The Meaning of Marriage

What does a word mean, if it can mean anything? Is there a difference between a word meaning anything, and one that means nothing at all?

This isn’t merely a semantic problem if that word is “marriage.” When I maintain that the definition of marriage has been all but lost, I intend both senses of “definition.” It no longer has definite meaning as a word or determinate form as a cultural reality. The two are related. Since our culture has chosen, bit by larger bit, to remove all determinate form from marriage, the word “marriage” ever more closely approaches meaninglessness.

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Nor is the loss of meaning only of antiquarian interest. For those struggling to recover the meaning of marriage, or those who are so blessed never to have lost it, every day is a desperate fight against the torrents of a culture bent on wearing away any definite meaning to marriage, like the waters of a persistent river that change sharp rocks to smooth, smooth rocks to sand, and then carry the sand, swirling and aimless, downstream whither it will.

A Fuzzier and Fuzzier Cultural Picture of Marriage

Words matter; and smooth, aimless, and abstract words are crowding out the sharply defined matrimonial vocabulary. “Significant other”; “relationship”; “companion”; “partner.” All mark the decline of marriage into meaninglessness, a step into abstraction from man and woman, husband and wife. Even the beautiful and precise word “friend” has been forced into service.

I recall standing in line at my local bank a while back and noticing a small placard propped up on the counter. There was a picture of a young, happy… what? Couple? Well, “couple” would be too strong and exact, an affront to the sexually casual. The ad read: “Open a checking account today, and enter to win a trip to Europe for you and your friend!”

Friend? The assumption in my moral dinosaurian mind was that if you go to Europe and stay in the same hotel rooms together as you travel, then you are going to be, not just a man and a woman, but having tied the nuptial knot, a husband and a wife. But “friend” implies (at least in our culture) both casualness and gender inspecificity.

I can imagine the unbearable angst of the folks in advertising at having to make the nail-biting decision even to put a young man and woman in the ad, and risk offending homosexuals and lesbians. “Well, the bank is only going to pay for two people on this trip, so we’ve got to have a picture of two of something, even though they’ll pay for two of anything. But we can say ‘friend’ as a wink to the homosexuals. They’ll get it!”

Of course, the bank would never dream of putting in fine print: “This contest is limited to those who are married.” That would not only offend everyone else, but cut down on the number that might open an account. Moral specificity is bad for business.

And other businesses know it too. There was an ad in the Sunday paper for a mattress, showing a man and woman luxuriating in somnolent bliss. “You and your partner can finally get that good night’s sleep.”

Partner? What is a partner? Or even more, what isn’t? How long ago was it that such ads would have read “spouse” or “you and your husband” or “you and your wife” — the cultural assumption being that if you were sharing the same bed, you were sharing the same last name?

Why the displacement of morally specific terms “husband,” “wife,” and “marriage” by terms of carefully contrived moral imprecision? Clearly, the culture wants a fuzzy picture, one that does not sharply distinguish morally among any of the ways human beings might choose to relate sexually.

Things get fuzzier still. The problem is not just that other words are crowding marriage out, but that even when the word “marriage” itself is used, it is being blurred to complete distortion in practice. As I often tire of saying, if you’ve got to pass a constitutional amendment to define marriage as only existing between a man and a woman, the battle has been all but lost, a rearguard action of an army in desperate retreat.

A Sharp Image

For contrast’s sake, let us turn to a very clear picture of marriage. “The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1603). A husband and wife are a man and a woman united by a covenant, a binding vow, for “the whole of life,” and this covenant “is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring…” (CCC 1601).

That’s about as sharp as it gets, although it is far sharper even than it first appears — a fact that becomes clearer if we begin to smear the edges of moral precision.

The first step of moral imprecision — in fact, the first step that was taken historically — is to leave off or qualify as optional the last stipulation, so that the “good of the spouses” includes companionship and sexual pleasure but not necessarily procreation. The problem is that while procreation compels the covenant to be between a man and a woman, mere companionship and sexual pleasure do not. And furthermore, if companionship and sexual pleasure define the good of marriage, then it is unclear how or why anyone would consider it a binding covenant for life. But then what does the term “marriage” add to just having companionship and sexual pleasure in a relationship with your partner, significant other, or friend? If it doesn’t add anything, then it must not mean anything.

