Over the past two decades, and particularly in the last three years, we’ve seen a sea change in public opinion. In the mid-’90s, almost 70 percent of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. Now, according to a Gallup poll published last week, half of Americans believe that same-sex marriages should be legally recognized as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages. The Pew Research Center reports slightly lower numbers, but also shows more Americans supporting same-sex marriage than opposing it. (...)
These changes in sentiment are not just about “tolerance.” They reflect a historic transformation in what heterosexuals expect from their own marriages.
For millennia, marriage was about property and power rather than mutual attraction. It was a way of forging political alliances, sealing business deals, and expanding the family labor force. For many people, marriage was an unavoidable duty. For others, it was a privilege, not a right. Servants, slaves, and paupers were often forbidden to wed, and even among the rich, families sometimes sent a younger child to a nunnery or monastery rather than allow them to marry and break up the family’s landholding.The redefinition of traditional marriage began about 250 years ago, when Westerners began to allow young people to choose their partners on the basis of love rather than having their marriages arranged to suit the interests of their parents. Then, just 100 years ago, courts and public opinion began to extend that right even to marriages that parents and society disapproved.(...)
[T]he most important cultural change that has increased support for same-sex marriage is the equality revolution within heterosexual marriage.
For most of history, the subordination of wives to husbands was enforced by law and custom. As late as the 1960s, American legal codes assigned differing marital rights and obligations by gender. The husband was legally responsible for supporting the family financially, but he also got to decide what constituted an adequate level of support, how to dispose of family property, and where the family would live. The wife was legally responsible for providing services in and around the home, but she had no comparable rights to such services. (...)
Between the 1970s and 1990s, however, most Americans came to view marriage as a relationship between two individuals who were free to organize their partnership on the basis of personal inclination rather than preassigned gender roles. Legal codes were rewritten to be gender neutral, and men’s and women’s activities both at home and work began to converge.
Today, the majority of American children grow up in homes where their parents share breadwinning, housework, and child care. Some couples even decide to reverse traditional gender roles, with the woman becoming the primary breadwinner or the man becoming a stay-at-home dad.
The collapse of rigid gender expectations and norms has fostered the expectation that marriage should be an individually negotiated relationship between equals, replacing the older notion of marriage as a prefabricated institution where traditional roles and rules must be obeyed.
The result is a paradox. Marriage is now more optional than in the past, and people are far less willing to remain in a marriage that doesn’t feel fair, loving, and mutually respectful. On the other hand, as a result of these changes, many marriages have become more fulfilling and mutually beneficial than ever before.
Domestic violence rates have plummeted over the past 30 years, dropping by 50 percent since 1980. The divorce rate, which rose sharply in the 1960s and 1970s, has been falling since its peak in 1981, and it has fallen the most for educated couples, who are the most likely to mix and match traditional gender behaviors.
The growing acceptance of same-sex marriage is the result of these profound changes in heterosexual marriage. It’s not just the president’s views on marriage that have evolved. Marriage itself has evolved in ways that make it harder to justify excluding same-sex couples from its benefits and obligations.
[Via Jesse Walker / Reason]