Wednesday, June 11, 2008

What Straights Can Learn from Gay Marriage

Yesterday my friends Charlie and Maria drew my attention to an interesting New York Times article that reports on how social scientists are looking to same-gender unions for insights into healthy marriages.

Charlie said he found the article “interesting and uplifting.” Perhaps readers of The Wild Reed will as well.


Excerpts from
Gay Unions Shed Light on Gender in Marriage
By Tara Parker-Pope
New York Times
June 10, 2008
For insights into healthy marriages,
social scientists are looking in an unexpected place.

A growing body of evidence shows that same-sex couples have a great deal to teach everyone else about marriage and relationships. Most studies show surprisingly few differences between committed gay couples and committed straight couples, but the differences that do emerge have shed light on the kinds of conflicts that can endanger heterosexual relationships.

The findings offer hope that some of the most vexing problems are not necessarily entrenched in deep-rooted biological differences between men and women. And that, in turn, offers hope that the problems can be solved.

Next week, California will begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, reigniting the national debate over gay marriage. But relationship researchers say it also presents an opportunity to study the effects of marriage on the quality of all relationships.

“When I look at what’s happening in California, I think there’s a lot to be learned to explore how human beings relate to one another,” said Sondra E. Solomon, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Vermont. “How people care for each other, how they share responsibility, power and authority — those are the key issues in relationships.”

The stereotype for same-sex relationships is that they do not last. But that may be due, in large part, to the lack of legal and social recognition given to same-sex couples. Studies of dissolution rates vary widely.

After Vermont legalized same-sex civil unions in 2000, researchers surveyed nearly 1,000 couples, including same-sex couples and their heterosexual married siblings. The focus was on how the relationships were affected by common causes of marital strife like housework, sex and money.

Notably, same-sex relationships, whether between men or women, were far more egalitarian than heterosexual ones. In heterosexual couples, women did far more of the housework; men were more likely to have the financial responsibility; and men were more likely to initiate sex, while women were more likely to refuse it or to start a conversation about problems in the relationship. With same-sex couples, of course, none of these dichotomies were possible, and the partners tended to share the burdens far more equally.

While the gay and lesbian couples had about the same rate of conflict as the heterosexual ones, they appeared to have more relationship satisfaction, suggesting that the inequality of opposite-sex relationships can take a toll.

“Heterosexual married women live with a lot of anger about having to do the tasks not only in the house but in the relationship,” said Esther D. Rothblum, a professor of women’s studies at San Diego State University. “That’s very different than what same-sex couples and heterosexual men live with.”

Other studies show that what couples argue about is far less important than how they argue. The egalitarian nature of same-sex relationships appears to spill over into how those couples resolve conflict.

One well-known study used mathematical modeling to decipher the interactions between committed gay couples. The results, published in two 2003 articles in The Journal of Homosexuality, showed that when same-sex couples argued, they tended to fight more fairly than heterosexual couples, making fewer verbal attacks and more of an effort to defuse the confrontation. . . . Controlling and hostile emotional tactics, like belligerence and domineering, were less common among gay couples.

To read “Gay Unions Shed Light on Gender in Marriage” in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Good News from the Golden State
The Changing Face of “Traditional Marriage”
The Real Gay Agenda
Naming and Confronting Bigotry
Love is Love
On Civil Unions and Christian Tradition
Separate is Not Equal
Mainstream Voice of “Dear Abby” Supports Gay Marriage
New Studies: Gay Couples as Committed as Straight Couples
Grandma Knows Best
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
Just Love
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
Good News from Minnesota


kevin57 said...

I strongly suspect that the observations of dynamics in hetero- and homo-sexual unions are validly described (always allowing for lots of exceptions in the midst of the generalizations). The stress of inequality in roles and expectations in straight marriages made me think of a comment made by (Bishop) Eugene Robinson who noted that what most threatens staight men about gay persons--let alone recognized, formalized institutions supporting gay relationships--is that they strike at the foundation of the patriarchical society.

Anonymous said...

The best I can say about social science research is that it can be accurately descriptive of human behavior, but only (as in all the sciences) tentatively so. All research is subject to repetition, verification, correction and revision.

