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It only seems threatening, but it’s not!

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, January 5, 2010 15:59 EDT
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This article in the NY Times by Hilary Stout is a classic example of how the Times specializes in covering trends that threaten the patriarchal status quo by assuring the audience that the threat is safely contained and really not a threat at all. The topic is the growing incidence of unmarried couples buying houses—something that’s been going on a long time, and both people in my household have bought and sold houses whilst living in sin before we even met each other. So yes, it can be done! And it’s not particularly more fraught than doing it with a spouse, since the latter is just as capable of up and deciding they don’t love you anymore and sticking you with an economic and legal nightmare.

But setting that aside, what’s funny about this article is how it shows how the Times has perfected the art of subtly reassuring readers that this trend poses no threat to the patriarchy. Because, stripped of all pretension, the ugly truth is that women who buy alone or go in with someone (male or female) who isn’t a husband are flouting social conventions that suggest that women (and to a degree, men) don’t deserve to have nice things if they don’t comply with the social requirement of marriage. But not to worry! As this article demonstrates, these people—especially the women—will pay for their transgressions.

Because the narrative that’s implied, though not outright stated, is that this whole trend is more proof that Feminism Is Bad For Women. Because men, who of course are so much cleverer and more ruthless than women can even imagine, will happily exploit lowered social standards to get what they want (sex, real estate) while depriving women of the deepest, and really only desire women really possess, the wedding ring with a side of babies. Somehow, quotes upholding this point of view magically appear in the piece.

“My whole thing was with this market, get the house — the one you want and love — first,” Mr. Haberstroh said.

That wasn’t entirely her whole thing. “I was itching to get engaged before we bought the house,” said Ms. Horelik, 28, a teacher who works with special education students. “Chuck definitely felt the pressure from me and both of our families.”

But, she added, “now I see why he wanted to wait. He saw the prices and rates were dropping and we realized we may never see such a buyer-friendly environment again.”

What I especially liked was that last bit, which makes it clear that women are personally too weak to stand up for what they want, and so they need patriarchal strictures to step in and force men to do the right thing. The notion that this was something that actually happened is a joke that makes this jolly spinster feminist laugh, of course—there’s no evidence that back when women knew their place, there was less raping, stringing women along, or abandoning dependent women. But I digress. You can’t subtly intimidate the rebels with just one example, after all.

“New York rents are very high and you never see that money again,” Ms. Matthews said. She went on to list the benefits of buying: “We got a great mortgage rate, 4.75,” she said. In addition, owners of units in new developments in New York City can take advantage of a program that phases in property taxes over a period of 10 years. And then there’s the federal tax credit for first-time home buyers, to expire on April 30, 2010, which will provide several thousand dollars in income tax relief.

“We will eventually get engaged and get married,” Ms. Matthews added. “We’re kind of like, let’s get this apartment now, then let’s make it official.”

Mr. MacLaughlin said: “We were talking about getting married and I said, ‘Wait a minute, if we just put off the ring, we’ll get the apartment first.’ ”

You or I might see this as just chatter, but rest assured, it’s pitch perfect for a conservative to swoop in and point out that women are just so dumb they can’t see how men are exploiting sexual liberation to get the milk without buying the cow. That this woman actually lists the arguments are no matter—it’s made very clear that she’s parroting what her boyfriend told her. The point is that even though this story purports to be about couples breaking the mold, they went out and found quotes to reassure you that your stereotypes are still upheld.

Towards the end of the piece, it’s briefly mentioned that one couple they interviewed has “committed”, in the author’s words—meaning engagement, since of course it’s silly to think that a couple who eschews marriage is really committed—and a fairy tale ending is offered for one of the women initially mentioned, who gets her ring reward when they move into the house. But that’s all mentioned after we’re informed that only idiots would think to go in on a mortgage without the marriage. Because—did you hear?—couples who aren’t married sometimes break up!

