It is inevitable that in the prolonged debate that is going on about same sex marriage not just in the United States but throughout Europe and the Western Hemisphere, people are going to have to talk about the relationship between love and marriage. Of course, Frank Sinatra told us just how deeply the two were connected, but it isn't always clear that they are so closely intertwined.
We all know of "loveless" marriages and even unions in which the partners seem more connected by their disdain for one another than their affection. After all, all those movies in which marital partners are constantly at one another—and not only when they try to destroy one another as in War of the Roses—are entertaining because of the sometimes uncomfortable way in which they limn the world we know. But even though we often think of such marriages as unhappy and better exited than endured, we almost never think that they should be automatically dissolved for their lack of love. So, one might argue, love and marriage need not be connected.
Moreover, there are those—Jonathan Rauch is particularly good here and I often have students read his arguments—who argue that given the long history of marriage, in which love was an afterthought if anything, and our legal tradition, which makes no mention of love as one of the requirements for marriage, we ought to stop talking as if there really was a connection between the two.
And, in the actual debate on the ground, whatever its rational value, you get people on either side saying that marriage is or is not about love.
"It's about the freedom to love whom I love."
"Marriage isn't about 'love' it's about children and society."
"No love is wrong."
There are, I think, a couple of issues here. One thing that we have to note is that we don't require of two people when they marry that they feel any particular sort of emotion for one another. That is, neither as a society nor in the majority (any?) of our religious traditions do we ask for proof of affection or evidence that there is a certain sort of feeling for one another. We don't ask for a quantification of love, because we cannot even name the quality when it is felt by others who are not ourselves. This is a slightly odd version of the problem of other minds or the privacy of subjective mental content, but there is just absolutely no way for me to know what you feel when you are in love or love someone else. So, even if it were desirable to make some love requirement, we couldn't do it. (Some budding neoroscientists might try to claim that we can map emotions to the locations in which they occur in the brain; be that as it may, we still will not have gotten to anything like the way love feels.)
This might lead us to think that love shouldn't have anything to do with the way that we conceptualize (secular civil) marriage as a society. But, there's a danger in taking this position, too. For, if there is really no connection between love and marriage then there is surely no good reason to allow people of the same sex to marry one another nor is there any good reason to allow any two particular people to marry, since there could then be no argument that one had a right to marry whom they loved—the two concepts being divorced—as long as they had a right to marry some other person. In other words, if love and marriage really have nothing to do with one another, then the conservative argument that gays and lesbians really do have the same rights as others—namely, the right to marry—but just not the right to marry people of the same sex would start to have some teeth.
So, it seems, we need a conception of love that is related to marriage but that doesn't mean that those "loveless" marriages or marriages in which people have to learn to love one another aren't real marriages. I aim to provide the skeleton of that here.
(For more on "loveless" marriages, see the video below.)
I think the right answer is the combination of at least two different things. One is an idea that I first heard put well by Dan Savage. The gist of his claim was that love—at least the sort of long-term, forever love that we claim informs our marriages and partnerships and families—is a sort of lie that we tell one another. That is, we don't know today that we will love another for the rest of our lives, so when we say that we will we are committing ourselves to the truth of a statement that we cannot know to be true. But, that's okay, because we aren't really making a statement. We are making a commitment to live today as if we are going to be together for the rest of our lives and to do the same thing tomorrow. Without getting too sappy, being together forever is just being together now again and again. But this is to say that love is not (just) a feeling, but a commitment, an act of will, to act towards the other person in a certain way.
If this first claim is true, then there are only going to be certain people to whom I could relatively easily make this kind of commitment and who these people are is going to be governed, in part, by my orientation. There are some lies that it is harder to get myself to believe and, among those, would be that I could be committed to a woman in the sort of way that could become lasting. (This is also why, even if some would regard same-sex marriages as second-best in general, they must be viewed as the best for those like me.)
The second thing to consider is the silly way that modern people tend to think about love. Nothing brings this out more clearly than the way that people will say things like "I love him, but I'm not in love with him." Now, I don't want to deny that love is based on and has as a part, even an essential part, an emotional and affective state. But, I don't think that state is very closely aligned, even if causally and temporally related to, the state of being in love. Being in love is like having a crush. It is that initial magical state that exists at the beginning of a relationship and, for some people, never again. But this is more like passion.
And, here I'd like to point to one of the lessons one can learn by growing up among seemingly cold, Germanic midwesterners. I remember my maternal grandmother once giving me advice on marriage: "If you get married, you should have children soon, because the passions dies quickly." That can seem horribly cold and when I was a young man, I thought it was. But she was pointing to an important distinction, that between passion or emotive feeling and something else that is better termed love. A marriage or any relationship based just on passion, on emotion, on the thrill is bound not to go too long. Why is this? Because something else, be it children or some other sort of shared project, that is, a shared life, a common thing, is needed to hold it together. And this sharing of some project, some conception of the good, some life-centering object, is really a huge part of what love is.
The other thing I learned from my family is that there is a huge difference between displays of love and love. In our family, it was never to common to hear someone say that they loved you, but it was nonetheless apparent through action that they did. The actions of love, in which you felt that others took responsibility for you and that you were responsible to them, were there. Of course, it is nice to hear the words, but hearing the words need not mean anything; the actions are meaningful.
My point then is this: Love is essential to a marriage, but it is essential in the following ways. Love is a willed commitment to another person, a sharing of a common life project and a commitment to act in ways that demonstrate care and responsibility for and to one another. And, it is this that we make people promise when they enter civil marriages, not some affective state. Can this commitment exist outside of marriage? Yes. But, when two people who are not already so committed to another and are not already connected to one another in ways that create such responsibilities wish to make this commitment, is there a good reason to prevent it?