Is Marriage An Economic Privilege?

The minute I read the New York Times article this weekend, “For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage,” I knew I had to write a response because the issues in the piece hit so close to home.

The fact is, when I first picked up the newspaper and started reading, I was thrilled. The article lead in is:

It used to be called illegitimacy. Now it is the new normal. After steadily rising for five decades, the share of children born to unmarried women has crossed a threshold: more than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage.

I was delighted. We have many close friends that had kids without being married. Some of them had kids very young (surprise!), and for others, marriage is just not something they are into. So at first blush, it seemed that a national trend that made it easier for people to choose not to marry was a damn good thing.

But then I dug further into the article, and my feelings changed. It turns out that the trend line we’re looking at is not that more women are feeling empowered to have children outside of marriage. The trend line we’re looking at is that marriage rates, as at least as they correlate with children, are falling for everyone but the well off. The facts are these:

About 92 percent of college-educated women are married when they give birth, compared with 62 percent of women with some post-secondary schooling and 43 percent of women with a high school diploma or less, according to Child Trends. … That is turning family structure into a new class divide, with the economic and social rewards of marriage increasingly reserved for people with the most education. “Marriage has become a luxury good,” said Frank Furstenberg, a sociologist at the University of Pennsylvania.

David and I grew up in a very poor area. We grew up around families that were on the brink: they didn’t have money, didn’t have opportunities, and often they were struggling in ways you can’t even imagine from the outside. We saw a lot of emotional and physical abuse. We saw a lot of kids lacking the basic emotional support that parents provide. We saw a lot of shattered families (and by shattered, I don’t mean divorced—I mean an emotional wasteland of hurt, which was pretty equal opportunity). And because of all this, our high school friend group functioned in many ways like a substitute family. Whenever we could, the teenagers supported each other in a way that many of the grown-ups around us could not. As a result, we’re still very close to many lots of people we grew up with because substitute families are like that.

When it comes to our hometown friends, not a ton of people have gotten married (and at thirty, we’ve already been through a wave of painful divorces). And, as you do when you grow up in tough circumstances, we’ve learned to laughed it off. “You’re dealing with nine wedding inviations this year? Well, not us. Our friends don’t get hitched, we grew up in a poor area.” “Your friends get married and stay married? What’s THAT like?” And on and on.

But the truth is, the fact that David and I have been happily together for seven years, and happily married for two and a half, is something of a luxury marker among our friends. We’re the kids that grew up with together, educated, supportive families. We got out of our hometown in (more or less) one piece, went to good schools, and then, to top it all off, we got to get married, too. Yes, we worked hard to make good choices and to end up in a relationship with someone who was good for us. Yes, we work hard at our relationship. But we also are very aware that we’re lucky. We ended up equipped with the emotional and practical skills to make a marriage work. We had a better shot, right out of the gate.

I don’t think marriage is perfect institution. I don’t think it’s right for everyone. I don’t think it should be given the social privilege that it’s often given (particularly for women). There is nothing about being married that is somehow better, or more important than being a single or partnered and not married. (Which is why I so adamantly use the title Ms. It’s none of your business what my relationship status is.) But, I’m aware that marriage can be a valuable tool. Studies routinely show that married couples come out significantly better financially in the long run. Marriage can be a boon to long term health and happiness. Kids that grow up in stable long term partnerships tend to be better off. And that’s not to mention the myriad of ways that marriage can personally support you, make you free, and give you wings to fly. Marriage is a long way from perfect, but it’s an institution that I passionately believe should be available to everyone.

And yet. In an era of widening inequality, it seems that marriage too, is becoming a luxury good. For me, the key qoute from the article was from Amber Strader, 27, who said:

“I’d like to do it, but I just don’t see it happening right now,” she said. “Most of my friends say it’s just a piece of paper, and it doesn’t work out anyway.”

That’s the story that’s so often told in our hometown. Because it’s not happening (or not happening in a lasting way) for people we know that deeply need and want that stability and partnership in their lives. It’s something that leaves me saddened. Even though, like any kid from a tough area, I’ll make a sharp joke about it if you bring it up. But underneath, I’m empty handed. Bereft.