A real problem with attempting to inform theology with the social sciences is, in addition to the tentative nature of descriptive research, the social sciences lack a unifying theoretical base. Lacking this base there is no way to make predictions, or to prescribe or proscribe behavior.

The lower bound of the descriptive, predictive, prescriptive and proscriptive is mere rhetoric. The upper bound are things we know to be true - the virtues - but are not provably true in a strictly scientific sense. I am skeptical of attempts to apply social scientific research to theology, and to do anything like 'theological anthropology' in a way that cloaks theology with whatever science accrues to the word 'anthropology.'

If anything, I look to the zoological foundations of primate behavior for scientific insights into human behavior - Kinsey, for example. Reading Kinsey leads me to believe sexual orientation is far more complex than anyone currently understands. People throw around lables like gay, straight, bisexual and transgender as if they were settled science, and the only four orientations that humans are capable of. That is not necessarily so.

A sexual minority much in the news lately, yet ignored by progressives, are the FLDS folks in Texas. They practice polygamy. Where to they fit in current thinking about sexual orientation, gender preference and family structure? They, too, could use the phrase "Not special rights but civil rights." To the extent they can demonstrate no harm and informed consent, why shouldn't they have a civil right to, and civil protection for, marriage as they define it? Conversely, if not, why not?

Michael J. Bayly said...


Your comment starts out well enough, but then gets hopeless muddy!

Nothing about a polygamist's sexual orientation or gender makes him or her a minority. For instance, take the men who are part of the polygamist sect to which you referred: their sexual orientation is straight; their gender is clearly male. In other words they fit into well-established (and dominant) categories. It's their beliefs and actions in relation to marriage, not their orientation or gender, that make them a minority in our current society.

Of course, in this same society, polygamists of whatever orientation or gender are free to push for approval of their understanding of marriage. Yet somehow I can't see it flying. I don't expect to see polygamist pride parades anytime soon.

Why? Because the vast majority of people - gay and straight - recognize that such an arrangement is not conducive to human flourishing - individually or communally - despite the fact, I might add, that in many books of the Bible it's recorded without condemnation.



Anonymous said...

Not to be deliberatively argumentative, just to carry a thought experiment out a very little farther:

"In other words they fit into well- established (and dominant) categories."

That may be how some other people see the FLDS. That may not be how the FDLS members see themselves. Devolving to a discussion of power, for discussion's sake, isn't this a case of a "majority" applying its boots to the backside of a "minority?"

Quoting MJB again: "Because the vast majority of people - gay and straight - recognize that such an arrangement is not conducive to human flourishing - individually or communally...." Okay, how is this recogized? Common sense? Social scientific (or other scientific) research? Something we assert to be true but can't prove?

This is an important question. Part of the slippery slope argument used against same-sex marriage is goes something like this:

* Marriage is defined as a life-long, mutually-faithful, monagamous union of one man and one woman that is both unitive and procreative.

Vice -

* A revised definition of marriage may be:

- a union of two consenting adults.

- It may or may not be life-long. It may or may not be monagamous. It may or may not be unitive. It may or may not be procreative. It is up to the two consenting adults in that relationship to address those issues, or not, as they wish. It is up to those adults alone to define their relationship.

- In a civil context, those two adults accept the civil, secular, and legal obligations, responsibilities and rights that go along with the word "marriage" as legally-defined in their particular residential jurisdiction.

If that is the way we're headed, then by what reason or right do we say "a union of two consenting adults?" Why not say "a union of consenting adults?"

Odd that CBS has just launched a new series called "Swingtown, isn't it. And "Big Love" was on HBO just a couple years ago, but I digress.

Reiterating, there are attempts to do theology based on insight from the social sciences. It is asserted that there is nothing in the social sciences that demonstrates harm in a same-sex marriage. Indeed, it is asserted there may be some benefit to the partners in a same-sex marriage that is lacking on opposite-sex marriage. A revised theology of marriage would have to take the relevant social science data into account.

Now apply this reasoning to polygamous, polyandrous or polyamorous (sic) relationships. Are we suggesting that, based on social science evidence, that such relationships are in some way harmful? If that is the case, does that inform our theologizing?

