I have finally decided upon “She” by Elvis Costello as my wedding song. The dominant color will be purple, but I might choose red. I definitely want it to be a small affair and will probably ask my stepmother to do the invitations – she’s talented at this kind of thing. And my maid of honor will be Jenna, my best friend from high school.
What am I talking about? I don’t want a wedding. I don’t want to walk down the aisle. I’m an independent woman and don’t need a husband to support me. I don’t even need a marriage to have children. And why would I want to get married today anyway? Everyone knows most marriages end in divorce. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the marriage rate in 2002 – per 1,000 people – was 7.8. The divorce rate was four. That means that more than 50 percent of couples get divorced. The odds are already against me.
Marriage is a perplexing part of our society. It’s celebrated as the ultimate act of love and commitment, but many marriages are doomed to fail. Like the computer, marriage has evolved over the decades so it’s no longer recognizable as how it used to be. Fifty years ago, I couldn’t have remained single without people whispering about me; now, I can go to Massachusetts and marry a woman. Divorce, once a social stigma, is the norm. Unmarried couples are living together and having children. The ticking biological clock is now no longer a reason to get married as more unwed and older women have children. The percentage of births to unmarried women has risen since 1990 – and now 34 percent of babies are born to unmarried mothers.
Like many of my peers’ parents, mine are divorced. My mother, an immigrant from Malaysia, told me when I was a little girl that she hoped I would grow up to marry a nice Indian boy with good eyesight. (My father is white with bad eyesight.) My parents aren’t even on speaking terms these days, so it’s no surprise the idea of marriage repels me. I’m sure my parents had no idea that when they tied the knot it was on the noose that would kill their relationship. I’m not going to let it happen to me. Love is important; marriage is not. Maybe once upon a time love and marriage really did go together like a horse and carriage (they went together four times for Frank Sinatra) but that’s no longer the case.
Marriage and love do not belong these days. Divorce separated them. Pre-nuptial agreements wriggled between them. Society oscillated between liberalism and conservatism until some people decided they just could not bother with marriage anymore. This is where I stand now, watching marriage from the sidelines, a referee more than a cheerleader, carefully watching the matrimonial playing field.
If I don’t want to get married but, like Bridget Jones, do not want to die alone and be eaten by wild dogs, one option is the long-term relationship. Some people wonder why these couples do not marry; one answer is economics, which often sways people the way love never will. There are benefits to marriage in that it’s useful for keeping and sharing a house, a car, perhaps other commodities – but there are economic pitfalls as well. A penalty for getting married is the marriage tax, which means two people of medium income who are elevated into a higher tax bracket because of their combined income pay more taxes because of the marriage. Relief of this tax was supposed to happen in 2005 but has yet to make the headlines.
According to Northwestern University economics professor Martin Zelder, people do change their wedding date to the beginning of the following year to stave off paying the marriage tax. He said the government’s approach is a baffling one. “It seems pretty clear that societies tend to think marriage is beneficial – maybe beneficial to children, to the social fabric, less crime, better neighborhoods,” he says. “It would seem like an activity a rational government would encourage rather than discourage.”
Our government does encourage marriage though, and that is another reason why getting married can be such an abhorrent prospect: The Bush administration promotes marriage as long as it’s between one man and one woman and lasts forever. By far the biggest political issue over marriage today is the fight for gay marriage. Pure, sacred marriage cannot exist between two people of the same sex, some politicians say.
“They just don’t like the word marriage,” says Weinberg senior Ellen Bird, who has been dating Marla Dukler, a Weinberg sophomore, for about ten months. If they wanted to get married, they would have to go to Massachusetts, which legalized same-sex marriages in 2004, and live there permanently because no other state would recognize the marriage. Bird says marriage is an unfair institution.
“We should get everyone in government out of (the issue) and have civil unions and let churches do marriage,” she says.
Same-sex couples are fighting a confused opposition over the right to get married. A July 2005 poll by the Pew Research Center found that 53 percent of American adults oppose gay marriage, but 53 percent are fine with gays and lesbians entering into “legal agreements with each other that would give them many of the same rights as married couples.” Basically, it’s OK for gays and lesbians in committed relationships to hold the privileges of marriage, but it’s still not a marriage.
