, we would see that it is not matching “bodily design[s]” but “human affection” that really “makes a marriage.”

So for Reid, the real question for the marriage debate is “who is capable of love”—by which he means a certain “emotion.” And that, he thinks, is an empirical question now settled by science showing same-sex bonds to be stable.

In his op-ed and our debate, Reid mangles our view (and the historic understanding) of marriage. In its place, he proposes a view vulnerable to objections—some quite obvious—that Reid himself laid out years ago, before he altered his stance on the issue. Here we address his distortions of our view, and the weaknesses in his own, before turning to the social stakes of the debate.


Reid says that we think a man and woman’s sexual intercourse “is enough to create a permanent union.” We have never said or written any such thing, for the simple reason that we consider it obviously false. To suggest otherwise, Reid cites a passage in our book in which we point out that the kind of bodily union that exists within a person is possible between two people, but only in coitus. What makes a person’s heart, lungs, and other parts “one flesh” is that they are actively coordinated toward a single bodily end (life) of the whole (the person himself). Likewise, we argued, in coitus a man and a woman participate in a bodily coordination with a single bodily end (reproduction) that pertains to the whole (the couple).

Nowhere in the passage (or even on the page) cited by Reid do we address the marital norm of permanence. So, pace Reid, we don’t think sex itself creates ex nihilo a permanent bond. Nor do we think sexual complementarity is what motivates a man and a woman to pledge permanence.

What makes a marriage—what marriage is—is not just love or sex but comprehensive union. That—total union with the beloved—is what romantic love seeks. Since persons are embodied, one element of total personal union is bodily union—which only a man and a woman can form. That is what we argue in the passage cited by Reid.

Of course, there is more to marriage. It is comprehensive, not just in the dimensions of the partners united (mind and body), but in the range of goods toward which it unites them. Marriage calls for the wide sharing of domestic life because it’s inherently fulfilled by family life. And that is so because the act that makes marital love is also the kind of act that makes new life.

In other words, just as only a man and a woman can unite in both mind and body, so only a male-female bond can naturally produce a child or inherently call for a comprehensive sharing of life. Only such a bond can be oriented by its nature to the development of whole new human beings—i.e., not just this or that good, but new participants in every good—and thus to the all-around sharing of domestic life.

And finally, this twofold comprehensiveness of marriage—in the dimensions of the partners united and the range of goods uniting them—calls for equally comprehensive commitment. That means a commitment of one’s whole self, for one’s whole life: exclusive and permanent.

In short, it is not emotion alone (as Reid supposes), or sex alone (as Reid wrongly supposes we suppose), or even sex plus emotion plus childrearing that creates the permanent commitment. Vows do that.

But contra Reid, our invocation of marital vows here isn’t arbitrary. What determines the kind of commitment people should pledge—the type of vow they should make—is the kind of cooperation they seek. What calls for comprehensive commitment are the comprehensive cooperation of bodily union and its fulfilment in family and domestic life.

Indeed, this sort of cooperation doesn’t merely justify comprehensive commitment; it also gives it content. Commitment is never generic; it is always commitment to do certain things. What spouses pledge to be permanently exclusive about is the comprehensive cooperation that begins in the marital act that seals consent, and unfolds into domestic life.

So it isn’t just that other groups (two men, two women, any three or more) can’t form a comprehensive union in these senses, and so have no objective basis to decide to pledge total commitment (as opposed to whatever they happen to prefer). It’s also that if they did make such a pledge, it would be a permanently exclusive commitment to something else: to sharing a home and fostering romantic desire, perhaps. In any case, it would not be commitment to the kind of mind-body union inherently oriented to family life—to marriage.

Against this, Reid’s citation of studies finding stable same-sex bonds—whatever the quality of those studies—is no rebuttal. Our point is not that two men or two women can form only fragile marriages. It is that they can’t engage in the comprehensively unifying act, or form a bond ordered to the comprehensive sharing, that makes a marriage and calls for total commitment.

Reid’s alternative

Now consider the failures of Reid’s view. Though his line—that love makes a marriage—is a familiar slogan, we are certain no one has ever believed it as stated—not even today, not even Reid. The love of mother for daughter, of teacher for pupil, of pastor for flock; the love of brothers or best friends is true love. No one thinks love in these forms can make a marriage. The question is what is distinctive of marital love, and of the specific form of union it takes.

Most people on both sides of the current marriage debate—including Reid, who has occupied both sides—agree that marriage requires a permanent and exclusive commitment. They agree that it is a sexual bond, and that it unfolds into family life. Our view explains and unifies all these features by the idea of comprehensive union.

