Be that as it may, this line of argument I recently read from an old acquaintance who is very much of the pro-gay-marriage side of things struck me as instructive:
But the real reason I support gay marriage these days is simple: it's for the sake of women. And for the sake of straight men, too.Now, I don't find his portrayal of relationship dynamics at all persuasive. He wants to read people who stay in bad relationships "too long" as being somehow oppressed by a cultural paradigm of marriage, when what I think is actually going on here is the relationship equivalent of people's drive to send good money after bad. We want our relationships to work out. Even when they're going badly we keep holding onto the idea that maybe, with just a little more time, just a little more work, it'll all come right. People in same sex relationships do this just like people in opposite sex ones do, and I don't think that knowing that there are marriages out there with different sex roles is going to hasten people toward abandoning relationships that they've built history and hope around.
I've seen marriages poisoned by the usual hetero script; I've had friends who stayed in severely abusive marriages because they felt it was their "wifely duty;" and of course I've seen my women friends (of any orientation) battered and tortured and constrained by the traditional view that men are superior and women are inferior.
So along comes gay marriage. Quite visible these days -- and what is it that people see? A way that people interact with each other that is DIFFERENT. Where are the "wifely duties" in a gay marriage? Who is "the man" in a lesbian partnership? By simply existing, gay & lesbian marriages disrupt the status quo. And the status quo, to my mind -- with its millennia of abuse and rape and discrimination -- could use a little disruption.
So I support gay marriage because it shows that the traditional "man and his little woman" pattern of relationships isn't the only way. Which is beneficial for women because it means they might not stand for this shit any more, and is beneficial for men because it means they can lay down the burdens of being "tough" and "manly," with all the violence and disrespect that the culture expects of such roles.
All these are sweeping statements, of course, and gay marriage itself is imperfect. But that's the long and the short of it: I support gay marriage for the sake of women, and for the sake of the men who oppress those women, because it's the only way they've known to live.
However, the thinking about the desirability of breaking up the dominant marriage paradigm is something that I've read elsewhere as well. Keep in mind, one of the key beliefs in this new modern synthesis about sexual relationships is that they can take whatever form consenting adults want them to take. This is why many gay marriage supporters also support giving legal recognition to plural marriages.
If you don't believe there's anything particularly binding about what has in the past been the normative cultural understanding of marriage, then weakening it isn't a problem. Indeed, it's desirable, since sticking with one type of relationship might keep you from embracing something else that would make you happy. Here as in so many other places in our culture, we see choice set upon a pedestal as a near idol. If by breaking down social expectations and norms, we can give people more options in forming relationships, that will be seen as a good thing.
The key issue, I think, is whether human nature exists, and whether sexual relationships have an objective form, a way they are supposed to be.
The modern view quoted here seems to hold that there is not a necessary form that sexual relationships may take: anything that makes you happy. So if societal expectations can be broken down such that you are more free to move on to whatever makes you happy, so much the better.
I think this is incorrect. There is a way that we are supposed to be, and when we deviate from that form we will generally make ourselves less happy, not more so. As such, having social expectations which guide people towards following that pattern is a good thing, it helps people avoid mistakes which will only make them unhappy.
Either way, though, I think it's important to be clear that for those who take this modern view of relationships seriously, the social acknowledgement of an ever wider variety of relationship as "marriage" is intended to weaken marriage as a social institution. Because from that point of view, a shared social understanding of what a marriage should be is a restrictive barrier which potentially keeps you from finding just the right kind of relationship for you -- not a social buttress that helps provide you with strength from outside.