Why Couples Marry

I recently read an excellent paper by Kimberly Richman, who teaches at the University of San Francisco School of Law. The paper (soon to be published) summarizes her recent survey of why California same-sex couples chose to legally marry. Her study focused on the decision to marry as opposed to register as domestic partners. Her findings were in sync with my perceptions to a great degree: getting married is mostly about expressing love and commitment, and about social legitimization, rather than a conscious election to organize one’s life as a couple according to the legal rules of marriage.

While most observers and commentators find these responses to be a display of an enobling motivation and a satisfying validation of the couples’ emotional needs and commitments, to me it is also a cause for concern, in two respects.

First, I worry a bit about couples that say they need this sort of outside ratification for their relationship, as it suggests a lack of internal solidity and strength. I am not sure if I would call these expressions of need as internalized homophobia, since it probably is something that many straight folks feel as well. But I sense that the social marginalization of gay people and the lack of respect for the relationship by friends and family has created a diminished sense of worthiness for many of us, in ways that really are different for straight couples. I get that, and I’m very sympathetic to those emotions. But I wonder whether marriage is really the best solution to this very real problem. Approach the marriage event (with its combination of religious and legal sanctification, community notification, and what will hopefully be a fun social event) in this manner reinforces the notion that worthiness is bestowed by outside support, rather than from an inner strength and commitment. My sense is that most straight couples already feel that they have a bounty of social support, and to them the marriage is the expression of the support they already have – not an event that is meant to create or bestow broader social or community support.

Second, I worry that couples are turning to marriage without really understanding how getting married will change their relationship, possibly emotionally but certainly legally. It’s my perception that an increasing number of straight couples have felt free in recent years to decide whether or not to get married. My sense is that they approach that decision with an open mind and some degree of knowledge of what it means to get married, and are not motivated by a lack of sense of self-worth. I want lesbian and gay couples to have the same freedom, and the same knowledge when they make their choices.

I truly appreciate the research that is finally being done on the motivations and decisions of same-sex couples, and Richman’s work is valuable and meaningful. I will be even more interested in seeing the results of studies that evaluate how getting married has affected these couples over the long term. I wonder, does marriage improve the quality of their relationship and strengthen their bonds, and does it lead to longer-lasting and more satisfying relationships? That will be the ultimate test of the value of this monumental social change movement to legalize same-sex relationships!

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