The Deconstruction of Marriage: From Integration to Isolation

The term “deconstruction,” which has its roots in Heidegger and Derrida, is now sufficiently emancipated from its philosophical moorings that it not only has entered the American vernacular, but has assumed enough trendiness to make it a bona fide “sign of the times” in our postmodern world. Examples are legion. A bookstore in the university town of Ithaca, New York, has a notice on the wall advising its patrons that “Shoplifters Will Be Deconstructed.” A television critic believes that the key to the Seinfeld show’s immense popularity lies in its deconstructionist format: no commitments, no marriages, no babies, and weekly episodes that revolve around nothing and journey to nowhere. John Ralston Saul, in his recent book, The Doubter’s Companion, defines “divorce” as “the deconstruction of SEX and PROPERTY.” Feminist Monique Wittig calls for “a political deconstruction of the term ‘woman'” in order to break free of the “myth” that has encompassed it.

How widespread is deconstruction in the United States? According to Jacques Derrida, “America is deconstruction.” In a rejoinder, which is not entirely vacant of truth, screenwriter Mark Horowitz has said of his French contemporaries: “We sent them Jerry Lewis, so they retaliated by sending us deconstruction and Jacques Derrida.”

When Heidegger used the word Destruktion in Being and Time, what he had in mind was not “destruction” or even “dismantling,” but a “breaking loose [of] the ice” that had influenced the Western tradition’s notion of “Being.” His “destruction” was not meant negatively. He had no intention of disposing of the ontological tradition. As he states, “to bury the past in nullity [Nichtigkeit] is not the purpose of this destruction.” He simply did not like the way tradition had formulated the notion of Being. He wanted to clear away impediments so that one could get back to talking about the primordial experiences of Being itself rather than the “existents” that are its expressions, the Sein rather than the Seienden.

Whereas Heidegger in his later works replaced Destruktion with the softer word Uberwindung (“overcoming”), Derrida, a disciple of his, pursued a more rigorous line of development with his use of the word “deconstruction.” In his seminal work, Of Grammatology, Derrida regards a work not as having referents to anything beyond itself — to its author, a world, or a tradition — but as a text which is exclusively self-referential. The “origin” and “end” of a text are thereby given over to language. Meaning becomes “undecidable,” in Derrida’s phraseology, the moment a text seems to transgress its own system of grammatological meaning. The chief aim of the deconstructionist is to open the textuality of the text.

Thus, by reducing a “work” to a “text,” he is, in effect, reducing philosophy and theology to grammar. To anyone who sees language as an opening to a world of real values, deconstructionism is simply a path to nihilism. The late novelist Walker Percy, therefore, can say that the whole deconstructive enterprise is nothing more than an attempt to get rid of God by first disposing of grammar. Nonetheless, part of the allure for the deconstructionist is that it presents escape from the closure of knowledge. The open-ended indefiniteness of textuality — “placing [everything] in the abyss” (mettre en abime) — offers the intoxicating image of the abyss as freedom, of never hitting bottom.

Deconstruction is virtually synonymous with the post-structuralism of the postmodern world. It claims that the major structures by which we organize our thought are neither natural nor inevitable, but artificial constructions. It promises, therefore, to rouse us out of our complacency and naïveté so that we see nothing more than what the text can justify.

Perhaps the earliest known deconstructionist is the ancient sophist, Gorgias of Leontini (483-376 BC). Being more concerned with rhetoric than philosophy, more enamored by words than reality, he wrote a satirical treatise entitled Of Nature or the Non-existent in which he used the power of the word to deconstruct the world. He reasoned as follows: since non-existence is non-existence, non-existence is. As a consequence, its contrary, existence is not. Therefore, non-existence is and existence is not. Gorgias went on to assert that even if anything did exist, we could not know it. Moreover, in the unlikely event that we could know something, we could not communicate it.

