Is It Time to Legalize Heterosexual Marriage?

There is a hollow quality to the current debate over homosexual marriage. Socially conservative pundits argue that legalization of homosexual marriage would be destructive to the institution of traditional heterosexual marriage. But nowhere is it mentioned that the institution of traditional heterosexual marriage itself is rapidly becoming an antique, largely due to the proliferation of no-fault divorce laws beginning in the 1970s.

Prior to the adoption of no-fault divorce laws by states, a divorce was processed through an adversarial legal system. This meant that the marital party wanting the divorce had the burden of proving that the breakdown in the marital relationship was the fault of the other marital partner. The bar for grounds for divorce was fairly high and consisted of such things as adultery, abandonment, or felonious behavior by the other marital party. Simply falling out of love did not make the grade. A judge was required to sign off on the divorce decree and it was not unusual for a judge to decide that the grounds for divorce were not met, in which case the parties remained married.

No-fault divorce, on the contrary, is a divorce in which the dissolution of a marriage does not demand showing of wrongdoing by either party. A simple change of heart, as long as it is mutual, is enough to seal the deal and allow the two marital partners to go their separate ways. Of course, there are financial considerations, such as alimony and child support, which could make the process more difficult for some married couples. However, no one in today's America seriously expects couples to stay in a marriage which has become a source of disappointment, disillusionment, or emotional distress to them if they can afford financially to get out of it.

As a senior citizen, I am old enough to remember what family life was like prior to the advent of no-fault divorce. Marriage was for life, with very few exceptions, and people were expected to adjust to that social reality. For those younger people who are unfamiliar with that social milieu and curious about what it entailed, I would suggest watching any of the situation comedies of the 1950's and early 1960's, for example The Honeymooners or I Love Lucy.

In the America of 2013, as a result of the no-fault divorce laws, heterosexual marriage has become what, among teenagers in the 1950's and 60's, would have been called "going steady." The institution of "going steady" was extremely popular among high school students of those days. It provided teenagers with social companionship and, for some teenagers and to a variable extent, outlets for sexual energy with someone of the opposite sex. However, it was never expected to be a lifetime commitment. It was a relationship which was by definition time limited and dependent on the consent of both parties. In some cases it evolved into traditional heterosexual marriage and in some cases it did not.

When we see polls showing that a large majority of young adults are in favor of legalization of homosexual marriage, it is extraordinary that our pundit class does not point out the huge number of these young people, perhaps a majority, who are children of divorce. Even if their own parents managed to stay married, it is almost certain that a large number of their friends and schoolmates are the product of what were called, in the now quaint language of the days prior to no-fault divorce, "broken homes." These young people are being polled as to whether there should be legalization of homosexual marriage; however, they very often do not even have the frame of reference to understand what is meant by traditional marriage. In their minds the question becomes reframed into one asking whether homosexuals should have the right to "go steady" and the answer, more often than not, is "Sure, why not?"

Social conservatives who feel they are defending traditional marriage by opposing homosexual marriage need to ask themselves some serious questions. Namely, can the institution of traditional marriage be salvaged without the wholesale repeal of no-fault divorce laws which swept through our states beginning in 1970? Or, in other words, is it time for social conservative to advocate for legalization of marriage for heterosexuals? And, are they up for that debate?