Trulia posts such questions on a message board called Trulia Voices, and real estate professionals often chime in with answers. One of the notes on the board contained the following cautionary tale from a couple who split up, rather than marry, six months after buying a new house.

Of course, it has to be acknowledged that readers immediately will remember that married couple they knew who broke up two days after the wedding, or whatever horror story you want to fill in. But of course, we’re duly informed that divorce is a piece of cake, whereas breaking up without getting the law involved is some sort of nightmare.

“If you are not married, you have to fill in the blanks,” Mr. Rosabianca said. Toward that end, he recommends that unmarried couples consider signing what amounts to a pre-prenuptial — legal agreements specifying the unknowns, including “who contributes what percentage of the expenses, mortgage, taxes, common charges, utilities.” He added, “You also have to account for capital gains — what percentage goes to whom.”

And there can be other issues. “Say this house is close to your mother,” Mr. Rosabianca said. It may be wise to sign an agreement saying, “If we break up, you have to buy me out, because I don’t want to live near your mother.”

Couldn’t that be a problem for a married couple going through a divorce as well?

“With a married couple that would probably be handled with the divorce,” he said. With an unmarried couple “it’s almost more prudent to be proactive in addressing these concerns.”

This strikes me as very bad advice. Not the part where you have an agreement going into the mortgage—that’s just smart—but the notion that the marriage certificate just takes care of your business and you don’t have to worry about it. This conflicts with the wisdom of anyone who has actually lived in the real world for more than two seconds. Granted, I’ve always lived in Texas, but in all that time, I’ve seen only one cohabitation situation get ugly enough for lawyers to get involved during the break-up—and only one divorce that didn’t involve lawyers, and that’s because they hadn’t been married long and had no property to speak of. In my experience, either way you slice it, you have to divide up the property. If you weren’t married, it’s often really simple—you both had your name on the mortgage, you split the sales 50/50. Or, in some cases, only one of you owned it, so the other one is free and clear to walk away, with minimal tears and drama and threats. I suppose you could say the non-mortgage-signer person in that case isn’t “protected”, but since he or she would be paying rent anyway, it actually ends up being exactly the same in the end. With the added bonus of they don’t have to go to divorce court. And that’s the thing—marriage is an institution, so people entering it are expected and even encouraged not to think about taking responsibility up front for the rules of the relationship or the rules in case of a break-up. They often eventually get there, which is why the marital counseling industry makes money, but up front the expectation is that you’re buying into a standardized contract that won’t need modifications. But if you’re not engaging in an institution, you have to deal with more stuff up front. Sure, some people are really irresponsible and passive aggressive and don’t—often and especially if they’re waiting around for someone to propose and/or issue a proposal-forcing ultimatum—but few non-married couples I know who go into financial agreements have completely avoided the question of “what about a break-up?” in the way that married couples are encouraged to do. As the quote above demonstrates. Though it’s true that more of us should get it in writing instead of just agree verbally on what will happen. But then again, married couples would probably be better off with pre-nups, and few do that, either.

Anyway, the article was a fascinating attempt to reinforce traditional norms while reporting on the dissolution of such norms. In it, marriage is openly considered the only legitimate commitment, cohabitation is held out as much more fraught than marriage (despite the readers’ collective knowledge of how ugly and complicated divorce can be), women are presumed to be passive and easily swayed, and men are presumed to be taking advantage of lowered standards by avoiding marriage, which is—even though statistical evidence proves otherwise—assumed to be something women want more than men. In reality, this trend indicates that all these assumptions are not as ingrained as conservatives might hope, for one big glaring reason that this article fails to really address, which is that it’s one more way that marriage is being de-privileged. For both men and women—but especially for women—the wedding ring was considered entrance into the adult world in the past, and that’s becoming less true over time. Now people don’t feel they need it in order to make investments, have children, and yes, make commitments. And that’s a huge shift, one that can’t be covered up with a few empty warnings and nudge-nudge jokes about cows and milk.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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