Deconstructionism, as a philosophy of life, is fundamentally nihilistic since it holds that nothingness will ultimately be victorious over being. This radical discontinuity is the logical antithesis of the Judaeo-Christian view that centers on the continuity of life-death-and-resurrection. It is precisely resurrection that the deconstructionist cannot read in the text of his life. But deconstructionism is hostile to continuity of any form. Within its perspective, culture appears as one vast garage sale. It derides any search for depth, derogates the significance of history, and denies that there is any aesthetic difference between Shakespeare and daytime TV. It prefers liberty to fidelity, sex to marriage, and contraception to procreation. In the words of one critic, “The ‘individual’ has decomposed, as ‘reality’ has dissolved; nothing lives but ‘discourses,”texts,”language games,”images,”simulations,’ referring to other ‘discourses,’ ‘texts,’ etc.” Deconstruction in the postmodern world leaves little left to delight in but freedom and playfulness.

One area of human existence that has been particularly amenable to the influence of deconstructionism is human sexuality. From a traditional Christian perspective, marital intercourse is a loving act between husband and wife which involves their whole beings, body and soul, and disposes them to beget offspring whom they raise as members of their family. Associated with marital intercourse are several lines of continuity. There is the intimacy between the spouses and the incarnate love they bring to that unity. In addition, there is the relationship the partners have with God, the Author of life, and that between the wife with her motherhood and the husband and his fatherhood. Finally, there are the manifold relationships between all members of the family that integrate them into a family unit. Marriage is not a juxtaposition of solitudes, and spouses are not mere individuals. Children are begotten, not made, and the family is an organic unity, not a loose aggregate of isolated subjects.

We may speak of five particular values which are allied (at least potentially) with marital intercourse: the intimate, incarnate, invoking, identifying, and integrating. In the postmodern world of deconstruction, new forms of reproductive technologies have placed these traditional values in jeopardy.

The Intimate: When Lesley Northrup, a woman priest in the Episcopal Church, turned forty, she felt what she termed a “deep urge to create and nurture that would not be denied.” She had no husband or plans to marry at that time, and considered adoption beyond her means. In order to fulfill her desire, she employed self-insemination on three consecutive nights using sperm from as many donors. Nine months later she gave birth to a girl, Evan Arandes Northrup. She selected her donors because they were willing to contribute their sperm without accepting any of the concerns and responsibilities that are normally attached to fatherhood. Miss Northrup allowed the act of conceiving a child to be “deconstructed” of any association with intimacy (either marital or non-marital) as well as of marriage itself and fatherhood. She was supported in her decision by several members of her family as well as the bishops who ordained her.

It is clear that from a purely technical perspective, marital intimacy is not necessary for conception. But this deconstructive frame of reference loses sight of the overriding purpose that a two-in-one-flesh intimacy both implies and helps to foster.

The Incarnate: Surrogacy arrangements proceed according to the assumption that the surrogate — that is, the woman who carries and delivers the child — will not claim to be the child’s mother and insist on having all the rights a mother would have in relation to her offspring. This assumption is often contradicted when a surrogate changes her mind and asserts her maternal rights. In order to prevent a surrogate from violating her contractual agreement, some lawyers have proposed a new legal definition of motherhood in which motherhood would be deconstructed of any reference to the biological or the bodily.

Traditionally, from the point of view of law, it has been an irrebuttable presumption to consider the mother as the person from whom the child proceeds. Andrea Stumpf, writing for the Yale Law Journal and opposing this incarnational presumption, has advanced the suggestion that there should be a new legal understanding of motherhood and that understanding should be based not on biological conception but on “mental conception.” Ms.  Stumpf argues, “The psychological dimension of procreation precedes and transcends the biology of creation.” In this instance, motherhood is “deconstructed” of any reference to the body, an intriguing maneuver since it would logically entitle a man to become a mother.

The Invoking: Human beings do not “replicate” as cells do, or “reproduce” like machines, or “create” as God does. Properly speaking, human beings “procreate.” The word “procreation” connotes a line of continuity between God and man. The procreation of human life proceeds or continues from God’s creative act. God creates creatively insofar as He assigns a role to human beings to complete creation through their own creative effort. One way in which humans can participate creatively in God’s creation and extend His work is through procreation.