I don’t come to you with solutions today, just with something to discuss. Does marriage matter? If it does, why? And if it does, how can we make it a choice more available to everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their education, regardless of their socio-economic status?

Picture: Emily Takes Photos

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  • I know we like to blame a lot of stuff on the WIC around here, but really, I have so many friends who ‘want’ to get married but ‘can’t afford it’.

    The narrative has told people for too long that it’s not a wedding unless you arrive in a horse-drawn cart and wear a huge expensive gown. It’s crap. Thank goodness APW is here to tell people that if you want to get married, you can do it your way, without spending anything at all (beside licenses), and it will mean just the same.

    And if you don’t want to get married, then that’s fine too.

    • Anon

      My boyfriend has a friend who moved in with his girlfriend a couple of years ago, and are constantly saying they aren’t married yet because they can’t afford it. Just say that you can’t afford the wedding you want! Not that you can’t afford to get married.
      (They’re finally getting married this year, I think)

      • Irene

        This seems like a bit of a tangent from the larger conversation, but I feel the need to defend. I say this sometimes, for a couple of reasons:

        First, I am most likely to say something like that as a deflection to questions about whether my live-in, long-term boyfriend and I are going to get married already. Basically, its nicer than saying “that’s a pretty personal question and I don’t feel like you’re close enough to me for it to be your business”. Blaming things on the money is an easy way out of an awkward social situation.

        Second, I say it because it is part of the truth, if an oversimplified version of the truth (sometimes a paragraph-long explanation is just not appropriate for the small talk when this is likely to come up). I am not all that interested in being married legally, but my boyfriend likes the idea of a big commitment ceremony. For us, the wedding part is in fact the important part, and we would not likely get married until we could afford to do so with all of the far-flung friends and family we would want there, which will be expensive to pull off with or without horse-drawn carts. Certainly, if being married is super important to you, the expense of a wedding shouldn’t get in your way, but if it is more important to you to wait to have the kind of celebration you want, that seems just as valid to me.

        • Umpteenth Sarah

          Oh, I am so happy you said this! Marriage, fundamentally, of course, is about the marriage, which can be as inexpensive as you like. But, as yesterday’s post so nicely pointed out, everyone deserves “their moment,” and having a wedding ceremony, however inexpensively you do so, still is a cost that many people cannot afford. So what do you do? Get married, but wait to have a ceremony? Pay the couple of thousand dollars you can’t afford to get it done (that’s what we did — the 1200 we put towards our wedding was a huuuuuge amount, considering we make so little!)? Not have it? These are tough choices, and it’s hard to say that going to the courthouse or having an inexpensive wedding are solutions, when either of those options can come with their own major costs, meant in the true sense of the word.

      • Caroline

        Sometimes though, it’s that you just can’t afford to get married. That’s us. We have struggled for threes years to become financially independent, and it’s still not happening. I have enough money in savings to mostly throw the wedding I want and if I didn’t, we’d have an even less expensive wedding. But you kind of need to be a financially independent adult to get married in our society.
        I’m privileged enough to expect that someday we will be able to get married, but it may be about 6 years after we decided we wanted to. I’m privileged enough to be going back to school for a bachelors, so someday I’ll be a college educated woman. But right noe, we can’t afford to get married, and not because we can’t afford the wedding we want.

    • meg

      This is super true, and part of my core personal reason for running the site. But I think the issue runs deeper. Poverty often leaves you without a bunch of emotional and practical SKILLS, and those are the skills that make marriage workable. And that’s the part that grips me with sadness. I am pretty good at convincing people to go to the courthouse, but I have no idea how to solve the other bit.

