Over the past year I have been researching a book on the state of marriage today, known mostly as the clinical-sounding “companionate” marriage. I have been looking at the way today’s marriages differ from the marriages of previous generations, how it seems laden with expectations, and yet is wonderfully fluid and democratic. During this time I have also been navigating my own young marriage, carving out my role in the partnership, and watching my husband carve out his.
It is due to both of these experiences that I find Newsweek’s “The Case Against Marriage,” a polemic against matrimony by Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison, to be both silly and often wrong.
For starters, they begin their essay with a critique of the thick cream-colored envelopes that fill their mailboxes during the early summer, marking the beginning of the extravagant wedding season to come. Sure, weddings can seem interchangeable and rife with conspicuous consumption. But weddings and marriage aren’t the same — in fact, in many ways they have little to do with one another, and the most wedding-ready brides can often be the least marriage-ready wives. My husband and I went out of our way to think about marriage when prepping for our nuptials, and to not become distracted by flowers and cake.
Bennett and Ellison make the point that feminism and “Sex and the City” paved the way for female independence, rendering marriage useless. Not so much. If you look at marriage statistics urban, educated career women are still getting married, and are more likely to stay married than their younger, non-urban counterparts.
They take on divorce, using the oft-quoted statistics that half of all marriages don’t last, but fail to look at remarriage rates, which show that about half of all divorcés remarry. People might give up on a marriage, but they don’t give up on marriage all together. Of course, there is also the good point made in “I Do, Too” Andrew Romano’s companion essay in Newsweek defending unions. He acknowledges that non-married monogamous couples also separate, but that there is no formal name for it, like divorce.
Long-term monogamous relationships are indeed difficult, but one thing that makes mine easier is knowing that I said vows in front my family and friends, pledging to make it work. Add in a priest, minister or rabbi, and these vows force you to believe that you are part of something larger than yourself and your whims — the commitment is not just a partner, but to your family, community and to the tradition of marriage itself. This has certainly slowed down the “I want out” reflex that used to pop up during fights my husband and I had before we were married. We are forced to think harder, work harder and to come to an understanding.
Bennett and Ellison also present the growing number of single moms as a sustainable model. While I praise the expanding choices women have, and would support any female friend who wanted to raise kids alone, I hesitate to glamorize single motherhood. The word from my new mother friends is that being a parent is a very difficult job, even with two spouses.
The article’s authors also praise the gains same-sex advocates have made in domestic partnership rights, but fail to acknowledge the large, emotional struggle same-sex couples face for the right to marry.
They portray marriage as a source of inevitable unhappiness for women, and quote sociologist Phillip Cohen who says, “The bottom line is that men, not women, are much happier when they’re married.” (“I can’t deny saying it, but I also can’t remember exactly why I would have. Is it true? I don’t know,” Cohen writes on his website.)
Bennett and Ellison are also skeptical about the idea of looking for “all-encompassing, head-over-heels fulfillment” from a partner, but fail to acknowledge that today’s perfect partner differs from that of yesteryear. The requirements have changed for most women, and today’s perfect husband is likely feminism-compatible if not a feminist himself.
Fifty years ago the “all” in “all-encompassing” might have meant a man who had a good corporate job and was handy with a wrench. Today it might mean a stay-at-home dad who knows the difference between jasmine and basmati rice. Or, maybe it is a man who has a good corporate job and is handy with a wrench. It could be either, and that is a good thing.
I was happy to see that this piece does acknowledge that marriage is in transition. But what it fails to see is that marriage is, and has always been, a fluid institution. While, thankfully, we live in a time when it is certainly acceptable to not get married, that is not to say that marriage should be done away with, or has no role in the world today.
Early on in the essay the writers, who are in their late 20s and early 30s, warn that despite their case against marriage, there is still a chance that they too might one day wed. They write:
Before we get into specifics, a caveat: check with us again in five years. We’re in our late 20s and early 30s, right around the time when biological clocks start ticking and whispers of “Why don’t you just settle down?” get louder. (We’re looking at you, Lori Gottlieb). So just as Newsweek will never live down its (false) prediction that 40-year-old single women were more likely to be “killed by a terrorist” than to marry, we permit you, friends and readers, to mock us at our own weddings (should they happen).
This acknowledgment is a great testament to the enduring appeal of matrimony. The feelings behind Bennett and Ellison’s caveat, and the sentiments expressed in a companion essay in which writer Kate Dailey defends *her * marriage, make the best case for the continuation of the institution, and how a partnership is as unique as the two people in it.