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Is Marriage the Problem Rather than the Solution?

Author Nancy Polikoff discusses how to change the law so that all families get the legal protections of marriage.

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You’ve being driven off in an ambulance. If you’re married, your spouse can ride with you. If it’s your best friend, you ride by yourself. Does that make sense? No. That’s how I want us to rethink how we deal with families and relationships.

AD: How do you institute the appointment of medical decision-makers outside a marital or blood relationship? Your book mentions a registry.

NP: Lots of states have registries, and some are amazingly user friendly… when people have the opportunity, for example, to designate such a person when they get drivers' licenses, or some other easy and free way, it will be more common. There will always need to be a fallback for the people who don't.

AD: How do you think your ideas would be received among social conservatives who exalt traditional marriage and promote it through a variety of federal policies?

NP: I obviously disagree with people who think marriage is so special that it should get this status. I do address them in my book and wouldn’t expect them to like my proposals. But there are some of them that I think even the most hardcore people in that camp actually would support, because they make sense for other reasons.

For example, I don’t think there’s anybody who’s going to say if you’re a married person and can’t make decisions, for health reasons, that your spouse must be given the right to make those decisions. I think everyone, regardless of political leanings, would agree that you should get to decide [who acts on your behalf]. Two studies show 33 and 50 percent of married people pick people other than spouses to make medical decisions. For some people, they wouldn’t want their spouse to make a difficult decision. They know which of their siblings or children would do it. What is the purpose of any surrogate decision-making scheme? To do what the person would want.

But for the most part, social conservatives are not going to agree with changes that add unmarried interdependent partners. They’re going to want to force people to get heterosexually married. There are people in the gay rights movement that take a position that is close to the right wing on marriage: they believe marriage deserves special rights. I think that isn’t the position of the majority of the people who do marriage-quality work.

AD: And how have gay activists who seek marriage equality responded to your book, which argues for broadening their agenda to include the rights of non-married straights as well as gays?

NP: Certainly there are people who do marriage-equality work for whom this is their priority and they do not want to take on anything else.

More than half the states have constitutional amendments that ban same sex marriage. Another 15 or so have statutes that ban it. Those amendments aren’t going away any time soon. I have what may be the only viable strategy in more than half the country to achieve concrete goals for same-sex couples. But I believe very strongly that even in states friendly to same-sex marriage we need to go beyond that and look at these traditional protections. When I do talk to gay people who do a lot of this work, I actually get overwhelmingly positive feedback, though not 100 percent.

The people who do this work full time and do nothing else, which is a small number of people, they are going to say to me, "Don’t talk about this now. We want marriage equality, then we’ll see." But the people who do gay rights work more generally, a lot of them say to me, "Why haven’t I heard this before?" They know gay people are disadvantaged by the current privileging of marriage and that same-sex marriage doesn’t fix that for all gay people. I’ve even had marriage-equality activists say, "Thank you. You have articulated what made me feel uncomfortable about marriage-equality work."

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