      • MARBELLA

        At first I thought this post was a bit odd, as I came to it through FB and saw someone’s comment about not being able to afford a wedding. As I saw delightful news on my FB feed yesterday about a close friend who married yesterday in secret with 2 witnesses at the town hall, I was so excited and happy for them, choosing to be ‘married’ without the expense and fuss of the ‘wedding’.
        In a financial sense, I do not agree that ‘marriage’ rather than ‘a wedding’ is an economic privilege. Those who really want to be married (at least opposite-sex couples) can do so for almost no cost. But when I read what you had to say Meg, I understood the question more. Those who grow up without the tools to maintain a marriage are disadvantaged, often because of economic reasons which is very sad. But as someone who grew up around (not in) a lot of wealth and privilege in the UK, I would say that I know many more economically privileged kids who also did not get the skills they needed to function in a relationship. Being economically privileged does not necessarily mean your parents/family provide you with the atmosphere conducive to a good marriage, in fact sometimes the very opposite.

      • I think this is so so so true. I don’t think it’s the wedding hurdle that is causing this social divide. It’s the backgrounds of the individuals involved that leaves them unprepared…. even if they can get enough money together to throw a wedding.

        I live in a country with profound poverty… where people live in illegal slums without running water and electricity in shanty houses. When you interact with the people that grew up in these areas, they seem stunted … like they never really grew up. Because they never had a chance. I think what is happening in the US is a less extreme example of this.

      • Tamara Van Horn

        Meg, to me it’s not only the skills we often lack, but the services and benefits we often lose access to as married individuals. In the olden days, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (now mostly TANF) is geared towards single mothers with children. ONLY. I remember my family not being allowed to live together officially, and other family members not able to acknowledge they had a male partner (for those hets of us), because to do that meant losing food stamps, housing, healthcare, vouchers. So the government is really invested in this model (replicated in homeless social services policy) where men who should be able-bodied and working, are left out even when the safety net exists. So when I hear people who say they can’t get married or don’t want to because of economics, I get it.

        Also, the reason the government cares so much about how many of us are married, is because it takes us out of being citizens who need to be cared for, and makes us partners who are legally required to take care of each other. Now I could care less what the state apparatus (sorry, sociologist here) says about me and my hubs, but…Santorum last week said the Affordable Care Act was “bad for marriage” and he wasn’t playing. If people can take care of themselves, making the hard choices to partner legally, may fall along different axis than “but I need insurance.” And politically for some, this is a causal link. Again, economics.

        Jaye Cee Whitehead just released a book called “The Nuptial Deal: Same-Sex Marriage and Neo-Liberal Governance” and discusses, for example, a Black woman who can’t marry her partner for two reasons; 1) marriage is illegal in her state, and 2) she’s already married to her husband of 20 years and has to stay married to him to access his pension and receieve medical benefits to treat her aggressive cancer. So wow.

        Having chosen marriage with a great deal of forethought, I must be aware that it is a political institution, that it has some pretty troubling historical roots and uses, and that the APW family is fighting an uphill battle to “reclaim wife” against a culture that pretty much would rather have us disappear altogether. So instead of fighting for MARRIAGE which is my preferred status, for everyone, I remain professionally and personally committed to creating demoncracy, which means choice and self governance for individuals in a way that works for both their personalities and their identities/lives.

        • meg

          Agree to ALL of this. So much yes from a very deep personal experience place.

          Here is my question. You say this: “Having chosen marriage with a great deal of forethought, I must be aware that it is a political institution, that it has some pretty troubling historical roots and uses, and that the APW family is fighting an uphill battle to “reclaim wife” against a culture that pretty much would rather have us disappear altogether.”

          I think that there is a *reason* to reclaim the word wife. IE, that families and marriage, when opened up in nontraditional forms can be very powerful and empowering, and that’s worth claiming and reclaiming. BUT! Is this a correct thesis? And if so, why?

          • Tamara Van Horn

            I may have been slightly unclear about who the “us” is that is thought to need to disappear…and clearing that up may remind you of the answer to your question. Because I agree with you.

