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Jane Ahlin, Published February 08 2014

Ahlin: Consider new attitudes about love and marriage

Ah, Valentine’s Day: What’s not to love about hearts, flowers and chocolate? What’s not to love about love, or, for that matter, about love and marriage, which, let’s be honest, do not “go together like a horse and carriage”? I remember singing those silly lyrics as a child, thinking they were wonderful. Much later I realized the lyricist must have been desperate for a rhyme. No question the catchy tune saved the tortured lyrics.

Interestingly, the song “Love and Marriage” was premiered by Frank Sinatra for a 1955 TV presentation of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town” featured on “Producer’s Showcase.” Set in the early years of the 20th century, “Our Town” has timeless themes, in no small way affirming the powerful role love plays in ordinary lives.

Thornton Wilder, himself, was a bachelor. Although there’s no dispute among critics about his homosexuality, Wilder stayed closeted and left no letters or journals about love affairs. Yet “Our Town” showed that he viewed love as a creative force. Perhaps Valentine’s Day is a good opportunity to consider that our collective attitudes toward love and marriage for same-sex couples have changed dramatically for the better. The cautionary point in this happy expansion of marriage is one of economics. More and more, overall marriage rates reflect affluence.

Begin by going back. More than three decades ago, I was talking over the backyard fence to a neighbor I’ll call Esther, whose partner I’ll call Elise. Everybody in the neighborhood knew that Esther and Elise were a couple, but they – and we – pretended that we didn’t know. They were middle-aged and highly educated, with good careers, aging parents to care for, a large house and yard, and a social group that revolved around golf. Esther had health problems that made a move to a different climate advisable, and the two of them were planning for early retirement to facilitate that move.

On that long-ago day when Esther and I were talking over the fence, the subject of waterbeds came up. (Yes, this story is so last century that waterbeds were popular.) She mentioned how much more comfortable their waterbed with baffles was for the two of them than a previous waterbed had been. When she realized what she had said, she got a panicked look on her face and hastened to add that Elise slept with her when they had company who slept in Elise’s bed. Not surprisingly, the rest of our conversation was awkward. It was the first time I realized the fine line Esther and Elise walked every day of their lives, self-censoring about matters great and small to maintain a fiction society found acceptable. And it was the first time that I felt real shame for the way society marginalized such good and decent people

We didn’t stay in touch with Esther and Elise after we moved. I’d like to think that, if they still are living, they live where it’s legal to marry and that they’ve enjoyed a public celebration of their long-lasting love. Then again, they found a way to build a wonderful life together without society’s stamp of approval. Maybe they don’t care.

The cultural tide has turned on granting legal rights for gay and lesbian couples to link love and marriage, although the change will take a while to play out in all the states. The future of marriage rates across the population is more puzzling.

According to Pew research, in 1960, 72 percent of adults over the age of 18 were married. Today, although divorce rates have not increased over the past few decades, the figure is only 51 percent. In 1960, the marriage rates were the same for rich and poor, highly educated or not. Today those with education and affluence are much more likely to marry than those without. No doubt changed attitudes toward sex, single motherhood, and the right age to marry play a role. However, that’s not the whole story.

In “Our Town” Thornton Wilder showed love and marriage as elevating ordinary life and making the inevitability of aging tolerable. To marry was to live in hope. What does it mean if half the adult population views that notion as frivolous?

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.