Civil unions and straight marriage

by Henry Farrell on January 24, 2010

Arthur Goldhammer’s “excellent blog on French politics and society”: points to “this article”: on the French _pact civil de solidarité_ – a kind of civil union introduced in 1999/2000, largely as an alternative to gay marriage. But the pacs has had very interesting consequences for straight couples (95% of couples with pacs are straight), as this chart shows.

The growth of the pacs’ popularity over its first decade is striking. There are now two pacs for every three marriages. Interestingly, this is because of both a significant decline in marriage, and a significant increase in the overall number of people willing to engage in some kind of state-sanctioned relationship. While you would obviously need more finely grained data to establish this properly, the obviously intuitive interpretation of this (at least to me) is that the pacs have grown _both_ by providing an option for people who would probably not have gotten married in the first place, _and_ attracted a number of people who otherwise would have gotten married, but who prefer the pacs’ lower level of formality (it is much easier to cancel a pacs relationship than to get divorced). Perhaps this provides grist for the mills of social conservatives (who could claim, stretching the data a bit, that gay-appeasing civil unions are undermining the sacred institution of marriage) – but it would oblige them to face up to the question of whether they should _prefer_ gay marriage to potentially corrosive civil unions that straight couples can take advantage of too. Liberals and leftwingers don’t face nearly the same dilemma, since they can reasonably assume that those who choose civil unions over marriage have good reason for doing so (and perhaps will get married later if they want to; obviously, you can’t tell from data like this how many partners in pacs decide to get married later on).



John Quiggin 01.24.10 at 4:32 am

“obviously, you can’t tell from data like this how many partners in pacs decide to get married later on”

Not strictly, but as long as most people who would have married otherwise decide to get married after trying a pac, you would expect the decline in marriages to be temporary.

A slightly weaker criterion, which still ought to please social conservatives. If all those who choose pacs instead of marriage, and don’t marry in the end would otherwise have married and divorced, then there is no net reduction in stable marriage, but there is a reduction in divorce.

I guess this was all done with studies of cohabitation when that became a generally available option.


tomslee 01.24.10 at 5:11 am

So maybe gay civil unions, not gay marriage, are the real threat to straight marriage?


Matt McIrvin 01.24.10 at 4:22 pm

Straight civil unions look to be the threat here. Most US states with civil unions restrict them to same-sex couples, and stop offering them if same-sex marriage gets legalized.


harry b 01.24.10 at 5:19 pm

Henry’s read of it, if right, makes a case for what a lot of conservatives have said, which is that the proliferation of kinds of state sanctioned relationship weakens marriage, which makes intuitive sense. Liberals can have reasons for thinking that marriage should be promoted (I think I think it should be promoted) and if those reasons are good then this is evidence in favour of same-sex marriage over civil unions.

What is the status of same-sex civil unions in the UK? I understand that it is marriage in all but name. Is that right?


piglet 01.24.10 at 5:34 pm

“social conservatives could claim, stretching the data a bit, that gay-appeasing civil unions are undermining the sacred institution of marriage”

They could make that claim but they couldn’t also pretend to be promoters of small government. Which is a ridiculous claim anyway – social conservatives do nothing else but try to make the government interfere in other people’s private lives.


tomslee 01.24.10 at 5:59 pm

“What is the status of same-sex civil unions in the UK?”

Civil unions are restricted to same-sex couples: see Tom and Kat’s Straight Gay Wedding for a challenge.


Mario Diana 01.24.10 at 6:19 pm

The “sacred” institution of marriage is being undermined, not because of “The Gays&trade,” but because the social context in which the institution developed is unraveling.

Women are no longer helpless, baby-making machines. Divorce was only a stigma because it left women and children out in the cold — in many cases, literally. Besides, after the last of the children were grown, given the once miserable life expectancies, how many more years did putting up with a life-long commitment really entail?

But now, women can earn their own money and control their reproductive activities. In most cases it makes good economic sense to skip past the young marriages that were once so common. Finally, people are living a lot longer, and people grow and change during their lives.

It’s wrong to deny gays the freedom to marry. But, is the institution really all its cracked up to be, anymore? There is an argument to be made for civil unions — a variety of civil unions, each tailored to different legal, contractual arrangements — for both homosexual and heterosexual couples. Probably, they could all be called marriage; but the particulars pertaining to property, children, and so forth, both during the marriage and in the event of divorce, would vary. It’s just ridiculous that the state continue to prescribe a one-size-fits-all package. Some experimentation is in order.

