What’s Wrong with Getting Married?

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I just spent two full days on a road trip with my oldest daughter. We got along great most of the time. The only time we came close to arguing is when we were talking about people having children without getting married. She’s convinced that I’m critical of women who have children “out of wedlock.” Which is ludicrous because when she had her first child she didn’t marry the father and I have always supported her decision and even thought that she was wise to handle it that way. But that was mainly because she had no interest in being in a relationship with the baby’s father.

Now she’s pregnant with her second child, but this time she’s with the guy that she intends to marry—eventually. They’re (he is) apparently not ready yet, and that worries me. When is he going to be ready? Will he ever be ready? Or will he just be content with being involved with her without making that final commitment?

She said that her dad (my ex) has never said anything about them not being married. But she’s not exactly being fair to me. I’m not critical of them not getting married because I think it’s immoral or bad for society. I did say that I thought celebrities who don’t get married help to perpetrate the idea that marriage is an optional, even obsolete, institution and I don’t think it is. But I realize that you can be married without that sense of commitment and not married and have it. I hate that when celebrities get married—maybe when anyone gets married—people ask themselves, “I wonder how long it’ll last?” Instead of thinking, “Isn’t it wonderful that they want to spend their lives together?” How did we get so cynical about marriage?

It’s funny how gay people are fighting for the right to get married while straight people are eschewing it. I think marriage is important because of what it symbolizes: that you’re committed to one another and plan to make a life together. I know I tend to think that people who don’t get married aren’t willing to make that commitment and that’s not necessarily true. But if they are committed, why don’t they formalize that commitment and announce it to the world?

People blame marriage for causing bad relationships when it’s people who cause bad relationships. When a marriage fails, it’s not because the couple got married. It’s because people change. Or they realize that they don’t have what it takes to stay married to this person, which of course is something they should have realized long before they considered marrying him or her. But I don’t think it’s right to blame marriage per se for making people unhappy with each other. It’s not marriage that’s the problem; it’s that people see it differently than they used to.

Some people are against marriage because they’ve been burned before. My daughter’s boyfriend (intended? significant other?) is one of those people. He married once before and it was a disaster. But that’s obviously because he married the wrong person. Now he’s supposedly with the right person and he’s dragging his feet.

Part of my reaction is on behalf of my daughter. She deserves to be with someone who loves her so much he wants everyone to know that he’s totally committed to her. I tend to see marriage as “proof” that you can’t live without each other.

I guess part of my “problem” is that I’m almost 60 and “I just don’t understand” the younger generation. But I came of age in the era of free love and distrust of anything that smacked of the Establishment. Plus I’m a feminist. It could be that I’ve gotten more conservative in my old age. But I don’t think that’s all of it.

Marriage just seems like a logical step to take when you’re ready to make a life-long commitment to another person. If you’re not ready to do that, then for God’s sake, don’t get married. But even I’m not clueless enough not to realize that getting married doesn’t ensure that you’re going to stay together forever. And that getting married before you’re ready will almost guarantee that you won’t.

The fact that I’ve been married four times could mean that I really, really believe in the institution of marriage. Or it could mean that I just don’t learn from my mistakes. But the thing is, I don’t see a marriage that ends as a failure. I see it as a good try. At least I feel like mine have always been the result of my commitment to that particular person at that moment in time. The fact that my first three marriages didn’t last doesn’t mean that I failed at marriage. If anything, it means that t took me a while that it was okay to not be married.

In between my marriages, I actually enjoyed myself. By the time my third marriage ended, I had come to prefer my own company to that of a man I couldn’t completely count on when the going got tough. If I hadn’t found a man like that, I wouldn’t have married a fourth time.

The only negative I can see about marriage is that if it doesn’t work out between you and your spouse, you have to go through the legal machinery of getting a divorce. But anytime you’ve mingled your life with another’s you’re going to have entanglements that won’t be so easy to get out of. I’d rather risk having to get divorced if things go wrong than to not risk banking my entire life on another person.

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

2 thoughts on “What’s Wrong with Getting Married?”

  1. In think what may scare a lot of the “younger generation” is financial instability. Most friends I know do not want to marry until they are financially stable and have their careers on the road. I am noticing that those of my generation do not want to marry until their very late 20s and 30s (if at all) which is about the age they finish their career. The thought of purchasing house (or other), having a traditional wedding and possibly having children is an expensive road.

    In a heterosexual relationship, I don’t think men are as commitment phobic as many women make them out to be. For the most part, many men want to give women the *choice* to work or stay home which means that his income should be strong. I honestly think that “my” generation is afraid of the inability to be financially stable in these trying times.

    I think marriage is extremely important, and my reasons have nothing to do with morality. I simply think that making a commitment to another person (through legal terms) represents a commitment to be their partner in life’s trials. I think it’s beautiful to have a tangible proof that represents a commitment through anything and everything. Of course, non-married couples can also be supportive in the same way. Marriage doesn’t lead to miracles, it just says “I’m in”.

    Also, I don’t think that divorce is something to be afraid of. The idea that I can potentially escape a *bad* situation in marriage is a relief to me. I think many people freak out at the permanence that marriage represents. I am probably the most loyal and committed person I know, but I still have never seen marriage as permanent. Yes, we should strive for permanence, but I see marriage as a day-by-day challenge. If this leads to a permanent life, then great. If one’s partner leads you to an undesirable life (i.e. abusive situation, infidelity) then there are other options to ensure we don’t have to suffer.

    Honestly, marriage is a “bad word” for my generation. I think it goes back to financial anxieties (from the ppl I’ve spoken to).

    1. I never thought about financial instability. I should have. But back when I got married for the first time in 1972 the attitude was more like “Two can live as cheaply as one (or almost as cheaply.” And it didn’t necessarily take two incomes to get by. Also, most people didn’t have terribly expensive weddings. And destination weddings were unheard of unless the bride and groom just happened to live out of town from you.

      I’ve seen two weddings now among my own daughters and while they weren’t outrageous, they were still much more than I ever spent on any of my weddings!

      I love what you said about the importance of marriage. I agree with you completely.

      Also, having gone through divorces three times I can attest to the fact that as painful as they can be, they’re still vastly better than staying in a bad marriage.

      I can understand wanting to get ahead financially before you “settle down” but I think the most important thing is to not have children right away, before you get your education or start a career. That’s a tip from a woman who did it the “wrong” way: I dropped out of college to have kids. But it wasn’t marriage itself that kept me from finishing school. There’s nothing that says that you can’t both go to school together.

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