July 21, 2005

The marriage revolution

We are all aware that the institution of marriage, in Europe and North America at least, is in a state of flux. Despite the fact that the Church forbids divorce, marriages are falling apart all around us. My own family is an extreme case. My mother's parents divorced when she was 8. My mother and biological father never married. My mother then went on to marry three times and divorce three times. My biological father has also been thrice married and divorced. And now my 30 year old sister is in the process of getting divorced, a 22 year old sister got a divorce a few years back, and my 29 year old brother has been married and divorced twice.

According to Stephanie Coontz, the author of a new book who was interviewed in AlterNet today, this inability to stay married is not necessarily a sign of moral decay.
One of the signs that this is in fact a huge, irreversible revolution in personal life on the same order as the industrial revolution, is that it doesn't matter what your values are. Everyone is affected by this. Even people who want or think they are in a traditional marriage are not exempt from these changes. So that the divorce rates of evangelical Christians are the same as those of agnostics and atheists. And in fact, the highest divorce rates in the country are found in the Bible Belt. First of all, the Bible Belt is a more poor area of the country, and poverty is a huge stress on marriage and other relationships. But I also think that there's something in the values of the Bible Belt. People who are extremely traditional, people who believe that sex outside of marriage is immoral, tend to get married early. And in today's world, that is a risk factor for divorce.
While she's talking about Evangelical Christians, who do not have the same restrictions regarding divorce that Catholics have, I know from an anecdotal level that Catholic rates of divorce -- often in the guise of annulments -- are not far behind. Interestingly enough, the state of Massachusetts, which allows gay marriage, has one of the lowest divorce rates.

Though AlterNet suggests that Coontz's look at marriage is a radical one, any family historian could tell you that marriage is not an institution that has been set in stone since Adam and Eve. While the ideal may be that one should leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife and what God has joined together let not man tear asunder, marriage has not historically lived up to that ideal. It has been primarily an economic arrangement, which has, in turn, often led to the oppression of women. As Coontz points out, love "had formerly been considered a tremendous threat to marriage," whereas now it is considered vital to its success.

Her point is not to say marriage is bad, but that "the idea that one could make marriage better by trying to shoehorn everyone back into the older forms of marriage" is not going to work. That we need to re-examine the institution of marriage. Figure out what works, what doesn't, and what is healthiest for all, including gays and lesbians.

Which will also put Republicans in the difficult position of deciding which they hold dearer: traditional forms of marriage or laws that hurt the poor. I currently receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) -- Social Security for those who haven't worked enough to get proper Social Security benefits as I became ill with CFIDS as a graduate student in my mid twenties. The way the law stands at this moment, if I were to marry, I would lose my SSI benefits. Which means that the law actually encourages me to live with my boyfriend outside of wedlock, which is exactly what a lot of people on SSI do so that they will still have an income.

Marriage is complicated now. I can't say I know the answers about what to do at this stage in human history when we face challenges as people and as a planet that those before us never faced. But we need to talk about them. You know, have real discussion about it. Not simply reiterate the same old lines that may feel comfortable for those who don't have to deal with the real-life complexities that sexuality and marriage bring but leave those of us who do in a sort of purgatory in this life and maybe even the next.