Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, looks at marriages that that take place after the couple have been together a while…long enough to have mortgages, merged finances and a child…and sees that a huge proportion of newly married gay couples are both middle aged and have been together a long time. In other words, when given a choice they are choosing to opt in to marriage in an era when many young straight couples are choosing to delay marriage.
He calls these relationships “reinforcing marriages.”
There is, it turns out, a good explanation for this. Many of these couples are now cementing relationships that have been in place for years. Andrew Cherlin, a sociologist at Johns Hopkins, even tosses out a term for these unions that was recently coined in Europe: “Reinforcing marriages.” They’re exactly what they sound like — marriages that reinforce a life that’s already completely assembled, formal ceremonies that happen long after couples have gotten mortgages together, merged their finances, and had a child. (The Swedes, not surprisingly, are big on these.)
But when researchers use the term “reinforcing marriages,” they’re referring to straight couples. What makes these couples unusual is that they had chosen for so long not to be married, and in many cases preferred it. They always could have tied the knot, but for whatever reasons, opted out.
Gay reinforcing marriages, on the other hand, have a much more deliberate quality: For the first time, long-standing gay couples are being extended the chance to opt in. And they are, in great numbers: When Badgett compared first-year data from states that offered solely civil unions to those that offered gay marriage, 30 percent of same-sex couples chose marriage, while only 18 percent chose civil unions. In Massachusetts, where gay marriage has been legal for a decade, more gay couples are married than are dating or cohabiting, according to Badgett’s most recent work. (Using 2010 census data, in fact, she estimates that a staggering 80 percent of same-sex couples in the state have now married.)
What we’re seeing, in other words, is an unprecedented tide of marriages not just mid-relationship, but in midlife — which may be one of the most underappreciated side effects of marriage equality.
As same sex couples choose to opt-in to marriages, it changes our perception of marriage.
Perhaps more powerful, this generation of gay couples is modeling an affirmative approach to marriage — and assigning a respectful significance to it — that straight couples often do not. How often, after all, are longtime heterosexual couples forced to ask (let alone answer): If you had to renew the lease on your marriage in midlife, would you do it? Would you legally bind yourself to this same person all over again? By embracing an institution that straight people take for granted, they are, to use Bradbury’s word, making a “purposive” decision rather than falling into an arrangement by default.
The key to a successful marriage is stability and a sense of purpose. Most same sex couples in the US who are choosing to get married (in states where it is legal) are folks who have already navigated the hardest phase of a marriage and are choosing to make public their relationship and to make the committment for the long haul.
This first wave of midlife gay marriages seems to be celebrating that stability; they’re about relationships that have already proven durable, rather than sending off untested, fresh-faced participants in a fingers-crossed bon voyage. What stood between these couples and the institution of marriage wasn’t a lack of desire. It was the parsimony of the law. “Half of all divorces occur within first seven to ten years,” Cherlin points out. “These couples are already at low risk.”