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Is Getting Married to Make Parents Happy worth It?

We're basically married anyway... so why should we make it legal?

woman and man sitting together

Q: I know that trying to please others is probably a terrible reason to get married, but hear me out. I’m twenty-nine and I’ve been with my partner for eight years, even though I’d always planned to remain single through my twenties. His parents are Pakistani-American and they had very concrete plans for his life, including that he marry someone within their sect of Islam. He has disappointed those expectations: he’s not religious, he doesn’t have a well-paying career, and like me, he’s not super enthusiastic about the possibility of having kids one day.

He didn’t tell his parents about me for the first few years we were living together because he knew they wouldn’t approve. They found out about me eventually, though, and even though it’s been hard for them, they’ve always treated me with kindness and respect. They’ve made it clear that they want to accept me into their family, but they don’t feel like they can really do that if we’re not married. They mention it almost every time we see them.

I resent the fact that they put so much pressure on us to define our relationship a certain way, and I’ve never considered myself marriage material. I don’t want to be someone’s wife—the idea of that doesn’t make me very happy, even though I’m in a committed relationship. I don’t like the idea of legally binding myself to someone and making a promise to stay with them forever when I don’t know what the future holds. I like knowing that I’m with this person every day because that’s what I’m choosing right now—not because I have some obligation to fulfill.

I also don’t want to assume his debts and responsibility for whatever choices he makes with his health—when I imagine getting married, I start to think of him as property or an investment of some kind. Like, please don’t drink that beer because we’ll both be paying for it down the road? I’ve read the statistics on how marriage leaves women worse off in terms of health in the long term, while married men are generally better off than their unmarried counterparts. It doesn’t feel like a fair trade. Plus, his parents approach marriage from a patriarchal standpoint, even though their sect of Islam is pretty liberal. I just think the inequality and weird property stuff is baked in, and I don’t want to compromise myself that way. It’s really unromantic to me.

At the same time, we basically act like we’re married already. Our lives are intertwined, we share a bank account, and we divide labor in a way that makes sense to us. I don’t want to be with anyone else, and sometimes I look down at my hand and think I wouldn’t mind a nice piece of jewelry there, to symbolize our relationship and how much it means to me. His parents are getting old, and it’s clear that it’s really upsetting to them that we can’t just go to the courthouse and make it official. We could draw up a prenup and make it easy to divorce if it comes to that. We could still call each other “partner” instead of “husband” and “wife” if we wanted to. What’s the difference, really? Maybe we could have a celebration of some kind to make our families happy, and to give my relatives who live on the other side of the world an excuse to come visit and see everyone and be happy. It seems kind of fun and nice, I suppose…

But I still feel deeply reluctant. I’m a child of divorce, and I never saw it coming… you just never know what’s going to happen. We could get married and break up a year later. But we’ve been together this long, and we’re more committed now than we’ve ever been. What’s the point of this weird, rebellious stance I’m taking? Why not just make his parents happy and make it official? Am I being selfish for refusing to give up my single status?

But also, even if we did get married, his parents would likely continue to pressure us to take the next steps: have babies, move to the suburbs, get well-paying jobs, make space to take care of them, etc. If we cave on this, maybe it just opens the door for more disappointment and disapproval down the road. We don’t have conventional jobs and we’re not planning to move to the suburbs to have kids, ever.

But I think just the small step (or is it big?) of getting married would make a huge difference to these people who care about us, and maybe that’s reason enough. They’re never going to understand us and the choices we make, but they can understand marriage, and I think that would be nice for them. My parents are more laid back about things, but I know my mom would love to plan a celebration of some kind if we wanted that. I heard recently that my uncle was upset about our unmarried status, which bothered me because I don’t want to upset people. I think I have good reasons for being reluctant, but I also want to make it easier for our families to accept us and respect our relationship.

So, what do you think? Should we get married to please the parents?

-Lizzie

A: Dear Lizzie,

No! No no no, never will I ever tell someone to get married to make the parents happy. And who cares what this uncle thinks about whether you’re married or not? He’s wasting some valuable energy on something that doesn’t affect him at all. Ignore them. No matter your choices, the previous generation might not get you, so you can’t base your choices on what they think. Whether you stand firm on this one, or get married to please them, either choice probably won’t stop them from pressuring you in one way or another.

But be real with yourself. Are you saving yourself any heartache here? Whether you’re legally tied or not, you’re emotionally invested in this guy. Living with him, combining your finances, and just flat-out caring about him all make you vulnerable to some of the things you’re trying to avoid by skipping marriage. Even if you don’t have a wedding, his choices about his own health impact you, too. You’ll still be paying for that beer.

You’re right when you say you don’t know what the future holds. But nobody does! Marriage isn’t about saying, “I know exactly what the next thirty years of my life will be.” It’s more like, “No clue what’s ahead, but I promise to stick with you through all of it.” Which is simultaneously a really scary and really comforting idea. It seems like you’re trying to avoid risk by avoiding marriage, but that’s not how it works. Caring about somebody in any capacity at all puts you at risk. Marriage, if anything, tempers that risk just a bit by giving you the reassurance of a mutual understanding. It’s actually a lot like that everyday choice you mention. I make the choice to stick around each morning not because I feel obligated by my vows, but because I know that he promised to stay, too, and I can count on him to work through whatever garbage is making me consider leaving in the first place.

There are certainly loads more knots to untangle once you get married—legally, financially, etc. I’m not at all encouraging you to get married, or to take the decision lightly. I’ll be the first to say that if you’re on the fence, don’t do it. But make the choice open-eyed and with an awareness of what you’re actually deciding here.

When you say, “the inequality seems baked in,” I can’t figure out if you mean into marriage in general, or into Islam. If marriage, well, you’ve got a whole lot of catch-up reading to do on this here site. If Islam, you might want to check out what this lady over here has to say about that. In either case, you’re painting with a pretty broad brush.

But you know what else we haven’t talked about at all? Your partner’s opinion. How does he feel about all of this? That matters a whole heck of a lot more than what his parents or some random uncle think. Sometimes—like when you’re marrying into a culture that’s not your own—it’s important to compromise with an older generation, and sometimes it’s not. The person who gets to decide this, however, isn’t you—it’s your partner. You get to weigh in, but at the end of the day, this is a complex situation, and it’s not all about you.

Don’t get married because his parents say to. Don’t get married because some lady advice columnist on the Internet says to. If you get married, only do it because you want to get married, and because you’ve decided your partner’s worth the risk.

IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO ASK APW A QUESTIONPLEASE DON’T BE SHY! IF YOU WOULD PREFER NOT TO BE NAMED, ANONYMOUS QUESTIONS ARE ALSO ACCEPTED. (THOUGH IT REALLY MAKES OUR DAY WHEN YOU COME UP WITH A CLEVER SIGN-OFF!)

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