As the Supreme Court decided Lawrence v. Texas this past summer, American gothic took on a darkness even Grant Wood might've found it tough to portray. To listen to the all-too-vocal extremists, it was as if our loftiest judicial body went live on a Bravo cable channel reality show to open Pandora's box. Because of the decision, state laws that criminalized personal expressions of â€œloveâ€? within the confines of one's own home were struck down. Proponents of â€œfamily valuesâ€? gnashed their teeth. Telepreachers urged their faithful to pray for the demise of the Supreme Court panelists who favored the decision. Ultraconservatives crusaded to, as they claim, ensure marriage's hallowed role in society, fending off intensifying efforts they say are bent on damaging the institution, if not mortally wounding it altogether. They point to the decision of the nation's top court as an example of a creeping â€œhomosexual agendaâ€? aimed at destroying civilization. Even liberalesque â€œfamilyâ€? champions hold up the outcome of the case as a way to rally support for their proposed Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA), whose most important tenet is that marriage â€œconsists only of the union of a man and a woman.â€?
Simply, â€œloveâ€? and marriage intertwine, and have and will keep doing that thanks to human nature till the end of time. What is dismaying is the psychoanalytic clamor, pseudo-religious frenzy and political capital that has been sparked over what happens in the natural order of things. All the saber rattling is enough to make a single person wonder, especially as real external and internal threats plague the country, what pressing imperative should have to glom precious time and energy from a government that already overly encourages and rewards marriage. What's more, we should ask why we need to be reminded, by a barrage of federal laws, tax breaks etc., that we single people have somehow made a life choice whose result is none other than induction into the ranks of second-class citizenship.
Americans living alone comprised 26 percent of all U.S. households as of the 2000 census. It's the first time in the history of the national survey that single-member households topped married-couple households with children, which catgeory the Census Bureau predicts will decline to 20 percent by 2010. On the face of it, this fact would not be dystopian in and of itself â€” especially when one considers that births are outpacing deaths by a margin of 2-to-1 in the world. However, we're bombarded explicitly or implicitly with messages that we're on some kind of death spiral toward moral decay, as evidenced by the 49.3 percent of U.S. households headed by unmarried people. It's the old zero-tolerance game â€” if you're not with us, you're against us â€” and our stat, like those of cohabiting opposite-sex and gay civil unions, is somehow a pall upon the country.
The big question is, why? The big answer is always â€œthe children.â€? Not an irrational consideration. Few dispute that humans gravitate toward intimate companionship, or that â€œfamilyâ€? is a fundament of any society, being the proven environment that conditions new generations to the responsibilities of citizenship. As Professor David Popenoe, co-director of Rutgers University's influential National Marriage Project, puts it, â€œLong-term intimate attachments are extremely important for mental health and well-being. We're not designed to live alone.â€?
That said, two separate belief systems underpin those whose fears of a U.S. family crisis, if you will, have reached fever pitch.
One position is an ultra-right dogmatic one. Their slippery-slope argument goes like this, from the reactionary New York Post: â€œWhen a court orders[sic] gay marriage â€¦ then the law will announce that procreation is not any part of the public purpose of marriage, that children do not need mothers and fathers, and that men and women do not need each other.â€? If we peek behind the curtain at the conservative institutions that so often brief and bankroll the religious right, we find more overt economic arguments. Consider this, from an article decrying calls for population management, from the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank whose board of trustees reads like a who's who of the Fortune 500: â€œA robust [i.e. multiplying] domestic market is important. (Try building new houses in a depopulating country.) In the past 50 years in America, the population has doubled. That escalator of consumer demand won't continue [should Americans not reproduce beyond replacement levels, 2.1 children per couple.]â€?
A second argument takes a studied, sociological stance toward establishing a sounder society based on traditional family relationships, including addressing the disproportionate single-parent households in minority communities (53 percent of African American children, versus 21.9 percent of white children). Groups such as the pro-FMA Alliance for Marriage espouse tolerance for so-called civil unions, i.e. non-marriage same-sex or opposite-sex cohabitation, and also advocate more liberal, family-friendly workplace policies.
