The Free Press, Mankato, MN

July 3, 2013

Rulings on same-sex unions place spotlight on the weathered institution of marriage

By Mark Emmons
San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

---- — SAN JOSE, Calif. — The Rev. Layne Kulwin performed same-sex weddings in the brief time they were legal in California, and expects to officiate more now that the Supreme Court has cleared the way for those marriages to resume.

But the nondenominational minister in San Jose is also a realist about what will happen long after the “I do’s” have been said.

“I’m sure gay marriages are the same as any others because we’re all just people,” said Kulwin, 62, who also wed his partner, Stephen Kline, in 2008. “Some are successful, and some are dissolved.”

The long-sought prize of last week’s twin high court victories, solidifying the legal standing of same-sex unions, means California gays and lesbians can embrace a venerable institution that has seen better days.

People are exchanging vows at a historically low rate. They are waiting longer than ever to wed. More are choosing to just live together instead.

Marriage, if judged strictly by the numbers, is on the rocks.

“The million-dollar question is why, and we really don’t have a great answer,” said Krista Payne, a data analyst at Bowling Green State University’s National Center for Family and Marriage Research in Ohio. “There is a group that just doesn’t feel like marriage is for them. They feel it’s an antiquated institution and they don’t need a church or the government to validate their relationship. It’s no longer just about people wanting to walk down the aisle.”

But Jerrold Lee Shapiro, Santa Clara University’s chair of the Counseling Psychology Department, said delaying marriage is not the same thing as outright rejection. He believes it would be a mistake to think of marriage as an outdated tradition with declining relevance — even in a rapidly changing society that is redefining the concept of family.

“Americans want to get married, which is why I see the institution as strong,” said Shapiro, who was a marriage counselor for four decades. “Even the percentage of divorced people who want to get married again is high, which maybe is the triumph of hope over experience. But most people crave the stability in life that marriage can provide. The fact is it can make people incredibly happy.”

For same-sex marriage advocates, the actual decision whether to get hitched is part of a larger issue. What’s more important is the equality afforded by the two Supreme Court rulings last week — a landmark moment in what many see as the defining civil rights issue of our time. The high court struck down the core of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that denied same-sex benefits and issued a narrow ruling on Proposition 8 that set the stage for wedding bells to ring again for gays in California.

“I know many heterosexual couples who have been together 20-plus years and aren’t married, but that’s their choice,” said Richard Speakman, of Mountain View, who married his partner, David Speakman, before voters passed the Proposition 8 ban of same-sex marriage in 2008. “I also know many same-sex couples that don’t want to get married. But we all deserve that choice.”

Leslie Kornblum and Roberta Friedman, of Saratoga, have been together 26 years and made their choice when they were among the 18,000 California couples who wed during that short window in 2008. But because the federal government had never recognized it, their relationship has continued to face long-running tax and legal issues that even complicated the adoption of their two daughters from China.

But what brought Kornblum, 48, to tears last Wednesday when the rulings were announced was knowing that the marriage vows they hold sacred now are widely recognized.

“What it comes down to is the commitment we have emotionally to one another and the family we have created,” added Friedman, 57. “We’re just like anybody else. This completes our family.”

Proposition 8 proponents argued, unsuccessfully, that same-sex unions essentially would sound the death knell for traditional marriage.

Yet the reality is research paints a complex picture of modern-day marriage as already having undergone tremendous change.

Data analysis at the National Center for Family and Marriage Research found that the average first marriage now has been delayed to nearly age 29 for men and 27 for women. An average of 31 per 1,000 eligible women wed each year compared with 76 per 1,000 in 1970 — a drop of nearly 60 percent. Also, 41 percent of children now are born outside of marriage.

The recession has played a role, too, as many people have felt they were unable to afford getting married. On the flip side, the divorce rate appears to have lessened for the same reason during the economic downturn.

Santa Clara University’s Shapiro quipped that you could look at the discouraging marital data and conclude “that it’s starting to look like only same-sex couples want to get married.” But he cautioned that the numbers must be taken with a grain of salt. People may be waiting longer to exchange vows, Shapiro said, but that doesn’t mean they don’t eventually get married.

In fact, the bridal industry has grown into a $70 billion-a-year business, said Anja Winikka, of TheKnot.com, the most-popular online wedding site. Winikka added that while the number of marriage licenses issued by states has been flat in recent years, their business continues to expand as couples now spend an average of $28,427 on weddings.

Darlene Laspina, co-owner of Danville’s Events by Wallace event planners, said the wedding business is booming locally — and she expects same-sex marriages will only add to that.

“All of us in the industry feel like we’re at an all-time high for weddings,” she said. “Of course, we can’t tell you what happens to the marriages after the wedding.”

That is when the work begins, added Wiggsy Sivertsen, a professor of counseling services at San Jose State.

“Marriage, in general, has lost some of its luster over the years,” said Sivertsen, 77, a longtime gay rights activist. “People have opened their eyes about the reality of it being more than just living happily ever after. Marriage is tough stuff that requires effort.”

There will be a bounce in California marriages with the resumption of same-sex weddings — there are an estimated 37,000 couples waiting. But in the long run, it

“Right now this is a civil rights issue, a health care issue, a tax issue,” Shapiro said. “But I don’t even know if we’re really talking yet about what the marriages will be like. I suspect they’ll be just like heterosexual marriages. There will be arguments. There will be a neat one and a messy one.”

In other words, they will be traditional marriages.

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©2013 San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.)

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