In the postmodern world, this line of continuity between creation and procreation has been deconstructed. As a telling example of this deconstruction, Lori Andrews, a research attorney for the American Bar Foundation, calls her book on new reproductive technologies, A Consumer’s Guide. By deconstructing the procreative parent into a “consumer,” the invoking value of marital intimacy is dissolved. Severed from any relationship with the Creator, human generation becomes merely the assertion — through natural or technological means — of one’s alleged “right to have a child.”

Noel Keane, America’s most active surrogate broker, has made the television talk-show rounds advising televiewers that every individual has a right to have a child. He commonly speaks of the child of a surrogacy arrangement as his client’s “investment.” He writes: “How can the husband be sure he is indeed the father of his ‘investment’ short of isolating the surrogate from other male contacts?” As the procreator becomes a “consumer,” the human offspring is deconstructed into a commodity or an “investment.” It would seem, however, that the deconstructed definition of the parental relationship as one between a consumer and his investment is not congenial to cultivating self-esteem in the child or self-respect in the parent.

The Identifying: Through their common relationship with their offspring, husband and wife confer motherhood and fatherhood upon each other and identify their child as their son and daughter. At the same time, that child identifies his parents as mother and father. To the mind of the deconstructionist, such identifications are mere arbitrary constructions. Familial identifications may just as well be assigned on a different basis, one more responsive to special circumstances.

In a celebrated case in South Africa, 48-year-old Pat Anthony delivered surrogate triplets for her daughter, Karen, whose eggs had been fertilized in vitro by her husband’s sperm. According to South African law, the triplets — two boys and a girl — belonged to Mrs. Anthony until Karen and her husband formally adopted them. Had Mrs. Anthony decided to keep the girl, while her daughter adopted the two boys, the little girl would have been the legal aunt to her own brothers. Prior to the adoption, Karen, who had been taking hormones for nine months in order to breastfeed her neonates, was actually, according to law, breastfeeding her siblings.

In Canada, the pseudonymous Pamela Better served as a surrogate for her sister. Miss Better conceived through artificial insemination with her brother-in-law’s sperm which had been frozen and flown across the country from Toronto to Vancouver. Her sister and her sister’s husband subsequently adopted the child. Although Miss Better conceived, gestated, and delivered the baby, she never identified herself as its mother. In a public brief to the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, she stated, “What I did was nine months of being a hotel room.”

The deconstruction of familial identifications brings a freedom to reconstruct them according to one’s particular preferences. Nonetheless, it is not likely that the processes of de-identification and re-identification will be of no concern to the individual subject.

The Integrating: The organic quality of the family is most vulnerable to the processes of deconstruction. There is nothing to be read in the “text” of any individual that would suggest the notion of membership in a particular family. Thus, when the marriage between Junior Lewis and Mary Sue Davis dissolved, it seemed evident enough to Mr. Davis that seven frozen embryos that had been conceived through the fertilization of his wife’s eggs by his sperm were not his offspring and had no membership in his family. His estranged wife, however, thought differently. While Mary Sue did not regard the embryos — that were presumably still alive in liquid nitrogen — as her children, she did believe that they represented “life.” She did not regard herself as their mother, but expressed the hope that some day she might become their mother.


The dispute went to court and Circuit Judge Dale Young ruled that since “human life begins at conception,” the seven frozen embryos were human beings and ordered them into the custody of the mother. He dared to return the embryos to what remained of a now non-intact family. But he was severely criticized for this. One writer, for example, censured him for rendering a “backward” decision, and complained that he did not view the embryos in more poetic terms the way she did as “in-vitro Pleiades frozen hard against a Petri sky.” In identifying the embryos as “children,” he was castigated for turning them into “anthropomorphic Disney characters.”

The growth and development of a family is dependent on how well its members are integrated within its organic unity. This integral family is easily deconstructed into an assemblage of strangers, something akin to what psychiatrist David Cooper had in mind when he labelled the family as “the ultimate form of non-meeting.”

Deconstruction, even when it was not known by that name, has been a major force in the history of modern thought. Descartes deconstructed the knower into a thinker; atheistic existentialism deconstructed the person into an individual; postmodern thought has deconstructed morality into choice. By deconstructing the world into a text (“Il n’y a rien hors du texte“), Derrida was simply continuing a practice that had become deeply ingrained in modern thought. The cumulative result of modern deconstruction is to situate the amoral thinker who is preoccupied solely with his individuality at the center of a void.


