"If I see that tie one more time, I’ll shoot myself.” My husband Jon was browsing through photos from our recent wedding, lamenting his last-minute decision to rent a tux rather than buy a suit. “Look at that,” he groaned. “Did I somehow not notice it was made of pressed plastic?” I laughed, but lightly, or he’d think I was laughing at him instead of with him. It’s a fine line, but finer still was the one we crossed by deciding to marry at all. When we stood near the stony shore of Lake Superior, the bees of late summer humming in the organza billows of my dress, promising to love, protect, and forgive each other forever, we’d already been living together for three years.
In that time, we’d gradually transitioned from sharing a bed and a bathroom to merging our identities in other areas—bank accounts, credit cards, phone service, and, in what was a major late-fee liability for both of us, video rental. Which kid was whose (three from his previous marriage and three from mine) also demanded frequent clarification in the early days, when bloodlines ran deep and fast, and threatened to drag us all down to the slimy bottom and bury us there like rocks. While the kids by turns rearranged and refused to rearrange their bedrooms, their schedules, and their loyalties, Jon and I twisted ourselves like pretzels in our fervor to prove to our children that living together might not be such an unthinkable fate. As it happened, our contortions failed to convince our wary children. Only with time did our newly patched-together family begin to take, eventually leaving us free to contemplate the possibility of marriage.
When finally we produced an actual wedding invitation, many people were confused. Jon’s eighty-six-year-old mom, who had stopped asking about our plans after the so-called “engagement” dragged into its third year, responded with happy shock: “For heaven’s sake,” she said. “I kind of thought you’d gone off and done it already.” Most others had figured the same thing—that we’d snuck down to city hall and signed some papers without fanfare, or that we (specifically, I) had decided to conscientiously object to the patriarchy, eschew marriage on principal, and cohabit forever.
For years, then, before we snaked through the queues in the Hennepin County Government Center (to encounter what was, given our ages, a surprisingly snappish premarital counseling lecture from the blue-haired lady handling marriage licenses that day), we enjoyed and bemoaned every normal facet of married life, plus a few abnormal ones. Our eventual wedding day was less a beginning of something new than a ritual that affirmed the stable relationship we’d been establishing for years. The threshold over which we stepped was strictly metaphorical. Except, of course, we were legalizing our union.
Now that my dress is back from the cleaners, and the sealed marriage certificate has arrived back from the county, I wonder. Does this piece of what appears to be recycled printer paper, solemnly signed by us and three friends (including one who performed the ceremony, because we belong to no church), change anything beyond our ability to add each other to insurance policies or unplug life support someday? Is marriage as sacred as it’s cracked up to be? In fact, is it sacred at all, if you said “forever” once but took it back and divorced after ten or fifteen years?
Not if you ask those who blame no-fault divorce for the demise of the family. They say that when one spouse holds the power to walk away at will, marriage is downgraded from a lifelong commitment to one that lasts as long as either spouse “feels like it.” And it’s true that while reading wedding books for guidance in developing our own ceremony, Jon and I couldn’t help but notice how some of the newfangled vows—“as long as our love shall last,” or “while our marriage serves the greatest good”—seemed a little less ambitious than the old saw, “till death do us part.” Ultimately we couldn’t stand the notion of watering down a promise defined by its lifelong nature. We boldly vowed “forever” even though by doing so we underscored how short we both fell on that once already.
We worried about creating a ceremony that on the one hand wouldn’t insult our own (or our children’s) sense of historical truth and authenticity, and on the other wouldn’t dilute or qualify our vows to the point of irrelevance. We were participating firsthand in a massive cultural discourse on the meaning of modern marriage, and we were neither first nor alone in our concerns.
Worrying about the meaning of marriage is a preoccupation dating back thousands of years. Mutability in the rules and mores of marriage is also age-old. As an institution, marriage has always existed in a state of flux. But the cultural colloquy—what it means, why people do it, and who should be allowed the privilege—has probably never reached quite the pitch it has now. Policy debates, from the controversy about gay marriage to “marriage promotion” programs aimed at low-income families, have pushed marriage onto a battleground. And as impassioned warriors clash over who should be allowed access to the “sacred institution” of marriage, others watch with detachment and ask quietly whether the whole concept of marriage has fallen into a state less dramatic than collapse, but ultimately more deadly—obsolescence. Today’s most brutal fights erupt in the matter of same-sex marriage. But battles about who should be allowed to marry have always been vicious. The last major public outcry on marriage-partner selection only just died down.