            The “we” is smart, empowered, women (using this word here in this context deliberately) with choices. Economic, social and political self-determination. You know, what those feminists keep complaining we all need to become. In that context, family formations of marriage-like units are amazing and should be advocated. We need marriages, I think, in this crazy world. Semantically, I think we need to call them marriages. Amongst a plethora of other options for family formation. I think families need to become a priority in this country. And I think the uphill batlle that we are fighting at APW, and that you contriubute to so well, is for allowing the real stories of real families to influence the discussions. Rather than these ideal types that, in policy-making, create oppressive carrots, sticks, and closed-off paths, you are opening new paths. But to do that, you have to be smart and think and work and open up, and many people don’t have those skills or interests. We do need marriage, and we do need families. Big time.

            Where I departed your very thoughtful comments is when I got all het up over marriages as legal carrots that get walled off by the government, and then those very structures are ignored when they want to pathologize women (in this case, single mothers and non-married [read: subdued] women over 30). Marriage will never be as useful as it can be, if it is devastating for some families while being nothing but beneficial for others. In its current forms in the US, secularized of marriage discourses perpetuate inequalities.

      • msditz

        As someone who grew up in super happy, stable, suburbia, I used to think the same thing. “Why don’t you just go down to the courthouse and do it?”
        Now that I teach in a very impoverished area, I have learned a lot about what it means to be poor. What if you don’t have a car to drive to the nearest courthouse? What if you you work two jobs, so you can’t really find the time to just go to the court house? Also, I know that we had to shell out some money for the marriage license, so what if you live paycheck to paycheck and you simply don’t have an extra 100 bucks.
        This really is something to think about in all aspects of life. If you are poor it is about 10 times harder to “just go” and do something.

        • Kelley

          Meg asks if her thesis regarding the reclamation of ‘wife’ as a potential source of empowerment is inherently correct. My response to this is, “well…yes and no.” One of primary empowering forces that APW fosters on this subject is the dialogue we can participate in (or read through as we lurk). Our definitions of what it means to be a wife, or be married for that matter, will undoubtedly vary from the enthusiastic “F*ck yeah I’m behind that!” to equally impassioned disagreement. It is not the thesis itself that is at the crux of this, but rather the possibilities it presents to others by making this information, this dialogue, available for others. The presentation of this discussion allows all who read it to make considerations as to how it applies to their own lives and relationships. Decisions wrought from rational thought rooted in multifaceted viewpoints are almost never a bad thing.

          So, to sum up that entirely too long post, though some people will believe your thesis incorrect it is the act of enabling them to come to that conclusion for themselves that makes it inherently right and empowering. (Whew!)

          Read more:

  • Carbon Girl

    I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I live in a poorer area. Single moms are the norm around here. I also taught middle school in this area for a year, so I know what the consequences of being raised by a single parent/aunt/grandma/sibling can be on the child. I don’t think that it is marriage that makes a two parent household a better environment for children but stability. Stability can be provided in a single parent household but it seems like it is harder to do than in a two parent household, especially near the poverty line. I wish I had answers for this, about how we can encourage stable healthy environments for children of all classes. It’s just tough.

    • I grew up in a somewhat poor city where agriculture was the main source of employment. I had some friends who were children of migrant workers and some illegal aliens and then others who were kids of single moms and troubled homes. Now that I’m older, I can go through my Facebook friends and see that many of those same friends are now single moms and/or recently divorced (and I’m only 24). To me, it seems that it’s not necessarily the money that makes marriages stable and women confident. It’s more about the family situation that poorer people grow up in. The two are very closely connected but they’re not inseparable. Some people have poor families who are supportive and awesome in every way they can be but often the stress of that financial situation really hinders family relationships from being healthy.

      • Ceebee

        Money in a way is what may give a little more options, opportunity, to buck the trend.
        Poor people that are truly happy often ARE really happy getting the important parts, rather than be distracted with wanting what money Buys. And that’s awesome. But sometimes it’s sad that financial situations make kids grow up fast and sometimes not safely.
        Sometimes it’s not only money.My dad and his siblings grew up really fast when their father died young, and all of them seemed to (need to) marry people who mother them. And it doesn’t help the next generation, mine, to have that model of marriage. Not that it’s wrong or broken, just not quite right.

