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.
'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.
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."
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)