It's a Pat Marriage!You’ll sometimes hear people claim that legally recognized same-sex marriage doesn’t affect traditional marriages at all. This argument is easily refuted, as I will show shortly. But traditional marriage advocates hurt their case when they say marriage should only be between a man and a woman. Put that way, it does sound a bit arbitrary and exclusive. I think it is better to say, marriage should be comprised of a husband and a wife. ‘Man’ and ‘woman’ can mean anything [could refer to any type of role within a marriage]. But people instantly know what a husband is, and what a wife is. To extend marriage to same sex couples requires also abolishing the roles of husband and wife. It is not possible to do the one without the other. And so the bureaucrats implementing California’s court order decreed henceforth that all marriages would have the respective parties designated as “party A” and “party B”.

Now, some of you may be rushing to reply, “Well, no one is preventing me from still being a husband or a wife in my marriage. I can still use those terms, no matter what the state says!” If so, you’ve just fallen into my trap.

Because this was exactly the situation with same sex couples. Police would not be beating down Ms. and Ms. Jones’ door in the middle of the night and throwing them into jail if they should happen to refer to themselves as “married,” or even each other as “wife.” And the court acknowledged that its domestic partnerships provided all the benefits of traditional marriage in California, except the name. Gays were free to refer to themselves and their relationships any way they wanted. What they were fighting for was for the state to recognize some of those relationships officially as marriage.

I suppose the court could have extended marriage benefits to same sex couples but insisted that one party adopt the husband role and the other the wife role. The fact that they never even discussed this, let alone ordered the implementation this way, shows how completely unimportant the idea of husband and wife is to them. The court has divorced the concept of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ from marriage. And yet, when I say “husband” or “wife,” people know exactly what I am saying. Though there is variation, what each role is comprised of is quite clear.

But does this have any real-world impact? You can read what other people think will happen, including the LDS Church leaders (here and here, for example), but here I answer that question in a fresh light.

It is still way too soon to show empirically what effect same sex marriage is having on heterosexual marriages and children in those places where it is now legal. But it is not too soon to look at marriages where the traditional roles of “husband” and “wife” are rejected.

These are known in the literature as androgynous marriages. The parties in these marriages believe that every job in the marriage should be shared equally, including child care, house cleaning, and income. Steven Rhoades has done some work in this area. You can read one of his papers here, but briefly, what he finds is that marriages composed of “life partners” or “significant others” rather than “husbands” and “wives,” are less happy (even for women!) and less stable than traditional marriages.The sex isn’t as good either.

The Proclamation on the Family, insists that though husbands and wives have an equal responsibility in marriage, their primary roles differ. “By divine design,” it says, “fathers are to preside over their families in love and righteousness and are responsible to provide the necessities of life and protection for their families. Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children. In these sacred responsibilities, fathers and mothers are obligated to help one another as equal partners.” It then goes on to point out how there will be individual exceptions, but this is the general rule.

How large of an effect will abolishing traditional marriage roles and legally imposing androgynous marriage on all marriages have, on the day-to-day workings of heterosexual marriage? Will legally androgynous marriages result in actually androgynous marriages? I don’t know. It is really too soon to tell empirically with much confidence. But I will just point out that same sex marriage advocacy rests its entire case on the assumption that the legal terms applied to relationships are not only important, but vital. That they very much do matter. Those terms, we are told, have a major effect on the lives of the people deprived of using them officially (even if they can use them colloquially without penalty). And I would just reply that, if that is true, then it is equally true of “husbands” and “wives,” but with a vastly greater numerical impact.)

We can argue whether these effects are worth the price of same sex marriage rights, or that these effects will in practice be trivial, but same sex marriage does affect our conception of what marriage means and how it functions. And there are reasons (which people of good will can concede are valid, even as they disagree with them) to be concerned about same sex marriage which have nothing to do with retrograde fears about what consenting adults choose to do in the privacy of their own homes or out of a desire to deprive them of romantic love.

A note to commenters. We are discussing here the effects of same sex marriage on heterosexual couples. Please confine your comments to this question, or how you feel the benefits of same sex marriage outweigh any potential harm to traditional marriage. While there are obvious civil rights questions involved, I would like to confine our discussion to empirical and semantic questions, rather than civil rights ones, which I feel have been more than adequately covered already, as have the questions about the role of religion and specifically the Church in this debate. Finally, I have cast no aspersions on the good will and sincerity of those who advocate the positions I disagree with here. I have not called them any names or called them to repentance. I ask that all commenters return the courtesy.

Update: I apologize for the sloppy writing which introduced some [gender] confusion! I marked the deletion with a strikeout and the clarified text in brackets.

Update2: Thanks to a tip from a commenter below, I learned that just last week, in response to a lawsuit (seems you have to sue to get anything done in California these days), starting next month you will be able to choose bride/groom/first person/second person, according to any desired gender. We need not attribute that belated correction to any evil conspiracy on the part of either the court or the bureaucrats. But that oversight nevertheless betrays the lack of importance attached to distinct gender roles in the court decision or in its implementation. So we are left with some jurisdictions like California where couples are free to adopt any role, or none at all, in their marriage, irrespective of underlying gender. Men are free to be brides and women are free to be grooms. Both are free to be neither. Others (Massachusetts? Canada?) have enforced androgyny. Readers will have to decide for themselves how much of the foregoing analysis still applies to the situation in California as well as elsewhere. For myself, I believe anything which undermines or renders irrelevant the traditional gender roles as described in the Family Proclamation will be harmful to heterosexual marriage. And there is plenty of empirical and anecdotal support for that position.