In her thoughtful Atlantic cover story on gay marriage (The Guide to Wedded Bliss, 5.22.13), Liz Mundy suggests that the “great gay marriage experiment” teaches us how to reinvent marriage so that it’s durable through the next century. Mundy reminds us that, although marriage has changed a lot from the “Father Knows Best” days, it is still burdened with old notions and habits about how men and women should behave — habits that are largely at odds with economic and practical realities.
Because same-sex spouses cannot divide their labor based on preexisting gender norms, they must approach marriage differently than their heterosexual peers. Gay marriage, she writes, can thus function as a controlled experiment, helping us see which aspects of marital difficulty are truly rooted in gender and which are not.
In the following selection and conclusion to her article, she summarizes how much marriage has changed over the centuries:
* * *
So yes, marriage will change. Or rather, it will change again. The fact is, there is no such thing as traditional marriage. In various places and at various points in human history, marriage has been a means by which young children were betrothed, uniting royal houses and sealing alliances between nations. In the Bible, it was a union that sometimes took place between a man and his dead brother’s widow, or between one man and several wives.
It has been a vehicle for the orderly transfer of property from one generation of males to the next; the test by which children were deemed legitimate or bastard; a privilege not available to black Americans; something parents arranged for their adult children; a contract under which women, legally, ceased to exist. Well into the 19th century, the British common-law concept of “unity of person” meant a woman became her husband when she married, giving up her legal standing and the right to own property or control her own wages.
Many of these strictures have already loosened. Child marriage is today seen by most people as the human-rights violation that it is. The Married Women’s Property Acts guaranteed that a woman could get married and remain a legally recognized human being. The Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia did away with state bans on interracial marriage. By making it easier to dissolve marriage, no-fault divorce helped ensure that unions need not be lifelong. The recent surge in single parenthood, combined with an aging population, has unyoked marriage and child-rearing. History shows that marriage evolves over time. We have every reason to believe that same-sex marriage will contribute to its continued evolution.
The argument that gays and lesbians are social pioneers and bellwethers has been made before. Back in 1992, the British sociologist Anthony Giddens suggested that gays and lesbians were a harbinger of a new kind of union, one subject to constant renegotiation and expected to last only as long as both partners were happy with it. Now that these so-called harbingers are looking to commit to more-binding relationships, we will have the “counterfactual” that Gary Gates talks about: we will be better able to tell which marital stresses and pleasures are due to gender, and which are not.
In the end, it could turn out that same-sex marriage isn’t all that different from straight marriage. If gay and lesbian marriages are in the long run as quarrelsome, tedious, and unbearable; as satisfying, joyous, and loving as other marriages, we’ll know that a certain amount of strife is not the fault of the alleged war between men and women, but just an inevitable thing that happens when two human beings are doing the best they can to find a way to live together.