What Does Marriage Mean to You: A Case Study in the Art and Science of Framing

“Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. As a result, they shape the goals we seek, the plans we make, the way we act, and what counts as a good or bad outcome of our actions. In politics our frames shape our social policies and the institutions we form to carry out policies. To change our frames is to change all of this. Reframing is social change.”

-George Lakoff (Don’t Think of an Elephant, xv)[1]

Don't Think of an ElephantGeorge Lakoff, the cognitive linguist who pioneered the study of framing and its influence on people, has not only written extensively on the science of framing, but also about how politicians and activists, specifically progressives, can use framing to change the public discourse. One such writing is Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, which was published in 2004 specifically as a guide for progressives to change the political debate at the time by reframing the issues from the conservative’s framework to the progressive’s. As Lakoff said, reframing is social change. This small book was about the art, not the science, of framing.

In this book, Lakoff examined several examples of political and social issues, breaking down the current framing and making recommendations about how progressives could reframe an issue to their advantage. One such example was marriage equality. “What’s in a word?” Lakoff asked. “Plenty, if the word is marriage.”[2]

Lakoff broke down how the opposition in the marriage equality debate had framed the issue at the time as a matter of marriage’s sanctity and the definition as between one man and one woman. [By the way, using the term ‘marriage equality’, rather than ‘same-sex marriage’ is intentional — it is frame!] But Lakoff explains, “As anthropological studies of American marriage have shown, they got the definition wrong. Marriage, as an ideal, is defined as, “the realization of love through lifelong public commitment.” Love is sacred in America. So is commitment. There is sanctity in marriage: It is the sanctity of love and commitment.”[3]

And so Lakoff gave his recommendation of what to say to counter the opposition’s argument about marriage equality as, “I believe in equal rights, period. I don’t think the state should be in the business of telling people who they can or can’t marry. Marriage is about love and commitment, and denying lovers the right to marry is a violation of human dignity.”[4]

Marriage is about love and commitment. That was the proposed frame. And in the end it worked. It just took the marriage equality movement a few years to figure this out and take it one step further.

Back in October I wrote about how the organization Freedom to Marry reframed their campaign to win marriage equality in the US around why marriage matters.

Marc Solomon, the National Campaign Director of Freedom to Marry, wrote in his book ‘Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couple Took on the Politicians and Pundits—And Won,’ about how the new strategy for the campaign was adopted in 2009 to specifically address the issue of framing the campaign away from legal arguments to something that would resonate with the voters. “Our opponent’s best message point had long been that gays wanted to “redefine” marriage. But we didn’t want to “redefine” it; we wanted to join it,” Solomon explains. “The core of marriage is love and commitment, and that applies to both gay and straight couples.”[5]

Thalia Zepatos, the Director of Research and Messaging of Freedom to Marry, explains in more depth how this reframing came about in a video posted last December on FiveThirtyEight.

In this video, Zepatos not only explains how powerful reframing the debate around love and commitment was — a frame that Lakoff knew would be effective 5 years earlier — but how Freedom to Marry found a way to frame the issue in ways that would resonate with specific audiences.

Framing is one way of practicing another principle of effective communication, to connect to the audience on its terms. Freedom to Marry, using data collected from these different communities, framed marriage to each community they were communicating with “based on their own values.”

Look at some of the examples Zepatos outlined:

  • In the Southern Baptist community, Freedom to Marry spoke about church values. In one ad, a young African American woman shown with her partner and daughter says, “Everyone wants to believe that if you do what you are supposed to do your family will be taken care of. But we don’t have that safeguard.”
  • In the Latino community, Freedom to Marry hosted cross-generational conversations among families. In one ad, a Latino man speaks into the camera interspersed with clips of his family and says, “In New Mexico we respect every family.”
  • Freedom to Marry spoke to how older people view marriage as opposed to younger people. In one ad, an older man sitting with his wife and holding her hand says, “The world is changing. Gay and lesbian people want to get married for the same reason that I wanted to marry my wife.”

Freedom to Marry found out what mattered to each community and connected to them on their terms to persuade them to support the freedom to marry. And it worked. The marriage equality became law in the United States on June 26, 2015.


The marriage equality campaign achieved victory more quickly and effectively than any other equal rights campaign in the United States. This happened so quickly in large part because the issue was reframed from being about legal rights to love and commitment, about WHY marriages matters as opposed to what it has been in the past. And also because the marriage equality campaign connected to its audiences on their terms by framing the issue in ways that resonated with those particular audiences they wanted to persuade. This is the reason public opinion turned so rapidly in favor of marriage equality. Without either of these things happening, without reframing the issue and connecting to these audiences on their terms, thousands and thousands of couples would likely still be fighting for their love and commitment to be recognized by their state and their country.

Reframing is social change. That was in the case of marriage equality. Imagine the marriage equality movement taken Lakoff’s advice and framed the marriage around love and commitment five years earlier. Perhaps love would have won in the US even sooner.

This blog is part of a series “Lessons in Communication from a Dancer,” which uses principles and skills of dance as a way to better understand the key principles of effective communication.


[1] Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Pub., 2004: xv.
[2] Lakoff: 46.
[3] Lakoff: 50.
[4] Lakoff: 50.
[5] Solomon, Marc. Winning Marriage: The Inside Story of How Same-Sex Couples Took on the Politicians and Pundits — And Won. Lebonon, NH: U of New England, 2014: 231.