Summarizing, up until the mid-60s, marriage could be envisioned like this:

- opposite-sex marriage

Not approved:
- every other form of marriage however defined.

But now we're saying this:

- opposite-sex marriage
- same-sex marriage

Not approved:
- every other form of marriage however defined.

Why? If we're looking for the underlying principles that define right relationship, why not say this:

- no-harm, full-consent, two-adult marriage

Not approved:
- every other form of marriage however defined.

Is there social science evidence that supports this? Is that the social science evidence that should inform our theology?

Anonymous said...

One of the great things about NOT being "married," is that no "roles" are pre-assigned, no duties and obligations coerced, no love taken for granted.

While I worked to obtain inclusive marriage, I continue to oppose it for all but a select group of individuals, especially those in a relationship over 25 years, and/or raising children.

California is a "community property" state, and if people don't understand the meaning of the term, they'd better find out before tying any knots. Moreover, only state benefits will apply to same-sex couples, none of the federal benefits (about 1,200). Because of DOMA, only a few states will recognize the same-sex marriage in their own state (thanks to the Clintons and Republicans and Democrats).

This great milestone could become a yoke of intolerable consequences, especially given the state/federal division, so individuals should not leap without searching for the substance.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article.

Very interesting.

Of course we can't touch theology with social might debunk theology (which is just man's attempt to understand God, vs. man attempting to understand human behavior. What could one possibly have to do with the other? Both are studies in internal relativism, but I digress).

Michael J. Bayly said...


Of course we should be open to allowing the findings of the social sciences inform our theology. Theology, after all, should follow life (not vice versa).

It should be noted, however, that the “marriage” this New York Times piece is discussing is civil marriage. So the whole theology piece is something you’ve imported into this discussion.

This is important to note because, for some, this inclusion of theology muddies the water on the topic of this particular article. If nothing else, this needs to be acknowledged.

So when you ask: Is there social science evidence that supports [the redefinition of marriage]?”, you’re referring to civil marriage as being discussed in the article. But when you follow that question with: “Is that the social science evidence that should inform our theology?”, you’ve crossed over into the realm of sacramental marriage.

Yet in reality, no one is forcing religious traditions to redefine sacramental marriage. The separation of church and state allows churches to decide for themselves who gets married and who doesn’t.

Having said all of that, I do think our religious institutions should be open to the lived experiences of humanity informing their theology – including their theology on marriage. Our beliefs should be open to being shaped by our experiences. We shouldn’t blindly expect our experiences to always conform to beliefs established by past generations – limited as they were in their knowledge of various aspects of the behavioral sciences.

I think it’s also important to remember that marriage has always been in a state of evolution (see the previous Wild Reed post, The Changing Face of “Traditional Marriage”). If often takes time to figure out what works and what doesn’t. If same-sex marriage is bad for society or individuals, then it will, in time, be corrected. Yet I personally don’t think it is harmful, and the social sciences (reflective of lived experiences) seem to be proving that. As far as I know, this isn’t the case with polygamy, which has always come across to me (and others) as sexist and exploitive. I think as a society we should work to eradicate such things. Is this a case of, as you put it, "a 'majority' applying its boots to the backside of a 'minority'?" Well, that could be one way of looking at it, I suppose. But it's rather negative, don't you think?

But then that's why we have the court system that we do - to protect the rights of minorities. But is free license to exploit a right?

As for your inquiring about what should and shouldn’t inform our theology regarding sexuality and marriage, I suggest you look into Margaret Farley’s book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics. I've posted excerpts from a review of this book here.



Anonymous said...

Hi, Michael. I am happy to prescind from a discussion of theology and focus on civil marriage, as informed by the social sciences. That may make a complex subject a little easier to discuss.

Anonymous said...

OBTW (Oh, by the way), lest we think this is too academic a topic, or something related only to a fringe sect in the Western U.S., how many Muslims are there, say, in the Twin Cities (or anywhere in the 'States for that matter)? NPR just had an extended piece last week on the presence of orthodox, pious Muslims in Philly quietly practicing plural marriage, though state laws against bigamy make such a practice illegal.

crystal said...

Polygamy strikes me as very inequal in practice and not conducive to human flourishing, especially for women.

