Will gays save marriage?

Same-sex marriage is but one of many historical changes to the institution. An expert considers what's next

Published March 30, 2013 10:00PM (EDT)

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(WhitneyLewisPhotography via iStock)

Many conservatives would have you believe that same-sex unions turn the institution of marriage upside-down -- but it's actually rather fitting with tradition. That is, if you consider the historical trajectory of marriage: It's changed tremendously over the decades, from a financial transaction to the romantic one that we know today. It would be naive to think that major changes won't continue in the decades to come.

Given this, and the Supreme Court hearings this week on the Defense of Marriage Act, I started thinking about what the future of marriage might look like. I wondered -- out of liberal glee, rather than conservative terror, mind you -- whether same-sex unions could open up the institution to even bigger changes. Might we someday extend marriage's 1,000-plus legal benefits and protections to people regardless of relationship status? Would we ever institutionally separate monogamy from marriage? What about allowing for polygamy or group parenthood?

I called up Barbara Risman, a senior scholar at the Council on Contemporary Families and sociology professor at University of Illinois at Chicago, to get her predictions. We talked about everything from monogamy to polygamy, utilitarian marriages to romance. One thing became clear: Marriage isn't going anywhere.

How does same-sex marriage change the institution of marriage?

I'm going to answer you by sort of reversing the argument, because I think you're asking the wrong question. I actually think marriage has changed dramatically, which opened up the way for the possibility of imagining same-sex marriage. I actually think that marriage itself as an institution has evolved from one that was very utilitarian, very little about love, sex, companionship, and everything about transmission of property and production of goods, services and provision of human labor in reproduction. As long as marriage was defined in a very traditional way, you couldn't imagine same-sex marriage, because marriage was about a utilitarian management of life tasks. Marriage began to change in such a way that we now think of marriage for heterosexuals as finding one's soul mate, marrying one's best friend, your partner in life, your other half. Once marriage has come to be seen as about what's good for the self and what is a socio-emotional support system, then it could be imagined that the right person for you is the one you choose, disregarding other kinds of criterion including sex or genitals.

As you've pointed out, marriage has changed so much over the past several decades. What can we expect from the next couples decades? Any predictions?

I think we fundamentally have made a shift in the meaning of marriage and we're steering the course. Marriage will evermore come to be seen as something one works toward: one gets to a place in life where one has achieved enough to be married. You see that with the increasing age of marriage, which I imagine will continue to increase. This notion that marriage is something one achieves once you're stable and earning a living, that's relatively new. That will continue and even increase, the sense that marriage is an achieved status. I think that will be true for straight people and gay people.

I do think there will continue to always be both gay and straight people who prefer to not be married. I very much am hoping that the Supreme Court will see this as a civil rights issue, that everyone has the right to be married, but that's very different from the normative sense that everyone ought to be married. That would be a real step backward. The right to marry is very different from creating a society where people feel pressured to marry.

That brings me to another question: We've seen a subset of LGBT activists argue that instead of focusing on the right to marry, we should have been focusing on correcting certain social injustices. Is there a viable alternative to marriage that confers similar benefits but isn't based on romantic status? Something that is more inclusive of different notions of family and love?

That's a great question. If marriage equality is granted by the Supreme Court, I'd be interested to see if domestic partner status and civil unions still remain on the books. In some European societies, you can either be in a domestic civil union or you can be married. Whether or not there are other means to creating legal statuses between people, that's a creative thought process, and it seems to be the next step. More important is making sure people have access to basic healthcare, whether or not they're married.

I do think it's a mistake to see social movements as either-or. At this moment, there's a great deal of effort on the marriage issue, and I think that's because there are a lot of gay and lesbian couples who really want to be married. Once they have the right to be married, there's lots of other issues around discrimination and homophobia and transphobia that still need to be addressed in very fundamental ways. But it's not one or the other; we need a social movement that is effective on a variety of problems that social minorities face. We need both-and.

As you pointed out earlier, marriage wasn't always based on love. Will we see a shift in the future toward a focus on something else, say, co-parenting?

I don't actually think so. I'm depending on the work of Stephanie Coontz; she's got a book called "Marriage: A History," which is a vast study of how marriage has changed over time. I think that as we move to modern societies where people don't actually need to be embedded in extended families with sharp divisions of labor in their daily economic lives that relationships in general are more voluntary. Even family relationships these days -- whether or not you're close to a sibling, all that depends on personal choice. Even with biological family these days, how close or distant we are is a personal choice based on the relationship quality. I don't think we're ever going to move back to intimate relationships that are not based on quality and free choice. We've moved far enough down the road in heterosexual relationships where women are no longer economically dependent on men. It's possible for both people to support themselves without the relationship -- being in the relationship is about improving the qualities of one's personal life.

The conservative fear is that if gay marriage is legalized, polygamy will be next. Setting aside for a moment whether there is any truth to that connection, would that be a bad thing, to allow for a certain type of group marriage and parenthood?

I don't have a normative argument about that being a good or bad thing. There have been lots of polygamist societies throughout history. Ours is not one. In general, most polygamist societies have been pretty sexist, that is they're mostly men with multiple wives. I don't think it's inherent in polyamory, but on the other hand, we're a society with high but stable divorce rates and a high percentage of children growing up in single-parent home. The fact is that disruptions are a detriment to child development. It's not necessarily whether parents are married or not, or divorced or not -- it's that there's some detriment to children going through life disruptions. It seems to me that the likelihood of children experiencing disruptions is more likely when they have multiple sets of parents. But that's not to say anything about adults making their own relationships with one another.

We've already seen a loosening of attitudes toward monogamy in recent decades, from swinging to monogamish partnerships. Will we ever institutionally separate sexual monogamy from marriage?

I don't think we see any trend data that suggests people overall believe that marriage should be less monogamous than they believed 10 years ago. Now, I think what we see clearly is that serial monogamy has become the norm in our society. People have a boyfriend or girlfriend, a partner, a marriage and it ends, another cohabiting relationship and then another marriage. Although no one will say, "I believe in serial monogamy," how we behave is a serial monogamy.

Based on the research that is already out there, do we know if marriage is actually good for individuals and for society? Does the state have a legitimate interest in promoting marriage?

That's a great question. Clearly, marriage is a legal contract. When people marry, they are in fact signing a legal contract. So the state believes it has some responsibility to police relationships. That is after all what marriage is: It's a contract that says you have certain rights and obligations to one another that you don't have toward other people.

Certainly the state has promoted marriage in the last 20 years with all sorts of government funds. The question is: Do these programs work? I don't think there's much indication that marriage promotion programs encourage marriage or lower divorce rates. I don't think that marriage promotion has led to single mothers leaving welfare because they found men to support them, which is kind of the theory behind marriage promotion. We don't have any evidence that encouraging single mothers to marry a man who is not the father of their child has any positive outcome for the children.

It sounds like the changes you're expecting to see in the near future aren't so much within marriage, but more in the number of people who are electing to marry and how old they are when they do?

I think the age of marriage is likely to continue to rise. I think the percentage of people who choose to marry will include gay and straight. But I don't think same-sex marriage becoming legal is likely to change how heterosexual marriages operate. And I think gay couples will create their own ways of doing marriage.

Americans continue to say that they would like to marry; they have not rejected the institution of marriage. When Americans are unhappy about marriage, it's about whom they married, not the institution. Even when people are unhappy in their own marriages we have not seen any rejection of the institution of marriage; in fact, just the opposite. More people want in, and people want the right to get out if they're unhappy, but they don't want to end the institution.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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