Does permitting same-sex marriage weaken marriage as a social institution? Or does extending to gay and lesbian couples the right to marry have little or no effect on marriage overall? Scholars and commentators have expended much effort trying in vain to wring proof of causation from the data – all the while ignoring the meaning of some simple correlations that the numbers do indubitably show.
Much of the disagreement among scholars centers on how to interpret trends in the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Stanley Kurtz has argued, in this magazine and elsewhere, that the adoption of gay marriage or same-sex civil unions in those countries has significantly weakened customary marriage, already eroded by easy divorce and stigma-free cohabitation.
William Eskridge, a Yale Law School professor, and Darren R. Spedale, an attorney, beg to differ. In Gay Marriage: For Better or for Worse?, a book-length reply to Kurtz, they insist that Kurtz does not prove that gay marriage is causing anything in those nations; that Nordic marriage overall appears to be healthier than Kurtz allows; and that even if marriage is declining in that part of the world, "the question remains whether that phenomenon is a lamentable development."
Eskridge and Spedale want it both ways. For them, there is no proof that marriage has weakened, but if there were it wouldn't be a problem. For people who care about marriage, this perspective inspires no confidence. Eskridge and Spedale do score one important point, however. Neither Kurtz nor anyone else can scientifically prove that allowing gay marriage causes the institution of marriage to get weaker. Correlation does not imply causation. The relation between two correlated phenomena may be causal, or it may be random, or it may reflect some deeper cause producing both. Even if you could show that every last person in North Carolina eats barbecue, you would not have established that eating barbecue is a result of taking up residence in North Carolina.
When it comes to the health of marriage as an institution and the legal status of same-sex unions, there is much to be gained from giving up the search for causation and studying some recurring patterns in the data, as I did for my book The Future of Marriage. It turns out that certain clusters of beliefs about and attitudes toward marriage consistently correlate with certain institutional arrangements. The correlations crop up in a large number of countries and recur in data drawn from different surveys of opinion.
Take the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP), a collaborative effort of universities in over 40 countries. It interviewed about 50,000 adults in 35 countries in 2002. What is useful for our purposes is that respondents were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with six statements that directly relate to marriage as an institution:
1. Married people are generally happier than unmarried people.
2. People who want children ought to get married.
3. One parent can bring up a child as well as two parents together.
4. It is all right for a couple to live together without intending to get married.
5. Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can't seem to work out their marriage problems.
6. The main purpose of marriage these days is to have children.
Let's stipulate that for statements one, two, and six, an "agree" answer indicates support for traditional marriage as an authoritative institution. Similarly, for statements three, four, and five, let's stipulate that agreement indicates a lack of support, or less support, for traditional marriage.
Then divide the countries surveyed into four categories: those that permit same-sex marriage; those that permit same-sex civil unions (but not same-sex marriage); those in which some regions permit same-sex marriage; and those that do not legally recognize same-sex unions.
The correlations are strong. Support for marriage is by far the weakest in countries with same-sex marriage. The countries with marriage-like civil unions show significantly more support for marriage. The two countries with only regional recognition of gay marriage (Australia and the United States) do better still on these support-for-marriage measurements, and those without either gay marriage or marriage-like civil unions do best of all.
In some instances, the differences are quite large. For example, people in nations with gay marriage are less than half as likely as people in nations without gay unions to say that married people are happier. Perhaps most important, they are significantly less likely to say that people who want children ought to get married (38 percent vs. 60 percent). They are also significantly more likely to say that cohabiting without intending to marry is all right (83 percent vs. 50 percent), and are somewhat more likely to say that divorce is usually the best solution to marital problems. Respondents in the countries with gay marriage are significantly more likely than those in Australia and the United States to say that divorce is usually the best solution.
A similar exercise using data from a different survey yields similar results. The World Values Survey, based in Stockholm, Sweden, periodically interviews nationally representative samples of the publics of some 80 countries on six continents – over 100,000 people in all – on a range of issues. It contains three statements directly related to marriage as an institution:
1. A child needs a home with both a father and a mother to grow up happily.
2. It is all right for a woman to want a child but not a stable relationship with a man.
3. Marriage is an outdated institution.
Again grouping the countries according to the legal status of same-sex unions, the data from the 1999-2001 wave of interviews yield a clear pattern. Support for marriage as an institution is weakest in those countries with same-sex marriage. Countries with same-sex civil unions show more support, and countries with regional recognition show still more. By significant margins, support for marriage is highest in countries that extend no legal recognition to same-sex unions.
So what of it? Granted that these correlations may or may not reflect causation, what exactly can be said about the fact that certain values and attitudes and legal arrangements tend to cluster?
Here's an analogy. Find some teenagers who smoke, and you can confidently predict that they are more likely to drink than their nonsmoking peers. Why? Because teen smoking and drinking tend to hang together. What's more, teens who engage in either of these activities are also more likely than nonsmokers or nondrinkers to engage in other risky behaviors, such as skipping school, getting insufficient sleep, and forming friendships with peers who get into trouble.
