New Study: Gay marriage in Holland may have reduced marriage rates among … liberals?

For decades, conservative opponents of same-sex marriage have been making a brazen claim. Extending marriage rights to gay couples, they say, will weaken the marriage institution.

In the near-absence of reliable data, their arguments have relied almost entirely on hypothesis. However, a new study, published earlier this year in the social science journal Demography, could offer same-sex marriage opponents some of the first empirical evidence in support of their theories. If the study’s findings are correct, same-sex marriage in the Netherlands decreased the opposite-sex marriage rate in all but the most conservative groups.

The Theory

It’s not unanimous, but growing majorities in developed nations are now on board with the idea that same-sex marriage is a good thing. As of 2013, around 80% of Scandinavians, 63% of Canadians and 55% of Britons support same-sex marriage, according to a global Ipsos survey. Recently, the tide of public opinion has even turned in the United States, where a recent poll has support as high as 59%.

For supporters, it’s not difficult to see why the public has come around. The philosophical and moral case for same-sex marriage is compelling, as this conservative will admit. Defenses can be made in the name of freedom (why should we force people who love each other not to marry?), equality (traditional marriage laws turn gays into second class citizens) and the public good (who would be harmed by gay couples marrying?).

Opponents of same-sex marriage have been caught flat-footed, perhaps even dumbfounded, as marriage laws move past them in ways that would have been inconceivable just thirty years ago. They are often unable to explain exactly why they oppose same-sex marriage but aver that it remains bad policy at best, and morally wrong at worst. The phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding”, or an inability to explain one’s moral intuitions, is not unique to same-sex marriage opponents. The most common example: most Westerners (but not all) rightly oppose contracepted sex between siblings but are unable to articulate why they do. Getting stumped, then, does not make a person wrong, but it does mean that they will need to dig deeper to justify their beliefs.

Some advocates for the traditional definition of matrimony say they have done just that, catching a subtler vision of the marriage institution and promoting a corollary new case against same-sex marriage laws. Sherif Girgis, PhD candidate in philosophy and principal co-author of the 2012 book What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense along with Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson, argues that there are two public visions of marriage. The “conjugal view” sees marriage as oriented toward procreation. The “revisionist view” calls marriage a union oriented toward love and commitment, with procreation and childrearing an elective option. (See here for a lengthier explanation.)

Girgis argues that only the former view explains why marriage should be a public institution, because it enforces norms that arise from sexual reproduction. The latter view, then, would make marriage functionally indistinguishable from non-marital romantic unions. He contends that in order to coherently support same-sex marriage, advocates have had to adopt for themselves and promote to the public the revisionist view. This, he thinks, constitutes a removal from the public square of the only institution geared toward procreation. The implication is that the old (to some, outdated) norms that historically sprung up around procreation, as well as the motive to marry, will fade along with the old view, more than they have already done.

Despite Girgis’ and his coauthors’ new defense of the traditional marriage definition and a small renaissance of secular opposition to same-sex marriage, many conservatives seem to have given up fighting in the face of a near-monolithic public consensus. And while Girgis’ reasoning is not unsound, there has been little hard evidence to support his broader conclusion that same-sex marriage laws would harm marriage itself.

What everyone, on both sides of the issue, should admit is that the same-sex marriage debate has taken place in an empirical vacuum. For better or worse, the conversation has been about same-sex marriage the moral question, not same-sex marriage the public policy. While no empirical study can or should settle the question on its own, everyone interested should take careful consideration of the data that do exist.

The new study

The paper in question, “The Effect of Same-Sex Marriage Laws on Different-Sex Marriage: Evidence From the Netherlands“, by Mircea Trandafir, was published in February of this year in the journal Demography. The author attempted to find the effect on the marriage rate of a 1998 domestic partnership law and 2001 same-sex marriage law in the Netherlands. Its conclusions have mostly escaped attention—partly because of a vague abstract.

The paper contains two statistical analyses. The first is a regression on aggregate (country-level) data that compares the Netherlands to a control group of OECD countries over a number of years, while the second is a time series analysis of individual-level data. In the abstract, the author writes that according to the first model, “neither law had significant effects on either the overall or different-sex marriage rate”. This is true at the 5% level, but it’s worth noting (in the context of the entire paper) that the effect of the same-sex marriage law on the marriage rate was significant at the 10% level—implying that there is only a 1 in 10 chance that Dutch marriage rates in the absence of the same-sex marriage law would have fallen as much as they did in reality. The overall trend from 1988 until 2005 is described in the paper:

As expected, the actual rates are relatively close to the synthetic marriage rate [control group rate] between 1988 and 1997, the period used to construct the synthetic control. After the introduction of registered partnership, the three rates are all higher than the synthetic marriage rate, but they all fall below the synthetic rate at some point after 2001, the year in which same-sex marriage was legalized.

