Couples: State of Our Unions; If Marriage Is in Trouble, Don't Blame Gays. Straights Changed the Rules
Byline: Barbara Kantrowitz, With Pat Wingert, Karen Springen, Julie Scelfo, Joan Raymond and bureau reports
Amber Settle, a 35-year-old associate professor of computer science at DePaul University in Chicago, is eight months pregnant and unmarried. Not so long ago, that would have been downright scandalous. But Settle and Andre Berthiaume, 35, also an associate professor at DePaul, feel no pressure to make their eight-year relationship official, despite the imminent arrival of their baby. Instead, they've drawn up powers of attorney and custody, and child-support agreements in case of a breakup. They also plan to update their wills. A marriage license? Not any time soon. More important than that "piece of paper," says Settle, "is that we make sure our relationship is strong... We will be Mom and Dad in every way that's important."
While critics contend that same-sex weddings will destroy the "sanctity" of traditional unions, researchers say that it's actually heterosexual couples like Settle and Berthiaume who are redefining marriage--not only in this country but throughout the Western world. Over the past few decades, they've made walking down the aisle just another lifestyle choice. The old model--marriage and then kids--has given way to a dizzying array of family arrangements that reflect more lenient attitudes about cohabitation, divorce and children born out of wedlock. In fact, says University of Chicago sociologist Linda Waite, author of "The Case for Marriage," gay couples are "really swimming against the tide. What they want is something that maybe heterosexual couples take for granted: the social, religious and legal recognition of a union--to be able to say to the clerk at the grocery store, 'My husband is right behind me. He has the money'."
This increasingly diverse family album could be a reason why gay marriage has struck a nerve. The institution of marriage is so battered that many consider gay unions the last straw, says Princeton historian Hendrik Hartog, author of "Man and Wife in America." "They see gay marriage as a boundary case"; in other words, a line too far. But if the past is a guide, that line is going to keep moving no matter who objects.
Scholars say the evolution of marriage is nothing new; it's an institution in constant flux, always responding to the particular needs of each era. "Throughout much of history, if you acted like you were married, then you were treated like you were married," says Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen State University, a historian of marriage. Religion, a major part of the current defense of traditional marriage in this country, didn't even enter the picture, Coontz says, until the ninth century, and then only to prevent European aristocrats from marrying close relatives. The goal was not to stop incest but to make sure noble families didn't consolidate too much power. (Commoners could still hook up with anyone they fancied.)
Even a century ago, a time that many people might look upon with nostalgia, marriage was hardly the stuff of hearts and flowers. In this country, women were essentially the property of their husbands, with few rights. If an American woman married a foreigner, she automatically lost her citizenship; a man who did the same kept his. Until the 1970s, there was no concept of marital rape because husbands "owned" their wives' sexuality. Interracial marriages and birth control were illegal in many states until the late 1960s.
To see what the future holds, Americans could look to Europe, where marriage rates are plummeting and illegitimate births are the norm--prompting widespread concern about how to promote family stability, especially for children. "We've moved from de jure to de facto marriage," says Kathleen Kiernan of the London School of Economics. She estimates that 50 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds in Europe are cohabiting. The numbers are highest, perhaps 70 percent, in Scandinavia, especially Sweden. …