Politics & Policy

The Marriage Mentality

A reply to my critics.

Now that I have had a chance to present my case that gay marriage is undermining marriage in Europe to the Constitution Subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee, a chorus of critics has risen to challenge my argument. The hearing featured strenuous efforts by Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) and other Democrats to discredit my claims. Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin (D., Wis.) staged a bit of an ambush–cross-examining me using an (at the time) unpublished article from The New Republic that attacks my work on Scandinavian marriage. As far as I’m concerned, the Democrats failed to shake or rebut my case. But you can judge for yourself by viewing the webcast. (There’s a sound problem toward the end.) You can also consider my testimony, which previews my upcoming work on gay marriage in the Netherlands. That work is important because Holland now has formal gay marriage, and because in the Netherlands it’s particularly easy to isolate the causal effects of gay marriage.

Meantime, Andrew Sullivan has posted entries here and here attempting to rebut my Scandinavia argument. Sullivan draws on the work of Darren Spedale, a lawyer who studied gay marriage in Denmark on a Fulbright scholarship. Nathaniel Frank, who wrote the critique of my work for The New Republic, is an expert on sexual minorities in the military. Here’s my response to the critics.


The critics say I show only correlation–not a causal connection–between Scandinavian registered partnerships and marital decline. Supposedly, I confuse cause and effect. But it’s the folks who say gay marriage could be only an effect of marital decline–without also being a cause–who are confused.

Gay marriage, and other contributors to marital decline, are mutually reinforcing. I’ve never said de facto gay marriage is the only cause–or even the main cause–of marital decline in Scandinavia. But I do say it’s an important contributing cause. While it’s true that contraception, abortion, women in the workforce, secularism, individualism, and the welfare state have weakened the institution of marriage, gay marriage (de facto and formal) has now been added to that list.

If I think registered partnerships destroyed Scandinavian marriage, asks Frank, then how do I explain the rise of cohabitation in the United States? After all, America doesn’t have gay marriage, so how did American marriage decline? This supposedly devastating question completely misses my point. I’ve never said that marriage has been undermined by gay marriage alone. But I do say that marriage in Scandinavia is in much more radical trouble than it is in America. That has plenty to do with gay marriage.

The critics ignore my core claims about how gay marriage undermines marriage. I show that registered partnerships are not understood in a “conservative” light by the public. Instead of treating de facto gay marriage as an affirmation of the importance of marriage, the public sees this change as proof that traditional marriage is no better than any other family form. And this culturally radical interpretation of gay marriage is as prevalent in the Netherlands (where we now have formal gay marriage) as in Scandinavia. Since the public sees gay marriage as powerful proof that all family forms are equal, gay marriage reinforces marital decline.


The critics ignore another key aspect of my causal argument. Gay marriage is part and parcel of a whole new stage of marital decline–a stage still relatively unfamiliar in the United States. In this new stage of marital decline, couples don’t just cohabit before they become parents. Couples cohabit even after they become parents. Because gay marriage helps to break apart the ideas of marriage and parenthood, it is closely associated with this advanced stage of marital decline.

There are three core elements in this new and more radical stage of marital decline: parental cohabitation, the legal equalization of marriage and cohabitation, and gay marriage. My claim is that these three factors are mutually reinforcing. When any of these three factors emerges, the others tend to follow. And they draw out the initial factors still further.

In Sweden, marriage and cohabitation were almost completely equalized, and parental cohabitation was widespread, before gay marriage emerged. So in Sweden, gay marriage was more “effect” than “cause.” Nevertheless, gay marriage has played a key role in Swedish marital decline.

Yet in Norway the effect of gay marriage was greater. Gay marriage arrived in Norway before parental cohabitation had reached Swedish levels, and before cohabitation and marriage were legally equalized. Norwegian radicals were able to use gay marriage to suppress traditionalists and to argue for a still more liberalized cohabitation regime. So in Norway, the causal role of gay marriage was greater. And in the Netherlands, the causal impact of gay marriage on marital decline has been decisive.


Not only do Sullivan, Spedale, and Frank completely ignore this aspect of my causal framework, the three of them take utterly contradictory positions on a supposedly fatal flaw in my case. Writing in The New Republic, Frank says that since Scandinavia has only “registered partnerships,” the Scandinavian case “has literally nothing to do with same-sex marriage.” Trouble is, Sullivan himself, writing in the same magazine in 2001, touted Spedale’s work on “de facto gay marriage” in Denmark as proof that gay marriage is harmless. The first sentence of Spedale’s current reply to me reads, “Since 1989, gay marriage has been a reality in Scandinavia.”

When he thought Scandinavian marriage was in good shape, Sullivan was perfectly happy to treat “registered partnerships” as “de facto gay marriage.” After I showed that Scandinavian marriage was in a state of collapse, Sullivan flipped and denied that registered partnerships had any relevance to the gay marriage debate. Now that he thinks Spedale has rebutted me, Sullivan is back to treating registered partnerships as gay-marriage equivalents.

This whole fuss is based on the erroneous notion that registered partnerships are “marriage lite,” while formal gay marriage would be received by the public as an affirmation of the traditional ethos of marriage. My work on the reception of formal gay marriage in the Netherlands disproves that claim.

The remarkable thing about Darren Spedale’s reply to my work is that, without realizing it, he actually makes my causal case. Overtly, Spedale denies that Scandinavian gay marriage has had any negative impact on “the sanctity of marriage.” If anything, says Spedale, gay marriage has actually strengthened Scandinavian marriage. Trouble is, Spedale’s work is a celebration of the decline of Scandinavian marriage. Spedale doesn’t deny that Scandinavian parents have stopped getting married. His real point is that parental cohabitation is just great.