    • Claire

      I grew up poor and have personal experience raising siblings as a single woman and nieces as a married woman, and I have to admit that my initial response was a bit defensive about “the consequenses of being raised by an aunt/sibling on a child”. After reading your post carefully, I think your point about family stability being more important than the exact family structure (two parent married, etc.) is right on. Could not agree more! I would also have to agree that it was easier to “parent” with a partner, especially when dealing with very young children.

      • meg

        Agree. Hackles went up a little, then down ;) Bless you guys for being so articulate.

    • Steph

      So well said!!! I see this in my line of work all the time. It definitely the lack of stability, not having one parent or two, married or not, that makes the difference. I think the child of a single mom or dad that has a consistent job, close extended family and doesn’t bring a succession of random partners into a child’s life would fare just as well as a child who has two married parents, or two parents who live together but aren’t married. Sadly the vast majority of kids I work with have a single female parent, several siblings (often by several different fathers, mom’s boyfriend who may or may not be around next month, little support from extended family, and inconsistent finances and emotional support from the primary parent. It is the lack of stabilit overall, not the lack of a marriage that makes like so difficult. And sadly there is an entire generation of people who grew up this way themselves and have now repeated the cycle by having children of their own that they are incapable of effectively raising. I know it’s easy to criticize from the outside looking in and I know if I was in that situation I wouldn’t do any better, but as someone who has spent the last 8 years trying to be part of the solution it just gets so damn frustrating sometimes!!! So for the rant, just my longwinded way of saying I agree with you 1 million percent!

      • JEM


        I think we have to consider the many societies that are not monetarily rich, yet have extremely strong familial bonds and successful “marriages” (whatever that may exactly entail in their country is perhaps different than ours, however.)

    • Rasheeda

      So true…one of my friends had a quote on his FB page (that caused all kinds of out cry) that said ” The best way to end welfare is a 2 parent home”, even if its a simplistic statement it rings true in a lot of ways.

  • Ceebee

    This goes not only for marriages but for everything.

    For every opportunity, appears risk.
    To have the courage to take that opportunity, the sense of security from support will be what dares you to take that risk. The same security gives you room to maneuver around growing skills to equip you for the world.

    The security comes from environment, family, marriage, community. Heck it could come from everywhere. This not only comes from marriage but from anything, anything that is like Red Bull, family, and community that gives you wings.
    The magic is, security allows you to fail….fail with grace and pomp and humor, so that you could try at the same thing or another thing as eagerly.

    And this is why I do believe that marriage is a social word for commitment and support, and expansion of the universe. With which 1000000 opportunities appear because you dare to see them there, and they take flight because you know how to reach for them. Done right and with someone that you are strong together than apart, the gains outshine the risks by a mile. All knowing that you will never lose it all.

    • meg

      Sort of. But one of the things poverty does not provide you is the encouragement to take unnecessary risks. When EVERYTHING is a risk: going to buy milk when there might be a drive-by, not knowing if you’ll have enough food to eat… your brain and society does not reward you for taking further risks. So, if you grew up secure and well off, it’s easy to say, “Duh, just take the risk and you’ll be rewarded.” When that’s not how you grew up, it’s way tougher (and you know that if you take a risk you can end up dead). In my experience there is a tiny percentage of people who grew up in tough circumstances that are given the rocket fuel to take every possible risk they can to get out. But that’s rare, and inborn. For everyone else… tough. Telling people to take the risk of marriage isn’t near enough.

      • Cass

        When everything is a risk, taking extraordinary risks, emotionally, financially, or otherwise, does not seem worth it.
        My husband grew up very poor, and we have discussions about this very fact. We are now more well off than his parents (and still students!) and we notice how different our lives look compared to the families in his home town. Then we have to wonder: what does this mean for our baby family?

      • One of the things that sucks about being poor is that it’s hard to get second chances. I used to work with poor high school kids in Philly and for many of them, one fuck-up would be THE END of their chances to get out. Kids in my middle class life growing up who smoked pot figured if they got stopped by the cops they’d get carted home to their parents, or worst case they’d have a lawyer to help them get probation/community service; kids I worked with in Philly figured if they got caught smoking pot they were going to jail. Same for a million other problems. They didn’t have the security of knowing they could just play around. If they failed, it was for keeps.

