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Shaping the future of marriage

As the debate over gay marriage heats up, religious thinkers, family advocates, and legal experts are calling for a deeper reexamination of marriage itself. The question is whether the institution represents a contract between two people - or something larger.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 2, 2003

To many, the ground under the ages-old institution of marriage seems to be shifting perilously.

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Two state courts in America are pondering whether it's unconstitutional to deprive gays and lesbians of the right to marry; courts in Canadian provinces have already approved marriage rights for same-sex couples.

Some prominent US legal scholars are proposing even more radical change - a "delegalization" of marriage altogether.

In response, political and religious conservatives are pressing for a constitutional amendment to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage, heralding a new battle in the culture wars.

But step back from the headlines and a deeper question emerges. What should marriage mean in the 21st century: Is it merely a contract between two people - a view that has gradually gained the upper hand in American culture - or does it hold deeper social and spiritual import?

As explosive as it is, the gay rights issue could force a deeper consideration not only of who should be permitted to marry, but of what marriage means and what it demands.

"People are so hot and bothered about this issue," says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values. "Perhaps this will help us as a society to ask what marriage is and why we value it in the first place."

One of the more radical proposals - delegalizing marriage - comes from experts involved in domestic- partnership law. In their view, marriage no longer performs the same function as in the past. Under their scenario, people could still have religious marriages, and if they wanted legal protections and benefits, they would write a contract. But government would extend legal protections to anyone who might be caregivers - for children, older parents, or the disabled.

The American Law Institute, for example, has proposed that people who live together for a certain time be treated, if they break up, the same as if they were married, even without their consent.

The gay community is itself divided on marriage and its meaning. Some homosexuals are seeking lifelong, monogamous relationships and others a more "open marriage." Some have no interest in it all. But groups are committed to pursuing it on the basis of equal rights: Couples should get the same government and business benefits no matter how they're constituted. Freedom to Marry ( aims to achieve civil marriage in at least one state within the next five years.

These strands of thinking represent large moves in a cultural shift that is already well under way. Changes in US law and culture have transformed it from an institution with multiple meanings to a personal relationship between two individuals. The idea that marriage exists for the purpose of procreation and for protecting offspring has lost traction in the culture. Short-term consumer values of the marketplace have invaded intimate relationships.

"The big shift in our lifetime has been the shift toward the very individualized, privatized conception of what marriage is," Mr. Blankenhorn says.

"The key question," adds Bill Doherty, a family therapist at the University of Minnesota, "is whether it is simply a contract between two people for mutual benefit as long as they choose to keep it, or whether we want to hold onto the notion that it's a covenant made with the promise and expectation of permanence."

Many sociologists, therapists, and policymakers have come to agree in recent years on the latter view. They argue marriage retains profound import - and in particular provides important benefits when children are cared for by married parents. This view, advocated by liberals and conservatives, religious and nonreligious thinkers alike, has coalesced into the marriage movement.

Two heartening signs cheer marriage advocates: Some of the dire trends on divorce and single parenthood have recently stabilized; and young Americans express a strong desire for marriage in an enduring form.

"We've done surveys that demonstrate how deeply young people - the vast majority - yearn for marriage and want it to last a lifetime," says Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, codirector of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. "They lament the absence of good information and role models, and the question always is, 'How do you do this?' "

Promoting values that counter the media

With the cultural environment weighing heavily against enduring marriage - from media promotion of sex without commitment, to hyper-individualism, to easy no-fault divorce - promoting countervalues is crucial, some say.

Commitment, perseverance, mutual regard and selflessness, and putting a premium on communication are some of the values seen as key to restoring a healthier marriage.

Unfortunately, "we're in an age of consumer marriage - this comes out not in people's stated values, but when their marriage is troubled," says Dr. Doherty. "Then they start asking, 'Is this meeting my needs? Am I getting what I deserve?' " In his book "Take Back Your Marriage," the therapist details how to identify and resist consumer values in family relationships.