But to say with Reid that love makes a marriage, and to explain love as intense emotion, is to make nonsense of these same features. Here is how one scholar put it just a few years ago:

Affection is, of course, a good thing. . . . But affection, personal commitment, love between persons, seem to be insufficient, without more, to provide a coherent foundation for marriage. What does it mean to say that a marriage is grounded on “affection”? What if affection, or commitment, vanish? [sic] What if affection cannot be confined to a single party? What if loyalty shifts?

That scholar was Charles Reid. He has now eschewed the conjugal view of marriage as a male-female union for a view of marriage as defined by affection. But nowhere has he answered his own (former) objections to his own (current) view. We reissue Reid’s challenge to Reid.

The Harms of Redefinition

Professor Reid also once grasped the harms of legally enshrining this new vision of marriage-as-emotional-union. As he put it:

I suspect that the lowest common denominator—the state-established default rules that specify the minimum necessary to enter valid marriage—may come to define marriage for a large majority of persons.

In other words, if the law redefines marriage as simple companionship, then every other distinguishing feature of marriage—permanence, exclusivity, monogamy—will become arbitrary in principle, and harder to support in practice.

We argued as much in our early written work on marriage, when some called it scaremongering. But since then, these implications of the emotional-union view have been embraced by many advocates of marriage redefinition. Indeed, if language is a measure of culture, it’s telling that new terms have been coined to encourage people to flout the stabilizing norms that we argued the emotional-union view would undermine.

Thus, a New York Times profile of gay activist Dan Savage, headlined “Married, with Infidelities,” introduced Americans to the term “monogamish”—relationships where partners would allow sexual infidelity, provided they were honest about it.

The article explained: “Savage says a more flexible attitude within marriage may be just what the straight community needs.” After all, the story added, sexual exclusivity “gives people unrealistic expectations of themselves and their partners.” Rather than strive for faithfulness to one spouse, Savage and increasingly many likeminded advocates would have couples embrace sexual openness. And why not, if some find openness more emotionally satisfying, and emotional union is what makes a marriage?

But by the same token, why should marriage—emotional union—be limited to two people in the first place? Thus the word “throuple:” a couple-like union of three. A 2012 New York Magazine piece profiled one throuple:

Their throuplehood is more or less a permanent domestic arrangement. The three men work together, raise dogs together, sleep together, miss one another, collect art together, travel together, bring each other glasses of water, and, in general, exemplify a modern, adult relationship.

Finally, our culture’s romantic lexicon now includes “wedlease,” introduced in an August 2013 op-ed in The Washington Post. Why should marriage be permanent if what defines it is emotion, which is notoriously inconstant? Why not have temporary marriage licenses, as with other contracts? “Why don’t we borrow from real estate and create a marital lease?” the author asked. “Instead of wedlock, a ‘wedlease.’” He continues:

Here’s how a marital lease could work: Two people commit themselves to marriage for a period of years—one year, five years, 10 years, whatever term suits them. The marital lease could be renewed at the end of the term however many times a couple likes.… The messiness of divorce is avoided and the end can be as simple as vacating a rental unit.

Of course, we’re not primarily concerned with linguistic trends. Our central point is that if people are taught by the law that marriage is fundamentally an emotional union for personal fulfillment, as Reid suggests, it will be more difficult for people to see the point of permanence when emotion fades, of exclusivity when the heart wanders. That will undermine these norms in practice—just as no-fault divorce (we now know) didn’t simply make the separation process easier but weakened public appreciation of permanence, making people more likely to decide to split. Similarly, if we redefine the law to make mothers and fathers optional, it will be hard for people to see that they are critical. And that will weaken motivations to stick with a marriage for the children, or indeed to marry before having children.

All these developments, in turn, will harm the very interests that motivate and justify the state’s role in marriage. As a policy matter, after all, marriage is about attaching a man and a woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces. When a baby is born, there is always a mother nearby: that is a fact of reproductive biology. The question is whether a father will be involved in the child’s life, and for how long. Marriage makes a man likelier to be committed both to the children that he helps generate and to their mother.

It does so for the sake of the children in question, and for everyone else. For whatever one thinks of the morality of sexually open, multipartner, and deliberately temporary bonds, their social costs run high. The marital norms of monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanence make a difference for society. They reduce the numbers of fatherless children and fragmented families, which improves prospects for the whole of the next generation.

Redefining marriage collapses the distinction between marriage and companionship in principle and in practice. It therefore undermines all the marital norms—so critical for spousal stability and the next generation’s well-being—that explain the law’s involvement in marriage. Professor Reid once seemed to understand this. He now seems to overlook it, and to have difficulty even grasping the contrary view he once defended.

Sherif Girgis is a Yale Law School student and doctoral student in philosophy at Princeton University. Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a doctoral student in political science at the University of Notre Dame. Robert P. George is a visiting professor at Harvard Law School and McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University. Their book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense was published one year ago this week.


Related Reading


Web Briefings