Are we having the wrong marriage debate?

October 19, 2012

The marriage debate is entering a new phase. As recently as 1996, a Gallup survey found that 68 percent of Americans opposed civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. On May 8 of this year, Gallup released a report which found that only 48 percent were opposed to same-sex marriage while 50 percent were in favor. The next day, in an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News, President Barack Obama announced that he too favored the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, a move that delighted social liberals, many of whom believed that the president’s previous tepid opposition was rooted in political concerns rather than real conviction.

Even in the months since, the legal and political ground has continued to shift in favor of same-sex marriage. Just this week, a divided panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a law that limits federal recognition of marriages to couples consisting of one man and one woman, is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, ballot initiatives aiming to uphold laws authorizing same-sex civil marriage are leading in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Perhaps most strikingly, a re-energized Romney campaign has made little effort to capitalize on opposition to same-sex marriage.

Opponents of the practice have no intention of throwing in the towel; nor is it inevitable that the legal and political efforts of advocates will continue to succeed. In November, Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson are releasing What Is Marriage?, a vigorous intellectual critique of the case for same-sex civil marriage that has attracted wide attention in traditionalist circles. Moreover, opponents have achieved a number of political victories at the state and local level, most notably in North Carolina in May of this year.

Yet the deeper problem for opponents, as the political theorist Peter Berkowitz argued in a 2005 Policy Review article on “The Courts, the Constitution, and the Culture of Freedom,” is that what Girgis, George, and Anderson refer to as the conjugal view of marriage, in which procreation and lifelong marital fidelity are central, has been supplanted by a very different view. As Berkowitz put it, “children, once at the center of marriage, have now become negotiable, and what used to be negotiable — love, companionship, sex — has moved to the center.” The legal recognition of same-sex marriage thus represents “an adaptation of law to a profound change in social meaning.”


In light of this deeper shift, one wonders if we have been having the wrong marriage debate all along. Though no one should discount the importance of the marital aspirations of same-sex couples, it is not the only marriage issue we face. The share of poor and middle-income American adults actually living in stable marriages has been hitting new lows.

Back in 2010, the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values released a “State of Our Unions” report focused on the uneven retreat from marriage. Among college-educated Americans, who represent 30 percent of the adult population, marriage rates have remained high and marriages have proven to be quite durable. The opposite is true among the 12 percent of Americans without a high school diploma, among whom marriage is rare and quite weak. What the report highlights, however, is the transformation of marriage norms among the 58 percent of the adult population that falls in the “moderately educated” middle of the spectrum, i.e., those with a high school diploma but without a four-year college degree.

By the late 2000s, for example, 6 percent of children born to college-educated women were born outside of marriage. For the least educated mothers, the number was 54 percent. Rather alarmingly, the number was 44 percent among moderately educated mothers. That is, the pattern among the broad middle more closely resembles the pattern among the poorest and most socially isolated Americans than it does the pattern among those at the top.

These numbers wouldn’t be so much of a concern if, as in northern Europe, nonmarital childbearing nevertheless happened in the context of stable relationships. But there has in fact been a marked increase in family disruption. From the 1970s to the 2000s, the share of 14-year-old girls born to moderately educated mothers living with both parents fell from 74 to 58 percent. The share fell from 65 to 52 percent for 14-year-old girls born to the least educated mothers. The only exception to this dismal trend is that 14-year-old girls born to college-educated mothers are slightly more likely to live with both parents — the share increased from 80 to 81 percent in this group. Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Marriage-Go-Round, has referred to “the deinstitutionalization of marriage,” in which marriage has remained a prestigious mark of individual achievement even as adults spend less of their lives in intact marriages. And he has projected, as one of several possible alternatives, a “fading away of marriage” in which marriage continues to lose ground to cohabitation and other less stable arrangements.

A number of thinkers have drawn attention to the decline of marriage. Kay Hymowitz of the Manhattan Institute focused on how diverging marital patterns have exacerbated economic and social inequality in Marriage and Caste in America, and Charles Murray documented the decline of marriage among non-Hispanic white Americans in Coming Apart.

