Gay marriage and its close relation civil partnership are once again in the news. In the US, the New York State senate passed the Marriage Equality Act, legalising same-sex marriage, which took effect on 24 July, and in the UK, the Office of National Statistics recently revealed the rate of dissolutions of civil partnership increased between 2009 to 2010 by 44%.
It appears we are faced with a surge of enthusiasm for legalised gay unions on one side of the Atlantic and, only five years after civil partnerships became legal in the UK, an apparent loss of faith in the institution in this country. This is at a time that the rate of divorce fell in the UK. Why do the statistics appear to show a disparity between such two similar institutions?
Well first, because there are significantly fewer civil partnered couples than married couples, any change in the number of dissolutions will cause a bigger percentage change than that of divorces - so the statistics will look far more dramatic.
With divorces and dissolutions of civil partnerships, we are looking at two very different situations. Not so much in relation to the legal process or the domestic tragedy of a breakdown of a relationship, but with regards to the historical context. And with statistics, this matters.
Considered in marketing terms, marriage is a mature market, whereas civil partnership is an emerging market. Heterosexual couples have been able to marry since time immemorial and therefore most heterosexual people in this country have grown up with the expectation that they should be able to marry the person with whom they fall in love. This means that, of those divorcing couples, some may only been married a year while others have been married for half a lifetime or more. This contrasts with the situation for gay couples, for whom civil partnerships have only been possible relatively recently. Although the duration of the relationships behind the civil partnerships may vary considerably, the length of the civil partnership itself, by necessity, is short.
The increase in dissolutions statistic should also be viewed from an emotional dimension. Most gay people grew up knowing that they would never be able to stand up in front of their friends and families and declare their love and intention to remain with their partner for life and have that union recognised in the eyes of the law. With the advent of civil partnerships, many gay couples may have found themselves borne along by a wave of enthusiasm for this new found right, when in a calmer climate they may have chosen to wait to formalise their relationship. It is difficult to establish how many people entered into a civil partnership in the early, and perhaps less stable, stages of a relationship and how many had already proved to have an enduring relationship before formalising their union. I would venture to suggest a fair few which may explain the statistics.
We do not need to look far back in history to see a comparable situation, where a minority won the right to formalise their unions (albeit in the US rather than the UK). In 1967 the aptly named US case of Loving v Virginia challenged a State's right to criminalise interracial marriage. Following the US Supreme Court's decision that interracial marriage could not be a criminal offence in the United States there was a 448% increase in interracial marriages between 1967 and 1970, just as the UK saw an initial big surge of enthusiasm for civil partnerships after their introduction. History does not relate how many of these marriages, five years later, came to an end.
For heterosexual couples, it is not just the rate of divorce that has dropped over the last few years in the UK but also the rate of marriage. With the drop in marriages, it appears that heterosexual couples may be turning more towards cohabitation. In the past, convention meant that if couples wanted to live together and/ or raise a family they would have to get married, whether or not they envisaged their union lasting a lifetime. If the decision to cohabit rather than marry reflects the anticipation that the union will not be permanent, this may help explain the drop in the divorce rate.
For the next generation of gay men and women growing up in an environment in which civil partnership will always have been available, I suspect that enthusiasm for civil partnerships may wane as it finds its natural level and the rate of dissolution drops along with it (in a comparable manner to that of marriage and divorce).
In UK it appears that the next battleground will be over the right to use the word "marriage" for gay unions. Given that the financial rights and responsibilities provided by heterosexual marriage and civil partnerships are, to all intents and purposes, identical, this is more of an ideological battle than a battle for rights. However, that is not to understate its importance. Civil partnership is often described as being "separate but equal" to marriage. A phrase coincidentally coined by US legislators to support the doctrine of racial segregation. Many people have questioned whether separate can ever truly mean equal.
When that fight for the right to have true "gay marriage" is won (as I believe it inevitably will be), it may be that there will be another upsurge of enthusiasm for legalised gay unions.