Do You or Don’t You? July 7th, 2010
Last week I picked up a copy of Newsweek at the gym and read this article on marriage as I pedaled away on the elliptical machine. With my wedding band firmly affixed to my sweating left hand I read two women’s assertions as to why today’s woman doesn’t need marriage as her mother and grandmother did. Further, authors Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison argue that the institution is an utterly outmoded thing of the past.
The statistics in their article collectively make a good case:
- We can support ourselves without a man’s salary.
- Americans have the highest divorce rate in the Western world.
- For every year that we delay marriage our chances of divorce go down.
- Due in large part to the efforts of same-sex couples, heterosexual couples now enjoy more rights as an unmarried couple than ever before.
- With 41% of 2008’s births coming from unwed mothers the stigma attached to having children out of wedlock has almost completely lost its stigma.
These and other points in the article did not surprise me. I don’t have to look around for very long to see that the landscape of the American family isn’t today what it was for Ward and June Cleaver or for Cliff and Claire Huxtible. What did surprise me was my own reaction to the premise that marriage isn’t necessary. I didn’t disagree with it.
I am happily married. Once GAP and I had been dating for several years and knew that our futures would be forged together, it never entered my mind not to get married. It was, without question, what we wanted. The wedding lived up to all of the romantic ideals of my girlhood. And the marriage has seen better, worse, richer, poorer, sickness, and health. As I sit here today I cannot envision a life in which GAP and I are in a committed, monogamous relationship but not married. Yet I cannot articulate why.
As I read the Newsweek article I found myself with neither words to defend my decision to marry, nor a desire to defend it in the first place. By the time I reached its conclusion my thoughts trended along the lines of, “Hmmm. Well I guess it’s not for everyone.” It was in the same vein as “Some people like vanilla and some people like chocolate.” But shouldn’t a topic like this trigger a more vigorous response than a comparison of ice cream flavors? Shouldn’t I want to passionately advocate for the decision that changed my life and has served me so well? Is there a point at which our levels of tolerance and dismissal of social constructs become destructive to our culture?
The rub for me is that the social constructs that I value – family, community, education, support networks, and the like – do not suffer in the absence of marriage. Bennett and Ellison write:
Research shows that the more education and financial independence a woman has—in other words, the more success she has outside the home—the more likely she is to stay married. (In states where fewer wives have paid jobs, for example, divorce rates tend to be higher.) But when these egalitarian, independent couples decide not to marry at all, they lose none of that stability. Just take a look at couples in Europe: they’re happier, less religious, and more likely to believe that marriage is an outdated institution, and their divorce rate is a fraction of our own. Not being married may make it slightly easier to walk away—at least legally—but if you’ve gone to the lengths to establish a life together, is it really all that different? Studies show that never-married couples with the intention of forever are just as likely to stay together as married ones. And for all the talk of marriage being good for families, a study of the Scandinavian countries—where a majority of children are born out of wedlock—found that kids actually spend more time with their parents than American children do.
And so I am left in an odd place. I have made a huge decision about my life. It’s a decision that affects me, my family, and my community. I believe it was the right decision for me. But I have absolutely no interest in promoting it to other people. Does this mean that I walked blindly into marriage as a result of cultural norms? And if I did, is that a bad thing?
The family landscape is changing indeed. But I struggle to understand my own neutrality on the topic.