I graduated from college having just reconnected with my first love, a sweet, talented guy I could never quite figure out how to forget. In those first few days of adulthood, I had a choice: Spend the summer back home in Rhode Island getting to know him again and look for a real job in the fall or move to Manhattan to start work at the glossy fashion magazine that had already offered me one. Except it was never a choice, not really – sticking around barely occurred to me, and not because I necessarily thought jobs were hard to come by. Somewhere in my mind, I thought maybe I could have both – the big career and the romantic story. I haven’t seen him since.
On an intellectual level, I’ve never regretted the decision, though many times, mostly in the darker moments following some breakup, I have wondered what might have happened if I’d chosen love over $23,000 a year and the promise of an exciting future in print publishing. At 30, I found myself still single. And, yes: I had a cat. That was fine; I also had lots of friends and a job I loved. Being single neither upset me nor convinced me that I was better off alone. And yet: Was there something more?
Members of an increasingly vocal anti-marriage movement say that people like me – women and men too busy climbing professional ladders in our 20s and 30s to put similar effort into our relationships – are contributing to the steady demise of heterosexual marriage, and good riddance. There are numbers to back up the contention, at least the part about marriage’s decreasing cultural heft: According to a much discussed recent study by the Pew Research Center, marriage rates are at a record low in the United States, and they’re getting even lower. Barely half of all adults are married, with the number of new marriages decreasing by 5 percent just from 2009 to 2010. Here in Massachusetts, 49 percent of us are married – down 5 percentage points since 2000 – and 33 percent have never been married, up 5 percentage points over the same period.
While economic insecurity has contributed to the decline, with couples waiting to marry until they have a sizable nest egg or can afford a fancy reception, or both, the issue is really more philosophical: Marriage, many pundits argue, is an inherently oppressive and increasingly unhip institution. Another Pew survey, this one conducted in 2010, reported that nearly 4 in 10 Americans, more if you ask only those under 50, considered marriage passe, like Uggs and tuna casserole. What marriage is not is a viable life choice for nonconformist and evolved freethinkers.
That argument is being made more and more. A recent Atlantic Monthly piece about the thirtysomething author’s refusal to “settle” was echoed not long after by a Boston magazine article that talked about how hard, and at once how incredibly liberating, it was to be an upper-middle-class single woman (or man, though only one was featured in the piece). Both pegged the decline in marriage to a sort of feminist victory. Women, they argued, are more educated, successful, and financially self-sufficient than ever before, while men are getting dumber, lazier, and poorer. As a result, women don’t need men – not for security, fulfillment, or even babies – and especially not socially inferior ones. “American women as a whole have never been confronted with such a radically shrinking pool of what are traditionally considered to be ‘marriageable’ men – those who are better educated and earn more than they do,” wrote Kate Bolick in the Atlantic, adding that “marriage-minded women are increasingly confronted with either deadbeats or players.”
But marriage hasn’t been about women needing men – or needing better-educated and higher-earning men – for decades. In fact, the ideals of feminism have helped make modern marriage stronger and less divisive. “Feminism has pushed men to become more involved with the children and the house,” says Margaret Morganroth Gullette, a celebrated essayist about feminist theory and a resident scholar in the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. What’s more, even as the marriage rate drops for people between the ages of 25 and 34, their cohabitation rates are going up, according to the University of Virginia’s ongoing National Marriage Project. “So they work out the problems beforehand,” says Gullette, who also credits feminism for societal acceptance of unmarried couples living together. “Bravo. They are less likely to divorce.” We are marrying later, but we are also marrying smarter.
At the same time, research shows that the more education and financial independence a woman has, the more likely she is to stay married. At times in her own 48-year marriage Gullette earned more money than her husband, a factor she says has contributed to their long-term success. “Having economic power for a woman in a marriage is extremely important,” she says. “If she gets truly unhappy, she may walk. I never said that in my own marriage; I probably didn’t even think it. But my husband knew it, even in the ’60s and ’70s, and it’s still true for women today. Independent women are independent, whether they’re married or not.”
The new pro-single talk is also pushing the idea that marriage is inherently dull, repetitive, and mind-numbing while being single is full of adventure and intellectual stimulation. This is a whopping generalization, one that’s filled with the sort of condescension some singles say has served to make them feel belittled – at work and among their peers – when they go for years without a partner. “As a single person, the world is my oyster,” one woman told Boston magazine. “I’m just sorry that people who are married don’t have that freedom.”
Don’t they? Debby and Bruce Irving of Cambridge have been married for nearly 20 years. She is an educator and writer; he is a real estate agent, home renovation consultant, and writer. They have two daughters. Marriage has not always been a smooth sail, they say, but it has given them a level of stability and, contrary to what the smug singles may say, the motivation they needed to take risks on second careers and other dreams. “My marriage pushed me to be better, to not take the easy way out or get stuck with old habits,” says Bruce. “It was a powerful growth motivator.” Somewhere between the hearts and flowers of the wedding and the stresses of running a house, he says, marriage wormed its way into their consciousness as a series of experiences. “I always thought that you fell madly in love and it dissipated over the years,” says Debby. “But it was just the opposite. The further we’ve gone, the greater the poignancy of what we’ve been through together.” And, in fact, single life is every bit as bureaucratic as married life. There’s still laundry to do, bills to pay, meals to eat.
Melissa and Tom Dowler of Boston married five years ago. They tried what she calls the “whole house in the suburbs” thing for a couple of years in their early 30s and hated it. “It was a confusing time in our marriage,” says Melissa. “Wasn’t this life supposed to be what married couples wanted?” Maybe not. Instead, they left their secure full-time jobs, moved to a loft in the city, and launched a video production business. Now they are making a movie about the changing definition of marriage. They travel extensively. “All the couples we’ve met through our work have inspired us and shown us that modern marriage is far more diverse, rich, and rewarding than it’s often portrayed,” says Melissa of The Long Haul Project, their blog and in-the-works documentary.
Marriage confers financial rights – the federal government provides some benefits and protections exclusively for couples, the same way it does for small businesses, homeowners, and the unemployed – which is one reason why millions of gay Americans, and their friends and supporters, continue to fight for the right to marry traditionally. But marriage also comes with emotional, psychological, and physical benefits. According to studies cited by the National Marriage Project, married people are healthier, have more and better sex, and are, yes, richer than their unmarried counterparts. Meanwhile, raising a child as a single parent is doable, for sure. But harder? Certainly. Still, Gullette says that the real reward for marriage may come in later years. “What I can say for my feminist friends who are not married is that many of them wish they were,” she says. “Later in life, marriage takes on a different quality. They want the companionship and they want the sex: the affection, the tenderness, the pillow talk. They want the conversation in the morning and not somebody who’s going to disappear.”
I married at 34. It has not made my life easier. It hasn’t made it harder, either. On most days, I’d say marriage has made my life better, though certainly not on all days. Together, our careers are more fulfilling than they were when we were apart. We have more friends. We travel often, both independently and together. I love his son, and he loves my cat. It’s not neat and tidy, but it’s not unrealistic, either. It is safe but not mundane. It doesn’t mean that I believe marriage is right for everyone, or even that my own will last forever; who can know? It’s just another part of life, and my choice to live it. That’s the feminist victory.