At the heart of the Thomistic tradition is the intuition that order flows from being. Creation does not consist of a collection of mutually unrelated beings. On the contrary, beings are ordered to each other as well as to God. The continuity between being and order encapsulates Thomistic thought. According to St. Thomas, “the order of the parts of the universe to each other exists in virtue of the order of the whole universe to God.” Elsewhere, he states: “What comes from God is well ordered. Now the order of things consists in this, that they are led to God each one by the others.”

For St. Thomas, a knower is cognitively ordered to the things he can know, while a person is ordered morally and communally to his fellow human beings. Morality is not simply a choice, but is ordered to a consequence, and a truly moral choice is ordered to a good moral consequence. The fundamental note of his philosophy is order and continuity. Each being is surrounded by a host of referents. Sunlight, moisture, and nutrients are ordered to the growth and ripening of crops which, as food, are ordered to the digestive system which, in turn, is ordered to processes of assimilation and development. The deconstructionists’ contention that the world is a text which has no referents that go beyond itself is indefensible because it is contradicted by the most mundane facts of life.

Walker Percy refutes the notion that texts have no referents in his metaphor of the man who leaves a message on his telephone answering machine requesting a pepperoni pizza for supper. The message is the text, writes Percy, and the pizza is the referent. When the machine’s self-erasing device obliterates the message, it is not surprising that the pizza fails to materialize. Percy exemplifies the same common sense realism that Chesterton regarded as an essential characteristic of Aquinas’s philosophy. Words mirror what they signify much more reliably than do the arbitrary meanings their speakers sometimes give them. Aquinas himself drew attention to this paradox when he noted that “The word has naturally more conformity with the reality it expresses than with the person who speaks, even though it dwells in the speaker as in its subject.”

Deconstructionists use words to deny what words mean. A sonnet by Shakespeare is not a sonnet by Shakespeare, but a mere text devoid of any reference either to Shakespeare, tradition, or the real significations that his words have. Deconstructionists are particularly hostile toward the notion of logos, especially as it is presented in The Gospel According to St. John. “Logocentrism” is the enemy, they protest, because it affirms the word as having an intrinsic affinity to a rational principle that operates in the universe as its cosmic counterpart. Moreover, the Word can be made flesh, and two people who give their Word to each other in marriage can become two-in-one-flesh. Christian as well as Thomistic logocentrism teaches that Word and reality are not mutually exclusive.

Deconstructionists may appear humble and self- effacing when they refrain from making judgments about meaning; they may seem open-minded and cautious when they declare that virtually everything is undecidable. But their supposed humility is more likely to be a lack of reverence for the objective order of things, while their presumed openness is more likely a reluctance to acknowledge the obvious.

Words are windows through which a larger world appears. In the hands of deconstructionists they become mirrors that do nothing more than reflect what is in other mirrors. Texts do not speak about the world but about other texts. Where meaning once was thought to reside, there is now only an infinity of mirror reflections. “For deconstructionists,” as one critic has stated, “the world is made up of empty rooms, with impenetrable walls and no doors, in which individual minds are bent on rending texts with a slight smile.” One may well wonder how deconstructionists can occupy “empty” rooms and how they can smile in so claustrophobic an atmosphere.

The fact that the word cannot comprehend or exhaust the reality it signifies does not justify abandoning its realistic function. What it does suggest is that one should use words to deepen appreciation for the richness of being. The deconstructionist withdraws from a world too large to enclose so that he can inhabit a world too small to enjoy. He exchanges a world of being for a world of words and then tries to convince himself that in moving backwards he is being progressive. The Thomistic preference is to use words as windows that lead from a world of verbal insularity to an incomparably larger world of being. The Thomist moves from signs to what signs signify, from shadows to sunlight. This is the fundamental design and direction of life in general and of marital intercourse in particular.


  • Donald DeMarco

    Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus of Saint Jerome’s University and an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary. He is a regular columnist for the Saint Austin Review and the author, most recently, of Reflections on the Covid-19 Pandemic: A Search for Understanding.

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