We have all seen it. The over-the-top marriage proposal to publicly declare your love, the diamond ring that somehow proves the depth of your commitment, the wedding that costs American couples $31,000 on average and each of their guests $700 to attend. Marriage is so highly regarded in our society that the Supreme Court changed the laws in 2015 so that gays and lesbians could have their own party. Justice Kennedy echoed popular sentiment when he pronounced, “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family.”
Our society, and many around the world, confers many benefits to legally married couples, among them being able to share your health insurance plan with your spouse, tax benefits, custody of children, and if one of you is a foreign citizen, the ability to share your citizenship with your spouse. Married partners are also given “legitimacy” in social settings that non-married partners are not. A boyfriend or girlfriend is considered a temporary arrangement, and will often be treated with less inclusivity. If you are committed to someone of course you want them to be taken seriously as your partner everywhere you go, and you also want to enjoy the legal benefits that comes with marriage. However, marriage also comes with assumptions and expectations that are not loving.
First of all, the expense that families go to in order to have a wedding is often not about celebrating the couple’s love but about establishing their own importance. Do you NEED to spend $10,000 to $100,000 in order to be with the one you love? Of course not, unless your beloved is a foreigner, in jail, or in some other extenuating circumstance. If instead of spending $31,000 on your wedding at age 25, you invested that money in the S&P 500, according to this calculator your investment would be worth $3,000,000 at retirement age. Woah, that’s a lot!
Women, especially, are subtly indoctrinated into thinking that their self-worth is dependent on whether a man wants to commit to them. If a woman has difficulty getting married, she will constantly get subtle and not so subtle messages from her family and friends that she’s not pretty enough, not likeable enough, or a failure in some way. In many cultures it is taken for granted that you are not truly an adult until you get married. A lavish wedding in which great cost is devoted to presenting the bride as a queen is an exercise in self-esteem building, as if to say, “Look at me! I’m finally loved and wanted!” As if her worth was less before she got married. She is also saying, “if you don’t spend a lot of money to make my engagement/wedding/honeymoon perfect, then you don’t truly love me.” This makes her love conditional unless won by material offerings, which is not a nice way to treat your partner at all.
So maybe lavish weddings are a mistake, but surely marriage is still good, right? If the assumption is that a successful marriage is one that lasts until death, in which couples both stay happily monogamous with each other, then marriage’s failure rate is ridiculously high. While divorce rate estimates vary, one study says that a young couple marrying for the first time today has a lifetime divorce risk of 40 percent. For those that stay married, the chance of you or your partner having an extramarital affair over the course of the marriage is 50 percent. And we all know of couples who remain in marriages that are unfulfilling emotionally or sexually.
The penalty for failure is high. The average cost of a contested divorce is $15,000. This does not include the alimony, child support, and reestablishment costs that you may have once the divorce is finalized. If you stay in the marriage to avoid the penalties, then you consign yourself to remaining permanently with someone that you don’t love, who doesn’t love you, with no recourse to other relationships that would meet your needs.
But you and your beloved are so committed to each other, you will be among the 10% to make it, right? Consider this: If you knew that a business investment had a 90% chance of failure, would you invest in that venture? Or if you were the owner of a company selling a product that had a 90% failure rate, would you continue to tout that it works beautifully 10% of the time, and the rest of the time it was because you weren’t using it properly?
While popular culture would like us to believe that marriage is the ultimate expression of love, marriage, by its definition, is not an arrangement of love. Historically, marriage was an arrangement that gave men legal possession of their wives (but not the other way around). Upon marriage, the man was entitled to her dowry and if she had an inheritance or an income, those automatically became her husband’s as well. The husband also acquired the exclusive right to her sexuality, her children, and her labor (as a homemaker, caretaker, farmhand, etc.). If she broke the terms of marriage, through adultery, celibacy, or gambling, then the husband was entitled to divorce her and strip her of all her financial assets, not to mention the social stigma that she would be under the rest of her life.
Of course, marriage today is not quite so paternalistic, however, society still tolerates, even encourages, in marriage behaviors that we would not consider loving in other contexts. These include:
Possession: Whereas you used to be in charge of your own sexuality and social life, now someone else gets to say where you can be on a Friday night, and what sort of contact is permissible with the opposite sex. Sure, you agreed to be controlled when you got married, but if you ever want to change your mind, marriage ensures that your spouse will have every legal and social advantage when it comes to keeping you in line.
Coercion: In marriage if one person senses that her partner wants to do something she consider out of bounds, instead of negotiating and discussing her partner’s needs, it’s considered acceptable to shame, intimidate, withhold affection, or threaten divorce in order to keep the partner from doing something the other doesn’t want.
Limiting opportunities: Instead of supporting our partners to explore their interests and goals, we place judgement on what interests are acceptable and what interests are not for our partner. For example, a wife might support her husband working longer hours to advance his career, but she doesn’t support him staying out late to have dinner with a female friend on a regular basis, even though that female friend can bring him growth and fulfillment in a different way. A husband may indulge his wife’s interest in expensive fashion, but he will not indulge her interest in a lover, even though the latter may bring her more pleasure and teach them new skills in the bedroom.
Distrust and dishonesty: While we would never tolerate spying or going through a friend’s personal things in order to find out if they are doing something we don’t like, people often justify violating their partner’s privacy if they suspect them of doing something they don’t like. The justification is that if she is cheating, she deserves to be caught. In this way we treat our partner more like children who can’t be trusted to know what’s good for themselves rather than mature adults and equal companions.
Retribution: As mentioned earlier, the average cost of a contested divorce is $15,000. Divorce gives each partner the legal right to exact all kinds of punishment on the one that they proclaimed to love most. One woman I know lost custody of all five of her children as a result of her divorce. And because she has to pay half of her income in child support, she cannot afford to live in an apartment of her own. Her chances of remarriage are also diminished due to the economic penalty of her divorce.
Finally, if love is supposed to be about trust and commitment, would you really need vows, witnesses, and legal contracts to enforce it? True love must be freely chosen. If someone was no longer happy being with you, what good would it do to force them to stay with you? Human beings grow as they mature, and at the very least, they sometimes change their minds. We don’t praise people for staying at the same job for their entire adult lives, why do we insist that they have the same partner? Honoring your beloved’s ability to exercise choice in their relationship with you is love, even if that means you may end up alone. Jealousy, or taking away your partner’s agency, is not. And when your beloved chooses to stay with you even if they have the option to leave, you know that their love is real.
It has become popular to bemoan the decline of marriage. Today, slightly more than 50% of adults 16 and older are single in the United States, more than at any other time in history. Some choose to cohabit, some want the freedom to engage in intimate relationships without the obligations of marriage, others enjoy being on their own. Rather than seeing this as the sign of a civilization in decline, perhaps we should see it as an evolution towards greater respect for the individual, equality of the sexes, and more love between couples.
For couples who love each other, besides not getting married, another option is to redefine marriage, by rejecting its negative terms, including exclusivity, possession, and powers of retribution, and preserving its positive qualities—commitment, devotion, and sharing responsibilities. If success in a relationship is not defined by how long a couple stays together, then it can be defined by how much they care for each other and grow in the process.