Does Flexibility Stabilize Marriage?

Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 6 2011 @ 12:20pm

by Chris Bodenner

In the wake of the New York vote, Ross Douthat ponders to what extent gay marriages will affect mainstream marriage culture and to what extent that culture will affect gay couples. He seems to stand by the view that

A successful marital culture depends not only on a general ideal of love and commitment, but on specific promises, exclusions and taboos. And the less specific and more inclusive an institution becomes, the more likely people are to approach it casually, if they enter it at all.

Dan Savage responds:

The potential new definition of marriage that you fear, Ross, has been the operational definition of marriage for decades now. A commitment to love and care for each other, other details to be hammered out—that's how straight people currently define marriage. Well, that's how straight people define marriage for themselves. Things that are optional when straight couples marry—monogamy, children, religion, "one man, one woman, for life"—suddenly become a marriage's defining characteristics when same-sex couples want to marry.

If you haven't yet read Mark Oppenheimer's cover story on monogamy featuring Dan and his husband Terry, it's well worth your time. Money quote:

[Savage] believes nostalgically, like any good conservative, that we might look to the past for some clues. “The mistake that straight people made,” Savage told me, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitar­ian and fairsey.” In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”

While Dan is at the center of Oppenheimer's piece, it contains other great voices as well, including sociologist Judith Stacey:

[She] researched gay men’s romantic arrangements for her book “Unhitched,” [in which she] argues that gay men, in general, will continue to require less monogamy. “They are men,” she said, and she believes it is easier for them — right down to the physiology of orgasm — to separate physical and emotional intimacy. Lesbians and straight women tend to be far less comfortable with nonmonogamy than gay men. But what matters is that neither monogamy nor polygamy is humankind’s sole natural state. “One size never fits all, and it isn’t just dividing between men and women and gay and straight,” she said. “Monoga­my is not natural, nonmonogamy is not natural. Variation is what’s natural.”

Jonathan Rauch, who wrote Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, will no doubt have fantastic things to add to this debate when he starts guest-blogging next week.