Gay marriage is not only good for gay men and women, it is brilliantly good for wives.
That traditional marriage has been sensational for men but not for women cannot have escaped notice. Year after year, studies consistently show that men thrive—emotionally, physically, spiritually—inside the very same institution in which women tend to languish, become depressed, and lose themselves. This counterintuitive truth, that so many wives become less themselves in marriage, as if the very walls of the institution contract their souls, goes against our deepest assumption: that women want marriage more than men and that, moreover, it is the most natural place in which a woman might flourish. Not so. If it were, and if wives were thriving, then over two thirds of divorces wouldn’t be initiated by wives.
Created by men for the wellbeing of husbands and children and the safety of wives, marriage was indeed desirable for women. If a woman didn’t marry she had no other place to be; no income; no resources. So yes indeed women wanted to be wives: the alternative was to be a maid or governess, at best; out on the street otherwise.
A gay man or a gay woman who marries will not face the odd loss of self the traditonal wife has experienced, for the simple reason that, unless he or she chooses a traditional role scenario neither will ever be a wife. The conduct books of the 19th century that created the character of the wife, a character necessary in a culture that required women to stay home and be glad of it, nearly killed even the best of women. In 1942, when she was forty-nine and at the peak of her career, Virginia Woolf addressed a group of professionals about the “phantom” who threatened to ruin her writing, that “utterly unselfish” Angel of the House whose cloying goodness menaced the integrity of Woolf’s work. As she wrote then about this monstrous cultural creation known as a wife :
“I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be had up in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defense. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing.”
Woolf went on to write that this beatific construct continued her characterological dirty work, hovering over Woolf’s own psyche aas well as her pages, “always creeping back when I thought I had dispatched her.” And this is what wives faced. It is what they still face. The task of killing off the wife, whose value is so bound up in her supposedly natural-born selflessness, her virtue, her moral superiority, her godliness that women who buy into it can’t think straight after awhile, is so daunting that I’m shocked, each day, to hear women say to me, “I like being married….but why don’t I feel like me anymore?”.
Gay men and women will not have to shake off this ghost of marriage past. There will be other daunting psychological issues we can’t foresee; other idealized images they’ll have to contend with.. But the killer icon, the dutiful, perfect, soul-smashing wife, that thing men once put on a pedestal, will not be one of them. Amen to that.