December 2, 2003

Marriage evolves in America

One in every two marriages ends in divorce. This well known fact is spouted by everyone from our parents to our friends to the Christian Coalition. Recently, conservatives have pointed to this statistic as a sign of the supposed decline of morality in America. They say we are entering a crisis that will destroy the family and the home, and that the rise in divorce is illustrative of this pending catastrophe. I couldn't disagree more.

The rise in divorce is not because of a decline in morality but because of the changing nature of marriage. Marriage has changed dramatically in the past 40 years, primarily because of the changing status of women in our society. When our mothers were growing up, they had few job options. Today, women are far freer to pursue career goals than they once were (although they are not completely uninhibited). With this new possibility of having a substantial income, women have become financially independent of their spouses. Before this time, if women were in dysfunctional or even abusive relationships, they were forced to remain married because of their financial position. This newfound financial independence was a paradigm shift in the American social structure.

As a result, a far more nuanced shift has occurred as well. Partners are now seeking more from marriage then they ever have before. People want to be supported, loved, and cared for by their partner. This development does not mean that marriages in previous generations were not fulfilling, however, for many still sought emotional sustenance from their spouses. Yet today, marriage is freed from the conventional reasons of economics and stability. Women's independence has stripped marriage of those superficial needs, exposing a bare emotional partnership. The fact is that people seek fulfillment from their marriage, and what's more, they expect it for a lifetime.

This desire is not unrealistic, let alone impossible, and it is encouraging to know that those expectations are becoming more common. Yet many people neglect the fact that we have a new marriage in this country—one that relies on emotion rather than dependence, principle rather than pragmatism. Therefore, there has not been a decline in morality in America, but actually an increase. Americans expect more from marriage than they ever have before.

Some would say that this new trend does not explain the rise in divorces, but in fact it does. Expectations in a relationship are set so high that people feel betrayed if these standards are not met. Thus, it only makes sense that there are more divorces today. This is not to say that those expectations are too idealistic, but is important to understand the implications of those expectations.

Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the fact that marriage today is difficult. It requires care, discipline, and sacrifice. But it is precisely for that reason that I support gay marriage. If two people are in love and they are willing to risk the life journey of that partnership, who am I to prevent them being together?

Last week, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court struck down a statute in the state that banned marriage between people of the same sex. This decision not only reforms the state of Massachusetts, but it also thrusts gay marriage onto the national stage. Gay rights need to be addressed. It is imperative in a nation that claims equality for all its citizens that those same citizens constantly question whether that promise is being fulfilled. For this citizen, homosexuals are being left out of the American promise of liberty and justice for all. Not only are they being discriminated against by many of their fellow citizens, but also their own government is denying essential civil rights. The right to have the government recognize a bond of marriage is undoubtedly one of these rights.

What is so amazing about the issue of gay marriage is that in a time when marriage is so difficult and arduous, when divorce rates are climbing, people are still fighting for that right. How can there be a decline in morality when people are lobbying and protesting so that they can marry?

On top of all the other trials that come with marriage—emotional fulfillment, children, jobs, and all the rest—homosexuals have to deal with something that heterosexuals will not confront because of their marriage: bigotry. It is heartening to me that homosexuals are open about their relationships today—that they are fighting for the right to wed despite being attacked and discriminated against by members of our society. Their struggle reminds me how strong love really is.