What’s Up With Marriage?

Since I touched on marriage yesterday and it is something I actually know something about, thought I would take a moment to say a few things.

Let’s just say that if marriage was a brand, same sex marriage would be a shoo-in.  That is because marriage’s market share has been falling for quite sometime now.  The average age of first marriage has increased from the early 20s in the 1960s to almost 30 today.   One thing to notice is that this trend has not been in one direction, it moves around, so it may be that this upward trend is temporary, but time will tell that.

Because of this trend, the percentage of the population that is married has declined in the United States.  The percentage of people who are married is at the lowest level in the United States since such statistics have been kept.   So marriage needs to buck up its market share!  Actually some in the marriage business, such as Las Vegas marriage chapels have welcomed same sex marriage as doing just that, giving a badly needed boost to a lagging business.

Now, before you jump to any conclusions, one reason for the low rate of marriage is not divorce.   Yes, the divorce rate surged during the 60s and 70s when the divorce laws were liberalized across the United States, perhaps (to continue with the marketing analogy) as a result of pent up demand.  However, since about 1980, the divorce rate has actually been falling (not that you would get that impression from preachers around the country).

Another thing that has been falling is the teen pregnancy and abortion rates.   Which is yet another thing you would not know to hear the preachers tell it.  But of course using actual evidence is something that never occurs to most preachers.

It turns out that in some sense the youngsters of the country are not “abusing” marriage.  Yes, they are getting married later in life (and I suppose they might be shacking up more before they marry) but they are also getting divorced less and having fewer unintended pregnancies.  Again, not exactly what you are hearing from the pulpits.

So, if there is a problem with marriage, where might it be?  Oh yeah, that’s right, among the elderly — our parents and grandparents.  Turns out that while the overall divorce rate is dropping, the divorce rate among those over 50 has doubled since 1990 and more than doubled for those over 65.   Not only has the divorce rate increased in the older generation, the cohabitation (i.e. living in sin) rate has also increased.  One reason for the rising cohabitation rate among the elderly is that two individual Social Security payments are generally higher than a “combined through marriage” payment.  And since the government (rightly) doesn’t ask what goes on in the bedroom, a lot of old folks are becoming POSSLQs (pronounced “possle-Q” and it stands for Persons of Opposite Sex Sharing Living Quarters.) so they get bigger Social Security checks.  Wait…WHAT???  People from the golden age of our country are acting less moral than young people?? Yep, seems that way!

Well, actually, I don’t see it as immoral at all.  Marriage is really about two things, relationship and a bunch of legal rights.  And let’s face it, neither the church nor the state can really determine the relationship part.  People fall in love with who they want.  It is somewhat irrational at times.  People also fall out of love.  Some people want a separate bed kind of marriage and others want to break the bed.  Viva la difference!  There is no way we can regulate, through the church or state, who people are going to have sex with and who they are going to live with.  We’ve tried and it never works.

Once people are in a relationship, we are finding they also want different amounts of those legal rights that are doled out wholesale in our current legal marriage arrangement.  This is what gay people really want, those legal rights.  They can already live together, they can already have or adopt children and so on.  They want to be able to share their health insurance and their pension.  The morality or immorality of what they do in the bedroom doesn’t enter into it — just like for straight couples.

On the other hand older people DON’T want many of the legal rights of marriage.  They don’t want to combine their Social Security, their pensions or their children’s inheritance with their later in life partner.  It is a rational decision based on where they are in life.  As it is for gay people who WANT the rights of marriage.

My suggestion is this: the state should get out of the “marriage” business altogether.  The preachers are attached to that word and I say, let them have it.  Instead of marriage, the state should offer some form of “family incorporation.”  I have never understood why six guys in pin stripe suits can become one legal person by incorporating, but two guys in jeans who want to live together can’t.

I think family incorporation would like a cafeteria plan. We figure out all the legal rights that marriage currently conveys on people and put them on a list.  When you decide you want to share your life with someone, you go down to the courthouse and “incorporate.”  You go down the list and decide which of those rights (and responsibilities) and protections you want as a couple and check them off.  Maybe you want to be financially independent, but able to visit each other in hospital.  Why not?  You then get some sort of certificate or data card that contains the information of what things you chose.  Take your card down to the bank to open a joint bank account, or buy a house together.  Or to keep your new “spouse” out of your retirement plan.  We already do a similar thing in divorce proceedings so there is no real reason we can’t apply it to the beginning of relationships.  It might even make divorces less (legally) painful.

When you want to unincorporate (not necessarily divorce, maybe your relationship is perfectly intact but you just don’t want have the same financial relationship.)  Go down to the courthouse, redo your incorporation papers, the card gets updated and off you go.

Is it perfect?  No, of course not, it is just an idea.  But with this people could get from the state what they want out of “marriage.”  The churches on the other hand also get what they want out of marriage.  If they don’t want to let gay people marry in their church.  Fine, I don’t care.  Those people can get the rights they want from the state.  Same thing if churches want to deny marriage to people who were previously divorced, got pregnant out of wedlock,  are non-virgins, don’t believe in unicorns or whatever medieval ideas they want to follow within their church.  Religious freedom says they can do whatever they want within the confines of their church, and I am all for that.

The fact of the matter is that people are going to continue to do what they think is best for their families, regardless of preachers in the pulpit say.  The elderly aren’t listening to the priesthood so much when it comes to divorce and cohabitation and the young don’t listen to them so much when it comes to birth control.  If those people want to be hypocrites and do one thing while their church says something else, that is their problem.  Personally, I think they should leave the church fully behind, but hey, it’s their choice.

I hope that in the near future the rest of us will be able to design an individual “Family Bill of Rights” that fully states the agreement between parties (and I don’t really care who those parties are, it is no skin off my back as to who you want to share either your bank account and/or bed with) and the state.  The funny thing to me is, this “Family Bill of Rights” seems like something conservatives would want, you get exactly the amount of rights that you want from the state, no more, no less.  But their ideological blinkers will never allow them to see that and they will be running around with bumper stickers showing two restroom symbols holding hands for quite some time to come.

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