My thanks to Angel Maldonado and the rest of the Concurring Opinions team for inviting me to blog this month. During my guest stint I will highlight the law’s involvement in the everyday lives of couples, exploring the intersections of law, sharing and economic behavior and gender relations.
Is longstanding connection and commitment falling out favor? Does solitary individualism rule our times, even in our personal relationships? It is easy to see the disconnects around us. Pick the celebrity divorce of your choice as an example. After forty years of marriage, even Al and Tipper called it quits. So do a lot of ordinary couples. Although declining a bit in recent decades, divorce rates remain high and cohabitants break up rates are even higher. Some even suggest that marriage itself should be on the chopping block—get the state out of intimate relationships, don’t privilege one kind of relationship over another, and leave adults to choose, define and resolve their own relationships.
But failures and worries of relationship failures notwithstanding, the vast majority of American’s today still desire and in fact pursue deep long lasting relations with an intimate partner, and for many, marriage is still seen as the ideal. Although marriage rates have decreased and vary, especially by race and socioeconomics, most people in the U.S. still get married. Lifetime marriage rates from the 2000 census show that overall 86% of men and 88% of women have married at least once by the time they are 49. Interestingly, many unmarried folks are also enthusiastic about marriage. For example, Pew Research Center data from a 2007 survey found that most unmarried adults say they want to marry. Both the never-married parents as well as the cohabiters in the survey were more skeptical than all others that a person can lead a complete and fulfilled life if he or she remains single. No doubt then, committed coupling is still very much in vogue. Something remains powerfully attractive about being part of an intimate partner relationship more generally and for many, about marriage in particular.
What so many people are after is a committed sharing relationship—a protected arena to build and enjoy a web of interdependent connections that bridge the gap between individuals. For many, marriage is the vehicle of choice for this kind of relationship, although surely, cohabiting relationships recurrently serve these goals as well. Because cohabitation is more variable, I will focus on marriage for now, as marriage clearly includes a strong sharing norm. Research demonstrates that extensive sharing is viewed as a centrally important goal for marriage. And behavior reflects this. Although not in every way, and certainly not always perfectly accomplished, spouses regularly engage in an interdependent sharing of their lives, socially and economically.
How should law regard sharing commitments and behavior among couples? Should sharing be supported and nurtured? For any couple who desires it? In what form? Should law funnel intimate partner sharing into a particular relationship structure such as marriage or perhaps civil unions? Or should law seek to reduce interdependence and maximize independence for partners? Alternatively, perhaps law should withdraw altogether and leave it to couples to govern themselves?