I’m picking this up from earlier in the week–you might want to start reading here or even a little further back. Access to marriage for same-sex couples continues to be headline news. Since I last wrote, the Vermont legislature has overridden the governor’s veto of the marriage access bill. This makes Vermont the fourth state (the others being Massachusetts, Connecticut and Iowa) that will be permitting same-sex couples to marry and the first to do so via legislative rather than court action.
My main project in this thread is to examine the ways in which parenthood and marriage have become intertwined. In particular, arguments both for and against access to marriage rely on varying assertions about children and parents and families.
To pick up the particular piece of this puzzle I started with, last time I asserted that there was a wide-spread sentiment that stability is good for children. From here, you can go one of two directions. I’ll consider one today and the second another time.
Those who support access to marriage for same sex couples note that same sex couples are already raising kids. (And here some statistics are usually noted about exactly how many children are being raised by same-sex couples.) Marriage is said to stabilize relationships. Thus, the reasoning goes, children are better off if their parents are married.
The critical assertion here is that marriage stabilizes relationships. Various reasons are offered why this might be so. Marriage brings with it social status/recognition. In some (perhaps many?) wedding ceremonies (most of them religious, I think) the community of witnesses is asked to support the happy couple in their relationship. Ending a marriage is more complicated, more fraught with social meaning, then ending a non-marital relationship. (This last might mean some people remain married when, if they were not married, they would be out the door.) And of course for some people, marriage is a sacred commitment–till death do us part.
I know there’s also statistical evidence cited for this point. While I haven’t looked at the studies recently, I imagine they show that unmarried couples are more likely to split up than are married couples. But this is one of those places where I want to be cautious with statistical evidence. (Come to think if it, I probably want to be cautious with statistical evidence most of the time.)
Even if the evidence is as I’ve speculated, it doesn’t mean that marriage causes the greater stability in relationships. It could very well be that the subgroup of people who choose to get married are in more stable relationships in the first place, while the subgroup of people who choose not to get married are in less stable relationships. In other words, correlation does not prove causation. (I’m only thinking here about people who have the option of getting married. If you consider the larger universe of couples including those who cannot choose to marry, then the statistics become even more difficult to interpret.)
So by now you can probably tell that I am personally a bit skeptical about the extent to which marriage stabilizes relationships. This does not, by the way, mean I’m in any way doubtful of the ability of lesbian and gay people to be parents. It’s the marriage part I wonder about. Will marriage really turn an unstable couple into a stable one?
One thing that is interesting, though, is that the people opposed to access to marriage for same-sex couples generally accept the “increases stability” argument pretty readily. Indeed, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it denied by those defending restrictive statutes. The acceptance of this point makes the broader argument (kids need stability, lesbian and gay people have kids, marriage would make their families more stable and hence be better for the kids) a particularly strong one.
There’s more to come, but it will wait till next time.