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Expert: Marriage
destroyed by heterosexuals long ago

Expert: Marriage
destroyed by heterosexuals long ago

The debate over gay marriage has social conservatives decrying the "destruction of the sanctity of marriage," but a nationally renowned marriage expert argues the institution was thrown into chaos long ago. Once people started eschewing marriage as a business proposition and instead partnered up based on something as fleeting as love, all convention was thrown out the window, says Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy or How Love Conquered Marriage.

"Staying together 'till death do us part' is a bigger challenge than any generation ever had to face," she says. "The fact remains that you're never going to get back to a situation where you can assume every adult is going to spend the majority of their life in marriage."

The author of five books, including The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, teaches history and family studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. Coontz, 61, says she has spent years "trying to get past our Leave It to Beaver mythology about what the traditional family was." And there are plenty of new models to pick from: couples who choose not to have children, couples who choose cohabitation over marriage, unwed mothers, stepfamilies, and gay couples who want to marry and have children.

Proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage are anxiously awaiting a state supreme court ruling on whether gay couples should be allowed to marry in Washington. "People may have their own opinions about the morality of homosexuality," Coontz says. "As a historian, I can only say that heterosexuals revolutionized marriage. Gay and lesbian marriages--there is no evidence that they are going to make marriage worse. They are some of the few people clamoring to enter marriage."

But social conservatives argue that gay marriage is an affront to traditional marriage. "Marriage is one man and one woman," says Carrie Gordon Earll, a spokeswoman for Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. "It's defined that way by culture, by law, by history, by tradition." Gordon Earll contends that if same-sex marriage is allowed by law, that opens the door for polygamists and others. "If you take it out of the context of one man and one woman, it becomes any combination that people want it to be," she says. "Then if it becomes everything, it becomes nothing. That's a pretty radical social change to be advocating."

But Coontz says that as gender roles became more equal in heterosexual marriage and couples decided to put off or completely forgo children, the door opened for gays and lesbians. "Kids became a choice; they weren't essential to the economic institution of marriage," she says. "As soon as that happened, gays and lesbians could say, 'Why can't we be married?' "

In the 1950s married couples represented 80% of all households, Coontz says. By the early 21st century they accounted for only 50% of households. The percentage of households made up of married couples with children was down to 24%, from almost 40% a decade or so earlier. For the first time ever there are more single-person households than married couples with children.

Coontz says the numbers aren't surprising. "The divorce rate has been rising ever since we created the radical idea that marriages should be good for people," she says. "When a marriage works it works better than ever before in history. We get more out of it, and our kids get more out of it. But when it doesn't work, it feels less bearable. It feels more stressful."

Coontz is also director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, a national organization that serves as a think tank on family issues and trends. She started studying the dynamics of families 30 years ago when she set out to write a textbook on the history of women but had a hard time finding any place in society where women weren't outnumbered by men. "Before 1975 women weren't in equal numbers in college and workplaces," she says. "I wanted to find a place where men and women were around in equal number, and--aha!--there's the family."

What she found was that marriage has changed more over the past three decades than in the last 3,000 years and that women led the evolution. Many changes happened starting in the 1970s, including the dissolution of "head and master" laws in many states that gave the husband final say over where the family lived and other household decisions, including whether women could get their own credit cards and whether they could work outside the home. Add in more women going to college and getting jobs and using contraception, and the rules of marriage were turned upside down. "The woman's movement did destabilize marriage," Coontz says. "It gave women the means and the courage to say 'I won't marry you. I won't stay with you because I'm dependent on you.' "

But Coontz says the divorce rate has stabilized as men have adjusted to the independence of their potential spouses. "More and more men as well as women say they want an equal marriage," she says. Even as more people are delaying marriage, Coontz says she's "cautiously optimistic" about the future of matrimony. "I think that both as a society and in people's personal lives, marriage will no longer be the main thing that organizes life."

But that doesn't mean people still won't dream of their wedding day. "In America it remains the highest expression of commitment that they can imagine making," she says. "It is valued more highly as a quality relationship than it was in the past." (Rachal La Corte, AP)

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