I must have missed the day in nursery school when they lined up all the little girls and injected them with the powerful serum that made them dream of wearing a white wedding dress.
that day onward, it seemed, most little girls played bridal dress-up,
drew pictures of brides, gazed in magazines at the latest bridal fashions,
and eagerly anticipated their prince charming popping the question. More
than anything, they dreamed of walking down the aisle and living happily
ever after. I dreamed mostly of the cats, dogs, and horses I’d get to
adopt when I grew up. When I was old enough to walk around town on my
own, I remember my best friend stopping in front of a bridal shop window
to point out which dress she’d like to wear someday, and asked me to
pick mine. I told her honestly that I didn’t like any of them, aware
even then that
she would probably think I was weird, because that wasn’t what girls were supposed
In my early twenties, about three years into my relationship with my partner, Marshall, the occasional subtle hints that my family and friends were ready for an engagement announcement became decidedly less subtle. To keep their hopes in check, I announced what had seemed clear to me for a long time: I did not intend to get married. Ever. Be in love, sure. Share my life with this wonderful man, absolutely. But walk down the aisle and exchange rings — the tradition baffles me.
I didn’t expect my small refusal to matter much to anyone. But I have quickly
learned that in a society in which 90% of people get married sometime in their
lives, lacking the desire to do so appears in the “barely acceptable” category.
There are growing legions of women who, like me, are not interested in assuming the role of wife.
Not being married to my partner has meant ending the conversation with
a potential landlord after his first three questions: How many people?
Are you married? When are you getting married? It’s meant paying an extra
fee — the unmarried surcharge, you might call it — to be allowed
to drive the same rental car. And it’s meant having my partner be denied
health insurance through my job when he needed it, even though our four
years together exceeded the relationship length of my newlywed coworkers
who received joint coverage.
It’s also meant answering questions that get frustrating. “Do you think you’ll change your mind?” is a common one. I want to ask these people, “Do you think you might convert to a new religion? Do you think you might change your mind about the ethics of abortion?” Anything is possible, of course, and I’m not so naïve as to think we all don’t change our minds about things over the course of a lifetime. But the frequency with which I’m asked this question makes it less an innocent inquiry about a personal choice, and more a suggestion that says, “Your position is so absurd you can’t take it seriously for long.”
I’ve lost track of the number of sympathetic strangers who’ve shared with
me their incorrect assumption that as an unmarried woman in a long-term
relationship, my partner must suffer from a severe case of commitment phobia.
Women in newspaper advice columns and television talk shows are forever
strategizing about where to find a man willing to get hitched, and debating
whether to leave the guys who won’t marry them. Interestingly, though,
every survey ever conducted on this subject finds that on average,
men are more eager to marry than women are. The National Survey of Families
and Households, for example, found that 24% of unmarried 18-35 year old
men said they’d like to get married someday, compared to 16 percent of
unmarried women the same age.
Eventually, frustrated that we couldn’t find any group that could provide
the support and information we needed, Marshall and I founded the Alternatives
to Marriage Project. Judging by the number of emails and phone calls we
received after posting a website, we weren’t alone. There are growing legions
of women who, like me, are not interested in assuming the role of wife.
Books like Marriage Shock: The Transformation of Women into Wives and Cutting
Loose: Why Women Who End Their Marriages Do So Well quote scores of
women who explain how their relationships changed when they got married.
Suddenly, they found themselves more likely to be making breakfast and
to be talking candidly about sex. As a result of this kind of research,
some made the case for more conscious marriages with fewer gendered assumptions,
and I think that’s a great goal. But if marriage has that much power to
change people’s behavior, I’d rather invest my energy exploring alternatives,
not struggling to re-shape an institution that doesn’t suit me.
take pleasure in watching people wrestle silently when I
mention "my partner," trying to ascertain my sexual
orientation — as if it mattered.
To me, the issue isn’t whether civil marriage should include same-sex
couples. Of course it should; that’s a fundamental matter of civil and
human rights. The issue is the confusing tangle of meanings in the word “marriage,” and
how they do and don’t correspond to real-life relationships and real people’s
lives. There’s religious marriage, conferred by blessings; civil marriage
and the legal protections it brings; and social marriage, the support of
communities who give special treatment to couples they perceive to be married.
(Having just bought a house in a neighborhood where no one knew us before,
it’s been fascinating to be treated as a married couple, even though our “marriage” is
social, not legal.) On top of that, although the concepts of commitment,
monogamy and marriage usually go hand in hand, my work is filled with committed unmarried couples.
And we’ve all read the tabloid headlines about married ones whose
commitments don’t last all that long. Among both married and unmarried
couples, the vast majority chooses monogamy, while smaller numbers choose
polyamory or engage in infidelity. We have only one concept — marriage — that
is used to divide the world neatly into two groups, married and not married.
The real world is a lot messier than that. Our cultural inability to face
that complexity leaves us in a state of collective bafflement about the
status and future of marriage (is marriage overvalued? undervalued? having
a renaissance? dying out?) and inspires confused debates about same-sex
unions. The solution, I believe, is to encourage and support healthy, stable
relationships and families in all their forms, instead of linking so many
unrelated benefits to the piece of paper we call a marriage license.
There are joys to not being married. I love that I am not a wife,
with all its hidden meanings and baggage. I love the consciousness of my
relationship, day after day of "I choose you" that has now lasted
eleven years and counting. I take secret pleasure in watching people wrestle
silently when I mention “my partner," trying to ascertain my sexual
orientation and marital status — as if it mattered. I love reading
the headlines as one by one, companies, universities,
mom considers my handsome prince her son in-law or, sometimes,
her son out-law.
cities, and states decide to provide equal benefits to the partners of their employees, regardless of marital status. I feel as if my daily life proves to those who say it can’t be done — that unmarried relationships will fall apart when times are hard, that we can never achieve true intimacy, that we are doomed to lives of sin, sadness, or “perpetual adolescence” — that maybe the problem is theirs and not mine. There is an amazing diversity of families in this country; I hope one day society will be courageous enough to recognize and validate all of them.
I don’t know how I failed to acquire a yearning for marriage. Maybe it’s
because of my feminist, hippie mom, who played Free to be You and Me while
I was in utero and encouraged me to have goals beyond marrying the handsome
who, by the way, considers my handsome prince her son-in-law — or
sometimes, affectionately, her son-outlaw). Perhaps it has to do with too
many unhappily married people and the divorces I’ve seen, too many breezily
pledged lifetime vows that lose their meaning long before the lifetimes
end. Perhaps it has to do with my friends in same-sex relationships who
can’t legally marry (unless they live in the right city or state on the
right day of the week), the fact that I already have a food processor,
or my academic background in animal behavior, where I learned how few mammals
mate for life. Or perhaps it’s because I really was absent
that day in nursery school.