Mark Regnerus: will same-sex marriage hurt the institution of marriage?

From the Public Discourse.


Lots of changes in marriage have, and will continue to, come about. What should we expect next? That’s the question Liza Mundy pursues in her cover story in this month’s Atlantic Monthly. “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss” explores the ways in which same-sex marriages may very well school those of us who have already entered—or someday will enter—the hallowed and embattled institution. Mundy is confident that such unions “could help haul matrimony more fully into the 21st century,” and that real influence is possible. This is in stark contrast to the politically tailored message that same-sex marriage will change nothing.

“What if same-sex marriage does change marriage, but primarily for the better,” she wonders aloud. How would this work? By giving us “another image of what marriage can be,” she asserts. What sort of image? According to Mundy, it’s the cardinal virtue of equality, or egalitarianism. Sameness and fairness.

Before we prematurely declare this image worth mirroring, consider for a few moments the side effects Mundy identifies on the way to the egalitarian utopia she praises. Three in particular stand out.

He continues by going over the three issues, but this one is the one that everyone needs to know:

Mundy first explores the instability—or “dynamism,” if you’re an optimist—of lesbian relationships. Don’t want a divorce, Mundy asks? “Don’t marry a woman,” she warns. University of British Columbia economist Marina Adshade concurs. The author of a new book—Dollars and Sex—on the fascinating economics of relationships, Adshade notes the dismal science around breaking up in Britain, where “62% of civil union dissolutions (i.e., divorces) in the UK are between women despite the fact that lesbian relationships only represent 44 percent of civil partnerships in that country.” The greater instability, she reasons, is simply about gender differences in relationship preferences, and nothing more. I tend to agree.

The elevated breakup rate among lesbian couples has been an open secret for a long while. Even NYU sociologist Judith Stacey—no fan of marriage in general—noted it back in 2000 in small, nonrandom studies of upper-middle-class, educated white lesbian parents, demographic factors historically associated with stability rather than dissolution. Stacey and her colleague Tim Biblarz attributed the instability to, among other things, the participants’ “high standards of equality.” In Mundy’s words, “women are just picky, and when you have two women, you have double the pickiness.”

Writing in Slate last year, June Thomas highlights this predilection toward shorter, intense relationships, and wonders whether the marital shoe actually fits:

I’ve noticed that my visceral anti-marriage animus is particularly strong when I hear twentysomething lesbians talking about their wives and fiancees. Are they really going to mate for life, like swans in sensible shoes? That seems attractive at 35, but at 25 it’s positively Amish. Worst of all, it threatens the continued evolution of a talent perfected over the millennia as our relationships have gone unrecognized by church and state: a gift for breaking up. Lesbians tend to bond intensely and often.

The pattern is evident in the Netherlands as well as Norway and Sweden, where Mundy notes that the risk of breakups for female partnerships more than doubles that found in male unions. The actual study she cites estimates that in Sweden 30 percent of female marriages are likely to end in divorce within six years of formation, compared with 20 percent for male marriages and 13 percent for heterosexual ones. The study’s authors suggested that lesbian couples may be more “sociodemographically homogamous” than other couples, a fancy term for “too similar,” and speculate that this may be conducive to a high level of dynamism, but perhaps not to the kind of inertia that has long been a hallmark of marital stability.

Using nationally representative data on American relationships, Stanford demographer Michael Rosenfeld reported at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Sociological Association that lesbian couples report higher relationship satisfaction alongside higher break-up rates. The greater comparative instability among lesbian couples persists even after a lengthy series of control variables is included, including the presence of children.

Did you know that lesbian relationships are far more unstable than straight relationships? Children raised in such relationships would already be raised without a father, and without being able to observe the interaction of a man and a woman in marriage. But they are not likely to have even the stability of having their mother and the other woman raising the child. Lest you think that the birth mother would get custody, be aware that judges are assigning parental rights to the non-maternal woman in these cases. Is that fair to the child?

One thought on “Mark Regnerus: will same-sex marriage hurt the institution of marriage?”

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