The Marriage Contract

Observe that:


(1) Fundamentally, marriage is a private contract entered into by two consenting adults for a life-long commitment, and a divorce is a voiding of that contract, with associated costs and penalties.

(2) A couple who love each other, and who are most happy together compared to any of their other alternatives, will prefer to stay together anyway, with or without official marriage. (In other words, marriage is irrelevant if two people stay in love with each other, because they would have been kept together regardless.)

(3) Because of (2), the only instance where marriage actually makes a functional difference is when a couple, who were initially in love when they entered into marriage, stopped loving each other at some point, but are forced to stay together due to the difficulties associated with a divorce.


Just from what I wrote above, you may come to the conclusion that I have quite a dismal opinion of marriage, and that I think marriage has no value at all. That is, however, not exactly true. I believe marriage adds value to the society in a very specific case, and the value added is positive enough to justify the existence of marriage, but not significant enough to warrant too much of our attention over other much greater issues. Marriage in general, and gay marriage in particular, do not deserve as much of our collective attention as it does now.

I am specifically talking about the legal institution of marriage, not the wedding celebration and other fluffiness surrounding it – anybody can throw a huge party without actually being legally married.

The specific case where marriage adds value is when a couple stopped loving each other AND they have had children together.  Note again that if a couple never stopped loving each other, they would have taken care of their children together regardless of marriage. Without children, the only thing that marriage accomplishes is to keep unhappy couples together, so there is no value added in that case. Let’s consider the specific case where the love stopped but they have had children together.

Without the stability of marriage, couples would break up more easily and children would be left more often with a single parent. Granted, even with marriage, couples can still divorce, but it is relatively more painful and costly, so it would at least give them some incentives to try to work things out. The difference from the children’s point of view is significant – having the time, attention, and resources of two parents is vastly better than one parent in terms of their development. In other words, in this specific case, there is a trade-off between the parents’ suffering (from having to stay together) and the children’s happiness (from having two parents), and as such, the ONLY time where value is added to the society is when children’s gain in happiness is greater than the parents’ loss.

I believe this specific case happens often enough to justify marriage, or something like it, but its exact definition is not important. We can call it whatever we want, but what people do is create institutions of two (or more!) people, formed consensually and held together by a private contract, to provide a stable backdrop for raising children. Gay or straight, two or many, they are agreements reached by consensual parties, therefore I do not have strong opinions on them, and I do not think they are something that the government should meddle in.

As a corollary, I do not have a strong opinion on gay marriage, other than the view that the entire marriage legal framework is unnecessary noise because existing laws surrounding private contracts would have sufficed.

But the reality is we have laws governing the marriage contract that we have to obey. However, within this framework, what I do have a problem with is how this gay marriage issue is framed. Gay marriage advocates often claim that gay people deserve the same rights as straight people, therefore they should be allowed to marry each other. The fact of the matter is, they already have the same rights as straight people, so this had nothing to do with inequality. What they are asking for is not equal rights, but additional privileges. Fairness under the law is objective fairness, not subjective. Let me explain.

The law does not adjust for personal preferences. The law prohibits drinking and driving, regardless of whether you like to drink or not. The law (here) says you must drive on the right side of the road, regardless of your preference. The law says an adult cannot have sex with underage children, regardless of whatever sick fetish one has. I am not suggesting any moral equivalence among these acts; I am merely illustrating that equality under the law means it is applied equally to everybody without regard to subjective preferences.

So, as it stands currently in most places, anybody, straight or gay or lesbian, is allowed to marry someone of the opposite sex – man with woman, woman with man. The law is applied equally to all regardless of each individual’s sexual preference of man over woman or vice versa. The law does not, and should not, apply differently to different kinds of people. Just like how all people, vegetarians or meat-eaters, are not allowed to eat endangered animals, we have equality because justice is blind to differences in individuals. The law is fair objectively in that same sex marriage is prohibited for people of all sexual preferences.

This fact in itself does not determine the merits of gay marriage either way. But as we debate, we should know that what we are asking for is not equality, but a special provision – a brand new privilege for a man to marry a man, and a woman to marry a woman. The issue of equality has no place in this discussion – don’t cry wolf or we are diluting the argument when REAL problems of equality arise.

I have received some feedback since publishing the article above, illustrating certain misunderstanding that I would like to clarify.

What I wrote above is a cold rational dissection of the marriage contract. I wrote that on an intellectual level, the only benefit to society of marriage is for raising children. I may have inadequately explored the emotional side of the issue because I felt that the topic of marriage is already saturated with such literature on the emotional side, but not enough from a rational perspective.

However, I would personally be marrying on an emotional level, because I am a product of evolution and I experience the same emotions as everyone else. So despite what I wrote, I will be marrying for love.

(But what is love? That is whole another topic… Just like this one, love also has both an emotional side and a rational explanation based on evolutionary psychology.)

Please accept my apologies if the content of this essay was confused with what I feel on a personal level and reflected unfairly on my character.

I believe rational discourse and human’s innate desire to pursue happiness are both worthwhile activities; the differing perspectives that result are not in conflict – they are just two ways of looking at the same thing.


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