So we are back to our sad beginning. What does a word mean, if it can mean anything? Is there a difference between a word meaning anything, and one that means nothing at all? But again, this is not a question of semantics. Words are about things, and to lose the meaning of marriage is to lose marriage itself.

Back to Ozzie and Harriet?

We might be tempted to think that we can easily reverse this decline. After all, marriage was rock-solid just a generation ago. Or is it two now… or three? Time passes, but surely it hasn’t been that long, has it? You know, Ozzie and Harriet, the nuclear family.

Well, gear up the mailroom for some hate-mail: The Ozzie and Harriet icon of marriage was halfway to perdition. This was the picture of no-mess, two-kid suburban bliss, a family downsized by contraception so all the struggles could be resolved in a half-hour by a bumbling father and immaculately dressed mother. No dirt. No sweat. No cross. All because procreation became optional, rather than central, to marriage.

The so-called nuclear family was a shrinkage of the meaning of marriage, an implosion waiting to happen. It became an icon of marriage at a time in our society — the 1950s and 1960s — when effective contraception was being introduced to the world for the very first time. Ozzie, Harriet, Rick, and Dave Nelson were the poster family for this great experiment, the cheerful weekly assurance it would turn out well.

But things soon unwound in Hollywood, on television, and in real life. The “Harriets” with only two kids, a house full of labor-saving appliances, and all day to dress up became bored, chose careers, and put “Rick” and “Dave” in daycare. The “Ozzies” found themselves newer-model “Harriets.” Obviously things could not have been wound that tightly in the 1950s if they became unwound so quickly in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The so-called nuclear family was ready to implode at its inception.

The cultural currents undermining the meaning of marriage would not be a relentless torrent now if they had just been a trickle a mere half-century ago. To get a true measure of the problem, we must trace the stream backwards, not a few decades but several centuries. Marriage has been under attack for that long.

The New Atom

The Genesis account presents the deepest truth about marriage: It is a union of a man and a woman, who are made for each other, a union that is so close that it is one flesh. This one flesh is defined both by the deep and complete complementary nature of male and female, and by the fact that this union yields a child, a living being, one flesh expressing in his or her person the unity of the marriage.

In the 17th century there arose another vision of human nature, one that was based on an entirely different picture of our natural state. This picture was — as compared to the merely “mythical” view put forth in Scripture — truly scientific because it was built upon the latest scientific hypothesis that, all appearances to the contrary, nature consisted of myriads of atoms, randomly jostling for position. This atomism, writ large on the level of human society, became the foundation for modern individualism.

In the mid-1600s, Thomas Hobbes put forth the first snapshot of the new Atom in the state of nature, the counterpart and antagonist of the old Adam in the Garden of Eden. For Hobbes, human beings are defined primarily as equally desirous — equally desirous to get pleasure, equally desirous to avoid pain and death, and therefore, equally desirous of power. In defining human beings by such desire, he not only homogenizes them, but completely abstracts from male and female. Not Adam and Eve, Man and Woman, but indistinguishable atomic individuals.

According to Hobbes, we are asocial by nature, and social only by accident. Individual desiring Atoms sometimes desire sex. Sometimes that desire produces children. But they are accidents of individual desire, not the goal that defines that desire.

Hobbes’s picture of human origins is bleak and uninviting. All this asocial, fervently goalless desire ends in chaos, “a warre, as is of every man, against every man. . . . And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

But only 40 years later another Englishman would repaint Hobbes’s new Atom in softer colors, and that Englishman was one of the most influential philosophers of modernity, shaping almost single-handedly the entire European Enlightenment, and more particularly, American self-understanding. That man was John Locke.

As with Hobbes, Locke lived through the chaotic English Civil War years of the mid-17th century, where pro-monarchical and anti-monarchical forces tore apart the English soil and social fabric for two decades, killing a king, lapsing into social and moral chaos, then experimenting with a republic (only to descend into military dictatorship), and finally lurching toward a kind of constitutional monarchy with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Locke was the philosopher of the revolution.

