What Hurts the Institution of Marriage the Most?

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Opponents of same-sex marriage say that allowing homosexuals to marry would hurt the institution of marriage. I don’t quite see why: if gays and lesbians want to marry, isn’t that reinforcing the idea that getting married is a good thing?

People who use this argument are failing to see the forest for the trees. They freak out over a handful of relationships nationwide and ignore the relationship that may have hurt the institution of marriage more than anything other kind: that of the cohabiting couple.

My oldest daughter and I were watching “She’s Having a Baby” the other night and for me it brought back memories of a time when marriage was treated with much more respect and honor than it is now. In 1988, when “She’s Having a Baby” was made, living together was only just beginning to be a common phenomenon. (The number of cohabiting unmarried partners increased by 88% between 1990 and 2007. Source: U.S. Census Bureau. “America’s Families and Living Arrangements: 2007.”)

But when my first husband and I thought about living together before getting married back in 1972, we didn’t have the guts to do it. We didn’t want to be an aberration or the object of unkind gossip. Besides, to our parents at least, marriage was a very big deal. It was the ultimate state of commitment. So, like the couple in “She’s Having a Baby” we went ahead and got married despite the fact that we were young and naive and didn’t know each other very well.

Would our relationship have survived if we’d lived together before getting married? I doubt it, since getting married didn’t cause us to break up—it just made it harder to. (And more expensive.)

Consider these statistics:

About 75% of cohabiters plan to marry their partners. 55% of different-sex cohabiters do marry within five years of moving in together. 40% break up within that same time period. And about 10% remain in an unmarried relationship for five years or more.  (Source: Smock, Pamela. 2000. “Cohabitation in the United States.” Annual Review of Sociology.)

Cohabitation implies that marriage isn’t as important as we were once led to believe. Many couples go into a living-together arrangement because they don’t trust the institution of marriage. They look at their parents’ generation and wonder why they should even bother to get married. (I’ve even heard people say that the main reason they would consider getting married is to get wedding gifts. Really.)

So why aren’t conservatives berating couples who have opted to not marry (like Goldie Hawn and Kirk Russell)? Why aren’t they holding them up as examples of relationships that hurt the institution of marriage?

Same-sex marriage isn’t weakening the institution of marriage; on the contrary: gay couples’ desire to marry is a vote of confidence. They’re saying that marriage matters. Cohabiting couples aren’t as sure about that.

Sometimes it seems that gays are doing more to promote the sanctity of marriage are than straight people are.

 

 

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.

The Wife Dilemma, Part Two

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There’s an old saying (no one seems to know who said it first) that “behind every great man is a good woman.” During the late ’60s that was amended by feminists to: “Behind every great man is a great woman.” I like that better. The first version seems to imply that great men are successful when their women are good wives. The second recognizes that “even” wives have skills and talents that go unrecognized because of our society’s prejudice against women in general and wives in particular.

I myself was a minister’s wife for ten years. The ministry is a little more accepting of the wife having her own accomplishments, if only because churches like to hire “two for the price of one.” Minister’s wives are expected to be just as active in the church as their husbands. But no church I know of would ever accept the wife as a replacement for the husband. She is seen as only an adjunct.

Part of the reason for that is because a minister has to be ordained to serve in a ministerial role in most churches. But the truth is, I could have done everything my husband could do except officiate at weddings. (I sang at them, though). When he was going through seminary, I read his books and helped him with projects and papers (although he would deny the latter). I helped him hone his sermons. I taught Bible Studies, helped out in the church office, worked with the youth group and directed the children’s choir. Later on, after our divorce, I became a certified lay speaker and preached on several occasions. But should I try to use any of these accomplishments to beef up a resumé, forget it. It’s as if I spent ten years doing nothing.

The feminist movement doesn’t have a good record when it comes to fighting for housewives’ rights. It’s as if feminists themselves agree that anything a woman does in the home isn’t worth all that much. Oh, you’ll hear feminists say that what a woman does in the home is as important as what she does out of the home, but their words sound hollow. One reason why many women have become disenchanted with feminism is because it doesn’t attach value to anything but paid work. A woman isn’t considered truly liberated unless she has her own job or career.

I say that women who are married and/or stay home should be considered just as liberated, if that is their choice. Feminists should be demanding more respect for women who are wives or homemakers. They should be pushing for legislation that recognizes that a homemaker’s contribution to a marriage is just as valuable as her husband’s and should be compensated in some way.

One thing this means is getting credit for Social Security benefits based on her own record of working in the home. After all, the things a wife does to support her husband (like entertaining, raising his children, keeping his house, etc.) would have to be paid for if she wasn’t there to do them.