Social conservatives ought to adopt the same position on marriage that they hold with respect to religion. They should tolerate other people’s marriages — and kid themselves that their version holds the only legitimate promise of bliss.

(I would word it differently though, when trying to persuade any of them.)


Mario Diana 01.24.10 at 6:20 pm

Correction (and bug report)

The preview on my entry above showed the Trademark symbol. However, once I hit submit, it rendered it as an ampersand followed by the word “trade.”

That stinks!


Mr Punch 01.25.10 at 12:04 am

The threat posed by civil unions to traditional marriage was an argument used by the [gay] conservative Andrew Sullivan in favor of same-sex marriage — i.e., the proffered alternative would be more damaging.


yeem 01.25.10 at 1:04 am

Mario Dana is offering a completely ahistorical reading of marriage that disregards the often significant income women were able to provide prior to industrialisation.

And in pastoral societies, women were hardly ‘helpless babymaking machines’.

But then, posters here believe (in another thread) that poor women lack any ability to regulate how many children they have in absence of Western-style birth control when, again, there is extensive historical evidence otherwise.


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Mario Diana 01.25.10 at 2:07 am

yeem @ 10

Please, don’t put words in my mouth. By “helpless” I’m pointing out that outside of the social convention of pairing men and women into some kind of bond with the purpose of raising children, men would have just taken women at their pleasure and left — leaving them to worry about the kids. I have said nothing about the income women were able to provide, significant or otherwise. Moreover, are “the Pill” and safe abortions only a small advance over the birth control practiced in pastoral societies. The fact that such things are cited as sparking the Sexual Revolution, that’s just the savvy marketing of the pharmaceutical industry?

I get what you’re saying — “Yay womyn! Boo Western society!”



Mario Diana 01.25.10 at 2:22 am

Mr. Punch @ 9

I didn’t realize that was Andrew Sullivan’s argument. (I haven’t read his blog in a while, and I was never a regular reader.) The argument seems strange.

I’m all for marriage — as a romantic. But, in a legal sense I’m for variety. Like I said, I think the institution is fraying at the seams, and I don’t think there is any easy solution. I’m all for pragmatic experimentation; but not centralized experimentation. I think that we as a society should recognize that we’re in a period of transition, and we should allow for leeway. Maybe someday it would make sense to settle on one particular legal arrangement for marriage, but I don’t think any one “philosopher-king” is going to come up with it.


Ted 01.25.10 at 5:49 am

If people think the strength of the institution of marriage is dependent on constant state regulatory interventions, then marriage is already gone.


Ted 01.25.10 at 5:50 am

Andrew Sullivan is a hypocrite. I am still to understand how his Catholic gay marriage where he is still free to solicit online for bareback sex would work.


Phil 01.25.10 at 12:26 pm

Interesting. I’ve observed the case Tom S. linked to without any sympathy at all – I completely fail to understand how having a partnership ratified by the state under the name of civil marriage differs from having the same partnership ratified without the M-word. (I can understand people objecting to the form of words of the wedding service, and not only on religious grounds. The civil marriage ceremony says nothing about upholding patriarchy, though.) I think most people regard the civil union ceremony as a “gay wedding” – i.e. the equivalent of a straight marriage ceremony for people who are currently excluded from having one – not as a different and better ceremony which straights are excluded from. (Looking again at Tom S.’s comment, “most people” here includes Tom and Kat themselves, apparently. Now I’m confused.)

Anyway, the French experience seems to suggest that the “civil partnerships for straights” idea does have legs. Unless there are some differences I’m missing – presumably they do have civil marriage ceremonies in France? Is it just the greater ease of divorce?


Tim Worstall 01.25.10 at 12:31 pm

Gosh, the very idea that freedom of choice in contract might be a good idea.

Whatever next?


Phil 01.25.10 at 1:22 pm

I can’t really get excited about freedom of choice as between two state bureaucrats with slightly different forms of words.


ogmb 01.25.10 at 1:59 pm

If people think the strength of the institution of marriage is dependent on constant state regulatory interventions (…)

As opposed to regulatory intervention in the afterlife?


Zamfir 01.25.10 at 2:28 pm

Unless there are some differences I’m missing – presumably they do have civil marriage ceremonies in France?
For the Dutch situation, which looks from the outside pretty much the same as the French, it’s exactly the lack of ceremony that matters. People who do not really want to go through the ceremony, or just do not want to organize a party etc, can still get all the legal and tax benefits of marriage this way.