Locke was a Whig — a man on the left wing of English politics of the time — unfriendly at best to the nobility, and absolutely hostile to divine-right monarchy. In order to undermine the Tory claims of divine-right monarchy and the rule of noble families, Locke believed he had to attack paternal authority itself, and that attack has left an enduring scar on the self-image of the family, and hence marriage, in the West.

Locke follows Hobbes in placing human individuals in a state of nature, where the primary concern of each is self-preservation. He does this so that, against the claims of monarchs, we can be defined as essentially, naturally free and independent of all rule. The “state all men are naturally in,” declares Locke, “is a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit . . . .”

But what of the family? Are male and female naturally free and independent? Are children born naturally free and independent? Are parents naturally free and independent of their children? How does the family fit into the state of nature?

Not very well. Although Locke (to give him the benefit of the doubt) tries his best to fit the family back in the Hobbesian framework, once human beings are defined first and foremost by individual freedom, independence, and desire, it is deucedly difficult to make room for — let alone sense of — marriage and the family.

If we are naturally free and independent, then we, male and female, are not naturally made for each other. Rather than marriage being a sacrament, a holy covenant built upon nature and bringing nature to its intended fulfillment supernaturally, “conjugal society is made by a voluntary compact between man and woman.” From covenant to contract — and such contracts mirror the contract of the larger society, the social contract: They can be made and broken.

Again, Locke tries to fit the family in. He even claims that there is “a right in one another’s bodies as is necessary to its chief end, procreation,” and the children have “a right to be nourished and maintained by them till they are able to provide for themselves.” But the damage is done. The husband, wife, and children are related by individual rights, rather than by natural love.

Defining marriage in terms of individual rights also makes it all too easy for the man and woman to yearn for that “state of nature” before marriage, where both were in a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they thought fit. That Locke realizes he has introduced a fundamental unnaturalness and impermanency to marriage is evident. Witness his slippery rumination:

And herein, I think, lies the chief, if not the only, reason why the male and female in mankind are tied to a longer conjunction than other creatures, viz., because the female is capable of conceiving, and de facto is commonly with child again and brings forth, too, a new birth long before the former is out of a dependency for support on his parents’ help and able to shift for himself and has all the assistance that is due to him from his parents; whereby the father, who is bound to take care for those he hath begot, is under an obligation to continue in conjugal society with the same woman longer than other creatures, whose young being able to subsist of themselves, before the time of procreation returns again, the conjugal bond dissolves of itself, and they are at liberty, till Hymen at his usual anniversary season summons them again to choose new mates (emphases added).

The only reason man and woman are tied to a longer conjunction? By so qualifying marriage, Locke finds that he must jettison permanency, so that the best he can say theologically is that “the wisdom of the great Creator… hath made it necessary that society of man and wife should be more lasting than of male and female amongst other creatures…” (emphasis added). Till death do us part just died.

Locke’s attempt to define us as primarily desire-driven, independent individuals nearly destroys fatherhood as well. Or if we wanted to put it in the political context of the time, Locke is so concerned to destroy the notion that a king has a natural right to rule his subjects, that he is willing to do significant damage to the parallel belief that a father has a natural right to rule his children. Part of his strategy is to reduce children to an accident of lust, thereby affirming the Hobbesian notion that human beings are governed by desire rather than by reason. “What father of a thousand, when he begets a child, thinks farther than the satisfying [of] his present appetite?”

Sex: one more appetite. Note that all that it takes to undermine the “only reason why the male and female in mankind are tied to a longer conjunction than other creatures” is birth control. All that is necessary to remove the child’s dependency is, first of all, not to be born to begin with, and failing that, daycare — which, of course, removes the father’s “obligation to continue in conjugal society” if it is state-subsidized. This unwinding of obligations, aided and abetted by technology and the welfare state, brings the man and woman back to the state of nature, “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit.”

