June 12, 2011

From Traditional Marriage to New Forms of Intimacy

The United States is one of the most sexually conservative countries in the industrial world. In 2002, 42 percent of Americans told pollsters that homosexuality was morally wrong. Only 16 percent of Italians, 13 percent of the French, and 5 percent of Spaniards felt that way. (Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz, 276)

That said,
even in America attitudes toward homosexuality have changed immensely over the past fifteen years ... And ironically, as views have polarized over the question of whether gays and lesbians should be able to use the word marriage to describe their relationships, the once-radical demand for same-sex civil unions has become a compromise position. "Let them have the same rights as me and my wife," one businessman told me. "Just don't call it marriage." (274-75)

Reporting from this spring's annual conference of the Council on Contemporary Families, Coontz writes in her guest post at Feministing that:
For the first time, reported sociologist Brian Powell, more people support than oppose same-sex marriage. And many people who say they oppose same-sex marriage but support same-sex unions define such unions as marriages that don’t take place in a church, meaning that they actually support same-sex marriage, they just don’t know it yet.
"Traditional marriage is dead. Let's celebrate," reported the Guardian recently in response to a new US report:
Heterosexual Janes and Johns are ... reshaping holy matrimony: they're marrying later, they're marrying less, and for reasons other than having children. And it's making them (and their kids) happier and healthier.
Marriage, more than ever, is something that more people feel the right to opt out of, which means that those of us who do marry (except those who are shamefully barred from marriage because of their sexual orientation) are opting in, and doing so increasingly because we want to, not because of social obligations ... Children, too, should be welcome additions and not obligations. 
Fresh data from the US Census Bureau reveals that:
Married couples have dropped below half of all American households for the first time, a milestone in the evolution of the American family toward less traditional forms ... What is more, just a fifth of households were traditional families — married couples with children — down from about a quarter a decade ago, and from 43 percent in 1950, as the iconic image of the American family continues to break apart.
I take courage from this trend away from traditional nuclear families towards a range of alternative family forms and less claustrophobic gender roles.

Now a married woman, I felt conflicted about getting married when my husband and I got engaged. Even though I was the one who proposed! Numerous times. Having grown up in Norway where cohabitation is respected and even more common than in other parts of Europe, the privileging of marriage in the US did not sit well with me. In order to make a point against this privileging, I was opposed to getting married.

Then I met the man who is now my husband, and I struggled to find the right language with which to describe the significance he played in my life; our commitment to live our lives together. "Cohabitant," "partner," "mate," "significant other," "lover," "boyfriend," -- none of these terms seemed to capture what we felt for each other and set out to do. We also did not receive the same legal and tax benefits as married couples, or the social recognition.

So I began to propose. But then when I finally got the answer I wanted, I felt conflicted. Whereas my then fiance promptly called his mom and dad, I only told a friend who happened to email me that night. I wrote her I felt badly for entering a party from which several of my close friends are excluded. That I resented the traditional connotations of marriage with its stereotypical gender roles.

She told me tongue-in-cheek that my friends could move to her state if they wanted to marry, and added with emphasis that I could define marriage on my own terms.

Which is what I set out to do and to which I am still committed.

The "LOVE, SEX, AND FAMILY" college course I taught also became a way for me to explore my feelings about marriage and new forms of intimacy. I took courage from the fact that there is a growing acceptance even in the US towards divorce, single parenthood, same-sex parenthood, singlehood, women who opt to be child-free, cohabitation, same-sex marriage, and a range of other new forms of intimacy that include relying on friends for family (fictive kinship), living apart together (LAT), online intimacies and more. When marriage becomes one of several equally respected alternatives, we will have attained social democracy with respect to how we approach each other. As I see it, that is something we will all gain from as individuals and as a public with greater respect and appreciation for diversity.


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