My partner and I might well get such a civil union soon, and it would feel mostly as a bureaucratic step. Later on, probably when we want to have kids, we can still get a “real” marriage that feels emotionally important but legally less so.

For a few years, civil unions were open to gays but marriages not. In those years, you saw gay civil unions being celebrated in the style of a marriage.


Phil 01.25.10 at 3:25 pm

People who do not really want to go through the ceremony, or just do not want to organize a party etc

…can be married by an anonymous clerk in a local government office in ten minutes flat, witnessed only by a couple of friends or (if preferred) a couple of strangers met in the waiting room. (Which is what my parents did, back in 1949.) Really, the British civil marriage ceremony is bureaucratic and perfunctory enough for anyone’s taste.


Zamfir 01.25.10 at 4:10 pm

Sure, but that’s still way more than filling out two forms and emailing them. And it takes a way the possibility of a big romantic emotional wedding later on.


Phil 01.25.10 at 4:40 pm

Not really – people very often have a “blessing” ceremony, sometimes attended by the kids. These days, in point of fact, people very often don’t bother with anything until several years down the line, and then have a wedding (sometimes attended by the kids).

I’m struggling here, because the premise seems to be that civil unions give you something which marriage also gives you but without the additional something which only marriage gives you, and I’m not sure what goes in the first box, let alone the second. We got married because we wanted to make a public commitment and have it witnessed by family and friends – and, er, that’s it. It gave my wife an alternative surname which she could use when she wanted to (hers often requires spelling out), but mostly she doesn’t. The only thing I’m aware of that actually changed afterwards was that her mother was willing to come and visit us, and I don’t think most people’s parents are moral enough to make that an issue.


Zamfir 01.25.10 at 4:54 pm

Phil, to some extent the power is that people really fill the boxes in for themselves, and the success of these unions shows that people value it. Different people put somewhat different things in the boxes.

In general, marriage has a strong emotional attachment that a civil union doesn’t have. For some people, it’s a positive attachment and they are glad they can postpone the ‘real’ marriage to a day that suits, while still having all the tax and legal benefits (which are not seen as the really important part of a marriage) .

For others, it’s the opposite, they associate a marriage with a heavy bind they don’t want. In my experience, some people who come from strict religious backgrounds are glad to avoid actual marriage.


mpowell 01.25.10 at 5:40 pm

With this sort of thing, the details matter a lot. If there is little legal difference between Pacs and Marriage than this is probably a good thing, but not a big deal. Conservatives might not like it, but even for the things that matter to them, it shouldn’t actually change anything.

However, offering alternative contracts that are similar to but different from marriage in significant ways can have socially significant outcomes. Those outcomes could be desirable or undesirable for both liberals and conservatives, but will probably depend on the specific social environment. For example, in the wrong conservative social environment offering a marriage like contract that did not include much financial protection for a lower earning partner in the case of divorce could be disastrous for women. On the other hand, maybe some states are ready to offer different alternatives that will actually lead to better gender equality. And you can probably tell just-so stories both ways, so it would probably take a lot of research to really get to the truth of the matter.

The conservatives are right that things are a changing. They couldn’t be more wrong that banning gay marriage will actually get them anything they want (aside from being able to be mean to gay people, of course). But the proliferation of alternative domestic arrangements, some of which will be recognized and supported by state law or corporate practice will have interesting social consequences.


Cobb 01.26.10 at 12:06 am

As a social Conservative, who prefers small government, I’m one who would rather the conversation not become a matter of law, especially not Constitutional law. My primary concern has always been that the sanction of the state to recognize whatever the people decide is a good enough relationship forces the hand of any church – which is exactly what is happening. The threat of civil unions is less so, because the presumption is that it doesn’t impinge on any social definition of marriage. When the term is conflated, churches are compelled to marry. Civil union is purely secular. Keep it that way. The threat to society will be weathered. Marriage is what survives.


Salient 01.26.10 at 12:29 am

When the term is conflated, churches are compelled to marry.

That — the way you use the word compelled — doesn’t make sense to me. A church isn’t legally compelled to marry anyone that the church doesn’t want to marry. Their hand is not forced. I mean… there are churches in my state which refuse to marry two persons of “heterogeneous ethnic heritage” and they don’t get in legal hot water for it. If they can do THAT in the 21st century, surely they can refuse to marry homosexual couples.

The reason this has to be a “legal” issue is many laws, e.g. regarding life insurance, explicitly refer to a “spouse” and the status of being “married” in the code. However much you’d like it differently, marriage is not religious. It’s a secular social contract and — even if we agree to the premise that marriage was at any time ever a sacrament under the sole authority of one religion, which we don’t — marriage has been secular at least since the days of allowing a justice of the peace to perform the ceremony.

