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More on Marriage… July 27, 2009

Posted by Onely in "Against Love"...?, Food for Thought, single and happy.
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So, Copious Readers. Ya’ll (that’s how we say it in Kentucky) have got me thinking.

Last week, we solicited your thoughts on whether it’s tacky or tasteful to throw a party for oneself and register for gifts. We got a wide variety of responses, and our conversation prompted one of our regular readers, Autonomous, to link us to an article on Alternet called “I Don’t Believe in Marriage — Here’s Why I (Grudgingly) Got Married Anyway.” And that article reminded me of fellow singles-advocate-blogger Therese’s recent post about why she’s decided to get married after being in a long-term relationship with the same person.  And then this weekend, I had a long, impassioned conversation with a (married) friend of mine who wanted me to explain why I didn’t plan to ever get married.

Here’s what I told her (in so many words):

1. For one thing, I have never desired marriage — and in particular, I’ve never wanted the ceremony. When I was in a long-term relationship, I thought I might do it for my partner, who wanted to do it for his family’s sake (they were Catholic). But back then I hadn’t ever considered the possibility that I didn’t need to if it wasn’t what I wanted. Today, I write for Onely, which has made me value my independence above all else. If I’m in a happy committed relationship, great. But I don’t feel like I need marriage to validate whatever connections I have to someone else.

2. I grew up as a fundamentalist Christian (my dad was a minister!), and overdosed on rhetoric about proper “family values” and “tradition” and “appropriate” gender/sexuality practices. I’ve always been drawn to academia, I think, because critical analysis offers a direct (and highly satisfying) challenge to the kind of thinking promoted in the church where I grew up. I know that not all churches are like this, and I know plenty of religious people who can and do think and act critically. But because of my personal resistance to religion, I feel little enthusiasm for the religious value that many people ascribe to marriage.

3. As many of our readers have expressed in their comments to our posts, I, too, feel deeply cynical about the idea that there is a single person with whom you are supposed to intertwine your self and your life “until death do us part.” I think a great deal of my cynicism comes from the experience of being deeply in love with a guy for six years, but then not being able to do a thing about the fact that his feelings changed. And then mine did too. And that was real. And it was okay. The reality (for me, now, anyway) is that emotions and life are extremely complicated, and you can only do the best you can. I used to feel sad when I heard about break-ups and divorce, and now I understand that these things do — and often should — happen.

4. And then, of course, there’s the problem I have with marital privilege — social, economic, historic, religious — that is inherently bound up with the decision to get married. In some small way, I feel like my personal resistance to marriage might really matter, and that it might help change the structures of power that reward people for getting married.

But after reading (and rereading) the two women mentioned above who explain why they’ve decided to get married in spite of the problems they have with the institution, I have begun to wonder: Is my point #4 simply naive?

I certainly don’t disagree with either Therese‘s or Amy Williams‘ decisions. It’s obvious that they are smart and critically aware in a way that makes me feel encouraged that they’re on our side even if they’ve gone to the “other” side. But, if I ever have the opportunity to get married and refuse not to out of principle — well, is that just stupid?

— Lisa


1. salubrioussingle - July 27, 2009

great post, I can’t agree more with #3.

2. Alan - July 28, 2009

If the principle in question is truly important to you, then no it’s not stupid. It might be difficult if you desire to be married but your principles are opposed, but that is not the case for you.

Indeed, “I have never desired marriage” seems pretty clear to me. Not sure why you and your friend had a long discussion…all you had to do was tell her the above and it should have been sufficient.

3. Lauri - July 28, 2009

I totally agree with #3. Married people will say it’s because I haven’t met the “right” person “yet.” It all seems like rhetoric to me, I’m far too scientific in my thinking to buy into that whole thing. It’s funny that the older I get and the more of my peers I see getting married, the less I buy it.

As for #4, I think that’s a strong position to take on something you feel strongly about- I wish more people would think that way. I think it would be hard to be in a very long term relationship with someone and have them agree with you and not want to take advantage of the marital privilege.

