As gay couples prepare to legally marry in Minnesota, public divisions remain on the definition of marriage, with many liberal Minnesotans celebrating what they see as a milestone in America’s journey toward justice and equality for all, and many conservatives dismayed at this argument for undermining a core social institution. No surprise at these different responses. But something unexpected has also happened: the beginning of a consensus that the social institution of marriage is important for adults, children and society.
What happened? Until recently, liberals have been reluctant to speak in the public domain about the unique value of marriage, lest divorced people and single parents feel devalued, and lest gay people feel excluded from a privileged club. Therapists stopped calling themselves marriage counselors and became couples counselors. The Bush administration programs to strengthen marriage in low-income communities were dismissed as a way to discredit nontraditional families. Marriage became the “M word.”
But something shifted among liberals during the advocacy movement for gay marriage. Colleagues who used to wince when I talked about the unique value of committed, lifelong marriage (not generic couplehood) began to tout the special cultural significance of marriage as an institution whereby society gives approval and support, both legal and moral, for lifelong relationships. Civil unions seemed too watered down for them. And people who once feared offending single parents are more comfortable with asserting the benefits of stable, two-parent families. In a striking shift, it’s now safe for liberals to extol marriage and two-parent families without denigrating people in other family forms.
Conservatives, on the other hand, have a history of willingness to publicly espouse the value of marriage. But I’ve talked with a number of conservatives who, while clear in their opposition to same-sex marriage, have been critical of their own group for not doing more to counteract the decline of marriage in recent decades. The result, especially in conservative faith communities, has been a renewed effort to find ways to support the viability of marriages in a throwaway culture.
There is plenty of work for all of us to do to make marriages healthier and more enduring. For one thing, we can do a better job of preparing couples for marriage. Minnesota has already made a start. Our state gives a partial waiver of marriage license fees to couples who take 12 hours of premarital education that focuses on communication, problem-solving skills and commitment. The result has been an increase of education for marriage, which some research suggests can help to prevent divorce.
On the other end of the marriage continuum is the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project, which was funded by the Legislature by means of a small surcharge on marriage license fees to develop the capacity of therapists, lawyers, clergy and others to assist married couples in crisis. In this project, we’ve developed a new approach called “discernment counseling” for couples on the brink of divorce who want to pause and consider their options before making a final decision with lifelong consequences for themselves and their children.
Of great importance will be efforts to revive marriage in low-income communities where it is almost disappearing. Research shows that at the time of an unmarried birth, most couples hope to marry and raise their child together. But marriage soon becomes out of reach for many low-income couples because of economic insecurity, personal challenges in handling relationships, and the lack of role models of successful marriage. In recent decades, a big social-class gap has opened up in the United States as middle-class children are increasingly raised in stable, married families while low-income children suffer through the unstable churning of their parents through multiple romantic partners.
There are no easy answers for how to foster healthy, lifelong marriages in Minnesota, and marriage alone is not a panacea for solving deep structural problems facing low-income communities. But while strong differences will remain about how marriage should be defined in law, there is a growing awareness across philosophical and ideological lines that promoting the capacity for strong, enduring marriages is part of the equation for making our nation a more perfect union.
William Doherty is professor in the Department of Family Social Science and director of the Minnesota Couples on the Brink Project at the University of Minnesota.