Anonymous said...

Crystal, FWiW, I agree with you. But not everyone, female or male, in every context, sees polygamy that way. In fact, favoring a more open and inclusive definition of marriage and family on hand (SSM and families-of-choice), and disfavoring someone else's definition on another hand (polygamy, whether by an American sect or imported with some forms of Islam) might be seen as disingenuous, if not culturally imperialistic. In a way progressives find themselves acting as conservatives of a sort.

CDE said...

I can understand the desire to keep the discussion in this thread to civil marriage / sociology / etc.

But it begs the question: is marriage merely (or even primarily) a sociological reality? The assumption seems to be that it is autonomous from any sort of divine/creative purpose... or that its deepest meaning can be deduced merely on a horizontal plane.

I think that is a highly questionable methodology for someone who professes faith in a Creator.

crystal said...


I see your point - I don't wish to be imperialistic but on the other hand, while wanting to respect other opinions, I guess that I do rate things and think some are better than others. From what I've read, polygamy, at least the way it is practiced in the west, is not in the best interests, usually, of women or children .... The Impact of Modern-Day Polygamy on Women & Children and Polygamy in Canada: Legal and Social Implications for Women and Children – A Collection of Policy Research Reports - link.

I guess I believe an emotionally intimate romantic relationship really only works between two people. Same-sex marriages seem fine to me, it's marriages where one person marries a group of others who most likely cannot be his equals and where reciprocity is probably doomed, that I don't like much.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Clayton said: “It is a highly questionable methodology for someone who professes faith in a Creator.”

Ah, but as a gay man, my faith (i.e., my relationship with and) in the Creator is so much bigger, broader, and richer than what the current leadership of the Roman Catholic Church is capable of acknowledging – let alone celebrating. But I am a patient man – and a teacher, remember, by training.

The gay experience (indeed, I’d argue the human sexual experience) cannot be contained in the narrow and impoverished theology offered by the Church. Sometimes I think it’s like putting the ocean into a goldfish bowl! It’s sad but true. Of course, there are some aspects of this theology that speak to reality, but it seems to have stopped listening to the voice of the Spirit at some point about 500 years ago. Accordingly, so much of it is meaningless, archaic, and insensitive to the real experiences and concerns of real people. But I remain ever hopeful. The Church can and has changed to accommodate new insights and long discredited and maligned experiences and ideas. This recent post documents such changes.

Civil marriage should be considered on that “horizontal plane” you speak of, Clayton. I think it should be kept separate from our understanding of sacramental marriage. If we were to impose religious meaning onto civil marriage, then who would decide which religious meaning is best? Of course, for those of us who are, for instance, Roman Catholic and who recognize a “divine/creative purpose” for marriage, we have the possibility of being married in the Church – unless you’re gay, of course, and, being true to who you are, desire to marry a person of the same gender. Then you go to the Old Catholic Church or maybe the United Church of Christ!



CDE said...

Civil marriage should be considered on that “horizontal plane” you speak of, Clayton. I think it should be kept separate from our understanding of sacramental marriage.

I agree about keeping it distinct from the discussion of sacramental marriage.

What I question is keeping it distinct from the question of what it truly human. The complementarity of the sexes is a fundamental human experience, I believe. That's not a credal statement, per se. But it is informed by a religious sensibility... one that the monotheistic religions of the world share.

I think we have to decide what to do about the different views of what marriage means civilly... and we're not going to do that without sharing a common anthropology. Excluding theology from the considerations does not do away with the problem of contradictory viewpoints about essential matters.... Relativism is still relativism.

Anonymous said...

Re/Islam and polygamy in the U.S., have a look/listen to this story on NPR:

Ramon Flesvig said...

If and when same-sex marriage is federally legalized, same-sex couples could sue churches for not allowing them to be married in church, just as African-Americans sued golf courses and Country Clubs for banning people of color.

Michael J. Bayly said...

You mean the same way a straight couple where one or both partners are divorced can get to sue the Roman Catholic Church for not marrying them? They can't, of course. Just like gay couples can't and won't be able to sue the Catholic Church or any church either. Churches aren't golf courses, Ramon!