Marriage, Already Redefined

As the debate over same-sex marriage has proceeded, one of the arguments you hear most often from those opposed to marriage equality is that there is this thing called "traditional marriage" that has been exactly the same for thousands of years, and if we "change the definition of marriage" to include gay people, well then things are really going to get crazy. There'll be no more rationale for keeping siblings from marrying, or keeping a guy from marrying his dog, or keeping a fish from marrying a toaster. What I don't often hear liberals say in response is: Yes, we are changing the definition of marriage. And that's OK.

I think it's because advocates of marriage equality understand that change can often be scary, so the impulse is to say, don't worry, this really isn't any big deal unless you're gay. There's no reason why your extremely, adamantly heterosexual marriage will be affected one way or another if your gay neighbors tie the knot. That happens to be true, and one of the things that distinguishes this particular redefinition of marriage is that it doesn't have any practical impact, real or potential, on most of the participants in the institution. That makes it unlike many of the previous redefinitions. For instance, when we changed the definition of marriage so that it no longer meant that a woman went from being her father's property to being her husband's property, every marriage was implicated. And that's just one of the many redefinitions marriage has undergone even in relatively recent history. So it's good to remember just how radically marriage has already changed.

As historian Stephanie Coontz explains in a helpful piece at the Daily Beast, same-sex marriage may be the inevitable result of all these redefinitions, since they all have been moving in the same direction, what she calls the "equality revolution." When you give individuals, particularly those who were previously without power, more autonomy within marriage, the institution just keeps opening up:

The collapse of rigid gender expectations and norms has fostered the expectation that marriage should be an individually negotiated relationship between equals, replacing the older notion of marriage as a prefabricated institution where traditional roles and rules must be obeyed.

The result is a paradox. Marriage is now more optional than in the past, and people are far less willing to remain in a marriage that doesn’t feel fair, loving, and mutually respectful. On the other hand, as a result of these changes, many marriages have become more fulfilling and mutually beneficial than ever before.

Domestic violence rates have plummeted over the past 30 years, dropping by 50 percent since 1980. The divorce rate, which rose sharply in the 1960s and 1970s, has been falling since its peak in 1981, and it has fallen the most for educated couples, who are the most likely to mix and match traditional gender behaviors.

The growing acceptance of same-sex marriage is the result of these profound changes in heterosexual marriage. It’s not just the president’s views on marriage that have evolved. Marriage itself has evolved in ways that make it harder to justify excluding same-sex couples from its benefits and obligations.

So even if conservatives are wrong that the institution of marriage has been the same for thousands of years, they're right in their belief that the institution as they understand it is under threat. The fact is that today, marriage is less bound by strict rules and traditions—in other words, less institutional—than ever before. I'd bet this is the case even for many of the conservatives who argue publicly that the institution's traditions need to be maintained (this is hardly a new irony; I was always puzzled by the picture of an ambitious, powerful career woman like Phyllis Schlafly barnstorming the country to convince people that women should stay in the home). Even if some of the male ones have a wife who doesn't work outside the home, I promise you their marriages are much more relationships between equals than they would have been 50 years ago, not to mention what they would have been 100 years ago.

Conservatives may hold off marriage equality for a while, at least in many places. But marriages are already more equal, and there's nothing they can do about that, even if they wanted to. Which I doubt they do.

Comments

Gay Rights and Redefining Democracy.
Some Republicans take the words written in scripture 2,000 years ago literally. What words? The words in the Bible that say that marriage has always been between one man and one woman?

Well, no.

Those words aren't there. In fact, if these right wing zealots could be bothered to read their own Bible, they would see that the most common form of marriage in the Old Testament is polygamy.

Historically, and even now, marriage has been defined as between a woman and her many husbands, a man and his many wives, and between same-sex couples. Oh, and yes. Between a man and a woman also.

If anyone has redefined what marriage has always been, its been the religious right.

Some of us take the words written in the Declaration of Independence 200 years ago literally. We are guaranteed a right to life, liberty and to the pursuit of happiness. Do Republicans truly believe in personal freedom and that government should stay out of our lives -- or have the Republicans now redefined what it is to be a Republican?

Some of us take the words written in the US Constitution 200 hundred years ago seriously. The Bill of Rights gives constitutional protection to the rights of minorities from the tyranny of the majority. In the US, democracy is not simply defined as majority rule.

In the mid-1800s, a French political scientist named Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States to appraise the meaning and functioning of democracy. In Democracy in America, Tocqueville writes:

"[W]hile it is clear that democracy must guarantee the expression of the popular will through majority rule, it is equally clear that it must guarantee that the majority will not abuse use its power to violate the basic and inalienable rights of the minority."

Republicans want to redefine marriage as being just between a man and a woman? They can do that -- but only in their own churches. Republicans want to redefine what it is to be a Republican? More power to them. Republicans want to redefine democracy as, the power of the majority to trample on the basic rights of minorities?

If Alexis de Tocqueville were alive today, I believe he would say to these Republicans, "that's complete and utter nonsense".

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