Defending Marriage: What it Really Takes

Tuesday July 13, 2004

As a strong supporter of marriage, I’m dismayed to see matrimony’s self-proclaimed defenders—President Bush and Congress’ Republican leadership—trying to legitimize a highly unnatural form of union that would actually weaken the institution. 

The “Federal Marriage Amendment,” which Congress is debating this week, would alter the U.S. Constitution to read: 

“Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.” 

That definition mirrors language that California (like many other states) wrote into law in recent years. But there’s been no measurable change in California’s marriage or divorce rate since we enacted our so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” in 2000. That law failed to even stop its own author’s son from marrying his male partner in San Francisco last winter, along with some 3,000 other same-sex couples.  

Just a quick look at the flawed definition above shows why such language makes bad law. 

Do you see what’s missing?  

Where’s the dog?  

I was raised in a traditional marriage, and my family always had a dog. So did almost every family in our neighborhood. There were a few exceptions: Some had a cat, a goldfish, or no pet at all. We kids thought of these households as “weird.”  

Years later, when I was old enough to learn the horrible truth, my parents confided in me just how correct our childhood intuition had been. The marriages on both sides of our house, both dogless, were destroyed by adultery. On one side, the wife eventually ran off with her lover—shockingly, a former Olympic sports celebrity and role model to youth. And that was the fortunate family. In the other dogless house, after the husband refused to give up his mistress, the wife literally drank herself to death. 

Across town, in another outwardly prim split-level house, some relatives of ours divorced over similar infidelities. They didn’t have a dog either. (Although luckily, no one died.) 

Was this link between dogless marriages and destructive infidelity mere coincidence? I doubt it. In our Norman Rockwell suburb, such things were never heard of in families that included a dog. And today, as an adult, I see the same pattern: Among the married and long-term committed couples I know—whether heterosexual or gay—the most stable partnerships are triads that include a furry, wet-nosed member.  

The idea that a dog should be a formal participant in marriage is hardly new. The Gond people of rural Bastar, in central India, have long held that if a woman’s husband is killed by a wild beast, the woman must ceremonially marry a dog before marrying another man. Psychologist Stanley Coren explains (in his book What Do Dogs Know?) the Gond’s belief that the dead husband’s spirit now inhabits his killer—and will jealously seek to slay the widow’s next husband. Her interim marriage to a dog transfers this risk to the four-footed one.  

Perhaps in their native wisdom, the Gond clarify the sacrificial and stabilizing effect that a dog brings to any marriage. Offering lifelong, unconditional love, a dog absorbs the stresses and “bad spirits” that are inevitable in any long-term partnership between willful, brainy higher primates—and dissolves them with a goofy lick on the face.  

But if the perverse Federal Marriage Amendment prevails, such traditional marriages will be undermined. Can you imagine the effect on our already high divorce rate? Picture thousands of unstable, dogless couples walking down the aisle each year—then promptly walking back through divorce court. Not even Britney Spears, the scandalous Jackson siblings, or the most depraved reality TV producer would touch this sick scenario for a show called Who Wants to Briefly Marry a Non-Millionaire with No Dog?  

The Federal Marriage Amendment has already divided the nation’s Second Family. Vice President Dick Cheney supports it, but his wife Lynne now opposes it. (Mrs. Cheney, who once penned a lesbian-themed potboiler novel, presumably sides with the Cheneys’ gay daughter, Mary.) Do you think this family has a dog? I doubt it. 

To stop this threat to traditional marriage, Congress clearly must reject the Federal Marriage Amendment. Perhaps someday, marriage’s real defenders will sponsor a truly pro-family federal law that reads:  

“Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of two consulting adults and at least one dog.” 

Some might object that government has no business telling grownups whom to marry. That’s a legitimate viewpoint, and reason enough to oppose all electoral stunts in which mainstream legislators (dog owners, heterosexuals, or what have you) seek to arbitrarily restrict the definition of marriage for everyone else. 

And indeed, perhaps Americans will just grow up and accept same-sex marriage, as citizens of Belgium, the Netherlands, and Canada have. The nation can handle this: we’ve already had an apparently gay president (James Buchanan, look it up); a cross-dressing vice president (William King, served with Franklin Pierce); and a cross-dressing FBI director (J. Edgar Hoover). 

But if we do choose to let government put us on short leashes and dictate with whom we may breed—that is, treat us like dogs—let’s at least demand laws that demonstrably promote (rather than diminish) stable relationships and human happiness. By that criterion, the Federal Marriage Amendment that President Bush advocates is one sick puppy. 


Michael Katz is an unmarried Berkeley resident.