Romantic Love and Double Standards

Out of all the arguments I see against same-sex marriage, the “kids need a mother and a father” argument seems to me to be one of the most specious, because it’s grounded in a massive double standard. We don’t force divorcees, or widows to marry again “for the sake of the children.” We don’t require it of single parents. There are plenty more examples—people in long-distance relationships with no specific plans to move in together, people with dangerous jobs or serious illnesses that make it more likely that any kids they have will lose a parent. Those people are absolutely allowed to get married. For that matter, people who are serving life sentences in jail are allowed to get married and could conceivably have children. Conjugal visits are only permitted in about six states, but if you live in one of those states, no one is going to prevent you from marrying and having a child with someone who’s extremely unlikely to be in that child’s life. (And in the other 44, prison doesn’t necessarily rule out artificial insemination.)

To my knowledge, there aren’t any campaigns to require single parents to marry or remarry, or to prevent people who can’t be around for their kids from having any. If they do exist, they certainly don’t have the same fervor, or the same financial backing, as campaigns working against same-sex marriage. That’s the double standard I’m talking about. If one of you has an M on your driver’s license and the other has an F, and you’re legal adults, not married to anyone else or related to each other, your freedom to marry is largely unrestricted. But if you’re a same-sex couple, suddenly we have to ask more questions. Suddenly we’re so worried about the children not being raised in “ideal” families.

Today, I read an Examiner article that took the “kids need a mother and a father” argument a little further. (The article was written by someone I’ve known online for more than a decade, and a good guy, so I’m going to shoot for very respectful criticism. Not that that isn’t *always* a good goal—I think “pretend the person you’re arguing with online is someone you actually like” would cut down the amount of vitriol on the internet substantially.)

Anyway, the central premise is that girls need a father figure to form a romantic attachment to a man. There’s a study mentioned (though not cited or described in enough detail to make it easy to find):

A recent study of women has made a connection between romantic love and the relationships they had with their fathers. There is a tendency for women to have this attractive reaction to men who exhibit personality traits consistent with those of their fathers, whether or not they had good relationships with those fathers, and in fact for women with bad father relationships to fall into bad relationships of a very similar sort.

The argument from this is that, without a father as a template for the kind of man she’s supposed to be attracted to, a woman won’t be able to form romantic attachments, or at least will have that ability somewhat hampered. The exact phrasing is “It suggests that for women to have a romantic attraction of that sort toward a man, she has to have had a male father figure in her life.”

But that’s not what the study actually says. For a study to show something of that nature, the logical thing to do would be to compare the romantic relationships of women who grew up with a father in their life and those who didn’t and see if the women who didn’t had weaker attractions or were less likely to have romantic relationships. If I were designing that study, I’d want to try for a good sample of children of divorce, children of single parents, women whose fathers had passed away, and children of lesbians to try to eliminate any confounding variables related to family upheaval. I’d also want to track whether the women whose fathers were absent had any other paternal figures, like an uncle or grandfather, they were close to. There’s no indication that the study even looked at women without a father or father figure, so it’s really stretching to attribute the idea that women need a father figure to form romantic attachments to it.

What it does say is that we get our ideas of what makes a good partner—and what’s normal in relationships—from our parents’ relationships. As the summary puts it:

“There is a tendency for women to have this attractive reaction to men who exhibit personality traits consistent with those of their fathers, whether or not they had good relationships with those fathers, and in fact for women with bad father relationships to fall into bad relationships of a very similar sort.”

To me, this absolutely does not say that any male-female relationship is automatically a better place to raise children than a same-sex relationship. How could it, when it doesn’t even address same sex relationships? What it does say is that women are frequently attracted to men with similar personality traits to their fathers. To me, this suggests that if a woman marries a jerk and has kids with him, her daughter is likely to view “jerk” as the male default and (if she’s straight) probably end up with a jerk herself.

As another issue, if we’re assuming male-female relationships are the ideal, we’re hoping, as our ideal, that gay people will marry members of the opposite sex. Since reparative therapy hasn’t shown any indication of being able to change people’s orientation, this means that a marriage where one partner has no attraction to the other and the relationship is based on a lie is viewed as a good thing, because no matter how dysfunctional or dishonest it might be, it fits the ideal family structure. (I know people who’ve been in mixed orientation marriages, and it’s not anything like an ideal. In one woman’s case, it shredded her self-confidence horribly, which is about what you’d expect for anyone who found out their partner had never been attracted to them.)

But I get the impression that the anti-gay-marriage argument isn’t terribly concerned with whether any of these individual relationships are happy. After all, if it’s for the good of the children, that outweighs any concerns like whether their parents love each other. However, the study itself suggests potential fallout for the children of those relationships. It would indicate that women whose parents were in a mixed orientation marriage will pick partners with traits like “lies to me about really important things” or “isn’t attracted to me at all, but wants me to fix him.” The one thing the study does indicate is that girls whose parents have bad relationships are likely to have relationships that go off the rails in a similar way themselves. So in light of this study, the absolute *last* thing to encourage is that any male-female pair, regardless of the quality of the relationship, is inherently a better place to raise children than a same-sex one.

Since I made a pretty strong statement about “don’t marry a jerk” a few paragraphs back, I don’t want to imply that I think a gay person who marries someone of the opposite sex, even dishonestly, is automatically a bad person. It’s a harmful decision, I don’t think there’s any question about that, but it’s also a decision with a huge amount of social pressure behind it. That’s not to let someone who lies, cheats, or emotionally abuses their partner off the hook for their own actions either—just to say that there are multiple victims and plenty of blame to go around.

