What Straight Divorce Has To Do With Homosexual 'Marriage'

Opinion polls show the vast majority of Americans oppose legalizing same-sex “marriage.”

Yet that same public seems unwilling to go to the mat over the issue. What accounts for this reticence? I believe the issue of divorce is lurking in the background of the debate.

Most Americans consider no-fault divorce a done deal: Feminists have effectively trashed the dreaded 1950s when divorce was considered a scandal. Few public opinion leaders are willing to link divorce to the arguments for heterosexual marriage. But we can't win the fight for heterosexual marriage without confronting the issue of divorce. It's not a losing strategy, far from it. We can only win if we bring the divorce issue out of the closet.

Divorce is in the background of the homosexual “marriage” debate in at least three ways.

First, homosexual “marriage” is the end of the trend that no-fault divorce began. The legal innovation of unilateral divorce began to reduce marriage to nothing but a temporary association of individuals. If marriage is merely a free association of individuals, there is no principled reason to exclude homosexual couples, or even larger groupings of sexual partners. The permanence of marriage was one of the key features that distinguished it from an ordinary contract.

Second, the high divorce rate and the resulting non-permanence of marriage made the institution of marriage more attractive to same-sex couples than it otherwise would be. If marriage still meant one-to-a-customer for life, I seriously doubt that we'd be hearing about same-sex “marriage” today. Homosexual couples evidently have a more relaxed concept of both permanence and fidelity than do heterosexual couples. Homosexual activists would be much less likely to invest time and energy working for the right to marry, if divorce were available only for adultery or cruelty.

Most importantly, the high divorce rate has made it difficult to articulate opposition to homosexual “marriage.”

People who have been divorced may feel hypocritical if they voice opposition to a system they felt they had to use. People who secretly fear they may need a divorce someday are reluctant to bad-mouth the easy availability of divorce. People who are not confident in their own ability to keep their marriage together for a lifetime won't speak out against the culture of divorce. A significant subset of such people will be reluctant to voice their opposition to homosexual “marriage.” People who have lost confidence in marriage as an institution of exclusivity and permanence are simply not going to have the heart for a fight over homosexual “marriage.”

Homosexual activists instinctively know this.

It is surprising how often the topic of “straight” divorce comes up in the discussion of homosexual “marriage.” The arguments go something like this: “No-fault divorce has cut the link between marriage and permanence. Everyone accepts this. Easy divorce has also called into question the idea that marriage is an institution for the good of the kids. A society that accepts unilateral divorce is a society that is willing to sacrifice the welfare of children to the comfort and happiness of adults, at least to some extent. Since straight people are unwilling to give up no-fault divorce, you can't very well claim that heterosexual ‘marriage’ is about permanence and children. So how can you justify excluding homosexuals from marriage?”

This rhetorical move ends the argument. The opponent of homosexual “marriage” is cowed into silence, for fear of being viewed either as a hypocrite or a bigot. But we need not be shamed into silence on this point. It is just that the alternative response requires us to look the divorce issue squarely in the face.

Admit that unilateral divorce has undermined marriage. Agree that straight people have already done a lot of harm to marriage. The divorce rate is too high. Our attitude toward divorce is too casual. Current law often does reward irresponsible behavior, on the part of men and women alike.

We need to work to change all that. We don't have to accept unilateral divorce as a fixed feature of the universe. Divorce — even when people think it is the only way — is painful and difficult for men, women and children. Current divorce law allows people to divorce for any reason or no reason, so lots of marriages dissolve against the wishes of one person. Many divorced people in our country could be described as reluctantly divorced.

When people have gone through a divorce, their response is not, “Hey, that was fun. Let's do that again.” No one aspires to have their children get divorced when they grow up. People would certainly prefer to learn how to avoid divorce. Figuring out how to live more comfortably with the person you married, figuring out how to keep love more actively alive, making a wiser choice of partner in the first place: All these areas need work. Individuals and institutions, laws and customs, all have room for constructive change. And society needs to reform itself in all these ways, regardless of what homosexual people do or don't do, regardless of what the law says or doesn't say, about homosexual “marriage.”

Of course, there is much more to be said about homosexual “marriage,” and about divorce, too, for that matter. But let's not kid ourselves. The current demand for homosexual “marriage” and the sad prevalence of heterosexual divorce are part and parcel of the same trend toward reducing marriage to a loose association of sexual partners. All of us need marriage to be more than that.

Jennifer Roback Morse is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.