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The State Of Marriage In America

Marriage Certificate, 1875

Originally published May 11, 2012

The right wing avers that allowing gays to marry will destroy traditional marriage in America. They never say how, but they are sure it will happen. Too late. Traditional marriage is already in trouble, and gays had nothing to do with it. Neither did Kim Kardashian. She simply provided fathers with a really good argument against $25,000 custom wedding dresses and million dollar receptions.

Fifty years ago, 72% of Americans were married. Today, the number is just under 50%. The United States isn’t the only place experiencing this phenomenon. When my husband’s family in Canada held their last reunion a few years ago, the organizers got tired of trying to sort out spouses and non-spouses and just put “partner” on the name tags. Britain, France, New Zealand, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong are all reporting deep drops in the number of couples getting married.

In spite of the right wing nonsense, marriage has always been an economic arrangement. The rich and titled used marriage to join property, assure inheritances, merge businesses, cement international treaties. The poor didn’t bother to get married which is why the concept of common-law marriages arose. If two people stuck together long enough, they were considered married for legal purposes. Marriage was very much an upper-class thing until the emergence of a mercantile class. It was the middle class that set the standard of what the right calls traditional marriage. The economic factor was subtler than joining two estates or receiving a massive dowry that paid off the debtors. Money, property or value was not an open part of marriage negotiations in the middle class. Women wanted a husband who could support them because they were barred from earning their own incomes. Men often wanted a wife who might be able to advance their careers, which accounts for over half the signers of our Constitution marrying the daughter, sister or widow of an employer. Both Thomas Jefferson and George Washington became members of the landed gentry because of their marriages.

People in the middle class were also those most attached to a moral standard and a religious standard. So, within those moral and religious strictures, the only place for sex (which women weren’t supposed to enjoy anyway) was marriage, and sex was only supposed to be for procreation. A child born out of wedlock, and the mother, were spurned by society, relegated to the fringes of society, condemned to poverty and deprivation, or in their pregnant state, the girls were whisked off out of sight, the babies were disposed of into orphanages and the girls returned to their families to be handed over to the first man who expressed willingness to marry “sullied goods.” Discovering on his wedding night that his bride was not a virgin, was legal justification for divorce in many cultures.

Two factors blew up the traditional marriage model. The pill removed the fear of pregnancy if a woman had sex before marriage. And women started making strides in the workplace. They became able to support themselves.

There was a debate that occurred in Georgia a few years ago among black college students and college graduates. The women were questioned (more like challenged by black men) as to why they were either dating white men or having babies out-of-wedlock and dumping the fathers. They said that there were not enough black males going to college and able to match the women’s intellectual or financial achievements. As women became able to control their reproductive choices and their financial situations, men became optional.

The definition of why people got married changed. The modern prime motivation was supposed to be “love.” The only problem with that was the discovery that being “in love” is a chemical and biological state related to sexual passion and not a logical, rational emotion based on common values, goals and interests. There comes a point where the passion becomes secondary to the need for a best friend and partner. There is a moment when the ability to talk to each other overrides everything else. That revelation brought about a spike in divorce rates.

Is same sex marriage responsible for the decline in straight marriage? No way. Traditional marriage is still popular among those who live traditional lives bound on all sides by gender roles and religious morality. The problem is not that the existence of gay marriage diminishes the value of straight marriage, but that it shows young people there are alternative ways of thinking about gender roles and the structure of marriage.

Conservatives and followers of certain religious ideologies want to keep their kids locked up in a world where the only things they see or hear are “acceptable” ways of thinking or being. Tony Perkins of the American Family Research Council has stated that his children will never be gay because he and his wife raise them properly. But to keep them in that state, he must deny them access to thoughts outside of his narrow views. For that reason, Perkins wants gays back in the closet and religion to control our civil laws. For that reason, anti-abortionists also oppose birth control and fact-based sex education, and favor public shaming of those who become pregnant out of marriage. It’s a control issue, not a morality issue. They are losing, which is making them double down on their attempts to push the world back into the fantasy framework of the 1950s when no one saw or acknowledged those things that did not fit the “traditional” model, even though those non-traditional things existed all around us.

Where is marriage in America today? The following states have same-sex marriage: Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Vermont. It is pending in California, Maryland, New Jersey and Washington.

Common law marriages still exist in Alabama, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Utah. In New Hampshire they are legally effective for settling an estate, and in Georgia, Idaho, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania a couple who were considered “common lawed” before a certain date must obtain a legal divorce to terminate the marriage.

Civil unions exist in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island. There are legally recognized domestic partnerships in California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii, Maine and Wisconsin (the last three have very restricted rights attached).

Laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman exist in Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wyoming. The first three bar same-sex marriage while allowing civil unions.

And those states whose populations have been persuaded to amend their state constitutions because same-sex marriage will bring about Armageddon are: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. Nevada and Oregon have domestic partnerships.

California’s amendment is in the courts, and the result of that law suit will determine the future of all these amendments. As much as conservatives love to lament “activist judges” Georgia’s amendment is a shining example of conservative activist judges. The state constitution clearly requires an amendment have only one clause. The same-sex marriage ban has two. The amendment was argued to the Georgia Supreme Court on that single issue – it’s consitutionality under their constitution. The judges upheld the amendment, denying their own constitution.

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