OK, I won’t say any more because this is already wandering past the bounds of propriety into churlishness. Sorry for that; phrases like “threat to society” get under my skin. Language like that leads to, you know, countermeasures.


Kenny Easwaran 01.26.10 at 1:44 am

Does anyone know how the development of things like “covenant marriage” in Louisiana have affected marriage from the opposite side? I don’t know what the actual distinctions are between marriage and “covenant marriage”, though I believe the latter is harder to dissolve. How many people start out in a regular marriage and upgrade to a covenant marriage? Does the existence of a stronger alternative devalue the idea of ordinary marriage in a way that leads to either fewer people getting married (because they no longer think regular marriage is worth it, but also don’t feel ready for covenant marriage) or more people getting married (because the existence of a stronger alternative makes them think of ordinary marriage as more of a “trial period”)?


Kenny Easwaran 01.26.10 at 2:01 am

Also, as I recall, in New Jersey, civil unions are available to same-sex couples and to different-sex couples over the age of 62. (I don’t recall whether one or both partners have to be that old.) The mother of one of my friends was apparently involved with the lobbying that got the state to pass the law before any court required it, and I asked her why there was the exception. All she said was that sometimes people who enter a relationship after their spouses have died don’t want to get re-married, but want some sort of legal protection. Which didn’t explain to me why younger people wouldn’t want that sort of thing.


piglet 01.26.10 at 3:28 am

The way I remember it, some countries recognize “conjugal” relationships even without any ceremony. For example in Canada, if you have lived with a partner for one year you are automatically regarded as common-law partners. Many people are happy that way and don’t see any reason for a formal marriage. (There are significant differences to formal marriage: I have also made the experience in Québec that people used the terms “spouse” and “boyfriend/girlfriend” interchangeably.

At the same time Québec also has a civil union that is almost identical to marriage ( Choice is good.

As an aside to 26/27, in Europe since Napoleon’s reforms, marriages are not legally performed by church officials any more.


Phil 01.26.10 at 8:06 am

When the term is conflated, churches are compelled to marry. Civil union is purely secular. Keep it that way.

In the UK, civil marriages are purely secular – and a good thing too for the atheist population. Hence (partly) my confusion.


Pete 01.27.10 at 10:37 am

Phil: it’s more confusing than that: marriage ceremonies are either Anglican, religious (other), or secular (no religious content allowed). In addition to that, there are civil partnerships, which are subject to the secular rules of civil marriages, carried out in a registry office or other approved place. Civil partnerships are only for same-sex couples and marriages only for different-sex couples.

If you’re Anglican you don’t have to involve the registry office. If you’re (e.g.) Catholic, you hire the registrar to turn up with the book to sign at your wedding ceremony.

I know a couple who were married, one of whom changed gender, divorced, and rejoined as a civil partnership with their original spouse. I’m not sure whether they were required to do that to remain married but I believe so.


alex 01.27.10 at 10:55 am

@32 – blimey. Seems like a lot of bother to end up back where you started, but then, horses for courses.


KévinT 01.27.10 at 11:12 am

I think Henry is basing his analysis on a false premise:
Marriage in France is already a civil union.
The main differences between marriage the PACS are:
– the PACS can be between same-sex people.
– the PACS is easier, and cheaper, to get out of.

Of course, people can have a religious marriage on top of the civil marriage but it has no standing in the law.
And most (Christian) people who want some kind of religious ceremony go for a simple blessing ceremony, not the full-fledged marriage sacrament.

I must confess that I have a hard time understanding the US conception of marriage.


Gareth Rees 01.27.10 at 11:31 am

Seems like a lot of bother

It’s a (deliberate) consequence of the UK’s Gender Recognition Act 2004. If you’re married, you can’t legally change gender: you have to divorce first. Then, if you actually wanted to stay married in the first place, you can contract a civil partnership, but you have to wait for the Gender Recognition Certificate since civil partnership only applies to same-sex couples.

Extending marriage to same-sex couples would have avoided this little piece of absurdity: after all, it’s not like transsexuals don’t have enough bureaucratic hoops to jump through already.


Frances 01.27.10 at 12:52 pm

Trans gender persons were required to divorce before applying for a gender recognition certificate specifically in order to avoid creating a same sex marriage. Otherwise the bishops in the House of Lords would have kicked up a fuss when the legislation went through. No separation of church and state in godless UK.

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