Marriage Is DeadNovember 10, 2011 3 Comments
There was no shortage of debate in the latter half of the 20th century over the relevance of marriage. The freedoms women campaigned for — wage equality, childcare — were based on the idea of autonomy. The right not to marry was a key freedom.
Thanks to previous generations, I’m not required to define myself by my relationship status. I have unprecedented freedom to live as I choose, as do many of the women I know.
That’s fortunate, since marriage has never appealed to me. I don’t want to be referred to as someone’s wife. I don’t like weddings and the idea of planning one for myself sounds equally dull and pointless.
This doesn’t mean I’m opposed to long-term relationships, monogamy or commitment. From where I stand now mine isn’t a radical or unusual perspective, but that hasn’t always been the case.
I was raised in a religious community, where a huge emphasis was placed on traditional hierarchies. Young women were encouraged to envisage our lives in stages: first as someone’s daughter, then as someone’s wife, then as someone’s mother. In that order. The emphasis was squarely on fulfilling a purpose, of belonging to someone. People talked about “their marriage” as though it were a creature with a personality, somehow more important than either of the people involved.
I could see for myself that this system was already outdated, and unrealistic for most people. It put women at a particular disadvantage, especially in terms of sexual autonomy. People were grouped into married and “single.” Single people, especially women, were regarded as being in a holding pattern, waiting to be legitimized. Every sexual relationship began with the notion of marriage as an ideal direction. Virginity was an object which could be lost, given away, kept, saved, given. It always seemed to belong to someone else.
Marriage was promoted as a way of legitimizing not only social status, but sex and parenthood. Without marriage, those very human and common desires were impossible, or sordid.
After moving away I eventually put down roots in a city where I knew no one and had no connections. Part of the appeal of my adopted city was the freedom I felt to live as I pleased. There was never an expectation amongst my peer group to define myself or my relationships in a particular way. During my twenties I had one lengthy cohabitational relationship, several significant monogamous and non-monogamous relationships, long periods of being single, casual relationships and anonymous sexual encounters.
All of these, I found, suited me at different times and with different people. Crucially, my relationship status didn’t affect my social status, my career or what I did with my time. I was still called by my name rather than becoming someone’s girlfriend or partner, I could have casual sex without ruling out the possibility of a long-term relationship.
Of the long-term couples I know, few are married. Some live together, some have children, some are monogamous. The idea of having children is not attached to marriage, or even to men. Parenthood is economically and socially possible for single women. Co-parenting with a partner who is not a lover is increasingly common, or with a partner who does not live in the same home or town.
In 2006 I suddenly found myself attending weddings. Half a dozen in one expensive summer, to be precise. This was the year civil partnerships became legal in Scotland. It was also the year I realized that, rather than cheerfully cohabiting like the heterosexual couples in my social circle, there were quite a few gay and lesbian couples who had been waiting to legally formalize their relationship.
This, as far as I could see, was a matter of social recognition. As a heterosexual woman, I’d become used to the idea of marriage as a dying concept which I thankfully didn’t have to entertain. For people denied the public legitimacy I’d found so distasteful, it was a victory.
That was, however, that last year I had to buy six new dresses in one season.
In a society where there is no pressure to marry, it seems a lot of people don’t. This does not signify the death of relationships, only of marriage. In a level playing field where men are required to be pretty, women are required to support ourselves financially and we’re all free to leave a loveless relationship or be single, we’re more likely to choose someone we want to be with. Not because of what that person makes us, but because of who that person is.
Marriage is dead, but everything else is alive.
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