Spedale’s flat wrong about that. Amazingly, he denies what scholars, journalists, and advocates across the cultural-political spectrum acknowledge: that unmarried parents in Scandinavia break up at two to three times the rate of married parents. Consider this article on parental cohabitation from Norway’s (not at all conservative) newspaper, Aftenposten. The piece quotes a couple of family experts lamenting the higher dissolution rate of families with unmarried parents. Or look at this excellent treatment of Scandinavian marital decline by Carol Williams of the Los Angeles Times. Williams’s piece emphasizes the higher breakup rate of unmarried parents. Her realistic portrait of the Scandinavian system belies Spedale’s cheery denials of trouble. Scholarly affirmations of the higher breakup rate among unmarried Scandinavian parents are legion (see especially David Popenoe and Mai Heide Ottosen).

Spedale says I make Scandinavia’s parental cohabitation look worse than it is by comparing it to American single mothering. Actually, I’m careful to note that most Scandinavian out-of-wedlock births are to cohabiting parents. Like most everyone except Spedale, I stress that such families dissolve at very high rates. Also note that the export of the Scandinavian system to America would have serious consequences. There’s no underclass in Scandinavia. In America, Scandinavian-style cohabitation among the middle classes would encourage more out-of-wedlock births among poor single mothers. It’s already happened as the Scandinavian system of parental cohabitation has spread to Britain, which has a substantial urban underclass.

To my detailed rebuttal of his use of marriage and divorce statistics, Spedale offers no arguments. He simply repeats his claims.


But the truly remarkable thing about Spedale’s “rebuttal” is that it actually makes my causal argument. According to Spedale, Scandinavian gay marriage is a product of “increasing respect for diverse family structures.” Sure. But doesn’t gay marriage then breed further acceptance of “diverse family structures”–like the parental cohabitation of which Spedale is so enamored? Apparently so, since Spedale himself keeps saying that the approval of gay marriage has garnered ever increasing public support for the idea of family change.

Spedale argues that Scandinavian gay marriage has made society take marriage more seriously. Gay couples marry very late, says Spedale. With social pressure for marriage gone, gays only marry when they are absolutely sure they’ve found their life partners. That stance, says Spedale, has probably increased respect for marriage in Scandinavia.

But what Spedale is really describing is reinforcement of the mentality at the root of marital decline. The problem with Scandinavian marriage is that parents aren’t pressured to marry. Instead, parents wait until long after their children are born to decide if they’ve found their permanent life partners (and often break up before then). Despite his denials, Spedale is actually saying that gay marriage both flows from–and contributes to–this ethos of weakened marriage. And that is exactly my causal point.

Actually, I don’t think the example of particular gay couples has much effect. There are way too few gays getting married for that. Sullivan mistakenly takes this to be my point when he talks about how few gays got married in Nordland county, where marriage itself is disappearing. The real point is that the public arguments for gay marriage detach marriage from parenthood. The debate over gay marriage, and the ongoing social symbolism of the change, turn marriage into a pure celebration of the love of two adults, rather than something intrinsically tied to parenthood. Nordland’s churches were convulsed by a battle over the rainbow flag because the meaning of marriage for everyone was at stake. It wasn’t necessary for many gays in Nordland to actually be married for the flag dispute to rivet the attention of the nation–and transform the meaning of marriage.


It’s extraordinary that Sullivan is now touting Spedale. Spedale’s naive praise for parental cohabitation is the antithesis of Sullivan’s “conservative case” for gay marriage. And Sullivan is now approvingly posting readers’ letters that say Norwegian parental cohabitation is fine. Between his flip-flops on the relevance of “registered partnerships” to gay marriage, and his embrace of marriage radicals like Spedale, Sullivan’s argument has dissolved in a welter of contradictions.

We’ll go to Sweden for a final look at how gay marriage is undermining marriage. While advocates like Sullivan argue that marriage isn’t about children, Nathaniel Frank takes the opposite approach. Since some gays have children, says Frank, formal gay marriage would unite–not separate–the ideas of marriage and parenthood.

That misses the point. Ideally, biological parents ought to be married to each other. Since no gay couple can get a child without the intervention of a third party, gay marriage cannot help but undermine the idea that parents ought to marry each other.

You can see the process playing out now in Sweden, which is on the verge of turning its system of registered partnerships into formal gay marriage. The big step on that road came in 2002, when Sweden removed that last real difference between registered partnerships and marriage by allowing gay partners to adopt. Has that move brought the ideas of marriage and parenthood closer together?

Not at all. The National Swedish Social Insurance Board recently convened a panel in which two legal experts recommended changes in Swedish family law. One invoked same-sex parenting to argue for legal recognition of three- and even four-parent families. According to this scholar, the antiquated two-parent standard virtually forces lesbian couples to find anonymous sperm donors, rather than form a more complex family with, say, gay sperm donors to whom they feel close.

The polyamory movement has reached Sweden, and there are now Swedes who would seize on triple or quadruple parenting to usher in legalized polyamory. By the way, this conference invoked the well-known fact (the one Spedale denies) that families with unmarried parents dissolve at higher rates. Yet here the figures on rising family dissolution were used to justify the rejection of traditional dual parenthood. With so many dissolved cohabitors and gay parents, why not do away with the two-parent standard altogether? So as Sweden combines formal gay marriage with adoption rights for same-sex couples, the dawn of quadruple parenting and polyamory looms. So much for Frank’s claim that formal gay marriage will reinforce the link between marriage and parenthood.

Even in Sweden, where gay marriage came along well after cohabitation and marriage were equalized, and well after parental cohabitation was widespread, gay marriage is reinforcing the movement away from the traditional family. As I told the subcommittee, the effect in the Netherlands has been more dramatic still. Let’s not turn America into the next unfortunate experiment.

Stanley Kurtz is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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