This June, David Blankenhorn, founder of the Institute for American Values, published an op-ed in the New York Times in which he called for a new marriage conversation. Having emerged as one of the leading critics of same-sex civil marriages, which he sees as a potential threat to a fragile institution, Blankenhorn called for a kind of truce. “Instead of fighting gay marriage,” he wrote, “I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same.” Earlier this week, Blankenhorn and I discussed the future of the marriage debate and the difficulties of running “a think tank, not a doctrine tank” in a polarized age. Many of Blankenhorn’s erstwhile allies saw his op-ed as a capitulation, and as a result the Institute for American Values lost several members of its board. To be sure, Blankenhorn has gained a number of new allies as well, including Jonathan Rauch, journalist and author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America. But the Institute, which has done more to advance the discussion of how marriage contributes to America’s economic and social well-being than institutions many times its size, is at risk of closing its doors within the next six months.


With rare exceptions, leading politicians have steered clear of this larger marriage conversation. During his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Rick Santorum often spoke of how the erosion of married two-parent families contributes to social turmoil, though he did it in a style that alienated potential allies more often than not. President Obama has reflected on the importance of responsible fatherhood, but this hasn’t emerged as one of the themes of his presidency, despite his unique cultural authority on the subject.

Somewhat surprisingly, it was Mitt Romney who, in his own awkward way, injected the issue of family stability into the presidential campaign earlier this week. While ostensibly answering a question about gun violence during this year’s second presidential debate, Romney added, “But gosh, to tell our kids that before they have babies, they ought to think about getting married to someone — that’s a great idea, because if there’s a two-parent family, the prospect of living in poverty goes down dramatically.” Romney was channeling Isabel Sawhill, president of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy and co-director of the Center on Children and Families at the center-left Brookings Institution. Together with her Brookings colleague Ron Haskins, Sawhill has found that adults who finish high school, work full-time, and marry before they have children are less likely to be poor, the numbers falling from 15 percent to 2 percent. Romney has cited this research, which is very much in keeping with his cultural sensibilities, on the campaign trail on numerous occasions.

One obvious rejoinder to Romney is that his prescription for a better life is out of reach for many Americans. This is part of why some on the left, including Richard Kim of The Nation and Lisa Duggan of the University of Pennsylvania, have called for more cultural and economic support for household diversity rather than a focus on marriage. That is, rather than lament the ongoing transformation of American families, Kim and Duggan have argued that we should expand public spending to accommodate the more fluid families of the 21st century.

Another view is that marriage really is uniquely valuable but must be understood in a larger economic context. Sawhill and Haskins have devoted their lives to understanding the challenges facing single mothers, many of whom aspire to marry yet find that the supply of reliable men capable of finding remunerative work is severely limited. Romney, for all his virtues, has spent relatively little time talking about the challenges facing the less educated and even moderately educated men who have seen their economic prospects deteriorate and who have thus become less marriageable than they might have been a generation ago. Indeed, he has spent as little time on this marriage debate as he has on the debate over same-sex marriage.

“Family issues” are often treated as the garnish on the salad of American political debate. But insofar as the core goal of American conservatism is to strengthen civil society and to limit the power of the state, it is worth noting that family instability weakens the capacity for self-reliance, leaving the state to pick up the slack.

PHOTO: Lela McArthur (R) and Stephanie Figarelle, both from Anchorage, AK, kiss on the observation desk of the Empire State Building after being married on the 61st floor in New York, February 14, 2012. REUTERS/Andrew Burton 


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I agree that “The legal recognition of same-sex marriage thus represents “an adaptation of law to a profound change in social meaning … In light of this deeper shift, one wonders if we have been having the wrong marriage debate all along. Though no one should discount the importance of the marital aspirations of same-sex couples, it is not the only marriage issue we face. The share of poor and middle-income American adults actually living in stable marriages has been hitting new lows.”


I think you are addressing two separate issues and not addressing either from the proper perspective.

(1) The first issue is whether or not legal recognition of same-sex marriage is having a deleterious effect on society, and if so to what extent.

(2) The second issue is why the success of marriage among heterosexual couples is declining.


These two issues may or may not be related, but mixing them together implies a causal relationship that is not apparent from your article.

(1) In regards to the first question, I offer some evidence from Wikipedia (solely as a readily available source of information to begin a discussion):

“Scientific and medical understanding is that sexual orientation is not a choice, but rather a complex interplay of biological and environmental factors,[1][3] especially with regard to early uterine environment.[4] While there are those who still hold the view that homosexual activity is “unnatural” or “dysfunctional”,[5][6] research has shown that homosexuality is an example of natural variation in human sexuality and is not in and of itself a source of negative psychological effects.”