Obviously there is something about the very word marriage that holds us in thrall. Reverend Timothy Stevens, a chaplain at NU, says he marries about 18 to 20 couples a year, sometimes more. He jokes with the couples, telling them, “If you ever get married again, please think of me.” He respects marriage but recognizes it doesn’t work for everyone.
“What I’m hoping is that people invent new ways of being together that are sustainable, that make them happy, that are good for children, that are more holistic, more doable,” he says. “And if you want to call that marriage, OK. If you don’t want to call that marriage, OK.” The old ideas of marriage no longer work, he says. And he hates the conservative attitude toward marriage: “The way they describe marriage, it’s like a prison. Who would want to do that?”
Stevens is an exception when it comes to his views on marriage. “If you don’t want it, fine,” he says. “God bless you.” But some say God doesn’t bless everyone. Religion and culture are inextricably connected with marriage. For just about every religion, marriage takes place in the eyes of a higher power and ending that marriage is rarely seen as acceptable. In this country, where the Christian movement heavily influences politics, there is no great debate about whether we should have divorces because I think we all know divorces are not going to go away.
In other countries, however, divorces are sometimes seen as shameful, not just because of religion but because of culture. I am half Indian, and there are segments of Indian society which think I am not right in the head because I have no plans to get married. Over there, where arranged marriage is the norm, divorces are uncommon. I have heard some Americans say arranged marriages are the solution to the divorce rate, a practice I doubt will ever become mainstream in U.S culture. We Americans adhere to the belief of consensual relationships; most of us recoil in horror at the idea of having to get married and not being able to choose our future mates. I don’t know how the U.S. divorce rate compares to other countries, but it must be up there; after all, we even have a television show called “Divorce Court.”
The expectation to get married is what I rail against the most. Even my father and stepmother, both Westerners, have hinted at grandchildren, and although I am sure they are mostly joking, I am starting to wonder. Most of my family seem convinced I will change my mind about marriage one day. Zelder says it may be because marriage is something adults expect their children to do.
“I think a lot of it has to do in a broad sense with social norms,” he says. “What it really translates to is that the attitudes our fami
ly and friends have influence our behavior.”
Zelder is 45, unmarried but in a relationship, and realizes his mother’s desire to see him married could influence his decision. That is the paradox of America, of course: encouraging marriage but acknowledging most marriages fail.
A 2004 article echoes this sentiment by saying, “Americans both seek and dread marriage.” One of the authors is Prof. Arthur Nielsen, who teaches Marriage 101 at NU. A couples therapist, Nielsen says he and his 46 students are concerned about the state of marriage today. His class teaches students the secrets to healthy long-term relationships, such as knowing yourself, assessing compatible partners and resolving conflict. Watching your parents, he says, isn’t enough. Learning can help.
“If you think of other areas of life, like starting a new business where there’s a high rate of failure, no one would say, ‘Oh, well, we shouldn’t go to business school or try to learn what people know about that topic,'” Nielsen says. “We think that there’s a huge need for education in what makes marriages successful.” Perhaps this unromantic but logical approach is what will turn marriage around, make it seem like a good idea.
Maybe Nielsen’s class heralds the beginning of a more optimistic view of marriage. Perhaps mine is the generation that dams the flood of divorces and finds meaning in marriage. Maybe my peers’ children will not grow up to be like me, jaded and confused about what marriage is and why society insists on it. Are we about to embark on an era of fairytale weddings and Cinderella stories? Or are there more years ahead of car-wreck relationships and Bennifer failures? Or will my generation slip into the comfort of an everlasting relationship, like Oprah and that guy she is with who is famous simply because he is with Oprah?
I’m young and, hopefully, at least reasonably attractive, so maybe somebody one day will say he (or she) loves me and wants to marry me. There will be cake, presents and pretty invitations. But if I ever marry I’ll always wonder if I’m tying the knot of the noose than killed my parents’ marriage – the noose that kills half of marriages today. And when my husband and I get divorced, which religious groups and political figures will point their fingers at us, condemn us, reduce us to statistics? Which young sages will shake their heads and say, “You know, it really isn’t worth it.”
Medill senior Suzanne Wardle is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected]