Perhaps more powerful, this generation of gay couples is modeling an affirmative approach to marriage — and assigning a respectful significance to it — that straight couples often do not. How often, after all, are longtime heterosexual couples forced to ask (let alone answer): If you had to renew the lease on your marriage in midlife, would you do it? Would you legally bind yourself to this same person all over again? By embracing an institution that straight people take for granted, they are, to use Bradbury’s word, making a “purposive” decision rather than falling into an arrangement by default.
Whether same-sex marriages will prove as stable as different-sex marriages (or more so, or less so) remains to be seen. In Europe, the dissolution rates of gay unions are higher. But here, according to Badgett’s work, the opposite appears to be true, at least for now. This doesn’t surprise Cherlin. “We have a backlog of couples who’ve been together a long time,” he says. “I’m guessing they’ll be more stable.” This first wave of midlife gay marriages seems to be celebrating that stability; they’re about relationships that have already proven durable, rather than sending off untested, fresh-faced participants in a fingers-crossed bon voyage. What stood between these couples and the institution of marriage wasn’t a lack of desire. It was the parsimony of the law. “Half of all divorces occur within first seven to ten years,” Cherlin points out. “These couples are already at low risk.”