How marriage equality could strengthen straight marriage … or not

In a recent op-ed piece in The New York Times on Sunday, Ross Douthat argued that, despite Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s inspiring words about marriage equality and the strengthening of marriage, marriage is in fact losing importance. In Douthat’s words, marriage has become “malleable and optional, one way among many to love, live, rear kids—or not.”

John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, wearing tuxes with rainbow-colored bow ties, carrying a sign reading

John Lewis and Stuart Gaffney, leaders in the fight for marriage equality (photo by Levi Smith, via Flickr)

He’s got a point. Because of this decision in favor of marriage equality, I’m sure there will be a spike in same-sex marriages. Indeed, a homosexual couple in a committed relationship might feel almost as if they were traitors not to get married now that they have won the right. And now is the perfect time to revel in a wedding, to acknowledge and celebrate this victory.

But, as Douthat points out, if you look at the statistics and attitudes about heterosexual marriages today, you can hardly argue that the institution of marriage is strong. Increasingly, even committed couples don’t marry. Premarital sex, living together, and raising children without being married are no longer frowned upon nearly to the extent they once were.

Reading Douthat’s article made me wonder: after the initial flush of victory has died down, after that first flurry of same-sex marriages, will gay couples move the way straight couples have been moving? Now that they have the choice, will marriage become something they might choose not to do?

You could argue that in my home, the Netherlands, staying unmarried is easier. Same-sex marriage became legal back in 2001, but the rules about couples of whichever sexual preference are much more accommodating than in the US. In other words, if a couple lives together, they have pretty much all the same legal rights as a married couple. They can formalize their shared finances through a registered partnership or sign a “living-together contract.” Their children, if they have any, are not disadvantaged in any way if their parents are unmarried. That means that there’s very little incentive to get married, unless the couple is religious.

In 18 years of living in the Netherlands, I’ve only attended one wedding: straight friends who had already lived together for 15 years. When a relative and her long-term partner, a lesbian couple, decided to marry recently, it was purely for financial reasons, and they did it in a registry office without any fanfare. It has become merely a formality, like registering a birth or death.

What I’ve noticed in the Netherlands is that the attitudes of homosexual and heterosexual couples have truly become the same: same-sex couples don’t feel the need to get married any more than straight couples do.

I wonder if this is what will happen in the US. Will same-sex couples also not bother to get married? Of those who do marry, will they have as high a divorce rate as straight couples? I recognize that in the US there are more legal incentives than in the Netherlands to get married rather than to live together, yet many still don’t. Will that carry over to the LGBT population?

Does this matter? Douthat thinks so. In my view, it doesn’t. If marriage as a formal state of being becomes irrelevant, that will not change how committed couples feel about each other and their relationships. And it will be wonderful when gay and lesbian couples can take this right for granted just as straight couples have been doing for centuries.

On the other hand, perhaps same-sex couples will end up teaching the rest of us a thing or two about marriage, leading to a revival of the tradition. Because they don’t take the right for granted, they might help straight couples to see more clearly what marriage means, making it a more considered choice and less likely to fail.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if this decision, one that the right-wing fundamentalists bewail as a negation of the sanctity of marriage, instead leads to a strengthening and reinforcing of this fundamental choice across the whole gay and straight population?


  • Jon jeffer

    July 2, 2015 at 11:52 am

    I always thought of marriage is being kind of a Bronze Age institution, at least until my wife told me that we were going to get married or else. I like the idea of a living together contract. The issue in the United States really has to do with the rights that married couples enjoy, for benefits, most of which are provided through the government in civilized countries, or via the tax code. probably a dozen other things that I don’t know about as well.

    • Rachel

      July 2, 2015 at 11:39 pm

      Yes, in the US, marriage confers all sorts of rights: social security, health coverage, green card, etc. Which begs the question: why don’t more couples get married? Since a lot of people in the states “just” live together, I was wondering if that would happen with gays as well, or if more straight couples would end up getting married and/or taking marriage more seriously…

      When we were in the US, Albert and I got married so that he could get a green card (He had a student visa first because he was getting his masters.). In the Netherlands, that wouldn’t have been necessary. I could have gotten my residence permit just by proving we’d been living together already.

  • Anke

    October 19, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    I have noticed that The Netherlands is falling behind concerning the rights they have (or are lacking) when it comes to the children within the mariage. In the States it is possible for two men to be named on the birth certificate, while in The Netherlands only recently the law passed for the same sexs partner of the birthmother to be recognized as an official parent. But then again, only some of the States are willing to be so easy when it comes to adoption in a same-sex relationship.

    • Rachel

      October 19, 2015 at 3:35 pm

      I haven’t paid attention to the issue of children. Do you suppose the Dutch just got complacent since they passed same-sex marriage so early? Just assumed the rest of the necessary legislation would follow?


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