What is the Future of the Institution of Marriage?

I often ask you to read several posts in succession and make your own connections. Here’s a line up of some old and some new posts about the history, current state (and cultural battle) and possible future of the institution of marriage:
First off, Lance Mannion wrote a couple of days ago on Polygamy, voyeurism, and other fun things to do on the weekend:

“…a lot of Right Wing America lives on the frontier between civilization and Trailer Park choas. The reason they are so terrrified by change and the prospect of sexual and personal freedom is that where they come from all those things are aftereffects of social breakdown.”

Richard Chappell wrote Open Relationships a few months ago:

“Armchair speculation (the most entertaining form of speculation, requiring only tenuous links to reality) leads me to wonder whether open relationships might be under-rated in our society.”

This really fits in the theme – is the institution of marriage going to lose its official institutionality, the way it is already happening in places like Sweden, Netherlands, etc., and become something much more private?
Oneman in The End of Marriage writes:

“Be that as it may, I think conservatives are right about one thing: if the institution of marriage is going to survive, it does need defending. Not because marriage is the only or best source of truly moral living, but precisely the opposite: marriage is increasingly irrelevant in modern society. In the absence of many good reasons for marriage to even exist, those who value it as a tradition are going to be more and more hard-pressed to perpetuate it.”

I disagree with his attempt to make correlations between marriage-types and life-styles, e.g., nomadic vs. stationary peoples (research by Stephanie Coontz and others found no such correlation), but the rest is fine. Notice a commenter from Sweden who has a completely different concept of marriage – he completely ignores the central point of the American marriage institution: the legal and religious aspects of it. In his world, cohabitation IS marriage.
Oneman also ends with:

“One final note: None of this is meant to belittle the efforts of same-sex marriage advocates to legalize marriage for all Americans regardless of sexual orientation. That battle has an importance quite distinct from the question of what marriage does or does not do in our society.”

I agree wholehartedly (which means I changed my mind since 2003 when I wrote some of my own posts linked below in which I thought that if marriage is on its way out why bother to have gays enter an obsolete institution at a high cost of the struggle). It is essential that we win the battle for gay marriage, so we can proceed to alter the whole insitution to fit the times.
What I think is missing from all of the above posts is a clear defnition of marriage (so the Swedes in comments do not get mixed up), and what recent developments are responsible for the change in the definition. I wrote about it a long time ago (ignore the wishy-washiness on gay marriage – I have changed my mind since I wrote that):
Definition, Semantics and Future of Marriage:

“The thousand provisions in various laws are not favoring just hetero- over homo-sexual marriage. It also favores a particular, narrowly defined type of relationship over all others, including over living alone. That narrow definition of marriage contains several criteria: 1) church-sanctioned, 2) state-sanctioned, 3) monogamous, 4) exclusive, 5) heterosexual, 6) fertile, 7) indefinite (till death do us part).
Vast increase in life-span, invention of contraceptives, cures for most STDs, gender equality, increasing secularity, as well as economic forces are making the 7 criteria obsolete, whether you like it or not.”

Since then, I have read the currently best book on the topic – Stephanie Coontz On Marriage. She analyzed many different types of marriage in many different cultures around the world and tracked their changes over time. Her one-liner summary is that marriage used to be about “getting the best in-laws” be it for land, money or social connections. In other words, in order to increase their own fitness, people have to provide for their grandchildren and they do it by carefully selecting the parents of the person who will marry their child and provide half of the provisioning for the grandkids.
According to Coontz, the so-called “traditional marriage” that conservatives are trying to defend these days existed only from 1945-1961 in the USA and 1947-1963 in Western Europe. It lasted a short time and vanished for a good reason – and good riddance! Coontz writes:

“Forget the fantasy of solving the challenges of modern personal life by re-institutionalizing marriage. In today’s climate of choice, many people’s choices do not involve marriage. We must recognize that there are healthy as well as unhealthy ways to be single or to be divorced, just as there are healthy and unhealthy ways to be married. We cannot afford to construct our social policies, our advice to our own children and even our own emotional expectations around the illusion that all commitments, sexual activities and care-giving will take place in a traditional marriage. That series has been canceled.
People will continue to marry, but it is too late to “defend” marriage; Coontz says flatly that it will never again be an important cultural institution. It strikes me that the strident debate about gay marriage masks a deep anxiety; it might well be a distraction from acknowledging the diminishing importance of marriage. Isn’t it ironic that those who now sentimentalize marriage are denied entry?”

In Hooked on Hooking Up, Or What’s Wrong With Conservative View Of Marriage I took an editorial by Stanley Kurtz and two editorials by William Raspberry as examples of what is wrong with the conservative “defense” of marriage:

“Yes, gay marriage and the evolution of straight marriage go hand-in-hand. But Kurtz is afraid of it, instead of celebrating it. This is yet another step in a long line of advances towards equality of sexes. First, women managed to win the battle for not being their husband’s property. Later, they won the right to own property. Choosing a husband, not paying dowry, divorcing , working outside the house, voting, taking contraception, having an abortion, running for office, …. those are all victories that women won over the past century or so, always against the screaming horror of conservatives who thought, at each of these junctures, that the fabric of the society is unravelling and that the End of the World will result from those immoral shameless practices.”