According to this first, aggregate-level analysis, while there is not enough statistical power to conclude with certainty, it appears that marriage rates rose slightly as a result of the 1998 domestic partnership law but were depressed by the 2001 same-sex marriage law.

The second regression of the paper is perhaps more valuable—it uses individual-level data, which allows for greater analytic nuance. In the abstract, the author concluded: “The effects of the two laws are heterogeneous, with presumably more-liberal individuals (as defined by their residence or ethnicity) marrying less after passage of both laws and potentially more-conservative individuals marrying more after passage of each law.”

This finding is true, but represents only a part of the main results of the analysis—furthermore, important context is left out. “Potentially more-conservative individuals”, as defined by the author, represent less than 10% of the Dutch population, while “more liberal individuals” make up more than 80%.

Trandafir also claimed in his abstract that the results of the individual-level analysis “confirm the findings in the aggregate analysis”. It’s unclear what he means by this, since the individual level-analysis did not estimate the overall effect of the laws (only by gender), and only measured the overall marriage rate (as opposed to the different-sex marriage rate).

Trandafir made the decision not to perform a regression for men and women combined, because women tend to marry at a younger age than men. The findings of his analysis are that the same-sex marriage law had essentially zero effect on the male first marriage rate overall, but a statistically significant negative effect on the female first marriage rate (i.e. the age-specific rate of first marriages in a person’s lifetime).

But the story becomes more interesting. In the conservative Dutch Bible Belt, which represents around 4% of the Dutch population, the regional effect of the law was to strongly increase the marriage rate for both men and women. The same goes for the 3% of Dutch who are Turkish or Moroccan. But for the vast majority of the population—that is to say, for native Dutch and especially for residents of the four largest cities—the effect of marriage laws was significantly negative for both men and women.

The Dutch royal family in April 2013

The Dutch royal family in April 2013

The regression is not directly interpretable quantitatively because of the complexity of the model; but for comparison, the effect on marriage rates of the law for women in the four largest cities, for example, was three times greater than the effect of actually living in the four largest cities. This suggests that the adjusted effect is large, since the marriage rate in the four largest cities is around 20% lower than in Holland overall (this is not to suggest that the law had a negative 60% effect, because the raw statistics are not controlled for demographic variables). The effect on the marriage rate for native Dutch men was a rate twice that of the year-to-year downward trend.

Somehow, it appears that the demographic groups most supportive of same-sex marriage—urbanites and native Dutch—are precisely the groups whose marriage rates declined in connection with the law. On the other hand, the conservative subcultures who were likely to oppose the 2001 law–Bible Belt residents, Turks and Moroccans–seem to have experienced a marriage rate renaissance as a result of it. Somewhere, Sherif Girgis is wide-eyed; his theory that the revisionist view of marriage undermines marriage seems to fit the data almost uncannily.

But the fact that makes these findings even more shocking is a bias in the data that causes the negative effect of the law to be underestimated, as the author admits: “identifying the spouse of all individuals is virtually impossible, and I am unable to distinguish between same-sex marriages and different-sex marriages. This induces a small upward bias in the estimate of the different-sex marriage rate after 2001.”

In other words, the gay marriage law did not just reduce the opposite-sex marriage rate, but the marriage rate overall. More explicitly, since we know that no same-sex marriages occurred prior to 2001, this means that, apart from the small conservative minority, the same-sex marriage law was associated with a drop in opposite-sex marriages that was larger than the rise in same-sex marriages.

The implications of these findings are stark. If this study is correct–and for the robustness of the methodology, it seems unlikely to be far off–then it is appropriate to suggest that same-sex marriage had the effect of decreasing the mainstream marriage rate among heterosexuals in the Netherlands, possibly by changing the way marriage was perceived.

There is a more hopeful story for advocates of civil unions, or marriages-in-all-but-name. In both the aggregate and individual analyses, domestic partnership laws had a neutral or small positive impact on the marriage rate, suggesting that it is not gay unions that have the potential to disrupt marriage culture, but the redefinition of marriage itself.


Caveats are in order after such claims. First, cultural differences between the Netherlands and other countries mean that the results cannot necessarily be extrapolated. Indeed, in a 2009 state by state analysis in the US, the authors found that a state’s gay union policy had no significant effect on marriage rates (it should be noted that the study did not separate civil unions from same-sex marriage).

