Who is Marriage For?
- 2004 12 May
People have asked my opinion on gay marriage, so I've decided to wade into the debate, and I'll likely get caught way up to my neck with what I'm about to write. But first, I think "gay" marriage is the wrong starting point. We're debating homosexuality, which is unfortunate because it's caused hurt when it's really a side issue. The main issue is marriage.
The purpose of marriage is to keep the fragile bonds of the family from fraying. It's to build a link between people that is difficult to break, and thus insulate the children, and indeed the whole family, from disruption. And it's proven remarkably adept at doing that.
People who are married are happier, healthier, live longer and earn more money. (They also have more satisfying sex lives!) They suffer less depression, less substance abuse, and fewer instances of suicide. Children whose parents divorce, on the other hand, are more depressed, do worse in school, and experience more poverty and abuse. Even among upper class, white families, children whose parents divorce have a 25% chance of experiencing serious social, emotional or psychological problems twenty years down the road (double the risk of intact families), and are five times more likely, if girls, to become teenage mothers. The stress from divorce even seems to affect our bodies. Thirty-five percent of girls whose parents divorce start menstruating before age 12, compared with 18% in intact families. These kids are also twice as likely to drop out of school and to become chronic criminal offenders. Marriage matters.
This is not to suggest, however, that all kids whose parents are married will do better than all kids in single parent homes. Many single parents do remarkable jobs with their kids, while many married parents are horrible. On an individual basis, we can defy statistics. But on a society-wide basis, marriage wins every time.
Society, then, has a vested interest in preserving marriage. Instead, we're eroding it. We loosened divorce laws because we believed that parents' happiness was of primary importance to children's happiness, though research has yet to bear this out.
But not only have we allowed commitments to be easily broken; we also have eliminated the requirement of commitment as we treat those who cohabit the same as those who marry. Naturally, some cohabiting couples will raise children together well. But statistically, cohabiting relationships are inherently more unstable than marriages, leaving children-and women-often worse off. Keeping sex and commitment linked provided protection for women. Women bear the costs of relationships gone sour, as they are the ones left pregnant or caring for kids. Now it's harder to obtain commitment, since all the "benefits" are available without it.
In the process, we're defining sexual relationships in terms of what we want, rather than what is best for the kids. Proponents of gay marriage often argue that kids shouldn't be a factor, anyway; after all, not all heterosexual marriages have children. But this misses the point. Over thousands of years, society evolved heterosexual marriage to protect that type of relationship-the only one capable of creating children. Whether or not an individual couple did produce children was irrelevant. By keeping these relationships committed, we ensured that whenever there was the potential for children, these kids would be protected.
Marriage fundamentally was not about only two people. That's a modern construct. It was about creating a safe, secure environment for the family. Now we hear cries to open up marriage to a variety of different relationships in the name of civil rights, as if it's an issue of discrimination. But marriage was never about rights; it was about responsibilities. Once we make it about rights, we change the definition of marriage entirely. Gay marriage is only the final straw signaling that marriage is now about adult wishes rather than children's needs.
Many of us are desperately trying to choose commitment for our kids as we keep our marriages together, search for a proper partner, or teach our kids to choose their own mates well. But if we further erode marriage, what are we choosing for our grandchildren? We are creating a society where kids are only a secondary consideration. I think it's time we figure out how to put their needs first once again.
Sheila is a speaker and writer, the author of To Love, Honor and Vacuum (2003), and Honey, I Don't Have a Headache Tonight! (coming in June). You can find her at www.SheilaWrayGregoire.com.