Sex & Relationships

I Don't Believe in Marriage -- Here's Why I (Grudgingly) Got Married Anyway

I was tired of the blatant social pressure and disapproval. And even more tired of facing legal and economic discrimination.

The last wedding I attended was in June 2008, and I remember standing there after the ceremony with pangs of jealously and confusion as I thought about my own long-term relationship. At that point, I had been living with my partner for two years, and we were getting ready to move out to Ithaca, N.Y., so he could start work on a Ph.D. at Cornell University.

I considered myself to be in the same ranks as my wedded friends because I too was part of a stable, long-term partnership. Even so, my diamond-free left hand left friends, colleagues and family members scratching their heads, questioning why I hadn't (or when I planned to!) shimmy down the aisle. 

Now don't get me wrong, I wanted to partake in all of the tangential benefits of a white wedding. When my sister got married, her apartment was literally overflowing with gifts: New china, linens from Macy's, and a few thousand dollars in gift certificates. When my partner I moved across the country together from California to Ithaca, we got a $150 gift certificate to Bed Bath & Beyond and a set of pots and pans from a sympathetic relative.

Other than that, we were on our own with my savings while I looked for a job, and my partner's graduate-student salary. We bought an air mattress for our unfurnished apartment and stocked our kitchen with garage-sale dishware. 

New kitchen utensils would have been nice, yes, but the promise of material goods wasn't quite bribe enough for us to participate in a sexist institution that held little religious or cultural significance for us. A marriage certificate is no guarantee of a successful, happy, or even long-term bond anyway -- so why did it matter that a priest/judge/rabbi/pastor hadn't presided over our union?

The prospect of marriage seemed especially unpleasant given the omnipresence of social conservatives like James Dobson, Phyllis Schlafly and others who have successfully made their careers by demonizing gay couples as hedonists, single moms as irresponsible and cohabitating couples as selfish.

Not getting married seemed to be a viable way of fighting these fierce social stigmas because, through our relationship, we could show our friends and family that marriage doesn't have to be a component of a happy, successful partnership. 

I was proud of our relationship sans marriage certificate. My partner and I both wore aprons in the kitchen and supported each other's ambitions.
We accepted the fact that our partnership, our deal, like any marriage, could fall apart -- but we vowed to be honest and open with each other and to commit ourselves to each other for as long as we could.

Opting out of marriage hardly seemed subversive -- at least while we were in the cozy bubble of our private home. Outsiders, however, weren't quite as thrilled with our makeshift union.

While my friends' and cousins' engagements were praised with unquestioning "CONGRATULATIONS!!!" on fancy cards and Facebook wall posts, my relationship was rather unremarkable, if not cause for concern. Many seemed to think that my partner just needed a little encouragement in the marriage department, as though I were a damsel in distress, and that I (really) was just dying for the day that I too could dress up in white and say "I do!" in front of smiling loved ones.

I wanted to blame films like Twenty-Seven Dresses and My Big Fat Greek Wedding for brainwashing my friends and family into believing that a wedding is (of course!) the climax of a sexual relationship. But I knew that my aversion to marriage was uncomfortable for everyone else because it blurred the lines between "legitimate" and "illegitimate."

As a couple, we acted in ways that typical marrieds acted. We cooked together, lived together, slept together. And yet our relationship just didn't measure up. We were partners, yes, but lacked the language to express our relationship in terms other than "boyfriend" and "girlfriend." We were still identified as "dating," i.e. "not serious," by the outside world.

The fact is that marriage is still held up as the gold standard in the U.S.; "[it] remains the highest form of commitment in our culture and comes packaged with exacting expectations about responsibility, fidelity and intimacy," family historian Stephanie Coontz explains in Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage.

While marriage is associated with a positive vocabulary and public image, other familial arrangements remain undefined, if not ignored. "Arrangements other than marriage are still treated as makeshift or temporary, however long they last," Coontz writes. "There is no consensus on what rules apply to these relationships. We don't even know what to call them." 

The legal terrain for unmarried heterosexual couples living in the U.S. has been rough. In Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage, author Nancy Polikoff writes about Bonnie Cord, a law-school graduate who was deemed "morally unfit" to take the Virginia bar exam because she was living in a home that she shared with her male partner.

Then there was Olivia Shelltrack and Fondray Loving, a couple of 13 years who "moved in with their two children and a third child from Olivia's previous relationship. The city denied them an occupancy permit because its zoning laws prohibit more than three people unrelated by blood, marriage or adoption from living together," Polikoff writes. "These are heterosexual couples, and they could marry. But they shouldn't have to. Bonnie's choice to live with an unmarried partner bore no relationship to her ability to practice law. The proper zoning concerns of Black Jack, Mo., do not turn on whether Olivia and Fondray marry."