However, Girgis’ theory might well explain this particular discrepancy. American religious conservatives are not the tiny minority they are in Holland. In the Netherlands, there has long been massive majority support for same-sex marriage, which may help explain the significant effects found in the Trandafir paper. It could be the case that the more people support same-sex marriage, the greater downward effect the law has on marriage rates–a troubling policy conundrum.

The larger caveat: it bears reiteration that these findings do not themselves justify a particular position on same-sex marriage. There is much more to be said, and at the end of the day, public policy is not only an empirical question; it is a social, philosophical and moral one as well. However, science, philosophy and morality are often found to intersect in the same place once the dust kicked up in a whirlwind of controversy has settled. Time will tell what conclusion future generations will draw. When it comes to culture wars, history has been known to vindicate both winners and losers.

Photo credit: “King of the Netherlands” by Tom Jutte, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The decline of marriage norms is hurting the poor

Barack and Michelle ObamaRising rates of fatherlessness, a culture of promiscuity, and persistently high divorce rates are impoverishing millions of people. While marriage rates remain high in our society’s upper classes, the institution has all but collapsed among the poor, leaving in its wake an epidemic of broken homes and families deprived of social capital.

The debate over the social desirability of marriage burst into the public consciousness in 1992, when US Vice President Dan Quayle famously decried Murphy Brown, a sitcom career woman who was portrayed sympathetically during her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Quayle lamented the message he believed the show was sending: marriage doesn’t really matter.

Quayle was mocked relentlessly for his comments. But the shots he fired into the cultural battlefield ignited a firestorm of opinion and debate about marriage and family values, and he was arguably vindicated by social science as well as the opinions of his successors in American government. All three US presidents since 1992 have taken care more than once to extol the necessity of fatherhood and marriage, as the proportion of US children born outside wedlock passes 40%, with much higher rates among racial minorities and the poor.

Even Candice Bergen, the actress who played Murphy Brown, commented in 2002, “I never have really said much about the whole episode, which was endless, but his speech was a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did.”

Over the last two decades, social scientists have arrived at a consensus: the erosion of the marriage institution is hurting our society. As one example of this trend, the New York Times reports that as much as 40% of inequality growth in the US is explained by changing marriage patterns. Regrettably, there exists no consensus in the broader public consciousness that there is a problem, and no united front has appeared for shoring up the institution.

No consensus on marriage

Conservative observers, who are inclined to see poverty as a natural consequence of libertine sexuality, have jumped on the family values bandwagon. Liberals, who by all accounts care deeply about the poor, unfortunately have generally not, electing instead to talk about globalization, government policy, discrimination or other causes of poverty unrelated to marriage. An observant writer last year in the Atlantic asked, “why is it hard for liberals to talk about family values?”

White, college-educated liberals in particular are among the likeliest to marry but among the least likely to offer vocal support for the institution. They show a reluctance to “preach what they practice”, as Charles Murray describes the phenomenon.

There’s a mindset of complacency at play. For the wealthy and educated, the prospect of a single life is not a fearful one, financially speaking, so it’s easy to take marriage for granted. But for the uneducated and less advantaged, not marrying means a statistical near-certainty of life at or below the poverty line. Ironically, it is the complacent wealthy who usually marry, while the poor far too often do not.

Those who plan on a single life, however, are still in the minority: 28% of Millennials over 18 are married and a further 56% say they hope to be married at some point. But, astonishingly, only 29% believe that society is better off when marriage is made a priority. The modern philosophy seems to be, “sure, I want to get married, but that doesn’t mean anyone else should.”

If this is the case, then maybe the answer to the Atlantic’s question—why is it so hard for liberals to talk about family values?—is a reluctance to appear judgmental. Charles Murray calls this attitude “ecumenical niceness”. This agreeability might just be dangerous, because social expectations, sanctions and norms, really do affect how people act, as a wide array of social scientific literature attests.

Liberals don’t bear full responsibility for the marriage crisis, however. Conservatives have a tendency to make marriage too materialistic. Marriage in the 1940s and 50s, for all of its virtue and vigor, was characterized by parents who spent surprisingly little time with their children, and who were concerned too much with the appeal of a new post-war middle class lifestyle. Traditional norms, while vital, do not themselves a happy family make.

Children raised in this culturally conservative environment became the next decade’s hippies and cultural revolutionaries. Their error was that in their crusade against their parents’ materialism they also rejected the traditional sexual and family norms that had given them the stability and well-being they continued to enjoy.