Newlyweds Richard and Mildred Loving were sound asleep in the bedroom of their Caroline County, Virginia, home in 1958 when police officers armed with blinding flashlights woke them up and arrested them. The problem? Richard was white and Mildred was black. The Lovings were charged with violating the ban on marriage for interracial couples. Bans on interracial marriage were still common in 1958—just a single generation ago. The Lovings pleaded guilty to a felony and faced up to five years in prison. Instead they got a one-year jail sentence, suspended on the condition that they leave the state and not return together for twenty-five years. The Lovings took up residence in Washington, D.C., and appealed their case. Nearly a decade after their arrest, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “racial hygiene” laws in Virginia and fifteen other states unconstitutionally sought to interfere with a person’s right to marry the partner of her or his choice.
Many states claimed that laws against interracial marriage protected “the natural order of things.” But the Supreme Court declared that the “freedom to marry” belongs to all Americans as one of our vital personal rights, essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by a free people. “The Fourteenth Amendment,” wrote the court in the Loving decision, “requires that the freedom of choice to marry not be restricted by invidious racial discriminations. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”
In the first half of the twentieth century, forty U.S. states forbade the marriage of a white person to a person of color. Many states enacted bans after 1912, when Representative Seaborn Roddenbery of Georgia introduced a constitutional amendment to ban interracial marriages. In his appeal to Congress, Roddenbery stated, “Intermarriage between whites and blacks is repulsive and averse to every sentiment of pure American spirit. It is abhorrent and repugnant. It is subversive to social peace. It is destructive of moral supremacy, and ultimately this slavery to black beasts will bring this nation to a fatal conflict.”
By the 1940s, only two of the forty states with anti-miscegeny laws had repealed them. According to the religious doctrine underlying these prohibitions, marriages between whites and people of color were immoral and against God’s natural order. The trial judge in the Loving case justified his ruling—and his state’s ban on interracial marriages—with the sort of God-speak often invoked today against same-sex marriages: “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.” Others claimed that allowing “interracial marriages” would corrupt the sanctity of marriage and dilute and weaken the institution overall. This all sounds eerily familiar.
Meanwhile, the question of gay marriage has also existed since antiquity. In testimony during the Canadian court case that led to that country’s recognition of same-sex marriages in 2003, one historian pointed out that, although gay marriages did exist in ancient Rome, they were exceptional and not well regarded. What he didn’t mention was that when the Romans—who had no problem with homosexuality—argued against gay marriage, it was on the basis that no “real man” would ever willingly subordinate himself in the way required of a Roman wife.
The same-sex marriage debate in the U.S. began edging its way into the political fray in 1991, when three gay couples from Hawaii sued that state for the right to legally marry. On May 5, 1993, the Hawaii Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling supporting the idea that it is discriminatory to deny gay men and lesbians the right to marry partners of their choice. Conservative response was swift in the form of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, which passed overwhelmingly in both houses of Congress and was signed into law in 1996 by the lovable philanderer himself, President Bill Clinton. The act defines marriage as a legal union between one man and one woman, and says that states need not recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
Defenders of traditional marriage say the Defense of Marriage Act is not enough. President Bush has backed efforts to amend the Constitution in defense against gay marriage, explaining,“There is no assurance that the Defense of Marriage Act will not, itself, be struck down by activist courts. In that event, every state would be forced to recognize any relationship that judges in Boston or officials in San Francisco choose to call a marriage.” The federal marriage amendment died in Congress last year, but last November, a newly named Federal Marriage Protection Amendment passed five to four in a subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee. If it survives the debating and voting of the full committee, it will proceed to the Senate for more of the same.
“But, if and when a federal marriage amendment is ratified, marriage advocates may be surprised to discover that passing marriage protection laws may not be enough to save an institution in free-fall,” said Daniel Allott, a policy analyst for American Values, an organization dedicated to “uniting American people around the vision of our Founding Fathers.” Allott’s views appeared in a Houston Chronicle op-ed article on November 10, one day after the Federal Marriage Protection Amendment made it out of subcommittee. Two days earlier, Texas had become the nineteenth state to pass a constitutional amendment “preserving” marriage as between one man and one woman. The headline of Allott’s story asked, “Traditional Marriage Under Fire: Who’s Really to Blame?”
That, according to Allott, would be me. He observed that despite a steady decline in marriage rates (nearly fifty percent over the past three decades, and twenty percent since 1995), “people have not given up living together.” Unmarried cohabitation has increased 1,200 percent since 1960, and “people are living as committed sexual partners in shared households without getting married.” These people, said Allott, are responsible for undermining support for traditional marriage. These people have damaged marriage enough, he said, to make room for debate about same-sex unions in the first place.
