I’m the co-founder of Alternatives to Marriage Project, and I like going to weddings. A contradiction? I don’t see it that way. To me, it’s actually a glimpse into the future of the institution of marriage, a future in which legal recognition (the marriage license) and a celebration of a couple’s commitment to each other (the wedding) are two separate entities.
It all started with my uncle’s wedding, which I attended at age five. It was a summer ceremony held on his outdoor deck in the rolling hills of rural Pennsylvania. Instead of throwing rice, my creative relatives reasoned, why not assign Marshall and his cousin Jennifer to pick daisies from the fields surrounding the house? Enthusiastically, Jennifer and I grabbed flowers
by the handful — stems, roots, clumps of dirt and all — and hurled them at the bride and groom.
This story is now family lore. That day became even more memorable when, as the happy couple prepared to drive away, my grandmother accidentally slammed the groom’s finger in the car door. Their honeymoon trip may have begun in the hospital, but my uncle and aunt are still happily married today. (I tell you that because I don’t want you to think I take some perverse glee in his injury. Remember, I like going to weddings.)
Weddings encompass some of the best things life has to offer: love, sex, family, friends, rites of passage, and optimism about the future. It’s one of the few times people see divorced parents in the same room together, smiling. It’s one of few kinds of events for which friends and family really will travel from near and far. For guests, there’s an added bonus: One gets a voyeuristic glimpse into how somebody else plans the most important day of their life — or at least the most expensive. Admit it: You like to watch, too.
Based on the first-person
reports of my friends, wedding hook-ups are the new black.
As a spectator, I can’t help but feel genuinely happy for the couple. This is particularly true nowadays, as most marriages follow a considerable period of living together. My friends walk down the aisle with confidence, armed with intimate knowledge of who their spouse-to-be really is. They’ve already argued about which family they’ll spend Thanksgiving with, whose responsibility it is to clean up the cat’s vomit, and one’s partner’s secret fondness for Van Halen. Given the level of divorce phobia that haunts the youngest generation, that’s the kind of confidence needed to make that trip down the aisle.
That confidence extends to sex as well. At contemporary weddings,
the bride and groom retreat to the honeymoon bed not to lose
their virginity, but to have sex for the thousandth time or simply fall asleep. (Today, the real nighttime romance at a wedding takes place among the wedding guests. According to the firsthand reports of my friends, wedding hook-ups are the new black.)
Weddings are fun, plain and simple, whether it’s watching the joy of the bride(s) and groom(s) — I witnessed my friends’ legal same-sex marriage in Massachusetts last week — or watching fellow guests in their own adventures. But if I like them so much, why would I choose unmarriage for myself, eleven years happily committed to my partner without tying the knot?
Ultimately, I see a major difference between weddings and legal marriage. A wedding — or a commitment ceremony, for that matter — is the celebration of a relationship, a chance for a couple to make commitments surrounded by the people who are most important to them, and a time for religious blessings to be sought and received if the couple wishes. But legal marriage is an institution about which I’m ambivalent, to say the least.
the government’s eyes, marriage is based on including some relationships
and excluding others.
The debates over same-sex marriage have made this difference painfully clear. A same-sex couple can marry in front of a church full of adoring friends and family. They can wear wedding rings, take the same last name, own a home, and raise children together. But when they request a marriage license at City Hall, they’re likely to be told, “No, actually, your marriage doesn’t qualify.” Before same-sex couples, it was interracial ones. (Alabama’s law against interracial marriage was repealed as recently as 2000.) Before that, slaves couldn’t marry. In the government’s eyes, marriage is a system that’s based on including some relationships and excluding others, allocating rights, privileges and social support to relationships which rank high enough on the ideal-family hierarchy.
While the government restricts who may marry, it also happily heaps benefits on married couples, from tax breaks (the majority of married couples receive a marriage bonus, not a marriage penalty) to health insurance (which many people say is the most concrete reason to get married these days) to cash incentives for welfare recipients who marry. Wouldn’t it make more sense to base income taxes on income, instead of rewarding or punishing people based on the legal status of their relationship? Where is the logic in linking health care to employment and marital status, instead of seeing it as a basic human right? Shouldn’t welfare help people escape poverty, not boost wedding ring sales?
According to a Gallup poll, forty-five percent of unmarried American twentysomethings believe the government should not be involved in licensing marriages. I’m inclined to agree with them. Imagine it: We could encourage weddings to celebrate loving relationships, allow religious groups to allocate the blessings of religious marriage, and direct government to re-think how to recognize families and relationships of dependence. It may just be the future of marriage, a future in which the work of the Alternatives to Marriage Project will be less urgent.
A good example of that mentality can be found in Sweden, where
nearly every couple lives together before marriage, if they get married at all.
The Swedish marriage
rate is half of ours in the U.S., and cohabiting couples have the same legal
rights as married ones. Yet the Swedes seem to be doing okay — their child mortality rate is lower than ours, their life expectancy is longer, and they have lower rates of rape and robbery. If we traveled to
interest in AtMP,
it would be met with a yawn.
pay a whole bunch of money when you
want to stop having
somebody doesn’t seem to be very smart.
As a social institution, marriage is alive and well, particularly as seen through the lens of the Wedding Channel or Bride’s magazine. As a religious institution, it has a future as well — clergy perform more than seventy percent of all weddings, and marriage will remain an integral part of many faiths. Yet as a legal institution, marriage is under question. Growing numbers of people wonder why the government has the power to regulate marriage. Those who have been through ugly divorces point out that they signed the marriage contract without having the opportunity to read it. One woman we interviewed for our book Unmarried to Each Other opted to have a wedding without legally marrying her partner. Perhaps she put it best: “The whole idea of making a contract with the state so that you have the right to have sex with somebody, and then when you want to stop having sex with them you have to pay a whole bunch of money, doesn’t seem to be very smart.”
Although it’s unlikely the state will pull out of the marriage
business altogether anytime soon, our elected officials can at least work to
treat people fairly, regardless of marital status.
It isn’t hard to do. One significant example is domestic-partner benefits. Businesses
who offer those benefits — 7,300
and counting — send the clear message that family diversity is welcome.
Unmarried employees who have loved ones to care for wouldn’t be treated differently than their married co-workers. Of all
the employers offering domestic partner benefits, ninety-two percent make them available to
both same-sex and different-sex couples. It’s a smart business move. One survey
of human-resources professionals found that domestic partner benefits were among
the top three most effective incentives for recruiting new hires. If big business
gets it, so can the people who write our nation’s tax code or decide
whether an unmarried bi-national couple can stay together for immigration
purposes. It turns out that the marriage divide is significant when it comes
to election results: Unmarried women voted for Al Gore by thirty-one percentage points
in the 2000 election. Although politicians haven’t historically courted the unmarried
vote, they’d be foolish to ignore it now.
This summer is promising for a professionally unmarried wedding enthusiast like me: my partner and I have been invited to five. For some of these couples, it’s the first marriage for both partners; for others, it’s the second. Some are straight, some bi, some gay. Several have shared their lives for a decade or more before the wedding, others have newly declared their cohabitation successful. And as I’ve told each one, I’ll be thrilled to celebrate their love with all of them.
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The future of marriage