It also makes me crazy when a mother isn’t considered gainfully employed when she stays home with her kids. Many women who were “stay-at-home mothers” (SAHMs) are forced to go to work outside of the home if they get divorced because the courts require them to “pay” their share of child support and “just” staying home with the kids isn’t considered to be of any monetary value. (Not to mention welfare programs that require SAHMs to go to work when their children are not even in school yet. Does it make sense that they have to pay someone else to watch their kids when they could be the ones taking care of them?)

Many women today are refusing to marry even when they’re in a committed relationship. Whether they realize it or not, I think they shy away from wifehood because of the way society treats married women. But marriage is what you make it; it doesn’t have to mean that you stand behind the man. Demand respect for the great person you are in your own right. And don’t let anyone call you “just” a wife.

The Wife Dilemma, Part One

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Here’s one of my biggest pet peeves: women who are written off because they are “only” wives. This especially disturbs me when it is used to dismiss a woman’s expertise or accomplishments because it’s only her husband who is well-known for something. And it really upset me when it was directed at Hillary Clinton.

When Clinton was running for the Democratic nomination in the presidential race of 2008, many people spitefully said that she wouldn’t be where she is today if she hadn’t been married to a President of the United States, as if all she did was stand by his side at ceremonies or pick out his clothes. The ironic thing is that when she did try to take a more active part in her husband’s administration, she was strongly criticized and her efforts were ridiculed.

It’s no wonder that other First Ladies have been careful to pick causes that are considered appropriate for a wife of a President to have. I had high hopes for Michelle Obama; I thought she might take on something like domestic violence or poverty, or even, God forbid, reproductive rights. Instead she settled on childhood obesity, a nice safe cause that won’t rock anyone’s boat. (Although I did read that Sarah Palin criticized her for trying to tell parents what to do with their children; of course she equated that with big government.)

There were times during Bill Clinton’s presidency when I wondered what Hillary Clinton thought she was doing. But that was mainly because there was no precedent for it. At other times I thought, “Why not?” After all, who would be more in tune with what her husband was trying to accomplish than she? And it’s not like she’s a dummy; far from it. She’s an intelligent and accomplished person in her own right.

So is Michelle Obama. And if I sound like I’m saying she has to have her own “outside” job to be considered important, I’m not. On the contrary, I’m saying that we should accord respect to wives no matter what they do in or out of the home and not assume that just because they’re wives they’re incapable of contributing anything important to the world. I would just like to have seen her take on something a little more “earth-shattering” than childhood obesity (and before you jump in, I do realize that it’s a big problem; I just happen to think that getting food to starving children should be a higher priority than taking it away from kids who don’t need it).

But she’s probably responding, at least in part, to people who are ready to pounce on her if she so much as comments on a “touchy” subject. She’s not supposed to have opinions of her own, even if she has the knowledge and experience to back them up. I thought she added a lot to her husband’s campaign but as soon as he was elected, she seemed to have lost her voice.

Eleanor Roosevelt is probably considered the best First Lady this country has ever seen. But even she restricted herself to “feminine” causes like human rights, the status of working women and world peace. The truth is, though, she could probably have taken over for her husband in a heartbeat (and some think she did occasionally). She would have made a wonderful President. Still, she at least received recognition for her own accomplishments. She was never seen as “just” the wife of a President.

We should never underestimate what the woman behind a “great” man is capable of absorbing from being involved in her husband’s world. Wives know a lot more than we give them credit for. If we would just look past the label, we would discover a woman who is just as capable of “running the world” as her husband is.

See my next post for “The Wife Dilemma, Part Two.”

To Keep or Not to Keep: Your Name After Marriage

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My youngest daughter got married last weekend. She and her fiancé picked the date based on the fact that there was no Ohio State football game that day. It also happened to be the night of the switch to (or from, I can never remember which) Daylight Savings Time, which gave everyone an extra hour’s sleep the next morning, something I’m sure was badly needed by several attendees. (There was an open bar.)

This was the second wedding among my children and also the second one that didn’t have a wedding party, much to the dismay of my oldest daughter who is just dying to have dresses that match a color scheme. With three sisters, each of my daughters has a built-in wedding party, but instead the brides have opted for simplicity. Both have also opted to keep their names.

That’s a weird phrase: “keep your name,” as if you somehow lose it, or have it wrested from you, when you get married. But that’s exactly what does happen for most women as far as society is concerned. I don’t know the statistics on how many women keep their former last names when they get married, but so far in my family it’s 50%.

