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.

11 Responses to “Do You or Don’t You?”

  1. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I’m right there with you in the neutral zone. For me, I don’t care what works for people–commitment is commitment. Funny, I’d never thought about it.

  2. Anne Says:

    Ick…I’m just not sure. This sits with me funny. I’d like to think marriage is more significant than a simple, “Well, it works for me!” I do believe there are plenty of non-married couples with way healthier relationships than some married people. Marriage in and of itself does not create a good relationship. But there’s something about declaring that relationship–vowing to maintain that relationship–that I believe is important. Some rituals are good for us, and marriage is one I believe was good for me. As for the argument in the article you read that says “women can support ourselves without a man’s salary”…to me this is just a silly argument. Financial solvency is not the reason to get married, so to me that’s beside the point. Not to mention heterosexist.

  3. Gale Says:

    Anne – I agree with you that it seems like a more significant issue than “whatever works for you is fine.” That’s why I was surprised at the weakness of my response. I love being married and I don’t think I’d be happy in a long-term relationship that wasn’t marriage. What sits funny with me is that I can’t really explain why (for me at least) marriage is the better decision. I can usually explain my thoughts and beliefs around topics like this. But this one has left me hanging.

    As for financial solvency… it may not be the reason to get married today, but it was probably one of the biggest reasons that women got married for hundreds of years. It’s only within the last 50 years or so that single women have really been able to financially thrive on their own. So the freedom from the need for a husband’s salary is a huge contributor to women’s opportunity to stay single if they choose. And I think this is a big step for women. It’s too bad that many women married (sometimes before they were ready or to the wrong person) because they didn’t have another option. Of course they would have liked to marry only for love, companionship, and mutual respect. But that wasn’t always realistc.

  4. E Says:

    I’m with you on not being able to say why or even if marriage is necessary to a strong commitment. It’s never what is on paper that really counts – it’s what’s in your mind/heart.

  5. MaryGene Says:

    I read that article, too, and I kind of felt the same way–I knew that marriage is important to me, it was the right thing for me and my husband, but I also don’t think I could have called up the authors and explained exactly why I am “right” and they are “wrong”. For some reason, I feel like if I were just living with my boyfriend instead of married to my husband I would always wonder when/if he or I was going to leave. Marriage is not “just a piece of paper”–that would actually be the marriage certificate–marriage is the third entity between you and your spouse, it is it’s own growing, thriving, changing thing. And for whatever reason, it holds more power than a live in boyfriend. To me, it says I’ve chosen, I’m off the market, here is the one my heart loves. If my hubs was just my boyfriend I would feel like I could get out of it, whereas I am married, committed, for better or worse, etc etc.

    I realize that I am one person against a boatload of statistics, but I also have to wonder where they got their info from: (European couples are happier? How did they measure that exactly?) Anyway, this whole post could go on forever and I’m not sure if I’m done, but I’ll stop. :) Ha!

  6. Cathy Says:

    I think a big part of it is your beliefs growing up. When I sit back and wonder why I had children at such a young age, I think back to how I envisioned my life as a child. I would grow up, go to college, meet a man, get married, be married for a few years and then have kids. And I did, exactly in that order – all by the age of 25. Never once did I envision myself as a career-minded person. And, while I work, it does not define me.

    To marry or not, to take your husband’s last name, to have children, I feel like they are all individual decisions based on each person’s belief. I think I am indifferent because age has given me wisdom and to each his own.

    BTW – I have to agree with MaryGene above – where and how did they collect this data. I cannot help but feel it is suspect at best.

  7. Kate Says:

    I agree, each couple must make their own choices. And isn’t it wonderful to have the range of choices we do? Two people committing to each other is a wonderful thing. But marriage brings more in – community. It is about creating bonds between families, not just two people. I think that is the strength and the beauty of the institution of marriage.

  8. Christine LaRocque Says:

    Interesting piece Gale (FYI – I am so irritated, I was missing your posts because my feeds weren’t updating, and I’ve just now discovered that). Anyhow, I digress. As I read your discussion of the issue, I was struck by one missing piece. That sometimes love deserves to be celebrated, and to me the celebration is not the day, but the commitment to each other. I don’t suppose everyone would agree that the commitment makes a difference (clearly), but to me it does. I married young, married my high school sweetheart, and this year we celebrate 10 happy, wonderful and sometimes tumultuous years. But NEVER have I questioned my commitment to him or to our decision to marry. It’s how we chose to honour the importance of our relationship. However, I do think it’s highly personal. That said, I also think it’s such a shame that we have to analyze all of our social constructs to the point that it sometimes renders them scienitific, and they lose their magic.

  9. jenn Says:

    I’ve been in a committed relationship for 7 years, and we are legal domestic partners. We have promised to live our lives together and I have no doubts that we feel the same level of commitment and stick-to-it-ness (is this a word? not sure but i’m going with it:) as our married friends do. That said, there is still a large part of me that is pretty traditional in the sense that I would like to be able to have an official ‘kick-off’ of our committed lives together, and without a wedding ceremony, I sometimes feel like I’m missing out on something. Mostly though, calling my partner of 7 years my ‘boyfriend’ just doesn’t seem to describe the level of commitment we have together and as much as I don’t want to believe it, I don’t think society views our relationship in the same way they would a married couple. Still, I don’t think we’ll be any more likely to stay together if we’re married vs. unmarried. A legal document will never be the glue that holds us together.

  10. Jen at Momalom Says:

    Gale, your posts always get me thinking. I enjoy reading about the topic of marriage precisely because I am not. It is a topic that so so so many people have such strong strong feelings about. It’s refreshing to read your words, where you articulate what works for you rather than judge anyone who has made a different decision. Thanks for this.

  11. Eva @ Eva Evolving Says:

    I have mixed feelings on this too. I have friends in long-term relationships who have decided not to get married (or perhaps simply *not* decided *to* get married?) and I’m okay with that. I think relationships are so personal, there’s no way an outsider can really know what’s going on or criticize another couple’s choices.

    Yet I really agree with Christine that love – deep, unconditional love – deserves to be celebrated, whether in a wedding or a commitment ceremony, in a church or courthouse or field. There is something powerful about this public commitment.