While the Supreme Court and Americans debate whether marriage for same-sex couples is OK, two studies on same-sex couples came out recently that caught my eye and should catch yours, too. Many people are worried that marriage between same-sex couples will change marriage and these new studies indicate, yes, it may — for the better for everyone.
The first looks at what cohabitation and marriage mean to gays and lesbians. Denied marriage for so long, same-sex couples tend to view cohabitation through a different lens than heteros. Few cohabiting heteros live together for the long haul — most break up or marry in about five years, with many seeing it as a cost-saving measure (one apartment is cheaper than two) more than a statement of their commitment to each other. For same-sex couples, though, living together “symbolizes and solidifies their commitment to their relationship,” according to the study.
The commitment already exists; living together means something.
But, the more interesting part of the study was the reasons why same-sex couples say they want to marry, and many of them do. The vast majority — 91 percent — cited legal benefits and financial protections. This is a radically different reason than heteros give for tying the knot; they overwhelmingly say love is the reason to wed (93 percent). Coming right after that is lifelong commitment (87 percent), while same-sex couples say they already feel committed, the study indicates. It isn’t until all that romantic stuff is addressed that heteros admit, at reason No. 5, that yeah, there are some financial benefits, too.
Clearly, same-sex couples understand the importance of marriage’s legal benefits and financial protections much more than heteros do. Why?
Maybe some heteros do. But, let’s face it — if a straight person, let’s say a woman, said she was tying the knot for legal or financial reasons, well, wouldn’t most people call her a gold-digger? The truth, however, is that many heteros do marry for legal and financial reasons — we just don’t like talking about it as it seems to detract from the “sanctity” of marriage. Uh-huh.
The other study is on how same-sex couples divvy up the child care. Unlike different-sex couples, it’s more equally shared by about 74 percent of gay couples versus 38 percent of straight couples. They also more equally shared the responsibility of caring for a sick child, 62 percent versus 32 percent for straight couples.
Many hetero women want that kind of an egalitarian union, and may even have it when they’re newlyweds. But once a baby comes long, hetero couples slide back into gendered patterns. Just as important, same-sex couples were more satisfied with how chores and child care were divvied up than were hetero women. Why? Because — and this is so simple as to be mind-blowing — they talked about it.
Yeah, that’s it. They just, you know, talked about it, and continue to talk about it.
How is this somehow escaping the conversations of hetero couples?
Well, in part because women bite their tongue. According to the survey, 20 percent of coupled hetero women said they hadn’t talked about how to divide chores, but wish they had. At the same time, 15 percent of women in same-sex couples had those conversations. According to study author Ken Matos:
“Perhaps because they can’t default to gender, people in same-sex couples are in more of a position to have these conversations. That’s probably the biggest takeaway of the survey: how important it is to talk and say what you want, rather than stay silent, not wanting to start a fight, making assumptions, and then letting things fester.” tweet
Silence, not wanting to start a fight, assumptions, festering issues — are these just women things? No, but society still tends to dump chores and child care into a woman’s domain, and women are particularly good at what Divorce Court judge Lynn Toler calls “The False OK”:
“I think a lot of women tell the very same lie for years on end. They say ‘okay’ when they don’t mean it. They tell their husbands, ‘everything’s fine,’ even when it’s not. ‘Keeping the peace’ is what they call it. They are, they tell me, getting through the day. It is all about the argument they simply do not want to have. … I think there is a whole group of women out there who don’t do well with conflict. “ tweet
Same-sex couples don’t deal with those gendered expectations. As writer Andrew Solomon says of his arrangement with his partner, “If there’s one thing same-sex parents could teach is that it’s not that one of us is ‘really’ the mom and one is ‘really’ the Dad. Those are irrelevant concepts. We’re just both in this together.”
Repeat after me — “We’re just both in this together.”
Will this change once more same-sex couples tie the knot? Maybe, or at least that’s what Deborah A. Widiss, an associate law professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, told me when we spoke a few years ago about her own study, “Changing the Marriage Equation.” Part of the problem is that society “tends to assume that there’s no great skill involved in taking care of a baby or cleaning a house.” Which means anyone who takes on that role, male or female, is screwed. Unless things change. As she says:
“If we as a society really want men and women to share responsibilities equally, then yes, it might make sense to think about reducing the extent to which marriage laws incentivize specialization. It would be equally important to think about how we could change employment laws and workplace norms so that it would be easier for men and women who want to balance work and family responsibilities to do so.” tweet
And, let’s be honest — we women are going to have to speak up. Really. We’re going to have to find a partner who understands what “We’re both in this together” means, and we’re going to have to talk about our expectations around chores and child care, and we’re going to have to be willing to not fall into gendered divisions of labor once a child comes along, and we’re going to have to commit to talking honestly about our expectations. And, if we’re smart, we’ll write it all down in a marital plan. How hard is that?
And, while we’re at it, let’s stop romanticizing marriage and realize what it really is — a contract that affords a couple legal and financial benefits. You can love and be committed to someone without tying the knot. Really.
Interested in creating a specific kind of marriage? Read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). Order the book on Amazon, follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook.