I’m growing weary of being told that I must either support gay marriage or disavow my own marriage. I refer not to anything my wife and I did that would violate the traditional norms of marriage, but to something we had no control over: our ongoing inability to conceive a child.

My wife and I, along with all other childless heterosexual couples, often find ourselves presented as exhibit A in the court of public opinion. Our plight has become a standard response to the main reason for traditional marriage, a reason that until lately was non-controversial: that heterosexual couples’ unique, natural procreative ability gives rise to a state interest in ensuring that their relationships are stable for the sake of the children they potentially will have growing up in their homes.

Put in the form of a question, this is the argument: If children are the state’s primary reason to regulate marriage, then why should it recognize the marriages of infertile couples? Why not follow the proposal of Plato in the Laws that infertile marriages should be invalidated? Or, to redirect the question, why should these be recognized as marriages but not the relationships of homosexual couples? Aren’t homosexual couples effectively interchangeable with infertile heterosexual couples insofar as the state and society should be concerned?

Although this may be an effective debating point, it is grotesquely unreal when considered from the lived experience of infertility—the harsh and unhappy reality of what it is like to be an infertile couple waiting every month for a child that never comes.

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The Private Pain of Infertility

For all the sturm und drang of pundits, few infertile couples have weighed in either way. Our silence is understandable, both because there is no unanimity of religious or political outlook among infertile couples and because the pain of infertility is intensely private. The agonizing progression of medical tests and despair is rarely shared publicly, and those who wonder whether a couple’s childlessness is an intentional application of modern medical technology or an example of its limitations are rarely so tactless as to broach the subject uninvited.

And so it is in silence that my wife and I live through our cycles of concern, hope, despair, and acceptance. We had always wanted children and were determined to make child-rearing work regardless of our student debt and work hours. We never used contraception, and we married in our early twenties. After a while, it became clear that something was wrong, so we embarked on batteries of awkward and painful medical tests. Every avenue has failed to produce a diagnosis, and the passing years of marriage have failed to produce a child. Several fertility drugs were to no avail, as was surgery. For ethical reasons, we will not use IVF or surrogacy.

And so we are entering our thirties without a reason why we have no children, yet with no real hope of having a child naturally. I don’t know if a definitive diagnosis would be better or worse than not knowing—whether it would bring some closure or would only inflict more wounds. I do know that these painful experiences illuminate the differences between our marriage and homosexual relationships.

Infertility as Loss

Infertility does not invalidate our marriage, but we constantly experience infertility as an inability to fulfill a basic aspect of marriage. It is a loss for us in a way that it can never be for a same-sex couple, who can never have expected fertility together. Our relationship is ordered toward having children, even if it is frustrated and kept from this fulfillment.

To return to Plato, love desires fecundity. Love wishes to have children with the Beloved. And while Plato’s Symposium gave precedence to the children of the mind, physical procreation has its place even in his system, a place that has been further exalted by the Christian contributions to the Western tradition. Even the Greeks, despite their frequent tolerance (and sometimes even enthusiasm) for some homosexual relations, never conflated such relationships with marriage.

Love, erotic or intellectual, between two men could never be fruitful in the physical way that it could be between men and women. Physical sterility is the natural order for homosexual couples, and is dictated by their sexual proclivities, which are in direct conflict with the possibility of natural procreation.

There is a clear distinction (whether considered in ontological, teleological, or experiential terms) between homosexual couples and infertile heterosexual couples. For the latter, childlessness is not intrinsic to their relationship. Rather, whether due to illness, age, or deliberate action, it is a loss from the fullness of what their marriage should be. For those who are voluntarily sterile, it is an intentional avoidance of that fulfillment—an avoidance that has traditionally been condemned. For same-sex couples, the question does not even arise, because fertility is never a natural fulfillment of their relationship. No matter what medical advances may be made against age, illness, and injury, homosexual relations will remain intrinsically sterile.

The Connection between Marriage and Children

Redefining marriage to include same-sex unions severs the connection between marriage and children in a way that recognizing the marriages of childless heterosexual couples does not. The possibility and even the desire to have children together must be discarded upfront. Instead of being viewed as an important aspect of marital love that some couples will, by mischance or age, be unable to fulfill, bearing children and raising them together becomes entirely optional, even more than in the case of voluntarily sterile couples.

The reality that my wife and I, by some still-unknown mischance, have yet to conceive is an imperfection that we feel keenly and on a daily basis. We will presumably never learn what combining our particular genetics might have produced—what features, traits, and attributes we would have seen passed on to our children. No matter how much we dote on our canine co-evolutionary buddies, they will never say “I love you” to us. The Legos I saved from my childhood will continue to sit in a box.

However, our infertility does not make our relationship interchangeable with one in which childlessness can never be felt as a loss because fertility was never, and could never, be an option within it. As is often noted, it would be absurd and intrusive for the government to try to withhold marriage licenses from infertile heterosexual couples. This absurdity would only be heightened by the fallibility of fertility tests, with which my wife and I are all too familiar. However, it can be confidently predicted that no homosexual couple will ever procreate together naturally.

Adoption is a possibility, of course, but it usually necessitates a great deal of additional expense and trouble on top of the already considerable burdens of parenting. Thus far we have lacked the career and financial stability to spend tens of thousands of dollars in order to adopt a child. Furthermore, while it is often a loving and noble undertaking, adoption always involves trauma, insofar as it requires the death, incapacitation, or unsuitability of both natural parents. We hope that one day the evil of infertility and the evil of orphanhood will be redeemed in the good of adoption, but it is not yet for us.

If and when we do adopt, we will offer a child both a mother and a father, thereby providing the closest restoration available to the natural family that has been lost. Thus, even in adoption, an infertile heterosexual marriage displays essential differences from homosexual ones, which in adoption always deprive a child once again of either a mother or a father.

The case for gay marriage may be constructed on a variety of other supports than the supposed interchangeability of homosexual relationships with those of childless heterosexual couples, and this essay has no pretensions of settling the same-sex marriage debate. However, it should be clear that the casual comparison between homosexual couples and infertile heterosexual marriages is not only facile and foolish—it is hurtful, callously disregarding the lived experience of infertile couples.

Neither a same-sex couple nor an infertile opposite-sex couple is able to conceive naturally. For one couple, this is predictable and intrinsic to the nature of their relationship. For the other, it is a painful, often unexpected injury to the nature of their marriage.