The cost of a "nontraditional" relationship status is great because it directly impacts the economic, and even physical, well-being of many unmarried partners. Cohabitating, heterosexual partners are still excluded from protections like partner sick leave, hospital-visitation rights, automatic inheritance, and a slew of other incentives afforded to married couples.

They're also significantly less likely than their wedded counterparts to receive employer-provided health insurance. In fact, a Williams Institute study found that they are three times more likely to be uninsured than married partners, meaning that they're more likely to forgo preventative medicine and more likely to rely on emergency-room care. 

While cohabitating "singles" have certainly made some legal gains in the last decade -- unmarried couples living in North Dakota are no longer considered to be criminals on par with rapists, thanks to a 2007 House decision, for example -- progress has been slow, and discrimination still exists in varying forms. 

On the job front for me, this notion became painstakingly clear every time I gave an honest response to the inevitable question: "Why Ithaca?" only to listen to some potential employers wonder aloud if I'd really be in Ithaca for several years. Or would it be six months?

I knew from the get-go that I couldn't flat out reject a social norm without some reproach, but the fight was becoming overwhelming. I didn't like having to defend myself and my decision to move to Ithaca. I grew sensitive to the condescending and intrusive inquiries. I didn't want friends and family to gush over my personal love story -- but I did want in on the community respect that my friends enjoyed with their "I do's." 

I was elated when I happened upon American Prospect author and Feministing editor Courtney Martin's June 2008 article about her opposite-sex, unmarried partnership. It struck a chord with me because her story sounded like mine -- and, I'm guessing, like the stories of thousands of other women who have waffled over the decision to say "I do." 

Martin hit the nail on the head with her observation that for many, the desire for marriage is about a desire for inclusion. 

"I can see why my gay friends -- whose relationships have long been belittled and discriminated against -- are especially invested in having a community of people recognize their union in a public, official way," Martin says. "Weddings, after all, are often about the community that surrounds the couple and their opportunity to witness and honor their love, and sometimes even pledge to support it for the long haul."

Martin concludes the article on an ambiguous note, still uncertain about her feelings about marriage: "I'm still not sure that I'll ever get married, but I'll never look at the white dress again without seeing all the shades of gray," she says.

My feelings about marriage, however, were becoming a bit more clear-cut: I wanted my relationship to be officially acknowledged; I wanted to be left alone. My "single" status wasn't serving me, and I wasn't convinced that it was working to change the world. 

My partner and I discussed the pros and cons of matrimony and ultimately decided that we wanted to tie the knot. "We're planning on staying together, so why not enjoy the rights that come with marriage?"

He "proposed" on our anniversary, not with a diamond ring, but with a watch -- something he knew that I'd actually wear. For the ceremony, we settled on a female judge, two witnesses, and said "I do" in a courthouse that strongly resembled a DMV, complete with beige walls, cheap blinds and metal detectors. (A marriage certificate is, after all, a means of telling the state that you care about someone, so why shouldn't couples wed in the same building in which the accused are judged?) We spent less than $100 on our jeans-optional extravaganza. 

Thanks to feminist leaders who fought for access to contraception, domestic-violence protections and inheritance rights, marriage no longer means a loss of identity or a loss of freedom, at least in theory.

"If I had got married when I was supposed to have in my 20s, I would have lost almost all my civil rights," Gloria Steinem told Milwaukee journalist Dave Tianen. "I wouldn't have had my own name, my own legal residence, my own credit rating. I would have had to get a husband to sign off on a bank loan or starting a business." 

Women no longer forfeit their individuality when they say "I do." Even so, marriage is problematic because it is still conflated with moral "purity" and notions of stability; meanwhile, relationships that exist outside of the single-married dichotomy are viewed as a threat to moral order and are penalized as such.

In other words, the decision to marry isn't necessarily one that's made on an individual level -- like the decision to major in anthropology instead of sociology. It is motivated, at least in part, by a desire for social approval and acceptance. 

And truth be told, I like that I'm congratulated when people find out that I'm a wife. I like the immediate respect and understanding that comes with the golden-ticket word "husband." It informs colleagues, friends and family that I'm in a committed relationship -- and one that shouldn't be taken lightly.

But I'm troubled by the fact that when I introduce my partner as something other than "partner," I'm consciously acknowledging the exclusivity of my relationship status. I'm linguistically detaching myself from the some 5.5 million cohabitating couples in the U.S. whose relationships are, in the eyes of the law, and in the eyes of many Americans, less valuable than mine. And I'm lauded for it. 

Amy Williams is a freelance writer.
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