But all of that is just assuming that the study was well designed, well controlled, and that it’s findings were significant. Depending on which personality traits you use and how you’re measuring them, you might get very different results. Since I don’t have the study itself, I have no idea if they did a good job of that or not.

There’s also a huge amount of gender essentialism in the article (no surprise, since the “traditional marriage” argument is all about gender roles):

We might suppose that such a girl attaches to one of her two female parents and identifies that one as the putative “father”. That would mean that her romantic baseline would be looking for a man who had the qualities which attracted her to a female parent. It is not even clear at this point that a young girl could make such an identification of a female parent as the surrogate father. Nor is it clear what kind of man might have those qualities.

The implication is that men and women are such completely different sorts of people that marrying a guy with a similar personality to your mom is about as likely as getting a dog with a similar personality to your first cat. And yet, while trying to find the referenced study (with no success), I found several articles about the idea that women are attracted to men like their fathers (or vice versa with men and their mothers). (One from CNN, one from the Daily Mail, and one from The Telegraph.)

These studies talked about either facial similarities or about pretty general aspects of personality that apply to both men and women. The CNN article, for example, describes one woman whose husband shared her father’s “emotional distance” and his angry temper, another whose husband and father are both interested in politics and the stock market, and a third who has a very similar sense of humor to her mother-in-law. None of these are sex-specific traits, so not having a parent of the opposite sex doesn’t necessarily prevent looking for a parent’s traits in an opposite-sex partner. If the study had actually included same-sex families, there might have been some data to see how or if that happens.

For that matter, I don’t know if the study controlled for the *mother’s* personality at all, and people do often marry similar people. You would need to demonstrate that women are attracted to men who have characteristics of their fathers that are *not* shared by their mothers to demonstrate that women go for men who are like their dads, rather than women choose partners who remind them in some way of one or both parents.

Another quibble I have with this article is the way it talks about same-sex families with a lot of “We might suppose” language, as though there aren’t actual same-sex families on which sociological research could be (and has been) done, rather than making assumptions based on opposite-sex parents. That level of supposition implies that there isn’t any research out there on children of same-sex couples, and we have no idea whatsoever how they might be affected. That ties right into the conclusion, which has some pretty dramatic rhetoric: “We do not know what kind of impact a different model will have on children. Is it worth the price to our children to change to another model without examining it more carefully first?”

First off, the default for child-raising is still very likely to be opposite sex couples, both because straight people outnumber gay people by 9 to 1 or more, and because having a child “the old-fashioned way” is a lot easier and less expensive than anything involving artificial insemination. If Wikipedia is accurate, same-sex marriages make up about 4% of the total marriages in Massachusetts, a pretty tiny minority. The idea of “changing to another model” totally ignores those demographics. At 4%, same-sex couples are likely even a minority of couples without a parent of each sex in the home, once you take divorce, death, and single parenthood into account.

Secondly, there’s again the implication that same-sex couples aren’t already raising children, that this is some new thing that has never been done, something with completely unknown consequences. Vermont has had civil unions since 2000, and Massachusetts has had same-sex marriage for more than a decade, and it was the sixth jurisdiction to allow it, not the first. (That distinction goes to the Netherlands, in 2001.) Not to mention that raising children and being legally married aren’t the same thing. The first gay couples who petitioned for the right to marry in the US did so in the *1970s*, and I seriously doubt that none of them raised kids. There are a number of studies on children of same-sex couples, and the only one that found anything negative, the Regnerus study, was dodgy to say the least.

And again, even if outcomes *were* better for children in opposite-sex families than in same-sex ones, those couples are still the only ones expected to “prove” that their relationship is “ideal” before they’re allowed to get married. The chance of divorce is higher for young couples and lower for college graduates, but that doesn’t mean the legal marriage age should be 25, or that people should be required to finish college before getting married. No one is pushing to ban any less-than-ideal opposite-sex marriages. In a free country, individuals should be able to make personal decisions based on what they want for their own lives, even if it doesn’t meet someone else’s ideal.

2 thoughts on “Romantic Love and Double Standards

  1. Love this. It touches on a topic I’ve commented on and need to turn into a post – this same rhetoric is used to persuade divorced moms to accept any kind of visitation/custody agreement with any type of father — even if the father is physically, emotionally abusive, has a record of dangerous or criminal behavior or — merely inattentive. “They” always point to studies that show that kids do better when they’ve had contact with a father. These studies completely ignore same sex families where, as far as I’ve always heard, the kids usually do fine. These “studies” also negate the quality of the mother. Perhaps if the mother is bad (insert whatever traits would work here) the kids will likely have more issues than kids who have an attentive mother. The “a woman needs a dad to know how to love a man” sounds a little incestuous to me. Being taught how not to be used and to demand respect in a relationship can be taught by any gender and you don’t have to share DNA. I have a good dad. I still married a — not such a good man. And that goes both ways. Those girls searching for their missing daddy might be doing so because their mom taught them that their life is incomplete with out a man or that you have to be lucky to have one. Maybe they were never taught to walk away from a bad situation. Maybe they were taught that any man is better than no man. And also these “studies” never address widows or military wives whose children can go months or years without contact with their biological dad. It’s all stats, and stats only answer the question asked, or more likely the answer desired.

    The control group is never quite right.

    • KellyK says:

      Yeah. you make a good point about divorced women being pressured to keep their kids in contact with their dad regardless of the kind of parent he is. I think you’re right that it’s part of the same thing—a lot of gender essentialism and tons of sexism. (I’d be very curious to know whether divorced dads who have primary custody get the same sort of pressure—my guess would be that they don’t.)

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