Finally, I think that marriage, gender-relationships and sex are the core of all politics, not just the Culture Wars:Book Review: George Lakoff ‘Moral Politics’ and E.J.Graff ‘What Is Marriage For?’:

“The history of marriage can be seen as a constant struggle between the two ideologies, one bent on keeping the moral authority of the white straight adult rich male, the other fighting for equality of all people. Every change in the definition of marriage was a blow to the conservative core model, and a victory for the liberal worldview. Giving women right to own property, granting legal equality, allowing contraception, or divorce, allowing inter-racial marriage and, currently, allowing same-sex marriage, are some of the stages of evolution of marriage, from a feudal economic arrangement designed for the strengthenig of the clan, towards marriage as a love relationship between two equal human beings.”

So, what do you think? How is the institution of marriage going to change over the next few decades? How should we prepare our children for such changes?

7 responses to “What is the Future of the Institution of Marriage?

  1. Coontz’s dates on the traditional marrige would have startled my grandparents, who married for love in the 1920s, and their parents who married for love near the turn of the last century.
    For that matter, they’d have startled Beatrice and Benedict and Odysseus and Penelope.
    People like to pair up. The economic stuff that she and others claim is what marriage has always been about has been imposed from without upon coupling, in many cases perverting it.
    And what people did in sub-Saharan Africa or some other far away, long ago culture a thousand years ago has nothing to do with what people in Western society have been doing for the last 500 years.
    A lot of these ideas are as self-serving in their way as the views of the Right Wing “defenders” of traditional marriage.

  2. Oh, it is not just marriage out of love that is identified as “traditional”. She is much more precise about it in the book than I am, but she had 350 pages to do so. It is an excellent read. She does not deny love and is very careful to differentiate between kinds of marriages made by different classes at different times in different places. So, marriage out of love is nothing new as it happened among the poor in many nations in history, for instance. But the 1950s marriage has a number of other aspects that she discusses in detail and it is this type of marriage that the Religious Right is trying to “defend” with new legislation and Constitutional amendments.

  3. I will have to read all these posts and articles I suppose. I do not see much of the argument that I consider the enduring issue and the inescapably moral question of whether our institutions assure us we are bringing up the healthiest possible children. I agree with most of the observations, Coontz particularly, that culture and history have ebbed and flowed with the economic, social status, religious and symbolic identification [thats what love has to do with it] attributes of marriage as an institution. Most liberals bristle at the statement that “marriage is for having kids” and that objection is OK but incomplete unless you have SOMETHING that is for having kids. The 7 criteria are inadequate to the challenges of founding a safe and just society: you can’t just demand fecundity, you have to RAISE the damn kids and lovingly. [No one should read me as saying we are all supposed to want or try for kids. I consider having no interest in bearing children is perhaps less common but just as natural as wanting kids: both are organic behaviors]. My own suggestions were too poorly written up to draw any attention but basically, I say free up marriage to be whatever society wants it to be by separating the procreation issues under a procreation contract. All the other issues are matters of culture and fashion with marginal impacts on the mental health of the next generation. How you will make strong those who come here weak and without any choices is how you really prevent the collapse of societies that the conservatives fret about so much when all the other alterations to the tradition [which was constantly altering anyway] are up for debate.
    Marriage is now commonly said by conservatives to be “about the family”. It was. It was also about the dynasty. An in eras when 2 kids out of 7 or 8 survived, maybe that made some sense. The slight change of words to “about the children” is a much bigger deal than it looks. The conservative ideals about marriage that are being pushed these days only accidentally produce healthy productive citizens.

  4. Eric Wallace

    It is essential that we win the battle for gay marriage, so we can proceed to alter the whole insitution to fit the times.

    What do we need to alter, exactly? Of your seven criteria, it seems to me that only three are actually part of the legal framework:
    (2) state sanctioned
    (4) exclusive
    (5) heterosexual
    Of course (2) applies, since we’re talking about laws, after all, and (5) is currently under contention. So is it just (4) that you expect to see change? We will have polygamous marriages in the future?
    This seems like the Right’s slippery-slope argument, but with the interpretation that it’s a good thing rather than a bad thing.
    I don’t really buy it in either case.

  5. No, no, no – not so literal! Not dismantling by decree or revolution each of the 7 criteria one at a time.
    Just rethinking what marriage was, is and will be.
    Seeing if it will get completely outside of the realm of both church and state (laws) and be left to people to redefine organically any way they want, in any form they want, i.e., quit being a contract of any kind and become an inter-personal relationship, each one different from the next, perhaps called ‘marriage’ perhaps not.

  6. “It is essential that we win the battle for gay marriage, so we can proceed to alter the whole insitution”
    Why must we do this?
    “Every change in the definition of marriage was a blow to the conservative core model, and a victory for the liberal worldview.”
    So that’s what the 70% of black children born out of wedlock is.
    “Seeing if it will get completely outside of the realm of both church and state (laws) and be left to people to redefine organically any way they want, in any form they want, i.e., quit being a contract of any kind and become an inter-personal relationship, each one different from the next”
    There have been attempts to do that, on scales smaller than all of society. I can’t really remember how they turned out, you might want to write someone with first hand knowledge of such an experiement in living and ask him:
    C. Manson, B-33920, 4A 4R-23, P. O. Box 3476, Corcoran, CA 93212.

  7. What’s wrong with freedom? From governmental and church control of our lives? Why can’t marriage be based ONLY on love and nothing else, no laws, no traditions, no gender inequality? Let each person (couple) decide for themselves what kind of relationships they will have and if they want to call it “marriage” or not. Get the govenment (and the church) out of our private lives and out of our bedrooms. Isn’t that the key result of democracy and enlightement?