A while back, in response to responses to the Anthony Weiner scandal, Megan McArdle wrote:
Society takes a greater interest in marriages than in other relationships because society, as well as the individual, has an interest in strong marriages. Strong marriages support a strong society. And society supports the marriage by encouraging people to do the very hard work of keeping their promises. One of the ways in which society ensures strong marriages is by tut-tutting (or worse) at people who don’t keep to their vows: who abandon spouses, treat them badly, or yes, violate their trust by engaging in covert sexual activity. I’m a big fan of sexual privacy. But you cannot have a public institution that rests in part on fidelity, and also complete privacy on those matters.
Call me old-fashioned, but I think that social sanction can be very helpful in assisting us in doing important but difficult things. Marriage is stronger if people who find out that their friends are cheating don’t say, “Awesome, is he hot?” but “How could you do that to Jason?” Marriage is stronger if people who cheat are viewed with slight revulsion, and so are the (knowing) people who they cheat with. Marriage is stronger when people who decide not to care for seriously ill spouses are met with an incredulous “What the hell is wrong with you?”, not “Yeah, I couldn’t handle that either.” Of course it would be nicer if we didn’t need this sort of help. But we are a flawed species.
This is, to be sure, a bit trickier in an era when people like me and Andrew accept that there can be healthy non-monagamous marriages. Maybe, folks have suggested, she was totally okay with this! This seems possible, but not really very likely. I know a decent number of people in open marriages, but they are very far from the majority of the people I know. Looking at what polls and research we have on this sort of thing, plus an unscientific survey of my friends and the women who have written me, I’m going to go out on a limb here and speak for heterosexual married women as a class: I’m pretty sure that most of us are not okay with our husbands sending racy photos to strangers, or engaging in phone sex with same within weeks of our wedding day. And if she’s totally okay with this, how come she hasn’t said so?
To some, marriage is a covenant with God. To others, it’s an agreement with the state. And others, it’s merely an arrangement between two people. I fall into the view that it is a covenant with society. As such, I agree with McArdle on the lack of complete unimportance of Weiner’s infidelity. Society is conferring benefits - tangible and intangible - to married couples, and I believe that married couple in turn should meet some rather basic expectations.
I believe this enough that I am uncomfortable with the notion of “non-monogamous marriages.” Not that I don’t think they can ever work. Not even that I disapprove of non-monogamy. But rather, that I think what is being described is something other than marriage. I don’t think that these people should be prevented from being married, but rather that individuals in society, as well as society as a whole, can pass judgment.
Except, of course, that there is not typically a way of getting marital benefits without it being called marriage. This is where I think the concept of Civil Unions can be rather helpful, for straights and gays alike. On the other end, I am actually sympathetic to the notion of “covenant marriages”, the marriage-plus deal that some states have tried to institute. By and large I would have the law look at all three in the same way, except for making it easier to get in and out of some than others, but a clearer outlining of expectations would ultimately be helpful, in my view. Before asking “Will you marry me?” I wish that more couples had a clearer idea of a fundamental pre-requisite question: “What does marriage mean to you?”
I am, to some degree, skeptical of the notion that we should always approach these questions individually. Without common definitions, and common expectations, society lacks a structure that is ultimately beneficial. Legislating morality is tough, and often undesirable. It’s social norms, and social expectations, that remain the best tool to make it largely unnecessary. And so when Anthony Weiner introduces his wife, I should have the reasonable expectation that they are monogamous. Even if his wife is okay with what he did, you still have a situation where Weiner sold us on one persona “Happily married man!” while in fact being another “Someone with looser notions of marriage than you!”