Andrew Sullivan —  Jul 13 2011 @ 5:26pm


by Patrick Appel

Nona Willis Aronowitz, who married her boyfriend to keep him on her health insurance, wishes she could have gotten a heterosexual domestic partnership instead of a marriage license:

For the first few days, we kept the news within our tight circle. They were the ones who “got” it, who understood why we’d done it. No rings, no promises of forever, no registering for hot pink Kitchen Aid mixers—just a gesture of support from one insured person to an uninsured one.

Kay Steiger had related thoughts awhile back. To me, Aronowitz's article makes the case for decoupling health insurance from employment rather than for heterosexual civil unions, but my wedding is 24 days away so I may be seeing this through matrimony-tinted glasses.

Looking at France, where anyone can get a civil union, it's fairly clear that civil union availability decreases the marriage rate. But, when you add marriages and civil unions together, it also greatly increases the absolute number of people entering into partnerships. I've nothing but sympathy for young couples not ready for marriage who want legal protections and to share health insurance.  That appeal of a civil union is understandable. What I'm more worried about is this passage from Aronowitz:

It’s been two years since Aaron and I tied the knot, and I have no idea if we’ll make it forever. That was never the point.

If the main benefit of straight civil unions is that they are easier to undo then marriage, if they replace promises of "for ever" with promises of "for now," then they may threaten one of the most important aspects of marriage. To vow the rest of your life to someone is, in some cases, an unrealistic act. But the weight of that promise stretches our virtues and shrinks our vices. Those public vows help bring us closer to the ideal. (I'm reminded of Viktor Frankl's wonderful talk about overestimating man.) As is often the case, Andrew has put this better than I can:

I take the "forever" seriously myself. And I think that core vow – never to abandon one's spouse, to make living together work even when exit might seem easier – is central to marriage's power. It is unreasonable – which is why we promise it. The vow establishes the arc of our ambition, and a sense of marital love's eternity. This is why it remains sacred to me – because committing to another human being for ever – is always sacred.

There are currently a lot of unanswerable questions about how wide-spread straight civil unions would change our social understanding of marriage. They might make marriage stronger by discouraging those likely to divorce from entering the institution. Or straight civil unions might lower our expectations for long-term relationships generally and thereby potentially damage marriage.

Creating straight civil unions would change marriage far more than incorporating gays into the institution and it would likely impact existing civil unions.  For many gays and lesbians civil unions are the only legal option currently. If straights use civil unions as a less serious institution than marriage, what happens to the status of gay and lesbian civil unions? In other words, would straights using civil unions as a dumping ground for less permanent relationships degrade gay unions?