What is the future of marriage? To answer this question, we have to first know what marriage is. I define marriage as society’s approved and preferred institution for sexual activity and child-rearing. The new trend in marriage law is to claim that there should not be any legal or social preference among sexual and child-rearing arrangements. No one form of relationship should be “privileged” over the others. This is, by definition, the end of marriage as an institution.
The result of this trend will not be greater individual freedom, contrary to the expectations of its promoters. Instead, the government will have to act as mediator and regulator among more aspects of personal behavior for more individuals than ever before. That is because the social functions performed by the institution of marriage have to be performed by some other institution, usually the government.
This trend is evident in Northern European countries and in Canada. The ideology was on display in Sweden in 2004, when the local youth wing of Sweden’s Social Democrat party endorsed the idea of replacing marriage with a gender-neutral, multi-partner-friendly marriage system. Conspicuously absent, is any discussion of the impact of multi-partner marriages on children.
The subject of children in multi-partner marriages was discussed briefly in a series of reports in Canada. A four study report commissioned by the Status of Women Canada to study Polygamy in Canada: Legal and Social Implications for Women and Children, most of the authors noted that polygamy is often associated with the abuse of women and the neglect of children. Nonetheless, two of the four reports endorsed the decriminalization of polygamy. These authors concluded that it would be better to legalize polygamy or at least decriminalize it, and then attempt to regulate its excesses.
But regulating the excesses inside a polygamous household is something that Canada has already found extremely difficult to do. In the renegade Mormon community called Bountiful, reports periodically surface of child brides, child abuse and abandoned teen-age boys. The authorities always have difficulty prosecuting any perpetrators because complaints are notoriously difficult to verify. Disaffected members of the community complain, but no one within the community will corroborate their stories. Only much more intrusive interventions by government authorities will make it possible to “regulate the excesses” that are so often associated with polygamy.
The “privilege no relationship” ideology bore fruit last fall in the Netherlands. A man and his wife took advantage of the domestic partner registration law to register a partnership with another woman. This three-way marriage was dismissed as insignificant by American media who favor same sex marriage. But it is quite clear that the blurring of all distinctions among types of families paved the way for this three-way marriage.
In Scandinavia and the Netherlands, registered partnerships have effaced the distinction between cohabitation and marriage. Sweden passed the Homosexual Cohabitation Act in 1987. At the same time, Sweden extended most of the protections of marriage to heterosexual cohabiting couples. In 1997, the Dutch legalized registered partnerships.
A couple can choose to get married, to register a partnership, or simply live together. In the Netherlands, a new informal two-step route to divorce has appeared: “the flash divorce.” It works like this: a married couple that wants to divorce applies to have their marriage changed to a registered partnership. These partnerships can be dissolved at shorter notice than is required for the dissolution of a formal marriage.
One consequence of all this is the separation of marriage from child-bearing. In the Netherlands, 40% of all first births are out of wedlock. Even the arrival of a second child does not necessarily induce a couple to marry. Of all second and further children born in 2003, 23% were born out of wedlock.
When a Swedish child is born out of wedlock, (as 56% of them are) the couple often lives together initially. Studies from around the world, show that cohabitors break up at two to three times the rate that married couples divorce. So although children born out of wedlock are initially raised by two cohabiting parents, many of these couples later break up. This means that many children spend all or part of childhood without two parents.
You might think that the generous welfare state of these northern European countries would offset some of the disadvantages of unmarried parenthood that are so well documented in the U.S. A Swedish study in 2003 examined the impact of living with a single parent compared with living with two parents. Girls living with a single parent committed suicide at twice the rate, and were three times more likely to die from drug or alcohol addiction as girls living with two parents. So even with a social safety net far more generous than any likely to be enacted in the U.S., the Swedes still face social pathology as a result of single parenting.
Although marriage takes different forms in different times and places, every known society has had some boundaries marking off acceptable from unacceptable sexual and child-rearing conduct. Every society has had some form of sanctions for deviations from its norms. The modern attempt to create a society in which no one family form is privileged over any other is literally unprecedented in human history. It is, by definition, the abolition of marriage.
And when the family falls, the state expands.