Last year the Census Bureau reported a statistic that deserved wider notice than it received: during the 1990s the number of unmarried-partner households in the United States increased by 72 percent. Cohabitation has actually been on the rise for decades, but it started from a small base. Now the numbers (more than five million cohabiting couples) are beginning to look impressive.
Marriage, meanwhile, is headed in the other direction. The annual number of weddings per 1,000 eligible women fell by more than a third from 1970 to 1996. A lot of factors are at work here—for example, people are marrying later—but it seems clear that one of them is the rise in cohabitation. Couples are simply more willing to live together without tying the knot.
Whether this is a bad thing is a contentious question, but it is almost certainly not a good thing. Cohabitation tends to be both less stable and less happy than marriage, and this appears to be true even after accounting for the possibility that the cohabiting type of person may often be different from the marrying type. Research suggests that marriage itself brings something beneficial to the table. Add the fact that a growing share of cohabiting households—now more than a third of them—contain children, and it is hard to be enthusiastic about the trend.
Whom to blame? In part, homosexual couples like me and my partner. Cohabitation used to be stigmatized. "Living in sin" it has been called in recent memory, even among the educated classes. Today cohabitation is often viewed as a different-but-equal alternative to wedlock. Although the drift toward cohabitation would no doubt have happened anyway, the growing visibility and acceptance of same-sex couples probably speeded the change. As one gay activist told the Los Angeles Times last year, "Just the term 'unmarried partner' gave it a dignity and social category."
So (conservatives say) it's true! Homosexuals undermine marriage! To the contrary. The culprit is not the presence of same-sex couples; it is the absence of same-sex marriage.
The emergence into the open of same-sex relationships is an irreversible fact in this country. Traditionalists may not like it, but they cannot change it, so they will have to decide how to deal with it. The far right's plan—try to push homosexuals back into the closet—is not going to work; the majority of Americans are too openhearted for that. Indeed, the currents of public opinion are running the other way. An annual survey of college freshmen found that last year 58 percent—a record high, and up from 51 percent in 1997—thought that same-sex couples should be able to marry.
Seeing those numbers and others like them, conservatives are desperate to stave off same-sex marriage. For that matter, many moderates remain queasy about legalizing gay marriage; they are sympathetic to homosexuals, but not that sympathetic. Liberation-minded leftists, who spent the 1970s telling us that our parents' marriages were outdated and stuffy, were never crazy about matrimony to begin with. As for gays, the vast majority want the right to marry, but most agree that domestic-partner benefits and other "marriage-lite" arrangements are a lot better than nothing.
The result is the ABM Pact: Anything But Marriage. Enroll same-sex partners in the company health plan, give them some of the legal prerogatives of spousehood, attend their commitment ceremonies, let them register at city hall as partners—just DON'T CALL IT MARRIAGE. In America, and in Europe, too, ABM is rapidly establishing itself as the compromise of choice. Gay partnerships get some social and legal recognition, marriage remains the union of man and woman, and everybody moves on. A shrewd social bargain, no?
No. The last thing supporters of marriage should be doing is setting up an assortment of alternatives, but that is exactly what the ABM Pact does, and not only for gays. Every year more companies and governments (at the state and local level) grant marriagelike benefits to cohabiting partners: "concessions fought for and won mostly by gay groups," as the Los Angeles Times notes, "but enjoyed as well by the much larger population of heterosexual unmarried couples." To which might be added what I think of as the Will & Grace effect: homosexuals are here, we're queer, and nowadays we're kind of cool. ABM, perversely, turns one of the country's more culturally visible minorities into an advertisement for just how cool and successful life outside of wedlock can be.
I doubt that most homosexuals would take their marital vows less seriously than heterosexuals do, as some conservatives insist. Even if I'm wrong, however, surely the exemplary power of failed or unfaithful gay marriages would pale next to the example currently being set by a whole group—an increasingly fashionable group—among whom love and romance and sex and commitment flourish entirely outside of marriage. And can you imagine social conservatives telling any other group to cohabit rather than marry? Can you imagine them saying, "The young men of America's inner cities won't take marriage as seriously as they should, so let's encourage them to shack up with their girlfriends"?
Those who worry about the example gays would set by marrying should be much more worried about the example gays are already setting by not marrying. In getting this backward the advocates of ABM make a mistake that is both ironic and sad. At a time when marriage needs all the support and participation it can get, homosexuals are pleading to move beyond cohabitation. We want the licenses, the vows, the rings, the honeymoons, the anniversaries, the benefits, and, yes, the responsibilities and the routines. And who is telling us to just shack up instead? Self-styled friends of matrimony. Someday conservatives will look back and wonder why they undermined marriage in an effort to keep homosexuals out.