Monday, July 15, 2013

A New Vision of Marriage?

On June 26, 2013 the Supreme Court struck down, as unconstitutional, the key provision of DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Act. It also dismissed a district court's challenge to California Prop 8, which had eliminated the rights of same-sex couples to marry in the state. As one might expect, depending on which side of the issue you fall on, there was either rejoicing or consternation about the decisions of the court and what this means to marriage as a whole.

Marriage has undergone many changes over the ages. At one time, women were seen as property that was transferred from father to husband. Husbands held the upper hand in a marriage and could even decide that their wife had been unfaithful, condemning her to death by stoning. Women often lost all rights to their children if there was a divorce. Thankfully, over the centuries, women have gained many rights and the customs of marriage have changed as well.
There has been much handwringing about what same-sex marriage will do to the institution of marriage. I think that we lose something significant when we divide marriage into straight unions and same-sex unions. Marriage is the coming together of two people who choose to join together out of love. Rather than creating a divide between same-sex relationships and heterosexual relationships I hope that all people can learn from the love that exists between partners no matter their sexual orientation.
According to a May 22, 2013 article in The Atlantic Magazine "The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss" (see end of this article) researchers have discovered that same-sex marriages are actually happier than heterosexual marriages. Rather than worrying about how the Supreme Court rulings will negatively impact the "sanctity" of marriage we should look to the examples of many same-sex couples and what they bring to this institution.
Same-sex couples are not burdened by the old gender stereotypes of male and female that straight couples often unconsciously fall prey to. Who works (or doesn't), who cares for the children, who does which particular chores are all up for discussion in same-sex marriages. Couples must approach marriage in a way that determines what works best for each partner and the marriage as a whole instead of what society deems is appropriate for each gender based on centuries of habit.
While there is much more of a sense of egalitarianism in marriage in the 21st century, we still find that the share of the burden is often split according to gender roles. The Atlantic article states: "Though men are carrying more of a domestic workload than in the past, women still bear the brunt of the second shift. Among couples with children, when both spouses work full-time, women do 32 hours a week of housework, child care, shopping, and other family-related services, compared with the 21 hours men put in. Men do more paid work-45 hours, compared with 39 for women-but still have more free time: 31 hours, compared with 25 for women."
In the research for their book "American Couples, Money, Work, Sex" Pepper Schwartz and Philip Blumstein of the University of Washington discovered that gay and lesbian couples tended to be fairer in their dealings with each other than straight couples. There was also more sharing of cooking, childrearing and chores than in straight couples.
Researchers also discovered that in all couples, the person with the higher income had more authority and decision-making power. Lesbian couples experienced this less than straight couples. Both lesbian and straight couples experienced this less than gay couples.
Lesbian couples tended to have more power plays around who engages more with the children. But on the whole it was discovered that another difference between straight and same-sex couples is that both partners in same-sex marriages tended to engage with the children together. Straight couples tended to engage along traditional gender roles with women more involved than men. When they did parent together, it was found that they were more likely to work at cross-purposes. Lesbian mothers tended to be more egalitarian and warmer toward each other and gay dads were more egalitarian in the way that they divided the chores necessary in childrearing.
Another interesting finding was the fact that when there was a disagreement in same-sex marriages the partner that was upset tended to be seen as less aggressive and domineering and the other partner often experienced less fear and stress. There tended to be more affection, joy and humor in the way that a difficult issue was addressed.
I am certainly not trying to imply that all same-sex marriages are happy and even-handed or "better" than heterosexual unions, but I do think that we can examine the findings in this article as well as in other research on the topic and learn some new ways to engage in marital relationships. Finding ways to communicate our needs, to co-parent, to find more balance in the power of money within a relationship all goes a long way to creating happy, healthy marriages. Don't we all deserve to learn from each other and move the institution of marriage into the 21st century?
The Atlantic Magazine "The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss"
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