I focus on Locke for a very good reason. Locke is the acknowledged father of modern liberalism, in both its “conservative” and “liberal” manifestations. “Conservatives” affirm Locke’s worldview, but want an abridged form of marriage to sit in the middle of the state of nature and resist the tide. “Liberals” just want the tide to finish its work and wash the family away.

Since Locke’s political views have been so firmly ensconced in modern political life, marriage is increasingly harder to fit into contemporary liberal society — a society based upon the notion that human beings are defined, first and foremost, by individual freedom and the right to fulfill their desires.

And as individual freedom and the right to fulfill our desires ever more completely define our self-understanding, marriage ever more quickly unwinds. As marriage unwinds, it means less and less, until it simply becomes unintelligible, an archaic burden tied to primitive notions that there is anything deeply defining man and woman that would entail that marriage is a natural union — the natural union.

Back to Our Future

Restoring meaning to marriage means not only holding against the tide, but swimming against it — acting in complete antagonism to contemporary culture. There is much glib braggadocio about being “countercultural,” mainly by those on the left who are not acting counter to the culture, but gleefully running a few feet ahead of the tide. Being truly countercultural means doing an about-face and slamming headlong into the cultural breakers.

That is a most painful exercise, especially for women. The assumption of the culture is that the fulfillment of individual freedom and individual desires demands that a woman be financially independent, even and especially within marriage. The maximum independence is achieved by working for wages outside the home and severely limiting the number of children. The terms “wife” and “mother” smack of servitude. If a woman would dare to consider being a wife and mother, her defining goal — not “her” in the vague, Lockean sense of a particular preference, as in the perky “I’m a stay-at-home soccer mom!” but “her” as in defining womanhood itself, the fulfillment of her very nature, her vocation as a woman — that would be truly countercultural.

It may seem as if such a thing only opposes the cultural Left, but it ain’t so. When the cultural Right thunders about a woman’s place being in the home, what is generally meant is that Ozzie wants Harriet back in the neat suburban house to tend the two children. The problem is that Ozzie doesn’t see his natural fulfillment, his true vocation, as being a husband and father. He wants to minimize the burdens of being a father so he can maximize the freedoms of being a husband. Having Harriet at home cuts down upon the frictions and restrictions of his free time outside the workplace.

Having children as a vocation, the fulfillment of male and female as husband and wife, is as countercultural as you can get. If you doubt that, then you haven’t experienced the shock of disbelief, the incredulous gasps, the nervous laughter, the rude murmurings when you parade with your family of nine in public — and this includes many Catholic parishes where the pews are filled with freshly scrubbed families of four: Dad, Mom, and the two kids.

But it is not (as some orthodox Catholics think) simply a matter of having a lot of children. It is a matter of recovering the depths of male and female, husband and wife, father and mother, in a culture that has all but wiped out such fundamental natural distinctions.

Where to begin? The most fundamental natural distinction, prior to husband and wife, father and mother, and the one on which they depend, is male and female. We live in an androgynous culture, where this most fundamental natural distinction, male and female, has been replaced by the notion of the “individual,” the androgynous desiring unit, bursting with rights that demand satisfaction. As a result, we have become alienated, strangers to the depths of our own nature, genderless both-and-neithers.

What if — dare one even think, let alone speak it — a man is a very particular thing, not just on the surface, but all the way down? That a woman is a woman, not a frustrated man, or a naturally blank slate scribbled on by patriarchal culture, but deep down, a very peculiar creature, a woman?

What if a husband and wife were not just two people, two desiring units of indifferent gender, living for an indefinite time in the same house, but the perfection of male and female as if “marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman”? Perfection thus understood is not another form of individualism. When man and woman are made one flesh, they belong to each other. I am my wife’s husband, and she is my wife — not just a little on the surface, or according to a legal contract, but to the very depths of our being. Likewise, I do not play at being father as a “role.” I am a father. My wife does not play at being a mother. She is a mother.

If marriage is to have meaning, we shall have to embrace again this revolutionary truth.



  • Benjamin D. Wiker

    Benjamin Wiker is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His website is

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