Advocates of same-sex marriage have often mocked those who assert that a legal alteration in the very structure of marriage will most certainly affect the institution itself. Now that the Supreme Court has imposed same-sex marriage on the entire nation, these competing hypotheses will play out for all to see.
Same-sex marriage does not merely add access for those couples that desire it. It also reflects a more significant and comprehensive, if subtle, shift in the wider relationship “ecosystem.” To borrow from the lexicon of environmental scholars, such a change will act back upon the entities from which it sprang. That is what happens when social structures shift.
Just as no-fault divorce altered the institution of marriage—enshrining the rights of parents to disband their unions at will and to prevent the other parent from daily participation in the life of their own children—altering the very heart of the sexual structure of marriage is shaking the marriage ecosystem. These changes have led us to balk at sexual difference and all that it entails, as Pope Francis explained in his recent encyclical on human ecology.
The costs to the ecosystem are not all immediate, of course, but to solidify in law the mentality that marriage is no longer rooted in the physicality of biosexual difference and has nothing essential to do with the fruit of sexual unions is to set in motion a series of further shifts that are not easily halted. Just as environmental changes have ripple effects, the following alterations in marriage are to be expected.
First, children’s needs will become more easily set aside or redefined. It is already difficult to speak sensibly of the idea that a child might need a mother and a father. An altered institution will cater more carefully to its target consumers—adults—and what they wish for rather than what children need—communities that encourage and safeguard their parents’ unions rather than pay them no heed or play neutral in the name of “fairness.”
Following upon the first shift, it is also clear that interest in having children will likely recede further. This will not amount to a wholesale plunge in the birthrate, but the more we perceive marriage as having nothing to do with children, the more a life without them will appear compelling.
Finally, the law will take a more central place in family life. It is ironic, given the call for the state to get out of the bedroom and out of our marriages, but the increasing complexity of families must be arbitrated somehow in the wake of weakened norms and traditions.
This list could continue, but it is unfair and untrue to blame all of this on legal recognition of same-sex marriage. Marriage has been in the throes of deinstitutionalization for some time. Indeed, legal same-sex marriage has become possible because of the declining marriage rate. A weakened institution was easier to alter than a strong one was. Therein lie the seeds for further change.
Of course same-sex marriage will change the institution: That’s how social change works. University of Virginia sociologist James Hunter asserts that culture change such as we are witnessing is a work of legitimation and delegitimation, of naming one thing normal and right and its competition inferior, ridiculous, or just plain wrong. Hunter calls this the power of “legitimate naming,” a move that, when successful, penetrates the structure of our imagination, the frameworks for how people think and converse.
The reality of marriage, however, is robust. After the dust settles—and it may take decades—the longstanding meaning of marriage will re-emerge, because it is not nearly so subject to social construction as many claim it is.