I took my husband’s name each time I married, but returned to my maiden name after each divorce. I also use my maiden name as my middle name when I am married, and I’ve hyphenated it on some legal documents. I don’t want there to be any doubts about who I am and where I came from.

And yet I go by my husband’s last name in most contexts. I like people knowing that my husband and I are married. Besides, Keim is a lot easier to write than Appleby. (Although it’s not necessarily easier to spell or pronounce.) And since there’s another Ellen Appleby in the writing world (she writes children’s books), I’ve chosen to write under the name Ellen Keim.

One of my daughters asked me the other day if I’ve ever minded changing my name. I told her only when I got married the first time. It felt strange to have another person’s name hung around my neck. But after changing my name the second time, it became old hat to me. It’s more a way of marking my passage through life: I can remember when things happened by what last name I had at the time!

I guess I see marriage—and changing your name—as an evolution. As you change from one state to another, you take on another identity, chameleon-like. Some women insist on keeping their maiden names as a way of hanging onto their identity. But the truth is, it’s usually your father’s identity that you’re hanging onto. (Unless you were given your mother’s or a hyphenated name at birth.) There’s really no way to get away from familial or marital ties unless you make up a completely new name for yourself.

If you could give yourself a new last name, what would it be and why?

50 Things You Need to Know About Marital Relationships

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Excerpted from Al Maghrib Institute’s “Fiqh of Love” seminar with Shaykh Waleed Basyouni.

  1. Great relationships don’t just happen; they are created. You have to work at it.
  2. If your job takes all of your best energy, your marriage will suffer.
  3. One of the greatest gifts you can give your spouse is your own happiness.
  4. It is possible to love and hate someone at the same time.
  5. When you complain about your spouse to your friends, remember that their feedback can be distorted.
  6. The only rules in your marriage are those you both choose to agree with.
  7. It is not conflict that destroys marriage; it is the cold, smoldering resentment that you hold for a long time.
  8. It’s not what you’ve got, it’s what you do with what you have.
  9. If you think you are too good for your spouse, think again.
  10. Growing up in a happy household doesn’t ensure a happy marriage, or vice versa.
  11. It’s never too late to repair damaged trust.
  12. The real issue is usually not the one you are arguing about.
  13. Love isn’t just a feeling; it is expressed through our actions.
  14. Expectations set us up for disappointment and resentment.
  15. Arguments cannot be avoided, but destructive arguments can be avoided.
  16. One of the greatest gifts you can give your spouse is focused attention.
  17. Even people with happy marriages sometimes worry that they married the wrong person.
  18. Your spouse cannot rescue you from unhappiness, but they can help you rescue yourself.
  19. The cost of a lie is far greater than any advantage you gain from speaking it.
  20. Your opinion is not necessarily the truth.
  21. Trust takes years to establish and moments to destroy.
  22. Guilt-tripping won’t get you what you really want.
  23. Don’t neglect your friends.
  24. If you think, “You are not the person I married,” you are probably right.
  25. Resisting the temptation to prove your point will win you a lot of points.
  26. Generosity of spirit is the foundation of a good marriage.
  27. If your spouse is being defensive, you might be giving them reasons to be like that.
  28. Marriage isn’t 50/50; it’s 100/100.
  29. You can pay now or pay later, but the later you pay, the more interest and penalties you acquire.
  30. Marriage requires sacrifice, but your benefits outweigh your costs.
  31. Forgiveness isn’t a one-time event; it’s a continous process.
  32. Accepting the challenges of marriage will shape you into a better person.
  33. Creating a marriage is like launching a rocket: once it clears the pull of gravity, it takes much less energy to sustain the flight.
  34. A successful marriage has more to do with how you deal with your current reality than with what you’ve experienced in the past.
  35. Don’t keep feelings of gratitude to yourself.
  36. There is no greater eloquence than the silence of real listening.
  37. One of the greatest questions to ask your spouse is “How best can I love you?”
  38. Marriage can stay fresh over time.
  39. Assumptions are fine as long as you check them before acting upon them.
  40. Intention may not be the only thing, but it is the most important thing.
  41. Good sex won’t make your marriage, but it’ll help.
  42. Privacy won’t hurt your marriage, but secrecy will.
  43. Possessiveness and jealousy are born out of fear, not love.
  44. Authenticity is contagious and habit-forming.
  45. If your spouse thinks something is important, then it is.
  46. Marriage never outgrows the need for romance.
  47. The sparkle of a new relationship is always temporary.
  48. There is violence in silence when it’s used as a weapon.
  49. It’s better to focus on what you can do to make things right, then what your partner did to make things wrong.
  50. If you think marriage counseling is too expensive, try divorce.