The Marriage Question

The recent infidelities of a few politicians (Sanford, Ensign) and the dissolution of a reality TV marriage (Jon & Kate plus 8, divided by two) has provided the spark for an interesting article in Time about marriage. The author discusses what she sees as the possible marriage outcomes while referencing the aforementioned politicians:

And so two more American families discover a truth as old as marriage: a lasting covenant between a man and a woman can be a vehicle for the nurture and protection of each other, the one reliable shelter in an uncaring world — or it can be a matchless tool for the infliction of suffering on the people you supposedly love above all others, most of all on your children.

She discusses our propensity for divorce and the negative consequences on children of divorced parents that it has: they tend to do worse in school, they are at higher risk of teenage pregnancy and they are more at risk of engaging in criminal behavior than children of two-parent homes.

Regarding the increasingly idealized vision of marriage prevalent in our society, the author has this to say:

Poignantly, the one thing that unites the poor and the middle class in their hopes for family life is the imperishable dream of being married forever, grabbing hold of the golden ring of lasting partnership. The low-income mothers studied by Kefalas and co-author Kathryn Edin spoke repeatedly of their wish to get married; they “cherish marriage and hold it to an impossibly high standard,” the authors found, but too often forgo it as a result. Meanwhile, the middle class has spent the past 2½ decades — during which the divorce culture became a fact of life — turning weddings into overwrought exercises in consumer spending, as if by just plunking down enough cash for the flower girls’ dresses and tissue-lined envelopes for the RSVP cards, we can somehow improve our chance of going the distance.

But the ultimate point the author seeks to make is that American families are suffering because marriage is either all about the “principals” and their desires, or because people are foregoing marriage and a stable family environment cannot be sustained without the institution and subsequent devotion to the family. I agree that marriage is in trouble and has become grossly idealized. And while I agree that once children are involved it becomes more difficult to sustain a marriage, I am not convinced it is the selfish desires of the principles, once children are in the picture, that is destroying families.

Aside from our teenage pregnancy problem, which I would chalk up to additional factors, it is our romanticized view of love and relationships in general that is the problem. Our own upbringing, movies, TV, books and poetry have given us terms like “soulmate” and “happily ever after” and we spend our young adult lives looking for that one person who will make us happy forever, yada yada yada. We forgo getting to understand ourselves and how to be happy on our own and instead prefer to find happiness in others. It is my view that if you cannot make yourself happy (not in the superficial sense) or do not know how to be happy, it is unwise to expect someone else to provide you with that knowledge. Cliche, maybe, but true.

Furthermore, people should wait to get married and have children until they are mentally and emotionally intelligent enough to understand the gravity of those major life decisions. Too often, people marry and start a family because they see it as the necessary next step in their relationship and do so with a romanticized view of what their lives will be like subsequently. I do not think I need to get married or have children to say that having a life-lasting marriage is difficult and takes work, as does raising children.

It is selfish to enter into marriage and start a family before you are even ready or if you are the type of person who could not handle the situation in the first place. It is imperative that you get to know yourself and what you really want out of life, before bringing a life into this world or committing yourself to another person, whether through marriage or otherwise. If through self-discovery you learn that you are selfish and incapable of monogamy, do not get married and please wear a condom! People clearly do not want to put in the work to make relationships last because they do not think they should have to. And I am not talking about kids here but about intelligent adults who take their relationship cues from Hugh Grant movies and Sex and The City. Society and our pop culture impresses on us the need to be married by X, a parent by Y, and have Z number of kids. And some people feel the pressure to abide by these deadlines and when they are past due, they suffer. It does not have to be that way.

I get asked by family and friends when I am going to marry my girlfriend, who I now live with. For some who ask, it is almost as though they cannot view our relationship as legitimate until we are married. This groups makes the mistake that many people make regarding marriage and relationships: That two people cannot be committed, happy and in love, and start a family until they marry. The author of the Times article seems to think the same thing as she notes that domestic partners cannot really provide the same nurturing family environment that a married couple can.

I would counter simply with this question: What is better for a child – growing up with parents who love and support each other, take their responsibilities to each other and their children seriously, and share in the raising of their children, or with parents who do not love each other, begrudgingly go about their duties as partners and parents, and stay together only for their kids?

I guess the point I am TRYING to make is that having a lasting relationship takes work, period. The problem is that many people marry expecting the work to stop, like it is an end unto itself. Our divorce and infidelity rates reflect this. People talk about the “sanctity of marriage” and the seriousness of the institution with no sense of irony. I am not against marriage, whether gay or straight (I do, however, draw the line at human-animal unions). I am just against the idea that the love and commitment shared by my girlfriend and I (and others like us) is inferior than that shared by our married contemporaries and the only way for us to reach that heightened level of legitimacy is through marriage. We do not need to throw a $60,000 wedding nor wear wedding bands to be committed to one another. And this is not to say that we may not one day get married. Nor that I am not prone to similar romanticized notions of love. But if anyone needs us to get married before our relationship is viewed with legitimacy, then you will have to wait. We will marry on our terms and more importantly, when we are READY to marry. And being ready requires more than just being willing.

That is my rant for the day and rather than keep going and explain things more fully, I will end here.

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