As for me, I know my parents care about the party. If I found myself in a position where my friends ended up being right and I found the “right” person, I’ve thought a “commitment ceremony” would be in order. Then I could let my parents throw the whole big shindig (which would be done as sustainable as possible, btw) and not have the government involved in my love life. Mr. “right” however, would have to be on board with this, so I’m not sure how it would go down. It’s hard to say when I’m not in the position.

I like to tell my engaged friends about how I won’t get married because I don’t want to be part of the discrimination. They are gladly eating it up.

4. singlutionary - July 28, 2009

If you wanna do something on principle, do it! I agree, that is plenty enough reason to not get married. Marriage is a big deal to people who are married (and should be). But its not a big deal to me. I can take it or leave it. There are some wedding traditions which I enjoy (like family meeting for the first time and celebrating love — I just wish that all relationships could be celebrated in the same way) and there are some aspects to marriage like an increased feeling of security and partnership (no matter how false it may be) that I appreciate.

And then there is all the stuff that I can (and do) do without. Thank you very much.

People get married on principle all the time. Why not NOT get married on it?

5. Singletude - July 29, 2009

No, Lisa, no, it is definitely NOT stupid! Due to all the legal privileges that married couples are afforded, I guess someone could make the argument that it wouldn’t be in your best interest to remain unmarried, but you can’t put a value on your self-respect, your individuality, or your own ethics. Those are worth more than any legal benefits. So, as long as you don’t believe in marriage and don’t want to be married, I’d say don’t marry!

When I read the articles you linked to, I found myself partly empathizing with the authors and partly fighting a sense of disappointment or disillusionment. I felt bad about the latter because I’d never want to condemn anyone for acting in their own best interest, and both of the authors believed they were doing that. On the other hand, those stories were a painful reminder of a discussion I had with my ex-bf, who knew about Singletude and about my beliefs, which are not anti-marriage but are anti-marital privilege. Aware that I wanted to be married one day, he asked me how I could knowingly accept all those privileges without being a hypocrite. It was a challenging question, and I wrestled with it before rationalizing that while I don’t approve of the system as it is and am working to change it, as long as it IS as it is, I can’t blame anyone for doing whatever it takes to secure their rights to tax breaks, health insurance, and all the other protections that marrieds have. But my bf maintained that I was being hypocritical, and to this day, I still feel ashamed of that hypocrisy. Even though I have no plans to get married or even to date right now, if I ever did, I wouldn’t be able to shake the feeling that I was a hypocrite.

I don’t want to imply that singlism is anywhere near as much an atrocity as racism, sexism, homophobia, etc., but I just think about how this same logic would’ve applied in those situations. For instance, if a 19th-century slaveholder condemned slavery but refused to free his slaves because slavery was in his own self-interest, wouldn’t we call that hypocrisy? If a male executive decried gender discrimination but never hired a woman because it would be inconvenient to him if she went on maternity leave, wouldn’t we also call that hypocrisy? I guess what I’m saying is that I know getting married is acting in one’s best self-interest, but maybe when we feel convicted that something is wrong, we shouldn’t do it just out of self-interest. Part of me feels horrible saying that because it sounds judgmental, but I’m judging myself on this too and finding myself lacking.

There are no easy answers here, but I will say that even if it doesn’t feel like you’re making a difference, that doesn’t mean you aren’t. Sometimes things change very slowly, too slowly for one generation to feel the benefits even. Look how long it’s taken for the GLBT community to win the right to marry even in a few states! None of us has power individually, but collectively, as our numbers grow, things start to change. Already singles are much more present in the media than they were just five years ago. For every one of us, there are people who’ve been forced to think differently just from coming into contact with us, and I think that in itself is worth as much as 1,000+ legal benefits.

Lauri - July 30, 2009

I think it’s more than hypocrisy, I think. To me, it’s more like I wonder if we’ll ever get anywhere if people giving into the system. As an economist, I believe that the choices you make send a message about your preferences- like “voting with your feet.” If people who really don’t agree with marriage and realize the problems associated with it still finally give in and get married because the personal benefits are so great, then it sends a message to the government that people value the personal benefits more than the societal costs and they just keep doing the same old thing. They’re going to assume it’s not broke, so they’re not going to fix it.

6. Jenn - July 29, 2009

I find this post, and the comments above, fascinating. First, Lisa, it’s not at all stupid – to put on my economist hat, you simply believe that the cost of compromising your principles is not worth the benefits society would give you if you got married. Nothing stupid about that!

Where I seem to differ from a lot of other people in this community is that while I don’t know if I want to BE married, I actually want to GET married (i.e., have a wedding). I like the idea of getting up and declaring to friends and family that this is the person I love and want to share my life with, and everybody drinks to that :-). But once we’ve done that, I’m actually not sure I want to enter a legally binding marriage, partly because of the politics, partly because of my own insecurities (I never want to feel like someone is with me because it would be too legally messy to leave). But I also live in California, where domestic partners get almost all the same legal benefits as spouses, so the marginal benefit of a legal marriage seems pretty small to me. That is, I guess I’m still holding out hope that #3 is not true, but while I do want to find someone I can grow old with, I don’t equate that with being married.

Lauri - July 30, 2009

Jenn, interesting take: “I never want to feel like someone is with me because it would be too legally messy to leave.” One has to imagine that every married person must have this thought at one point or another.

7. onely - July 30, 2009

All: What interesting and thought-provoking responses you’ve posted here! I am so happy to be reminded of the diversity and intelligence of our audience — I (we) feel really lucky to be (virtually) surrounded by such a supportive and interesting community.

Thanks so much for your reassurances and challenges to my thinking above!

— Lisa

8. onely - August 8, 2009

CC here: I flagged Amy William’s Alternet article (about why she got married despite not wanting to) to my friend H, who decided *not* to get married despite the fact that she and her boyfriend are also struggling with the legal and social stigmas. Here’s what H said in response to the article:

I read the whole article and all the comments. . . I still have visit a lawyer on my list of things to do when I get home. I looked up lawyers in the phone book here in Lansing and I can’t even figure out what kind of lawyer to start with. The most common specialties seem to be divorce attorneys, bankruptcy lawyers, and some folks specializing in wills, estates, and trusts. What does that say about our society?

Actually, I feel differently than the author of the article. I like telling people that we are living in sin and expecting a baby and are perfectly happy together and don’t need to be married to make others feel better about our relationship. When people seem uncomfortable with our not being married, I take a sick pleasure in rubbing it in (rather than feeling offended or put off).

If they want to get into a conversation, I point out the divorce rate and my personal feeling that any safety or commitment in marriage is just an illusion. I tell them that the reasons they give for marriage and their reasons and not ours. We don’t need anyone’s approval for our relationship. And luckily, my parents are proud of me and just want to see me happy and there is very little pressure from either of our families.

But [my stepmother’s] sister cornered me the other day and asked if we were going to get married now that I was pregnant. I could tell that it was really disturbing to her when I said that we weren’t planning on it. Her daughter just got married and had a baby and she is invested in both institutions in a very traditional way. . . But given the situation, it was actually fun to make them all uncomfortable. In a very cheery way, I dismissed all their religious and moral arguments and just said that we would do what is right for us.

I neglected to point out that we have been together for 7 years – longer than many marriages last (or her daughter’s relationships for that matter). I also neglected to point out the many divorces in their family. I guess what I am saying is that one of the reasons we don’t want to get married is because we actually like bucking the grain and making judgmental people uncomfortable.

Sometimes I think that [us] getting married would make those same people smug, and I want to avoid it just for that reason. But I guess in the end we will do what is best for us. I kind of hope that we can find some legal means to make things work, but I guess we would get married if we had to. In the end, self interest usually wins out over moral stands in my world. Hmm….I wonder if we can get away with just not telling anyone if we did run down to the courthouse someday. I would so miss being a thorn in the side of righteous married folks. –H

9. onely - August 8, 2009

Lisa, not stupid–without principles, what do we have?

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More on Marriage… | Onely: Single and Happy

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