Gay marriage? Great. Marriage? Meh.
According to findings released Thursday by the federal government, Americans are warming to the idea of same-sex marriage even as they grow more apathetic about the role marriage, of any sort, should play in regulating family and behavior.
Newly released data from the National Survey of Family Growth, conducted from 2011 to 2013 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, show a decided increase in support of same-sex adoption and relations, but ambivalence about the sexual mores that once governed marriage.
Among women ages 15 to 44, those who agree or strongly agree that same-sex relations are “all right” has increased from 42 percent in 2002 to 60 percent in 2011-13. Men of that age cohort are evenly split on the question — with 49 percent for and 50 percent against — but the numbers are rapidly trending in the same direction.
The survey shows an even more striking shift in attitudes over the past decade on whether same-sex couples should have the right to adopt children. While 55 percent of women in 2002 said they were in favor of such a right, that number ballooned to more than 75 percent. Among men, support for same-sex adoption has swelled to 68 percent, up from 47 percent in 2002.
Cathy Sakimura, director of family law for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said the attitude shift is the result of a growing recognition that same-sex couples are no different from their opposite-sex counterparts.
“The conversation across the country that has been happening in people’s homes as these issues have arisen, as well as media coverage and sharing of people’s stories, has allowed people to see same-sex parents and their children like any other,” said Ms. Sakimura, who this month represented a lesbian woman in her successful Supreme Court appeal to have her adoption recognized.
But as Americans look to extend the hallmarks of family life to recently marriageable same-sex couples, the survey also shows a disassociation of marriage from family life.
The stigma of single-sex parenting continues to be erased, with 78 percent of female respondents in the survey saying it is OK for an unmarried woman to have a child, up from 70 percent in 2002.
Roughly three-fourths of both sexes say there is no problem with cohabiting parents raising a child out of wedlock. Young people especially tend to view cohabitation as a trial run for marriage, with 64 percent of female and 68 percent of male respondents ages 25 to 34 saying it can help prevent divorce down the road.
Peter Sprigg, senior fellow for policy studies at the Family Research Council, said acceptance of same-sex marriage and the decay of norms that governed the marital union are part of the larger sexual revolution.
“But, at the same time, I think greater acceptance of the homosexual movement tends to reinforce the breakdown of traditional norms with regard to sexual behavior among heterosexuals as well,” Mr. Sprigg said. “I think the two things are mutually self-reinforcing.”
Even though marriage is no longer seen as tied to sex and child-rearing, the survey shows attitudes toward divorce have soured. While 47 percent of women and 44 percent of men in 2002 said divorce is “usually the best option” for couples struggling to get by, those numbers have dropped to 38 percent and 39 percent, respectively.
Mr. Sprigg speculated that attitudes toward divorce have been shaped by Americans who have grown up in broken households.
“People have seen the wreckage of families that have been devastated by divorce and the lie that this is somehow better for adults and their children,” he said.
Although he was heartened by the figures showing heightened aversion toward divorce, Mr. Sprigg lamented that young people are not being properly equipped to form lasting marriages.
“I think it is very unfortunate,” he said. “The idea that cohabitation will somehow prevent divorce has been completely debunked by the social science. We have a lot of research on that, and it’s quite clear that people who cohabit before marriage and more likely to get divorced, not less.”
Ms. Sakimura said insofar as acceptance for same-sex couples has increased, the changing norms surrounding marriage have been a net positive. As for the other trends, she said, they are not necessarily good or bad.
“I think the reality is just that society’s changing,” she said.