Traditional marriage (that is, a union between a man and a woman till death do they part) seems to be the subject of a tug of war recently. Same-sex couples around the world are demanding the right to marry. Heterosexual couples, who 10 or 20 years ago would have "had" to marry, are choosing to tie the knot later in life or not at all.
There seems to be a nuptial tectonic plate shift occurring. The only conclusion I can make of this trend is that the way society has viewed marriage for decades is no longer the definitive paradigm. After experiencing all the messy divorces first- or second-hand, the coming-of-age generations (Gen Xers and Yers) have decided to take matters into their own hands and break out of the "one-size-fits-all" mold that we know as traditional marriage.
According to American Demographics Magazine and the 2009 Census, we are now seeing that single heads of household and single women adopting children are among the fastest growing demographics in our country.
Greater numbers of couples are having children out of wedlock, living together, separating and never divorcing, marrying later, choosing same-sex marriages and open marriages. Many more people are marrying more than once. The societal "shoulds" seem to be losing their grip on us.
A 2010 Pew Study revealed that nearly one in four people under the age of 30 believe that marriage is headed for extinction. This same study showed that 80 percent of those surveyed believed there to be wider parameters around what defines a family than the husband, wife and 2.5 kids -- it can be single fathers or mothers with children, unmarried couples with children and married couples without children; it includes gay and straight couples as well.
While I don't think traditional marriage will (or should) go away completely, I do believe we need to take a serious look at adding other options that fit more with the lifestyles we have evolved into.
In 2002, Pamela Paul wrote a groundbreaking book that presented the novel idea of having what she called, a "starter marriage." This legal union would be a first marriage for couples in their 20s or early 30s who know they would not have children and who did not necessarily expect the nuptials to last a lifetime. Much like a learner's permit for driving, a starter marriage would be a way for young people to "play house" without risking their entire lives.
The book did not make much of an impact in our social norms. Nearly a decade later, most people have never heard of a starter marriage. More mainstream terms include domestic partnership, common law marriage and civil unions.
Many states in the U.S. have implemented some type of civil union to accommodate same-sex couples, but the federal government does not recognize these as legitimate marriages. Additionally, under the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, other states are not required to recognize the informal unions.
Vermont was the first to enact a law recognizing civil unions in 2000. Then Massachusetts and Connecticut. New Jersey followed suit a few years later, then New Hampshire in 2007 and Illinois in 2010.
California, Washington, Oregon, Maine and Washington, D.C. provide straight and gay couples with domestic partnership rights. This all appears to be movement in the right direction.
But let's take a look at what occurred in France when they decided to add a less formal option of marriage. In 1999, marital laws were amended to include a legal civil union (called PACS -- pacte civil de solidarité) as an alternative to traditional marriage. Like the others that states in the U.S. named earlier, PACS was created to accommodate gays who were fighting for equal marriage rights throughout the country.
Just over a decade later, France has surprising statistics: For every three marriages among straight couples, there are two civil unions. More and more French couples are opting for this less restrictive option -- this includes those who are not sure they are ready for a lifelong commitment, those who have already been married and don't want to go down that road again and there are those who are younger and don't believe in the ideology of traditional marriage (many of these young people have parents who are divorced).
Unlike conventional marriage with long, drawn out divorce proceedings, all it takes to end a civil union is a registered letter.
In 2010, a couple in Austria made headlines by demanding the right to a civil union that had previously been available only to same-sex couples. Helga Ratzenboeck and Martin Seydl stated that they didn't want a traditional marriage and insisted that the law allowing gays to have a "registered partnership" should apply to them as well and be blind to gender and sexuality.
Believe it or not, this option is actually similar to the way couples married and divorced in Greco-Roman times. The Greeks and Romans had several levels of marriage ranging from the very informal (a couple who cohabited for a year and a day was considered married) to the very formal (requiring witnesses and a vow-exchanging ceremony).
If we added a less formal civil union as a viable alternative to anyone wanting to be legally recognized as family, I believe it would actually strengthen the institution of marriage and that it would reduce the numbers of divorces in this country.
With traditional marriage as the only existing legal option for couples to enjoy financial benefits such as tax breaks and insurance coverage, people who are not be motivated by the lifelong commitment may opt to marry knowing they can divorce if or when the marriage stops being viable.
While I realize there is no quick fix or any alternative solution that wouldn't then cause a new set of problems, I think it's worth exploring the possibilities.