“Clearly, the key players in the battle over marriage are not politicians, judges, or homosexual activists,” he wrote, “but rather the millions of heterosexual couples who have thumbed their noses at marriage and abandoned the institution. While same-sex nuptials would certainly trigger further marital demise, they are also a response to, and strong indication of, just how critically weakened the institution has become.”
If, as some people say, the institution of marriage is practically dead, does it matter who is or is not allowed to partake in it? Massachusetts caused such a ruckus by granting legal recognition to same-sex marriages in 2004 that by the end of 2005, nineteen states had passed constitutional amendments against same-sex marriage. Vermont, on the other hand, has long sidestepped the issue by granting gay couples in civil unions all the legal rights of marriage except for the word “marriage.” Which brings me back to that sheet of recycled paper, and the question of whether or how much it changes anything. Is it the status of marriage—the legal and social benefits it confers—or the ritual of marriage that makes a difference, if in fact a difference exists? According to a website called ReligiousTolerance.org, there are more than one thousand rights, obligations, and privileges that the federal government automatically grants to all married couples. This surprises me. I haven’t, since my recent wedding, felt quite as showered by privileges as that statistic promises. I think Jon and I felt sanctified at our wedding—holy, special, privileged, protected—but we didn’t consciously consider whether marriage as a social institution was strong or weak. I doubt whether many betrothed couples, straight or gay, scrutinize their decision to marry in this light.
None of these have been rhetorical or abstract questions for me. Jon and I were ambivalent about marriage, and comfortable with an alternative arrangement. We felt perfectly well accepted as a couple, married or not. Not surprising, according to British demographer Kathleen Kiernan. She theorizes that Europe and North America both are moving through a four-stage process that culminates with cohabitation being essentially equal in status to marriage. Sweden has reached stage four, with more babies born each year to cohabiting couples than to married ones, and with cohabiting parents no longer feeling compelled to marry even after the birth of a second child. The U.S. is thought to be in the beginning of stage three, where cohabitation is a socially acceptable alternative to marriage, but where most couples bearing children together eventually marry.
So Allott and his entourage are right: People are shacking up like never before. In the U.S., they’re also living alone in greater numbers than ever, which is further testament to the changing patterns in how we live, and should probably warrant more concern than whether or not the people who are pairing up are gay, straight, married, or not. After all, consider Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Love and companionship are third in line for urgency, just after the most basic elements needed for physiological survival and safety. Human beings may be driven, biologically, to procreate, but a drive isn’t the same as a need, and what’s needed for survival of the species doesn’t always mirror what’s needed for survival of the individual. In fact, procreation doesn’t even make it onto Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Emotionally based relationships, on the other hand, are essential to human health and well-being. Love relationships take many forms, but marital love is arguably the most intimate and of the highest order.
Jon and I could have taken legal steps to designate one another as next of kin, or we could have drawn up some other legal agreement to protect ourselves against the ravages of a future break-up. Yet those practical considerations weren’t really our main priorities when we talked about getting married. What we wanted was to participate in the tradition itself and to confirm our commitment in a universally recognized way. The wedding rite, in both civil and religious contexts, is, at its core, a celebration and a pact that hinges on a spoken promise in the presence of witnesses. For us, marriage represented a ritual and a state of being. We wanted to file taxes jointly, to be allowed to speak to each other’s account representatives on the telephone, and to be included as second drivers on rental car agreements without paying extra. We wanted to use the words “married” and “husband” and “wife” without the awkwardness and unease of feeling dishonest. Most of all, we wanted to make a promise to each other and, I suppose, to God, and to know that it was witnessed by others. And we wanted to be held fully accountable to this promise legally, socially, and spiritually.
Sociologist Frank Furstenburg, speaking not of today’s extravagant wedding industry, but of the institution of marriage itself, has said, “It’s as if marriage has become a luxury item, available only to those with the means to bring it off. Living together or single-parenthood has become the budget way to start a family.” Plenty of people are going the “budget” route. A majority of couples now live together before marrying, and an increasing number of them have no plans to wed in the future. As for parenthood, more women than ever before consider single parenthood a viable route to motherhood in the absence of a suitable marriage partner, and one- third of all adoptions in the U.S. in 2001 were by single women. Statistics like these suggest that under certain circumstances, various alternatives to marriage carry less risk overall than does marriage itself.
Meanwhile, the married household has lost serious ground as the normative model. In the 1950s, married couples made up eighty percent of all households, compared to fifty-one percent at the turn of the millennium. Many see marriage not as the rite of passage to adulthood that it once was, but as a stage of life that one should enter only after the hurdles to achieving stability—relationally and financially—have been overcome.
