Last New Year’s Eve I sat in Seattle’s Arctic Club Room, light-headed with emotion and the perfume of white roses. My niece and her beau were pledging their lives to each other.
I decided now probably wasn’t the time to tell them that marriage is dying.
Two nephews will also marry this summer—and as I rejoice with all of them, I also know they’re bucking one of the profound cultural drifts of our time. In 1960, 65 percent of 18- to 32-year-olds were married. In 1997 it was 36 percent. By 2013, when those notorious game changers the millennials aged in, the ratio had plunged to 26 percent.
There are all kinds of reasonable explanations for the millennials’ rejection of marriage—the recession, their boomer parents’ unprecedented divorce rates—but culturally, it strikes me as odd. Weren’t we just fighting for marriage? Defining it as something worth wanting? Wasn’t it just two summers ago I stood on a Lake Union dock as a boat sailed in carrying two beaming women in white—and broadcasting the Here Come the Brides theme song?
It was the moment the joy of marriage equality landed fully in my heart, and my heart responded by bursting. Drs. John and Julie Gottman had their moment last summer, at San Francisco’s Pride Parade, where they happened to be when the Supreme Court made marriage equality the law of the land, and corks rained across the city. As the clinical psychologists whose research on marriage led to Seattle’s Gottman Institute, the couple knew better than most why the decision should be celebrated. Marriage confers tangible benefits not even long-term, loving cohabitation can offer—better physical health, greater longevity, higher functioning children, and more. “The research shows that it’s the act of commitment that gives people all the benefits that marriage gives,” John Gottman explains. “You have to have that statement of forever.”
So marriage, a declining institution, is good for us. In light of that, it’s worth asking if this is where gay marriage might deliver its greatest benefit: making marriage strong again.
Surely the gay marriage campaign—in spinning marriage as an end worth fighting for—was good for the brand. Arguably better still is the model of functional partnership gay marriage presents. Before marriage equality was even a glimmer in the SCOTUS’s eye, the Gottmans were researching the ways gay and straight couples got along—and they found the same-sex couples perceptibly gentler with one another in conflict. “The gay couples were less defensive, used more humor, and were more direct in the way they talked about sexual issues,” says John Gottman.
He recalls one gay man who asked his partner, “I wonder, who do you think initiated sex this morning?” The partner said, “You don’t have the kind of body I’m attracted to.” “I know,” said the first guy. “But who do you think initiated sex?”
“Can you imagine if a man had said to his female partner, ‘You don’t have the kind of body I prefer on a woman’?” asks John Gottman. In a culture where women are socialized to please with their looks, explains Julie Gottman, those are fighting words. John Gottman likewise recalls a lesbian couple where a discussion about jealousy stopped short of the defensiveness one typically sees among heterosexual couples.
“Generally speaking,” says Julie Gottman—emphasizing the broad assumptions inherent in any gender pronouncement—same-sex relationships aren’t the emotional minefield heterosexual ones can be, since they lack that element of “other.” Women interacting with women can safely bet they’ll have an emotionally responsive partner. Men interacting with men don’t typically feel criticized into a fight-or-flight response.
The Gottmans hold that as more gay couples interact socially with straight ones—an inevitable outcome of their newly legitimized partnerships—their more enlightened communication habits will rub off. “I think there’s more sharing of information, and openness, among millennials now,” says John Gottman. “Along with a greater concern to not just have a successful career, but successful relationships.”
“Gay couples…have had to be more careful,” John Gottman muses, theorizing that fewer fish in their sea increases motivation to keep working at what they’ve got. “But also, as outcasts in a way, they’ve become careful about power and equality. They think about making sure there’s not a domineering quality to their interactions. So they’re better listeners, more willing to be honest, more willing to act accordingly.”
Better listening, more honesty, walking the talk? From a group that actually wants marriage? That’s advice an aunt might even want to cross-stitch onto a wedding gift.