New York is about to become the sixth state to recognize same-sex marriage, doing so by decision of its legislature, not judicial fiat. Gay marriage is gaining in social acceptance. Two generations ago, interracial marriage was viewed as scandalous, and often proscribed by law. Today it’s legal everywhere in the United States, unremarkable, and endorsed even by most religious conservatives. Same-sex marriage is likely to follow the same progression.
But as the saying goes — be careful what you wish for.
Advocates of gay matrimony speak entirely of the privileges received by those whose unions are recognized by the state. Human Rights Watch phrases same-sex marriage as a “right to equality.” The New York Times editorialized that New York’s new law expands the chance to “enjoy the legal rights of marriage.”
Marriage indeed brings privileges — community respect, health care benefits for spouses, improved credit ratings, the presumption of fitness for parenthood. I’ve been married for 23 years and am glad of that fact every day. (You’d have to check with my wife for her side of the story.)
But advocates of same-sex marriage speak as if wedded bliss were all wine and roses. There are many negatives attached to matrimony:
Married people accept significant restrictions on personal freedom. (In theory there can be open marriages, but my guess is that about 15 people in world history have achieved an open marriage with two happy partners). Even in successful marriages, the restriction on freedom can be a source of stress.
For a not inconsiderable number, marriage becomes a cause of misery. It can be sad to be alone; to be married to the wrong person can cause wretchedness. On “I Love Lucy,” marriage was a laugh a minute. Many wedded people experience marriage quite differently.
You’re not just marrying a person, you are marrying his or her family. Two single people in a romance are motivated primarily by attraction to each other. Once marriage happens, families on both sides may invite themselves in. Gays and lesbians beware, marriage can mean lifelong close connection to people you have not chosen and perhaps haven’t even met.
Raising children is far harder than your worst-case analysis. Spouses have two-way obligations to each other; parents have one-way obligations to children. My wife and I raised three children, all wonderful. But Lord almighty there was a lot of work, expense and obligation involved.
Children may be romanticized by the unwed, including by unwed gays, as an exciting delight. The reality is that kids take over your life, even if all goes well. If things go poorly, children can bring unhappiness, and the ethical parent cannot under any circumstances walk away. This is also true legally. A spouse may be divorced. A child is your responsibility till age 18, regardless of what happens in the marriage.
Married people have financial obligations that single persons are spared. In most states, spouses are responsible for each other’s debts — even debts of which they are unaware. Your spouse buys a Rolex watch without consulting you? Has a gambling debt you were never told about? You are liable. Same-sex marriage advocates speak often of money-related benefits of matrimony, such as that married people in most transactions are viewed as better credit risks than single persons. But if your spouse makes financial mistakes, they become your mistakes. Marriage, legally, is a contract. Part of the contract is liability for each other’s debts. There’s no out clause.
Concerns like these should not faze advocates of same-sex marriage. A fair guess is that men who marry men, and women who marry women, will end up either happy or miserable in about the same proportion as men and women who marry each other.