This scientific and medical “understanding” is based on the old “nature versus nurture” argument, which is not necessarily correct.

There any many who believe, as I do, that we are 100% the product of our genes, and that our behavior is totally governed by that fact. For example, the latest genetic research would indicate that many of our medical problems relate to genetic deficiencies inherited from our ancestors and clearly beyond our choice as to acquire the disease or not.

I would argue that any degree of free will we seem to have is simply the limited ability of individuals to react to their immediate environment. Thus any “biological and environmental factors, especially with regard to early uterine environment” offered as an explanation of human behavior are merely reflective of personal beliefs of certain member of the scientific and medical community, but bear no basis in fact.

As to the question of whether homosexuality is “normal” or not, I would say it is the result of a genetic deficiency in an individual who displays overt homosexual behavior. From a medical perspective this is neither good nor bad, but simply a scientific fact.

As to the question of whether homosexuality is somehow detrimental to the stability of society, I offer this from Wikipedia regarding the demographics of the phenomenon.

“The largest and most thorough survey in Australia to date was conducted by telephone interview with 19,307 respondents between the ages of 16 and 59 in 2001/2002. The study found that 97.4% of men identified as heterosexual, 1.6% as gay and 0.9% as bisexual. For women 97.7% identified as heterosexual, 0.8% as lesbian and 1.4% as bisexual. Nevertheless, 8.6% of men and 15.1% of women reported either feelings of attraction to the same gender or some sexual experience with the same gender. Half the men and two thirds of the women who had same-sex sexual experience regarded themselves as heterosexual rather than homosexual.[5]”

From this data I would argue that, given the relatively small proportion of society actually involved in homosexual behavior versus the amount of social disruption caused by this group it is indeed a disruptive factor in society.


(2) As to the second question of why the success of heterosexual marriage in the US is declining, I would argue that homosexuals have nothing whatsoever to do with the stability of heterosexual couples. It is a separate issue entirely.

Marital success has, in fact, been on the decline since at least the 1950s — a period long before the “gay” movement made its appearance — and thus has been declining for a number of reasons totally unrelated to that issue.

The reasons are many, and most of them revolve around economic factors.

For example, the movement from singe-income families to two-earner households has had a devastating effect on the stability of marriage since it weakens the bonds of the male/female relationship to where females have other options than to remain in a marriage that they never had before.

It also places females in close proximity to males in the workplace, with the result that marital infidelity has become a major factor in marriage breakups and thus creates broken homes with displaced children, which creates significant problems in the stability of society.

This trend towards the financial independence of women in society has resulted in pressure on communities to accommodate easier divorce legislation, which in turn has added to the problem of marriage instability.

The society we have and commonly accept now as “normal” (e.g. single-mother homes) are EXTREMELY abnormal taken in the context of societal stability.

I do not mean to imply that it is only the change in the 1950s from a single-earner family to one where the wife routinely works outside the home — first as a means to “get ahead”, but now as an ever-increasing necessity as the US economy economy has subtly adjusted to this change in terms of home prices and consumer goods.

The economic adjustment of families to this new reality has arguably been a prime driver of the continually rising consumer prices in the US, but one which is seldom recognized or “adjusted for” in any economic analysis of economic trends.

It is a MAJOR error for economists to omit this data.


In summary, I would say BOTH trends,

(1) the increasingly vocal demands of an extremely small minority of homosexuals for recognition within society at large, as well as

(2) the absolute decline in economic living standards of heterosexual couples in the US. The example which I gave, that of the two-earner family being seen now as normal being only one of those changes in society, albeit a major driver that has been completely overlooked as a causal factor.

have been responsible for the decline in US society, but they are mutually exclusive issues, bearing no causal relationship to each other.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

I would like to amend, very slightly, my summary.

The ONLY possible causal relationship between the decline in heterosexual marriages and the rise in the gay movement in terms of societal disruption might be that at some point heterosexual marriage had declined so much — thus loosening the previously tighter and stricter bonds of society — that it allowed this group to campaign for greater recognition.

However, this is mere speculation since US society in general has been trending towards greater liberalism and the group may have emerged anyhow.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

I should also clarify my remark above that “As to the question of whether homosexuality is “normal” or not, I would say it is the result of a genetic deficiency in an individual who displays overt homosexual behavior. From a medical perspective this is neither good nor bad, but simply a scientific fact”, I am NOT implying homosexuality is a disease.

