05/17/2011 08:59 am ET Updated Jul 17, 2011

David Valdes Greenwood : Making Marriage Cool Again: Divorce Rates and the Real Effect of Same-Sex Marriage

2011-05-17-GreenwoodDavidValdes.JPGBy David Valdes Greenwood

Seven years ago today, the first same-sex nuptials were legalized in Massachusetts, occasioning reactions that ran the gamut from teary-eyed joy to furious disbelief. Soon after, my husband and I adopted a baby girl, and have busied ourselves ever since with things like teaching her to walk and to write the alphabet. Outside our domestic bubble, the airwaves have been thick with dire warnings from preachers and politicos who argue that marriages like ours will soon cause the collapse of the entire institution, leaving behind an amoral world of incest and bestiality. But the passage of time has not only defied these predictions; it has proved the opposite to be true: marriage has gotten stronger.

If you are concerned about the "threat" to marriage posed by letting gays in on the deal, the most recent picture from the National Center for Vital Statistics should be heartening. Statistically speaking, marriages today are more enduring and less fragile than they used to be: the average number of divorces nationwide has dropped for four years in a row. Moreover, since same-sex marriage was legalized, the number of divorces granted to Americans per year has fallen by nearly 40,000.

Not all states are equally enjoying these patterns--Massachusetts couples are divorcing less than couples in any other state. That's right, according to the most complete statistics available, the nation's lowest divorce rate is to be found at the epicenter of gay marriage. In contrast, the highest divorce rate (over three times the rate in Massachusetts) is found in Nevada, a state which reacted to marriages like mine by passing a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.

Other titillating contrasts exist: Iowa, corn-fed vanguard of same-sex marriage in the Midwest, has the second lowest state divorce rate in the country, coming in at less than half the rate of Arkansas, which has the second-highest rate of divorce, despite the fact that its resident same-sex partners not only cannot marry but cannot adopt children together.

I can already hear the howls of protest which these figures will draw from the anti-equality crowd. Riled-up traditionalists will cry that one simply cannot draw easy cause-and-effect links between gay marriage and marriage rates overall. As a matter of science, I think that's absolutely true--but, of course, I wasn't the one who started making such comparisons in the first place. It wasn't my community that initially began flooding homes with print and television ads linking same-sex marriage to measurable social effects.

The standard rhetorical construction for those claims has always been something like "If we allow gays to marry, then it will lead directly to [fill in the blank with some terrible new thing]." The imagined outcomes used to complete that line have grown increasingly more wild with the passage of time, including predictions that same-sex marriage will lead us to the warehousing of children, or weddings between humans and their furniture, or even--why not?--android sex. Despite the ludicrousness of such rhetoric, I do take one small shred of comfort from the existence of such claims: they indicate that our society is deeply engaged in a heated cultural conversation about this topic, and that in itself is a kind of progress.

I would argue that this might well be the clearest connection to be drawn between same-sex unions and the falling divorce rate: the gay marriage movement has ignited a new national discussion of why we think marriage is valuable. Those who can't marry have had to become more articulate about what they feel the institution offers legally and emotionally, and thus why they need it so badly. Those who don't wish to expand marriage have had to examine why traditional marriage feels so sacred to them and thus should not be extended to others. In the end, more than at any other time in the last forty years, the success of this institution has become a shared value in our culture.

So far, I find that I share very little ideologically with most of the likely 2012 GOP Presidential candidates. But Michelle Bachmann inadvertently validated my marriage by saying that, when it comes to the nation's success, nothing can match "the power of an intact, two-parent family." It's a stump claim echoed variously by Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, and Rick Santorum. If they all do truly believe it, then perhaps the best thing they could do for our country would be to legalize same-sex unions everywhere, yielding more families like mine, which would then make everybody better off.

I know what I'll tell my daughter about this moment in history when she is old enough to understand: Her dads didn't threaten marriage at all--we just made it cool again.

David Valdes Greenwood chronicled same-sex marriage for the Boston Globe Magazine and in Homo Domesticus: Notes from a Same-Sex Marriage, the first memoir of legal same-sex marriage. He co-authors the "Family Gaytriarchs" blog at Read his blog on Red Room.