The Future of Our Relationships

The U.S. government and the states continue to promote marriage is the best framework for relationships. Civil partnerships could emerge as the common-sense solution to a boatload of problems common to Western nations.
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Recently, we heard the good news that France and Scotland are about to
legalize same-sex marriage. Beyond the obvious lessons about the
importance of this step, there is another significant lesson for the
U.S. from these two countries' experience.

Both nations already recognize civil partnerships that confer all or
most of the benefits of marriage, except the name. These civil
partnerships provide an alternative to couples who want more certainty
respecting the legal ramifications of their unions. But there is a big
difference between their partnership systems. In Scotland, as in most
other countries, the intent of establishing civil partnership was
mainly to impede the legalization of same-sex marriage; civil
partnership was restricted to same-sex couples. Hence, civil
partnership in Scotland is a kind of "separate but equal"
arrangement -- or marriage with a different name. In France, by contrast,
civil partnership is open also to opposite-sex couples and provides a
kind of registered cohabitation -- a flexible arrangement built on a
contract determined by the couple and registered with the state. It
has become extremely popular among heterosexual couples. Recently, for
every three marriages, two civil partnerships were registered; and in
the past ten years more than a million have been put on the books. In
fact, the current prime minister, François Hollande, was once
registered as the partner of Ségolène Royal, another French

With Scotland's recent decision to legalize same-sex marriage, it may
possibly remove the option of civil partnership, as Norway, Vermont,
and Connecticut did. However, Scotland could decide to mimic France,
which offers its citizens a menu of options for the legal recognition
of relationships. No longer are the choices limited to marriage or
informal cohabitation -- all or nothing. Rather, couples can choose to
marry, or, instead, to register their partnerships with the state and
gain the benefit of state and third-party recognition of their union
while avoiding some of the obligations and loaded symbolic baggage
that come with marriage.

Think about it this way: civil union -- or state registration -- could be
the perfect solution for people in a trial cohabitation period, for
the elderly who prefer to avoid a new marriage, and for those who want
to eschew matrimony for whatever reason. What is more, the state could
set up civil partnerships (as Belgium has, for instance) benefiting
other dyadic relationships -- friends, relatives, or caregivers. Under
this system, you could design your legal commitment to suit your
relationship ties while avoiding awkward societal, familial, and legal

The U.S. government and the states continue to promote marriage is the
best framework for relationships. The impact of the religious right on
our political process not only affects same-sex couples, but blinds
policymakers to the 7.6 million unmarried opposite-sex couples in the
United States who live without rights or defined legal and financial
obligations. Policymakers also ignore the growing elder-care crisis,
in which millions of people -- both related and unrelated -- are living
together because they cannot afford to buy in-home care or to move
into assisted living or nursing homes.

Civil partnerships could emerge as the common-sense solution to a
boatload of problems common to Western nations. Such an institution
could address the state's need to regulate certain aspects of people's
relationships in the interest of avoiding and mediating potential
conflict, even while encouraging couples to think about and negotiate
their rights early on in their relationships. Revolutionary? Or are
Americans simply lagging behind?

There are some practical steps we can take to catch up. Civil
partnerships are already open to opposite-sex couples in Illinois,
Hawaii, and Nevada, but will be meaningful only when they are no
longer understood as a way to prevent the legalization of same-sex
marriage. They should be valued in their own right as something
different from and more flexible than marriage, open to everyone. If a
diverse range of couples starts to take advantage of these progressive
state laws, we should begin to see the cultural shift that has
happened in Europe. Legislators and couples in states that do not yet
have civil unions should push for genuinely useful alternatives to

I anticipate that, in a decade, the tide will have turned. A new
generation will see that marriage (or no marriage) for same-sex
couples is not really the salient issue: the issue is the ability to
establish for ourselves, no matter our sexual orientation,
partnerships that are legally respected and financially and
emotionally secure. Then we can rest assured that the people in whom
we've entrusted our lives will be "allowed into the room" and, even
more important, will be recognized during their life and after our
death for their labor, their loyalty, and -- very often -- their love.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author and should not be attributed to the Center for Reproductive Rights.

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