Norms matter

The norms and taboos that historically surrounded marriage often included the expectations that sex should wait for marriage, that a man who impregnates a woman will marry her, that married couples should have children, and that divorce is a matter of last resort. While not everyone bent to these expectations in decades past, most people did, and those who didn’t at least publicly endorsed them. Nowadays, these norms are labelled “stigma” at best, and openly rejected at worst.

However, these norms still exist in our upper class, if as unspoken best practices more than expectations. It’s the poor who have lost the norms almost completely in the midst of their public disavowal by the wealthy. Dan Quayle touched on the phenomenon in his notorious speech:

When we were young, it was fashionable to declare war against traditional values. … And, of course, the great majority of those in the middle class survived the turbulent legacy of the ’60s and ’70s. But many of the poor, with less to fall back on, did not. The inter-generational poverty that troubles us so much today is predominantly a poverty of values.

Fathers leave their pregnant girlfriends with tragic ubiquity in the lower socioeconomic classes, and around two thirds of lower class children grow up without both of their biological parents, and the rates are even higher for the children of poor Hispanic and black mothers. As healthy norms have eroded, so has healthy behavior.

Marriage without norms

Marriage normlessness has also created its own philosophical novelties. Somewhere between 1970 and now, in the relative absence of cultural taboos surrounding matrimony, many of us have lost part of the vision of marriage itself. Many anthropologists half a century ago would have told you that marriage is an institution whereby a woman’s children are recognized as the legitimate offspring of the woman and her husband. The identity of marriage involved, if not revolved around, its role as the fount of sex and family. The norms of permanence, loyalty, fertility and virginity all flowed from that essence.

But these norms evaporated in the desert of non-judgmentalism, and the vision underlying them began to make less and less sense. Observers began using a sort of reverse definitional logic. Marriage couldn’t be about procreation, because many people procreate outside marriage. It couldn’t revolve around having a family because we don’t expect couples to have kids. This shift in visions further undermined the weakened norms in a kind of vicious circle.

This decade’s gay marriage debate has at worse reinforced, or at best revealed in its proponents, an unprecedented postmodern vision of matrimony, where marriage is not defined in terms of family at all, but only in terms of love and commitment (along with vestigial property and legal rights). As theologian Albert Mohler narrated last year: marriage was reimagined “in terms of personal fulfillment rather than covenant obligation. Duty disappeared in the fog of demands for authenticity … Companionate marriage was secularized and redefined solely in terms of erotic and romantic appeal—for so long as these might last.”

No public definition of marriage has ever been perfect at any point in history. But some visions are better than others: if marriage is defined in terms of romance, fulfillment or commitment, there is little to prevent further radical changes to norms and rules.

In fact, some “polyamorous” activists have interpreted recent court decisions as applying to the situation of poly-oriented people. Many commentators have begun to argue that marriage should not exist as a civil institution at all. Childless marriages and “open” marriages are now on the banks of the mainstream, and consensual sibling marriage can perhaps be seen in the distance.

Raising our vision of marriage

If trends continue and the marriage institution continues to erode, there could be calamitous consequences for civilization. Moderate but left-of-center psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt compares the decline of marriage to global warming as a political issue: both are real and significant dangers to humanity, but most of us see only one of these two asteroids hurtling toward us, to use his analogy.

So it’s with difficulty that we apprehend the challenge of rebuilding marriage culture, a challenge which requires the efforts of everyone who cares about poverty and societal stability, both liberals and conservatives, religious and irreligious. The challenge is neither to invent a culture entirely new (as liberals might suggest) nor to re-create the materialist 1950s (as conservatives often propose).

A restored marriage culture should involve a return to a more responsible sexual regime—one where women can reasonably expect men to take responsibility for their offspring, and where sex is tied to commitment, and ideally to marriage. But it should also place a higher emphasis on child-rearing than on career or external pursuits, on the immaterial over the material. Gender roles need not be enforced for the sake of nostalgia, but sexual complementarity should be celebrated and upheld where biology makes it prudent.

Arriving at this kind of cultural consensus on marriage and family is vital for the well-being of future generations. The upper class in particular should begin to preach what many of them practice, and to admit that faithful, fruitful, permanent marriage is a good and desirable thing—not just for them but for everyone. All of us should have the courage to defend marriage and the norms that protect it. If we don’t, it will be an impoverished future generation who pays the price.

Photo credit: “Barack and Michelle exit the stage” by Luke Vargas, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0