Last month’s historic Supreme Court decision legalizing marriage for same-sex couples throughout the United States is a real-time manifestation of our constantly changing definition of marriage. Social conservatives argue that heterosexual marriage is a millennia-old tradition, the very bedrock of our society. Yet as family and marriage historian Stephanie Coontz writes in “Marriage, a History,” “Almost every marital and sexual arrangement we have seen in recent years, however startling it may appear, has been tried before.”
Those decrying the crumbling institution of marriage, in other words, ignore that throughout history, when and why people marry has changed, often from generation to generation. While marriage is constantly evolving, our reliance on it doesn’t appear to be nearly as much. Marriage remains the standard by which many people measure the success of their relationships. Ironically, as we see the legal definition of marriage expand, the number of people being wed has shrunk, with the lowest rate of marriage ever seen in modern American society.
Putting aside the all-out opponents of same-sex marriage, who base their objections on a narrow, sexist and homophobic view of what constitutes marriage, more progressive critics of the marriage movement have suggested that focusing on an institution that has long been reliant on patriarchy denies us the freedom to be our truest selves. Referring to gay marriage, Julie Bindel wrote last year for The Guardian, “In all the celebrating and discussion of bride-on-bride fashion, no one seems to have raised any objections to the institution itself, an institution that has curtailed women’s freedom for centuries.”
In other words, even as we celebrate a long overdue ruling, we should ask ourselves why we don’t question more the institution of marriage itself. Are we growing less reliant on marriage as a cultural, social and economic institution — and if not, why not?
It’s a question that repeatedly popped into my head as I read “Modern Romance,” a new book about courtship, dating and relationships by comedian Aziz Ansari and sociologist Eric Klinenberg. “Modern Romance” takes an engaging look at how relationships and marriage have changed in our lifetime by examining the ways in which technology has affected how we communicate with possible mates.
Conducting a series of focus groups, interviews and surveys with single, coupled and married people from around the world and across generations, Ansari and Klinenberg found that while in previous generations, people searched and settled for what they call companionate love (you marry the first person you meet who is a viable partner to start a family with), today’s daters are more interested in romantic love (you keep looking until you find that perfect soul mate). Technology, of course, has allowed us to indulge in this ad infinitum.
Against this backdrop, Ansari and Klinenberg are optimistic about today’s relationships. “Finding someone today is probably more complicated and stressful than it was for previous generations,” they write, “but you’re also more likely to end up with someone you are really excited about.” And in his conclusion, Ansari acknowledges that while it wasn’t great to be a woman in previous iterations of marriage, “with all the cultural advancements, middle-class and professional women of this era have gained the freedom to have their own lives and careers without the need for marriage.”
But the book does its fair share of romanticizing companionate and more old-fashioned forms of marriage. Ansari shares his parents’ story — how it was an arranged marriage, with his father choosing his mother after a 30-minute conversation during which he deliberated over whether she was the right height, and how they are still happily married. He and Klinenberg present data that suggest companionate marriages have a higher propensity to last and grow in passion, whereas marriages that start passionately run the risk of fizzling out. This may be true. But why the presupposition that marriage of one sort or another is where everyone will end up?
Ansari and Klinenberg admit that not everyone has to get married, but the underlying assumption of their book is that while how we find and communicate with potential partners may be changing, our basic desires have remained much the same — that, despite some amount of evolution on the issue, marriage is still a key organizing principle of society. As with the same-sex marriage decision, we are thus left to question whether we are moving toward relying on marriage less or more.
The legalization of same-sex marriage against a backdrop of declining marriage rates is fascinating for this reason. On the one hand, conservatives’ gradual acceptance of same-sex marriage is predicated on their deference to an institution that they believe holds society together. This could not be better illustrated than in the final paragraph of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion, in which he wrote:
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were.
But part of the reason so many people of all sexualities are not getting married is precisely that they don’t need marriage to hold their lives together.
Ansari and Klinenberg get lost in the middle of this murkiness. They present many varieties of how we can live and love but conclude with advice on how to navigate this new landscape to find an old kind of love. They suggest that the nexus of technological advances and cultural change can allow us to refine our hunt for “the one,” but built into that is an assumption of what we will do once we find that special someone. It’s not really the authors’ fault: Monogamous relationships are still at the core of our society. Certainly technology can help destabilize such reliance, but it will require commitment to a different vision of love and marriage — and a society that truly supports this variety of decisions. As Coontz writes, “Like it or not, today we are all pioneers, picking our way through uncharted and unstable territory.” As long as today’s dating terrain presumes marriage as a goal, we won’t be able to execute a more inclusive vision of romantic relationships.