I wonder how it affects people and their relationships to be denied the recognition of legal marriage. Yes, cohabitation has gained widespread social acceptance in the U.S. and elsewhere, but it does not fully parallel the benefits available through marriage. As historian Stephanie Coontz describes in her new book, Marriage, A History, “Arrangements other than marriage are still treated as makeshift or temporary, no matter how long they last. There is no consensus on what rules apply to these relationships. We don’t even know what to call them. The relationship between a cohabiting couple, whether heterosexual or same sex, is unacknowledged by law and may be ignored by friends and relatives of each partner. Marriage, in contrast, gives people a positive vocabulary and public image that set a high standard for the couple’s behavior and for the respect that outsiders ought to give their relationship.” True, many gay activists argue precisely the opposite point: They want no part of these retrograde social institutions, and view them as a form of selling out their movement.
Catherine Newman, in her essay, “I Do. Not.,” from the anthology The Bitch in the House, cites the Defense of Marriage Act as one of the handful of reasons she herself has chosen to take a political stand against marriage. Instead, she chooses to cohabit with her longtime partner and father of her child: “Because I’d feel like a real A-hole if I put on a beaded cream bodice and vowed myself away in front of all our gay friends—smiling and polite in their dark silk shirts or gossiping wickedly about our choice of canapés—who cannot themselves marry.”
I understand Newman’s position and commend it. But when I was twenty, I could not have taken the same stand. Eschewing or undermining marriage—my own or the institution—was the last thing I wanted to do.
I came of age with the sorts of hearts-and-flowers ideas that send people’s eyes rolling back in their heads. I believed in destiny and soul mates and commitment and suffering for the greater good—and to a large extent, I still do, just with a lot more caution and humility. I certainly valued marriage as a sacred institution, and when I got married, it was going to be happy, healthy, and forever.
But how does a social institution really affect a person’s daily life? How does it influence the decisions and internal struggles, the emotional reality, of one young woman on the cusp of her life as a wife and a mother? My attitudes, like most people’s, were rooted in personal history, which in my case involved my mother’s two divorces. I was too young to remember my dad leaving, so over time I integrated my sister’s mythologized memory: our dad’s legs and his shoes standing beside the marred yellow banister of our open staircase, his stiff suitcase, a pat on the head. Then he was gone. My future children would never possess such a scarring snapshot. For them, everything would be perfect. My childhood didn’t make me bitter, it made me something riskier: idealistic.
Idealism led me to the altar at age twenty-one. Then, as soon as I descended the church steps, it began picking and tugging at my marriage. I could vaguely see this happening all along, as my real life very gradually unraveled beside the standard of perfection I measured it against. Some marriages withstand the stresses to which ours succumbed—youth, children born fast and many, and financial instability. God knows I wished to join their ranks. It wasn’t for lack of effort or love that my marriage failed—it was for lack of other necessary things, like knowing who I actually was. Barring that, a little forgiveness might have helped. I couldn’t forgive his mistakes, not because they hurt me (though they did) but because they so threatened my image of ideal marriage. Even less could I forgive my own, because back then such a compromise seemed akin to the death of idealism itself. Meanwhile, our mutual unmet needs stockpiled. On the eve of our twelfth anniversary, I lit the match and my ex-husband poured the gasoline. Then we both stood back to gape as the resulting inferno scorched and melted the contents of our shared life until the whole fiery thing collapsed on us and our children. Who can describe that kind of pain? Not me. I was frankly surprised to survive it.
But I did. Now, I’m a “key player” in the battle over marriage. Along with everyone else I know, married or not, divorced or not. We are all participating in an unprecedented, massive cultural redefinition of marriage, simply by living in this time and place. Ironically, the expectations people have about marriage have never been higher. Thus the institution is both more fragile and more fulfilling than ever before.
When I first got married in 1989, I did so smack in the middle of a thirty-year period in which marriage was undergoing more change than it had in the previous three thousand years. In Marriage, A History, Stephanie Coontz retraces the evolution of marriage from the beginnings of recorded history through today. According to Coontz, the divorce revolution of the sixties and seventies combined with a host of other factors (the decline of the traditional male-breadwinner marriage; new sexual mores; increased tolerance for out-of-wedlock births; and rising aspirations for self-fulfillment, to name a few) in the eighties and nineties “to create ‘the perfect storm’ in family life and marriage formation. And nothing in its path escaped unscathed.”