I made the statement SOLELY from the standpoint that I assume one of the prime functions of any organism is the ability to reproduce itself.

That being the case, homosexuality is a genetic deficiency since any organism with this trait obviously cannot reproduce, and is thus not “normal”.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

Before this discussion can bear any fruit, one has to decide what marriage is, actually. Most people, I suspect, view marriage as a religious/social structure that provides a framework for stability for both the partners as well as any children they may have. But marriage is also a legal construct created by the government. This legal construct bestows real financial benefits and valuable legal protections to the married couple. If the government is going to bestow these benefits on those who chose to live as one, upon what legal (not religious) basis can it chose to grant those benefits to some and not others?

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

@ majkmushrm —

Totally agree! But I hasten to point out that that is a completely different subject.

What we accept as marriage now cannot survive for a whole lot of reasons (e.g. longer life spans) that make the old-fashioned concept of a marriage for life completely unrealistic.

The truth is for most of human civilization “marriage for life” existed solely because most people died quite young.

Thus, the majority of problems facing traditional marriage today simply never appeared, or were ignored because alternative means (e.g. divorce or the ability for females to live separately and still raise children) were not available.

Traditional marriage IS truly broken.

Instead of focusing on extraneous “hot button” issues, we need to reexamine what a marriage really means in this society and revise our laws accordingly to reflect those societal changes.

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

For those of you who think this is not an important issue, I suggest you read the following Reuters article. 9/us-usa-aging-divorce-idUSBRE89I0Z12012 1019

Posted by Gordon2352 | Report as abusive

The ‘marriage traditionalist’ movement is doomed to fail; it’s simply a matter of how long they can drag their feet and slow progress. When you see how far public opinion has swayed in a relatively short time and notice young people support marriage equality in much higher numbers, it is inevitable that this discussion will become yet one more of the uncomfortable, sheepish civil rights explanations we give our children in the future.

“Well, you see, back then in the 2000s there were still lots of people who thought gays were icky and somehow going to destroy the country. Why? Well, I don’t remember exactly why, they just did.”

Get on the right side of history people. No matter what else he did with his life, George Wallace will always be the jackass standing the the schoolhouse door preaching “segregation forever”. Don’t be that guy…

Posted by spall78 | Report as abusive

Being myself in transition from liberalism of youth to more mature and orthodoxal stance, must say that _civil_ marriage of outright _biological_ gays is not something that bothers me much (you know, if all you have is a lemon…) but vocality and self-promotion of this minority is very irritating – as lgbt is becoming “fashionable” and “special” which disproportionate representation of them in art and politics and because most vocal of them resent and attack _all_ traditional values (why “feminism” is becoming curse word in much of Russia? Because most vocal feminists here are not some busyness ladies with kids and (civil) husband but hysterical childfree lesbian artists/writers who thinks they’re chosen ones)

Posted by chyron | Report as abusive

Marriage is called an institution for a reason: You have to be crazy to enter into it.

Marriage will eventually become a fleeting memory of times past as more and more people are rightfully realizing marriage is a bigger joke than New Coke and not worth the time.

Posted by FlamingLiberal | Report as abusive

Marriage benefits hurt the unmarried, who must pay for them.
A widow gets a free pension, but who pays? We singles do.
A widow gets tax-free inheritance, but who pays the taxes? We singles do.
We should make marriage a strictly religious thing and leave government out of it entirely.
I’m tired of paying more so you married can reap “marriage benefits”.

Posted by PollyMolly | Report as abusive

The purpose of having laws supporting marriage (leave aside any discussion of between whom) is to provide societal support for raising children in a stable environment, and that having two people raise the child is optimum. I think that needs to be the focus of any actions.

Posted by stevedebi | Report as abusive

I would suggest commenters read the excellent book referenced in this article, “Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.” There are very real benefits to adults in a stable marriage. It would be both wrong and short-sighted to revert back to thinking of marriage primarily in terms of child bearing. With almost 7 BILLION people on this one small planet, the last thing we need is to focus on child-bearing. PollyMolly, there are very real cost savings to society that accrue from stable marriages. Far from singles paying for marrieds, many singles become an increasing drain on the common purse with illness and age.

This is a fascinating discussion and one where both liberals and conservatives may be able to find common ground.

Posted by LeslieM | Report as abusive