Yes, Marriage Will Change–and Here’s How

Public Discourse – Mark Regnerus 7 June 2013
Will same-sex marriage cause harm to opposite-sex marriage? It’s one of the most enduring questions surrounding state and national legal decisions about marriage.

But the question itself is empirically unanswerable any time soon. We are arguably years away from gathering quality longitudinal, nationally representative data on the matter. And even then, assessing—let alone agreeing upon—causation will remain difficult. Same-sex marriage may, after all, be a later-stage symptom of the general deinstitutionalization of marriage rather than, as many assert, a cause of it. So the question remains less an empirical one than a theoretical one at present.

And yet we can build plausible hypotheses about the broader influence of same-sex marriage by looking around the neighborhood—that is, at what we already know about gay and straight relationships, about what’s happening to marriage, the mating market, and how institutions change.

In the simplest sense, of course, same-sex marriage won’t alter the institution for everyone, because nothing ever happens to “everyone” in reality, or in social science data. Associations, probabilities, and educated guesses are the best we can establish.

Lots of changes in marriage have, and will continue to, come about. What should we expect next? That’s the question Liza Mundy pursues in her cover story in this month’s Atlantic Monthly. “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss” explores the ways in which same-sex marriages may very well school those of us who have already entered—or someday will enter—the hallowed and embattled institution. Mundy is confident that such unions “could help haul matrimony more fully into the 21st century,” and that real influence is possible. This is in stark contrast to the politically tailored message that same-sex marriage will change nothing.

“What if same-sex marriage does change marriage, but primarily for the better,” she wonders aloud. How would this work? By giving us “another image of what marriage can be,” she asserts. What sort of image? According to Mundy, it’s the cardinal virtue of equality, or egalitarianism. Sameness and fairness.

Before we prematurely declare this image worth mirroring, consider for a few moments the side effects Mundy identifies on the way to the egalitarian utopia she praises. Three in particular stand out.

Women’s Unions Remain Unstable

Female and Male Homosexuality: Apples and Oranges

Men’s Interests Dominate the Mating Market
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