These are not the conclusions Coontz—a respected and widely published family researcher—expected to draw when she began her scholarly research. As hinted at by the title of her first book, The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, Coontz actually set to work on Marriage with the intention of debunking the idea that the institution was undergoing some sort of unprecedented crisis. “After all, for thousands of years people have been proclaiming a crisis in marriage and pointing backward to better days. The ancient Greeks complained bitterly about the declining morals of wives. The Romans bemoaned their high divorce rates, which they contrasted with an earlier era of family stability. The European settlers in America began lamenting the decline of the family and the disobedience of women and children almost as soon as they stepped off the boats . . . . Furthermore, many of the things that people think are unprecedented in family life today are not actually new. Almost every marital and sexual arrangement we have seen in recent years, however startling it may appear, has been tried somewhere before. There have been societies and times when nonmarrried sex and out-of-wedlock births were more common and widely accepted than they are today. Stepfamilies were much more common in the past, the result of high death rates and frequent remarriages. Even divorce rates have been higher in some regions and periods than they are in Europe and North America today. And same-sex marriage, though rare, has been sanctioned in some cultures under certain conditions.”
Despite all this, Coontz’s research still took her by surprise. As she consulted with colleagues around the world, she gradually determined that the current rearrangements in both married and single life are in fact without historical precedent. But the seed for all this tumult wasn’t the oft-blamed sexual revolution, says Coontz. The trouble got started much, much earlier, in the late eighteenth century, in the form of an idea so radical it immediately began destabilizing marriage on a cultural and individual level: That people should be free to choose a marriage partner based, first and foremost, on love.
Before love entered into it, marriage had been seen by societies around the globe as primarily a vital economic and political institution. Some cultures considered love a potential side effect to marriage, and others frowned on its presence in marriage altogether. But either way, it was deemed highly unacceptable for marriage “to be left entirely to the free choice of the two individuals involved, especially if they were going to base their decision on something as unreasoning and transitory as love.” If people went around marrying for love, they were going to demand to leave their marriages when love failed. The same notion that could make marriage such an extraordinary relationship could also render it optional and fragile.
For thousands of years, the aim of marriage had been to establish beneficial kinship bonds and to pool or transfer resources for maximum economic and political advantage. Then suddenly, Europeans and Americans started expecting and even demanding emotional and sexual fulfillment from their marriages. Crises were bound to erupt.
But this attitudinal shift alone, however cataclysmic, could not have brought us to where we are today. Coontz points to four key factors that made the difference: First, changes in the 1920s blurred boundaries between male and female spheres, and introduced the notion that sexual satisfaction was important for women as well as men. Second, urbanization increased anonymity and made it tougher to control individual behavior and punish nonconformity. Third, advances in birth control and abolishment of “illegitimacy” as a legal designation weakened the sway that pregnancy and childbearing held over marital choices. Finally, the legal autonomy and economic self-sufficiency achieved by women in the seventies and eighties opened up many alternatives to traditional marriage for both sexes.
In a breathtakingly short time, society’s ability to push people into marriage or keep them there disintegrated. Writes Coontz: “People no longer needed to marry in order to construct successful lives or long-lasting sexual relationships. With that, thousands of years of tradition came to an end.”
I’m really happy to be married to Jon. Over the years, we’ve built a relationship that strengthens us both, and our new marriage does feel like a sort of shroud of protection. I’m not sure if we could have sustained a marriage had we not spent so much time preparing for it. With our nuptials only a few months old, it’s a little soon to be making proclamations about our marriage’s longevity. I definitely don’t think we would have sustained a marriage to each other in our twenties, just as we weren’t able to sustain our marriages to our first partners. For lots of complicated reasons, we are both people who needed the buffering of time and experience to gain the self-knowledge and skills that marriage requires.
I think, knowing all that I now do, that I would have felt heartbroken to be denied all this by those who might decree, as Daniel Allott does, that marriage is undermined by people who divorce and cohabit. I’m not saying that Allott is entirely wrong. In fact, he’s not. Marriage as a required construct of modern social life is undermined by those who divorce and cohabit. But marriage as a free and conscious choice is not. Unlike Allott, I no longer assume that marriage is required in modern social life. Love’s inclusion in the equation has complicated matters and weakened marriage as an institution, but it has also elevated the potential of marriage to be something it never was before—a path to fulfillment and spiritual growth.
At our wedding, Jon’s nineteen-year-old daughter sang with two of our friends. It was a gorgeous Iron and Wine tune, sweet and melancholy, with lyrics full of love and awe: One of us will die inside these arms/Eyes wide open/Naked as we came. I cried as Britta sang, because it hasn’t always been easy and yet there she was, there we were, Jon and me.