[As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m cross-posting my columns about the new report, “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All,” that I initially published at Unmarried Equality (UE). This is the second one. It is shared with the permission of UE.]

I’m still reeling from the report I discussed in my previous column, “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All.” I had known, in some abstract way, that the effort to celebrate marriage and delegitimize and stigmatize all other kinds of families and lifepaths was an organized one. I knew it was well-funded. But I had no idea just how organized, how systematic, and how generously funded the whole agenda has been until I read that report.

Previously, I described the essence of marriage fundamentalism, listed 14 institutions supporting it, and pointed to several of the fundamentalists’ successes (that came at the expense of people who are not married).   I also reviewed one of the most important sections of the report, the discussion of the three main problems with marriage fundamentalism.

Here, I will discuss the key questions of why the marriage fundamentalists have been so successful and what groups with more inclusive goals and values can aim to achieve. Fortunately, I had some help from Nicole Rodgers, the Founder and Executive Director of Family Story, which is the think tank that published “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism.”

Why Do the Marriage Fundamentalists Get So Much More Funding than Groups with More Progressive Values?

The disparity in funding between groups promoting marriage fundamentalism and groups with more open-minded and inclusive goals and values seems remarkable. I checked with Nicole Rodgers to see if she agreed.

Bella DePaulo: It seems to me that the conservative groups are much better funded than progressive ones. If you agree, any ideas about why?

Nicole Rodgers: I agree 100%. Part of why is that I think plenty of liberals buy into some aspects of marriage fundamentalism. The idea of valuing adults and families equally in law in policy, and questioning why certain rights and benefits are conditioned on marital status, is still very ahead of the curve, and not part of most mainstream progressive conversations. That said, I think those of us who do this type of work need to do better at making the case for why this matters. We need to explain how privileging married families is a racial-justice issue, a gender- justice issue, an economic-justice issue and more. Progressives like myself need to do better at explaining why a family justice framework is better aligned with our values, but also, most practical at a time when 50% of adults are not married.

‘The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism,” in the chapter on same-sex marriage, described a significant decision made by the advocates of marriage equality about how to frame their argument. Instead of emphasizing the importance of access to rights and benefits, the focus would be on love. In that, they succeeded. Media coverage often highlighted partners’ love for each other. In celebratory marches, “Love Wins” signs were held high.

One unfortunate consequence, the report argued, was that the matter of rights got de-emphasized. I agree that, in the pursuit of our social justice goals, Family Story – and Unmarried Equality – need to put the theme of equal rights and benefits front and center. But we also have a compelling story to tell about love. We can rescue love from the stifling, little box it is typically stuffed it into. Love is so much bigger than just romantic love. Love has a huge heart. It throws its arms around close friends and cherished relatives. The love that lives in those relationships is sometimes made of sterner stuff than the flimsy romantic variety that can burn ravenously and then just fizzle.

Maybe our bigger, broader notions of love can inspire others to support the changes we seek. With an arms-wide-open message, we no longer need to be on the defensive about our values and goals. We can describe, more affirmatively, the benefits that accrue to individuals and to society when we can all pursue the kinds of relationships and families and lives we find most meaningful and fulfilling.

Meanwhile, I had another question for Nicole Rodgers.

Bella DePaulo: Why do you think liberals bought into marriage fundamentalism? 

Nicole Rodgers: Obviously, I can’t say for sure but my sense if that a lot of liberals really believe that that married two-parent families are the best kind– especially adults raising kids – for a variety of reasons, one of which is that they believe that’s just what the evidence shows. That’s why our new report really made the case for rejecting marriage fundamentalism on several fronts, including demonstrating the lack of scientific consensus on the causal relationship between family structure and child well-being. But it’s worth noting that marriage fundamentalist beliefs are not strictly left/right, or liberal/conservative. In my experience, there is actually a lot of misinformed agreement on the superiority of the married two-parent family across the ideological spectrum. Where most liberals tend to differ from conservatives is that they are not as willing to engage in shaming or stigmatizing of unmarried or single mothers. And even if they believe that its best if couples marry, they typically understand that marriage promotion as a policy measure is a total failure.

The dual legacy of marriage equality is that same-sex marriage becoming the law of the land was a hugely important civil rights victory and worth celebrating, but the reality is that it also ushered in a very publicly pro-marriage sentiment among progressives at the same time that marriage was increasingly uncommon and becoming a mark of privilege.

Personally, I’ve been working to debunk myths about the supposed superiority of married people and two-parent nuclear families for decades. I guess I’m going to have to keep at it for a lot longer.

Policies Worth Working For

In the concluding chapter of “The Case Against Marriage Fundamentalism: Embracing Family Justice for All,” the Family Story authors outlined an agenda for change. Their recommendations are rooted in a set of values and principles (summarized here). They offer their policy recommendations as a starting point toward a more comprehensive agenda that, ideally, would be developed in concert with other organizations.

Here are just a few examples of the policies they recommend:

“Review federal, state, and local laws that condition benefits and rights on marriage, and, where appropriate, provide such benefits and rights in a more inclusive manner.” This goal is at the core of what Unmarried Equality is all about. We have discussed it often.

“Reforming work-family laws to define family inclusively.” Many policies relevant to sick leave or family leave offer more benefits and protections for workers who are married than for those who are not. Some progress has been made, but there is a long way to go.

“Provide additional legal options for relationships, like civil unions and registered partnerships.” Unmarried couples are an obvious example. But why shouldn’t two (or maybe even more than two) close friends or relatives, who live together and whose lives are as interdependent as any married couple’s except for the sex, have the same benefits and protections as couples who are married?

“Remove marriage promotion and “out-of-wedlock”-birth reduction as purposes of the TANF program, and repeal the Healthy Marriage Promotion programs.” The government should not be in the marriage-promotion business, even if marriage education programs really did work. Their actual record is unimpressive. TANF (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) should provide what it was originally designed to provide – financial assistance to individuals and families in need.

But Is Progress Possible in This Political Moment?

The policy goals outlined by Family Story are inspiring and impressive. I’d love to see them implemented. But the past several years have been some of the most politically demoralizing of my lifetime. I asked Nicole Rodgers if she thought anything could be accomplished in these times.

Bella DePaulo: I love your goals but many of these would be hard to achieve under the best of circumstances and we are living through some of the worst. Are there any reasons to be optimistic?

Nicole Rodgers: Look, this is a really terrible, challenging political moment, let’s not sugarcoat it. That said, I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about. Just look at all the progressive policy ideas getting mainstream traction right now, around child care, paid leave, Medicare for all, reparations, populist economic policies. I could go on. These are things that felt unrealistic only a year or two ago. Changing family structures and the declining role of marriage are global phenomena. I have to hope that eventually our policies will catch up to better reflect our lived experiences.

[Notes: (1) The opinions expressed here do not represent the official positions of Unmarried Equality. (2) I’ll post all these blog posts at the UE Facebook page; please join our discussions there. (3) For links to previous columns, click here.]


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