Thomas L. Steiger
Special to the Tribune-Star
Does the spreading greater acceptance of same-sex marriage suggest that marriage as an institution is “obsolete?” It sounds contradictory to suggest such a thing. Similar patterns, though, have been found in other areas where a majority group historically denied privileges it enjoys to a minority group. For instance, as women made inroads into formerly male-dominated occupations, research showed that men abandoned the same occupations into which they once resisted women’s entry. Similarly, whites abandon neighborhoods which then become integrated with minority residents. In short, what sometimes looks like progress for minority groups may be a result of the majority group devaluing and abandoning what was previously vigorously defended and denied to the minority group.
Nine states and the District of Columbia have legalized same sex marriage. Another 11 states have domestic partnership or civil union laws. The rest (except New Mexico) have passed bans on same sex marriage. There are initiatives in four more states to legalize either same sex marriage or civil unions and none currently to ban it. The trend is undeniable.
The movement to find legal and institutional support for same sex marriage could be understood to validate the contemporary relevance of marriage in the United States; however, research on marriage trends and attitudes (among presumably mostly heterosexual respondents) suggests something different. In December 2011, Pew Charitable Trusts released a study, “Barely Half of U.S. Adults Are Married - A Record Low.”
In 1960, 72 percent of adult Americans were married; in 2010 only 51 percent were. The report claims, if current trends continue, in a few years, less than half of American adults will be married. America is not alone in these trends. They are also found in other mature, post-industrial, advanced economies. As American style individualism, especially consumer individualism spreads internationally, an institution perhaps increasingly viewed as at odds with individualism, might increasingly become irrelevant and to survive may have to change both legally and normatively.
In 1960, average age at first marriage was in the early 20s, now it is in the late 20s. It is not likely that many wait for marriage to enjoy sex today as was more likely 50 years ago. The impetuous and romantic teens and early 20 somethings of the 1960s have given way to a more mature and financially more independent set of partners marrying for the first time.
Two trends seem to be especially important. The older age at first marriage, cited by Pew, and then another, cited in a study by Bowling Green University, “The Gray Divorce Revolution: Rising Divorce Among Middle-aged and Older Adults, 1990-2009.” While divorce rates have stabilized and even fallen, they have spiked among this age group. These are marriages that have lasted 25+ years. Qualitative research cited in the study indicates that many older couples who divorce simply have grown apart “Life-long marriages are increasingly difficult to sustain in an era of individualism and lengthening life expectancies; older adults are more reluctant now to remain in empty shell marriages.”
In response to a question of whether marriage as an institution is obsolete, Pew found, that 39 percent said “yes.” This compares with only 28 percent in the 1970s. This view varied by education and age. The more educated were less likely to see marriage as obsolete while those under 50, compared with those over 50, were more likely to see marriage as obsolete, a difference of 10 percentage points. Among the never married, 61 percent indicated they wanted to get married. It does not appear that one’s view on the obsolescence of marriage affects the wish to marry.
Perhaps most telling is that 58 percent of unmarried parents and 62 percent of cohabiting parents agree that marriage is obsolete. Marriage is our society’s primary mechanism for tying adult responsibility to children, and clear majorities of unmarried parents respond that marriage is obsolete. It would be interesting to see if heterosexuals in those states where same-sex marriage is legal differ in their views and experience of marriage and divorce from those in states that have banned same sex marriage.
For many years the cause of marriage equality, and backlashes to it, have played out. The gay community (a minority community) organizes and pushes for access to an institution defended by the straight majority. As victories mount for the cause of marriage equality, it may be those victories are aided because the straight community no longer views marriage the same, are devaluing it, thus less likely to defend its boundaries.
Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.