Constituents of each political strain join in promoting the legalized primacy of state-sanctified marriage. But as they try to create a blanket institutional solution â€” the Congress endorsing God, as it were â€” they're oversimplifying the issue. For example, our history of oppression of minority groups has created a shameful legacy in state and federal drug laws, inequitably targeting African American males â€” 63 percent of America's incarcerated drug offenders are black, according to Human Rights Watch, in spite of unswerving evidence that white people use drugs at the same rate â€” a stigma that affects family roles more than anything in black communities. But, as has been proved, neither a simple, heartfelt exhortation to â€œJust say â€˜no,â€™â€? nor billions of taxpayer dollars flushed into a byzantine War on Drugs, isn't going to change that.
Similarly, the notion of a single answer about marriage's role obfuscates the shifting tectonics of American relationships. Rutgers' Popenoe points out that even if actual marriage rates are declining, cohabitation is on the rise at a greater rate, meaning more people are, in fact, coupling. About 11 million Americans live with an unmarried partner, per the census, a vast 9.2 million of them heterosexual relationships and 41 percent of unmarried partner households with children in them. Popenoe qualifies that cohabitive relationships aren't as stable as married, biological parents, but his research has found that 76 percent of cohabitors plan to marry and that children in the mix make cohabitors more likely to stay together.
â€œFamily has been redefined,â€? says Thomas Coleman, executive director of Unmarried America, a group that defines itself as â€œcivil rightsâ€? organization, lobbying for equal benefits and other economic rights for singles and all iterations of domestic partners. â€œA lot of these people want to turn back the clock, but there's just no such thing as â€˜traditionalâ€™ family anymore, no such thing as â€˜traditional marriageâ€™ anymore.â€?
In fact, to bring us full circle, all indicators point to this persistent, gadfly marriage-shyness as a prudent course of due diligence. Marriage proponents, ever championing the children, point to generations worth of studies on divorce rates (down slightly but still hovering around 50 percent) and their troubling effects on kids, who â€œhave a harder time dealing with even moderate conflict, are more fearful of failure, are more insecure about relationships, and more likely to experience a divorce themselves,â€? the 2003 Rutgers report states. Given the very same rationale, it isn't hard to see that generations that have already come up in or around broken families have grown up cognizant that Hollywood endings are fantasy and date accordingly. Even lab rats avoid the electrified piece of cheese after the first or second jolt.
Of those who do get hitched, men are marrying for the first time at a median age of 27, up from 22 in 1960, and women at 25 years old, up from 20 in 1960. While the right-wing dogmatists decry these numbers for their implications of youthful indiscretions, premarital sex with multiple partners, â€œliving in sinâ€? and the like, later marriages and growing percentages of couples who live together before marriage fully point to the institution being weighed, appraised and litmus-tested before the proverbial plunge is taken. Given the welter of neuroses and stand-up devoted to the minefields of â€œrelationshipsâ€? over the years, it only follows that a better-rounded adult, with a little empiricism under his or her belt, is going to be better equipped to make a lifelong commitment, which the Rutgers study also corroborates:
â€œ[T]he increase in the median age at first marriage appears to have had a strongly positive effect. One recent study by a prominent demographer has found it to be by far the single most important factor accounting for the recent leveling off of divorce rates â€¦ In fact, this study calculated that if age at first marriage had not increased, the divorce rate would not have leveled off.â€?
Longer singlehood, in other words, effects more stable marriages when they occur. At this point the fiery issue seems to become one of form, e.g. they're not occurring as frequently in the specific strictures that some would have them. So what? Slice it any way you want â€” crass â€œmarketâ€? imperatives, millennia-old superstition â€” the current system isn't feeding the people we have now, here and especially abroad. If we can accept for the moment that we have entered a â€œpost-structuralâ€? age of families and relationships, where is the awful crime in simply better supporting healthy ones as they occur and not stigmatizing those who don't fit the criteria of the Federal Marriage Amendment?
â€œLove,â€? being an intangible thing and vastly subjective, isn't easily codified. If the poets of the ages haven't fully figured it out, it would seem impossible to define and legislate through material criterion and legal language â€” at least short of the passage of some kind of Federal â€œLuckâ€? Amendment.