Because these behaviors correlate and tend to reinforce one another, it is virtually impossible for the researcher to pull out any one from the cluster and determine that it alone is causing or is likely to cause some personal or (even harder to measure) social result. All that can be said for sure is that these things go together. To the degree possible, parents hope that their children can avoid all of them, the entire syndrome – drinking, smoking, skipping school, missing sleep, and making friends with other children who get into trouble – in part because each of them increases exposure to the others.
It's the same with marriage. Certain trends in values and attitudes tend to cluster with each other and with certain trends in behavior. A rise in unwed childbearing goes hand in hand with a weakening of the belief that people who want to have children should get married. High divorce rates are encountered where the belief in marital permanence is low. More one-parent homes are found where the belief that children need both a father and a mother is weaker. A rise in nonmarital cohabitation is linked at least partly to the belief that marriage as an institution is outmoded. The legal endorsement of gay marriage occurs where the belief prevails that marriage itself should be redefined as a private personal relationship. And all of these marriage-weakening attitudes and behaviors are linked. Around the world, the surveys show, these things go together.
Eskridge and Spedale are right. We cannot demonstrate statistically what exactly causes what, or what is likely to have what consequences in the future. But we do see in country after country that these phenomena form a pattern that recurs. They are mutually reinforcing. Socially, an advance for any of them is likely to be an advance for all of them. An individual who tends to accept any one or two of them probably accepts the others as well. And as a political and strategic matter, anyone who is fighting for any one of them should – almost certainly already does – support all of them, since a victory for any of them clearly coincides with the advance of the others. Which is why, for example, people who have devoted much of their professional lives to attacking marriage as an institution almost always favor gay marriage. These things do go together.
Inevitably, the pattern discernible in the statistics is borne out in the statements of the activists. Many of those who most vigorously champion same-sex marriage say that they do so precisely in the hope of dethroning once and for all the traditional "conjugal institution."
That phrase comes from Judith Stacey, professor of sociology at New York University and a major expert witness testifying in courts and elsewhere for gay marriage. She views the fight for same-sex marriage as the "vanguard site" for rebuilding family forms. The author of journal articles like "Good Riddance to 'The Family,'" she argues forthrightly that "if we begin to value the meaning and quality of intimate bonds over their customary forms, there are few limits to the kinds of marriage and kinship patterns people might wish to devise."
Similarly, David L. Chambers, a law professor at the University of Michigan widely published on family issues, favors gay marriage for itself but also because it would likely "make society receptive to the further evolution of the law." What kind of evolution? He writes, "If the deeply entrenched paradigm we are challenging is the romantically linked man-woman couple, we should respect the similar claims made against the hegemony of the two-person unit and against the romantic foundations of marriage."
Examples could be multiplied – the recently deceased Ellen Willis, professor of journalism at NYU and head of its Center for Cultural Reporting and Criticism, expressed the hope that gay marriage would "introduce an implicit revolt against the institution into its very heart, further promoting the democratization and secularization of personal and sexual life" – but they can only illustrate the point already established by the large-scale international comparisons: Empirically speaking, gay marriage goes along with the erosion, not the shoring up, of the institution of marriage.
These facts have two implications. First, to the degree that it makes any sense to oppose gay marriage, it makes sense only if one also opposes with equal clarity and intensity the other main trends pushing our society toward postinstitutional marriage. After all, the big idea is not to stop gay marriage. The big idea is to stop the erosion of society's most pro-child institution. Gay marriage is only one facet of the larger threat to the institution.
Similarly, it's time to recognize that the beliefs about marriage that correlate with the push for gay marriage do not exist in splendid isolation, unrelated to marriage's overall institutional prospects. Nor do those values have anything to do with strengthening the institution, notwithstanding the much-publicized but undocumented claims to the contrary from those making the "conservative case" for gay marriage.
Instead, the deep logic of same-sex marriage is clearly consistent with what scholars call deinstitutionalization – the overturning or weakening of all of the customary forms of marriage, and the dramatic shrinking of marriage's public meaning and institutional authority. Does deinstitutionalization necessarily require gay marriage? Apparently not. For decades heterosexuals have been doing a fine job on that front all by themselves. But gay marriage clearly presupposes and reinforces deinstitutionalization.
By itself, the "conservative case" for gay marriage might be attractive. It would be gratifying to extend the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples – if gay marriage and marriage renewal somehow fit together. But they do not. As individuals and as a society, we can strive to maintain and strengthen marriage as a primary social institution and society's best welfare plan for children (some would say for men and women too). Or we can strive to implement same-sex marriage. But unless we are prepared to tear down with one hand what we are building up with the other, we cannot do both.
This article originally appeared here.