08/15/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Marital Mentality #2: The More Profound Historic Change

Previously, I started to describe the historic changes that are occurring around the way we think about marriage and single life. The first set of transformative changes, discussed in my last post, focus on marriage itself. How important is it to your life experiences whether you ever marry and if so, whether your marriage ends? How important is it to children's fate whether they are raised in a 1-parent or a 2-parent home (or some other type)? What's striking about these questions is that they are being raised at all. Once upon a time, there was little or no debate over these issues. Now, the consensus that has been so unquestioned for so long is beginning to dissolve. That's historic.

The cultural confrontations over same-sex marriage are part of this first set of historic changes. Proponents ask why they have to be with an other-sex partner in order to have access to all of the benefits, protections, and respect that comes with legal marriage. Opponents balk at the threat to what they regard as the very definition of marriage.

All of that is small stuff compared to the second change, a true paradigm shift. Finally, what may be a critical mass of thinkers and critics, with and without formal credentials, has suggested a complete de-centering from marriage and coupling. Their question is, why should you have to be any kind of a couple to have access to basic rights, protections, dignity, and respect?

The old paradigm puts marriage at the center of our society and our individual lives. The law still treats it as the gateway to privilege, and citizens -- and not just the most traditional ones -- treat it like an elite social club that accords status. The United States is the odd-nation-out in this regard. As Nancy Polikoff noted in her important book:

"No other Western country, including those that allow same-sex couples to marry, creates the rigid dividing line between the law for the married and the law for the unmarried that exists in the United States (p. 2)."

Polikoff is among those leading the revolution in our thinking. Rather than focusing on marriage and who should get let into the club, she suggests, we should "start by identifying what all families need and then seek just laws and policies to meet those needs (p. 7)." (Personally, I'd substitute "individuals" for "families," but we both favor a broad vision over a narrow one.)

It is especially important to see the big picture now that Americans are spending more years of their adult lives unmarried than married. The relevant questions in contemporary American society are not, are you married and to whom, but:

• Who are the important people in your life?
• What are the defining passions and pursuits of your life?
• What makes your life meaningful and worthwhile?
• What particular combination of solitude and sociability is most conducive to your best work and your most significant contributions to society?

It is not just in our laws and policies, but in our everyday interactions with friends, family, neighbors, co-workers, and people in the street, that these kinds of considerations should be paramount. [Continue reading here at the Living Single blog at Psychology Today.]