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Who Needs Civil Unions?

A recent front-page article in The New York Times looks at how civil unions are gaining on marriage as the preferred method of commitment for heterosexual couples in France. (For homosexual couples, it is their only choice) The pacte civil de solidarité, known as PACS, have become increasingly common over the last 10 years with heterosexual couples, who made up 95% of the 173,045 registered civil unions in 2009.

Some of the couples explain their choice as a generational thing, explaining that marriage, and divorce, was for their parents. They think of marriage as being “very institutional, very square and religious” and that civil unions feel freer. This is despite the fact, as the story reports, that French marriage ceremonies are held in town halls with no religious aspect to them.

Though this dislike for marriage doesn’t seem to be stopping them from taking part in a number of traditions long associated with marriage.

It long ago became common here to speak of “getting PACSed” (se pacser, in French). More recently, wedding fairs have been renamed to include the PACS, department stores now offer PACS gift registries and travel agencies offer PACS honeymoon packages.

By the end of the article, I am unclear as to what exactly they are rebelling against, and what the real difference is. They are filing as partners with the government, going through a ceremony, even perhaps receiving gifts and taking a honeymoon. The only real difference, it seems, is that it is easier to separate — the partnership is dissolved with a registered letter.

As a married person and a child of divorce I happen to think that making people feel a bit stuck once in awhile is one of marriage’s strengths, not weaknesses. Also, divorce is usually complicated because the two people getting divorced make it that way. While these PACs might be officially evaporated with just a letter, that doesn’t mean that arguments over who gets the kids, the house and all those gifts from the PACs registry will be as easily resolved.

There was a debate recently in the blogosphere between DoubleX’s Amanda Marcotte who says she doesn’t care if marriage dies out, and would like to see research comparing the lives of married people with the lives of others in long-term, committed relationships. Marcotte suspects that all the reported social and health benefits of marriage would carry over to those in long-term committed relationships. Andrew Sullivan, after quoting [Jim Manzi’s] (http://theamericanscene.com/2010/12/09/can-we-prove-that-marriage-improves-behavior) response to Marcotte, responds with:

I’m with Jim on this, for what it’s worth. It’s why I support marriage equality. Why dream up a new institution — civil unions/domestic partnerships/civil partnerships — when there’s a perfectly good one sitting around?

I think the same question can be asked of the PACs in France. Long-term commitments are hard no matter how you slice and dice and them, and by changing the title, or minimizing the bureaucratic process of dissolving them, is really not going to make much of a difference in how they play out in real life.

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