The invisible sinners
The debate about marriage continues to rage at Double X, though of course it’s moving as these things do towards a romantic defense of the institution. This is where something seemingly inevitable kicks in, with both Jessica Grose and Bonnie Goldstein arguing that marriage is great because it’s so nice to have a partner to live with. They’re doing this in response to Caitlin Flanagan, who wrote a typically incoherent defense of marriage (we need it because of the children! but divorce—which can only happen if you get married—is bad for children!) Goldstein’s response in particular befuddled me.
Responding to Jess about the value of marriage in a moment when so many women writers are wondering why they bothered, to be sure it is far less complicated to run your life alone than with a partner. I’ve been single and self-sufficient and I’ve been married and co-dependent. For me, at least, married is better. Marriage is the place I can completely unpack: where I use my most personal of inside voices and reveal emotion inappropriate anywhere else.
Then she talks about how she and her husband can fight at home and then hide it in public, which I hope is true for her sake, since everyone knows the pleasures of being around a tense couple that finds ways to snipe at each other passive aggressively, making you wish they’d just yell at each other already. But what amazed me about this argument is how much it rests on an obvious falsehood—that there are distinct groups of people called “single” and “married”. I realize that there’s still a formal assumption that these are two distinct groups, a collective simplifying lie for both tax forms and for determining who’s going to be frog-marched to catch the bouquet or garter belt at weddings. In those cases, I either don’t care (tax forms) or don’t feel a strong need to fight, preferring to hide instead (bouquet tosses). But outside of these situations, I fail to see how anyone can make a generalization like Goldstein’s, even in a short blog post, except of course to use the generalization to elide the actual focus of the conversation itself, which is, “Why do people feel like they have to get married?”
There are plenty of not-married people who are also not-single. (Ahem.) Goldstein, and Grose to a degree, are acting like you have two options: live alone or live in wedlock. If you start with that assumption, then sure, marriage is an easy sell. Everyone is hip to the benefits of sharing your life with a dear friend that you also get to fuck, and while it makes me seem like I have a one-track mind, I’d put the “get to fuck” aspect ahead of the “you become a professional at hiding your anger deep down inside for company”. But of course, the real comparison that they’re trying to avoid looking at is between marrying someone and just being in a non-formalized relationship, where you either live together or even keep separate residences but are in a committed, monogamous relationship. Since there’s about 12 million people living together without the benefit of marriage—and since most people who do get married lived together beforehand, and pretty much all had a monogamous, committed relationship before they went to the altar—you can’t really claim ignorance of these options.
No, the question of, “Why marry?” is not easily answered by, “Because I want to have a partner to share my life with.” Most couples getting married already have that, with the exception of a few fundies who practice courtship or other religious minorities that still have arranged marriages. The reason the question continues to stick with people is because making the move from living in sin to getting married doesn’t have such a neat argument for it. Insurance, tax benefits, making your mom happy—now that gays have to make a pragmatic case for why they should be allowed to marry to win over people for whom equality is not reason enough, it’s becoming trendy for progressive straight people to list these as their reasons to get married. Certainly we sinners appreciate the courtesy of this, which is done in no small part to legitimize the relationships of the unmarried, because the implicit argument is that if the only difference between married and not is tax benefits and insurance, the sinners count just as much. In a lot of cases, the “we got married for the insurance” argument has the benefit of being true, even.
Still, when I read stuff like the debate about marriage at Double X, I realize that most people get married still because they’re invested in this married-or-single dichotomy. To which I’ll add, duh. I blame the diamond industry, personally. Marriage moves product, and so marriage will continue to be flogged as the inevitable result of love. The downside is that people are getting married when their relationships probably need to be something easier to dissolve. To make it worse, a lot of women are encouraged (with Beyonce songs, no less!) to believe that without the shiny on your left hand, you’re not validated as a real person, and the need to have that crowds out other considerations. In my ideal world, relationships that exist outside the marriage narrative count just as much, which would at least relieve women of the worry that there’s something wrong with them if they reach age X without having X carats decorating their body and demonstrating to the rest of the world that a man has validated their worth.