In “I Don’t,” their smart essay from next week’s print edition of NEWSWEEK, my colleagues Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison cite an impressive array of facts and figures to argue that “marriage is, quite simply, no longer necessary.”
Once upon a time, they write, tying the knot was “how women ensured their financial security, got the fathers of their children to stick around, and gained access to a host of legal rights.” But now women are more educated and—at least among young urbanites—better compensated than their male counterparts. Tax breaks and health-care subsidies will soon favor single people over married couples. Kids actually spend more time with their parents in Scandinavian countries, where a majority of children are born out-of-wedlock, than in America. And most spousal rights can be easily established without a marriage certificate.
As a result, my wedding-weary coworkers conclude, marriage no longer makes sense.
For the record, I completely agree. In the year 2010, anyone who denies that marriage has become impractical probably hasn’t paid much attention to the numbers. But while Bennett and Ellison get the details right, I think they miss the big picture. Or at least my big picture. For them, the irrationality of marriage is the reason why modern men and women shouldn’t get hitched. For me, it’s the reason they should.
This isn’t idle chatter. In July, my girlfriend and I will get married in Paris. A few hours before I first read “I Don’t” in draft form, in fact, we were sitting in the office of an Episcopal priest on New York’s Upper East Side for the first of two prenuptial counseling sessions. Neither of us attends church regularly, but we figured that after eight years together, a little navel-gazing couldn’t hurt. Then the priest showed us the questionnaire she wanted us to fill out separately before the next session. “Describe your understanding of marriage,” it read. “How do you think marriage will change your life together?” There were 18 other questions as well. Crap, we both thought. This is really hard.
The truth is, neither of us had thought all that much about the question that both the priest and Bennett and Ellison were posing: why marriage? We knew we wanted to “be together,” of course. Forever. We are best friends, partners, yin and yang, and yang and yin. It’s impossible to imagine waking up or falling asleep without Dustin there. But why bother to formalize our relationship if we already know how strongly we feel? Why did I go to elaborate lengths to get down on one knee on a boat somewhere off the shores of Sweden, and why did Dustin choke back the tears to say yes? Why are we stressing about DJs and photographers? Why obsess over a technicality?
After mulling it over for the past few weeks—the wedding, after all, is fast approaching, and a guy should probably banish these questions from his brain before saying “I do”—I think have my answer. Dustin and I are not “getting anything” out of this deal. Or at least we’re not getting what previous generations of men and women were conditioned to expect. I’m not getting a cooking, cleaning, child-rearing machine. She’s not getting a bringer-home of the bacon. I clean. Both of us cook. Sometimes, Dustin earns more money than I do. Sometimes she doesn’t. We both go to work every day. We both have careers. And when we have children, we’ll both take turns staying home to raise them.
In other words, our roles within the relationship are not defined by gender. They’re defined by who we are as people.
And that’s the point. Stripping marriage of all its antiquated ancillary benefits—its grubby socioeconomic justifications—might make it “unnecessary,” strictly speaking. But it also makes it much more ... well, romantic. (This logic applies to gay marriage as well.) Dustin doesn’t need marriage for financial security, or to ensure that I help raise our children. I don’t need a housewife. The tax breaks are irrelevant. All we’re “getting” is each other. In a world where the practical reasons for marriage no longer apply, the only reason left is love. And while cohabitation and monogamy are dandy—Dustin and I have practiced both for years—I’d rather express my affection by indulging in a defiant, irrational, outmoded act of pure symbolism than by simply maintaining the status quo. Doing what you don’t have to do is always more meaningful than doing what’s necessary.
At this point, I can imagine what critics of marriage might say. That marriage forces women to conform. That simple act of having a husband creates seven hours more housework each week. That Americans have the highest divorce rates in the Western world. And that as many as 60 percent of men and half of women will have sex with somebody other than their spouse during their marriage.
In fact, I don’t have to use my imagination: those are all statistics from Bennett and Ellison’s essay. But the problem is that my colleagues aren’t really criticizing marriage here. They’re criticizing bad relationships. People don’t cheat because they’re married; they cheat because they’re unsatisfied, or selfish, or impulsive. Women don’t cook and clean because they’re married; they cook and clean because their partner doesn’t (or because they actually like to). Divorce occurs outside of wedlock as well; it’s called “breaking up.” And so on. Cheating and chauvinism are bad. Period. It doesn’t matter whether they happen within or without the bonds of matrimony.
My sense is that Bennett and Ellison and I agree on what makes a good relationship good. Equality. Respect. Maturity. Attraction. Communication. Like me, they want “a best friend, a business partner, somebody to share sex, love, and chores.” The difference is that while they choose to pursue this ideal outside of marriage—the institution “has become so tainted, and simultaneously so idealized, that we are hesitant to engage in it,” they write—I’m choosing to chase it from the inside.
I hope that in doing so I’m serving their purposes as much as my own. As women become more powerful in our society and economy—see the new Atlantic Monthly cover story, “The End of Men,” for the stats—men will have to abandon the old, Clint Eastwood model of masculinity and embrace a newer, nondominant mode of manhood if they hope to keep up. Being part of the kind of “egalitarian, independent couple” that Bennett and Ellison praise is a great start.
But here's the thing: marriage isn’t going anywhere. It will always be the foremost expression of love and commitment in our society. If young, egalitarian, independent men and women like Bennett and Ellison (and me) cede the entire institution to people who are fine with the old, broken model, then love and commitment will continue to be defined in the very terms they abhor. To really alter the dynamic of male-female relationships in America, we’ll have to redefine marriage from the inside out.
So that’s why I’m getting hitched next month. Well, that and the wedding gifts. I mean, even the most pompous idealist could use a good food processor.