If any single battle has come to dominate the ongoing culture war between the right and the left, it would probably be gay “marriage.” The more you linger over the argument, however, the less it seems like either side is talking about the same thing.

One side talks about marriage like it’s a purely social arrangement, changing with the times and sanctified by government. The other side sees it as essential to our humanity, defined by history and blessed by God. It doesn’t take much to realize that the same language might be used, but meaning and intention might as well be on different planets.

One side defines its argument in terms of “rights,” as laid out in government rulings; the other side evokes the imperatives of nature, and says its defending something that goes far beyond politics. Anyone committed to the pro-life cause will understand the frustration of fighting a battle against an opponent that will do anything to avoid debate, but both sides of the gay “marriage” battle need to answer a simple question with a satisfactory answer: what is marriage?

I won’t pretend to be able to offer an answer, but a brief sensation that rippled through Toronto’s journalism community early this year might serve as a surveyor’s pole to measure how much territory sprawls between the two sides.

Leah McLaren

Leah McLaren

Leah McLaren is a thirtysomething Toronto journalist whose career has mostly been focused on writing about herself – the leading light of a small wave of female columnists who were assigned themselves as their beats by older male editors over a decade ago, when these editors were made suddenly aware of a younger generation rapidly losing interest in their print products. In the March issue of Toronto Life magazine, McLaren published “My Doomed Marriage,” a feature chronicling her brief marriage, its dissolution, and the overwhelming odds that, as a child of divorce, her marriage was fated to fail.

Somewhere in the first third of the piece is a mea culpa. At the early zenith of her career, McLaren wrote a piece for the Globe and Mail called “The Kids (of Divorce) are All Right,” claiming that despite the worst predictions, children raised in exploded atomic families were coping very well, thank you, and going about the business of getting married and having families despite watching their parents’ marriages dissolve.

With typical attention to status, McLaren recalls: “I remember taking notes in the shiny, renovated kitchen of a Beaches bungalow belonging to a handsome banker and a pretty commercial litigator who’d been married for three years – the golden couple at the centre of my story. Six months later they broke up. As, eventually, did the other four couples I interviewed for my piece.”

As McLaren tells the story of her marriage, it’s hard not to see why it was built to fail. “Two days before my wedding to Patrick, I’d been seized by a powerful urge to call it off,” she writes, but then forces herself to see it through with the rationalization that lies at the heart of her whole article – and the diminished status the young, the secular, the liberal, the progressive and the emotionally battered have given marriage: “I decided that I would simply imagine marriage as something impermanent – a state I could try out and abandon if absolutely necessary. Instead of jumping off a cliff into forever, I could just dip a toe in and test the water.”
“This,” McLaren concludes, “is the logic of a child of divorce.”

This is fine as a rationalization, but I’ve heard it before from people whose parents were still together, and whose experience of divorce was entirely as a spectator. It’s the “starter marriage,” a concept I became aware of at least a generation ago, when the (no longer accurate, as McLaren admits) trope that half of all marriages ended in divorce was briefly true.

The starter marriage begins in haste and ends in regret, or at least that’s how it almost always seemed to me. Two people decide to marry after a brief courtship, or quickly, even after a long period of dating and cohabitation, as if hoping to outrun their misgivings or anxieties. In retrospect, they recall, they knew they were making a mistake, but for some reason – the dress was bought, the hall booked, the gifts couldn’t be returned, parents would be appalled – they went through with it. Hopefully there would be no children when the end came, as if children were a permanent memento, even more indelible than a tattoo of the formerly-loved one’s name.

(For McLaren’s part, there were no children, but there was an abortion. “It was my first abortion. It wasn’t his.” This is the most depressing part of the piece.)

McLaren ends her piece with an optimistic ending, painting a picture of herself two years after the divorce, living in her part-time home in London with the father of her infant son and his child from a previous marriage, unwed but willing “to admit how satisfied I am with the pleasures of family life. How ludicrously, undeservedly lucky I feel these days.”

McLaren might feel lucky, but society isn’t; the decline of marriage might be inconvenient for the creative, the socially well-placed and the economically fortunate, but it’s been a disaster for the poor, for women, and especially for children. “Children of divorce are at greater risk of suffering from depression and anxiety and becoming substance abusers,” McLaren writes. “We are less likely to go to university.”  (It’s telling that McLaren sees this as a peril on the same level as drug addiction and alcoholism.)

So when the subject of gay “marriage” comes up, it’s worth asking the proponent of this new form of union what, exactly, they mean by “marriage.” Are they talking about a lifelong union, forged in adversity as well as love, and entered into with the knowledge that change is the only constant either partner can hope for? Or are they talking about a whim, checked off like an item on a bucket list and acted upon with far less seriousness than you’d give to leasing a car, or signing a cell phone contract?

Because if it’s the latter and not the former, then you can tell them that you’re pretty certain that’s not what the word means.