        In that environment, I really really understand not taking a chance on marriage. A bad marriage is much worse than no marriage — financially, personally, it’s no contest. Especially if you have kids young, which ups the stakes considerably. It doesn’t make sense to put your whole life on the line if you feel like you (+ any kids) wouldn’t be able to recover if you were wrong.

        • meg

          Yup. Even growing up in a more stable family in a poor area, you knew there were far fewer second chances. Our High School had the IB program, and had the highest IB graduation rate in the state. Everyone wanted to study it and figure out why, but I could tell you why in a heartbeat. We all knew we had exactly one ticket out, and it looked like a full IB diploma. It was so hard to get, that High School was one of the most stressful times of my life (I’d spend 16 hours studying per weekend, nothing doing) but I knew that if I f*cked it up, I’d probably f*cked up my chances for the rest of my life. And I had way more support than most. So yes, when you know everything is high stakes, and you can’t wiggle out of things… decisions are made in a totally different way.

          • Karen

            Does IB = International Bachelor’s?

          • Tamara Van Horn

            @Karen, International Baccalaureate. Similar to College prep, but for those interested in global work.

          • meg

            Yes, but NOT similar to college prep. We had four written papers, one oral, and two written exams just to pass our english test, over the course of two years, (if I remember correctly), all graded internationally. It’s not for people interested in international work (ha! as if we had a choice in our situation!) it’s just an internationally run and internationally accepted honors program.

          • Karen – and it really is offered internationally, and helps keep things to an equal standard. I know people who have done it in Canada, and others in the Middle East, and it’s the same program in both. Makes applying for (Canadian at least) universities a lot easier, because it’s part of a globally recognized standard, where whatever the local program is may not be.

          • Tamara Van Horn

            Oops! Sorry- but I got the abbreviation right! I was at an admission-test based public college prep program, and my IB friends described it as similar, back in the day. Thanks for the clear-up, Meg!

      • Carbon Girl

        This reminds me of a story I heard on NPR, maybe a call in show? Someone called in blaming the poor for making bad choices. The guest then explained that EVERYONE makes bad choices but people with money have a safety net to fall back on. For the poor there is no safety net so the consequences of their actions are felt more acutely. This would also apply to the consequences of taking risks to follow one’s dreams.

        • Liz

          Not only do the privileged have the safety nets to bounce back from poor decisions, they often have 1) more options to make better choices 2) more examples of how good choices pan out.

          • Class of 1980

            Excellent points, and the second point doesn’t get said enough.

          • meg

            WHAT LIZ SAID.

        • YES re: safety nets. I grew up with less of a security net than my partner did, and it REALLY affects our individual outlooks. My husband is willing to take more risks than I am because he feels secure knowing that his family is a security net for him and that they “won’t let us lose the house” whereas I *freak out* at the thought of everything that could cause us financial ruin because in my world, there isn’t anyone to bail me out. I’m still coming to terms with his family’s generosity because it is simply something I’m not…used to. It’s good, but suddenly having a bigger net to fall into is still something that makes me get sort of weepy with gratitude.

          • AnonForThis

            I grew up middle class, while my partner’s family lost their home when he was 8 years old. Bridging that gap between our experiences is harder than dealing with our the difference in our religion, energy levels and sex drives…combined.

  • I wonder how much has to do with the ‘lack of marriage worthy men’ which the article also brought up and how much has to do with perceived cost of entry to marriage, the extravagant wedding.

    • MDBethann

      Sarah, when I read the article yesterday, I wondered the same thing. Part of the reason I’m so much later to the marriage game than a bunch, but not all, of my friends is that it took me until I was 30 to meet and fall in love with a guy who was actually interested in commitment, and 3 years later we are getting married. For some reason, the word “commitment” seems to freak a lot of guys out. I wish I knew why.

      I watch some of my single friends struggle with finding a worthy man. As we get older, it seems like they get fewer and fewer. I don’t know if it is the adage that the “good ones are either taken or gay” or just that by the time we reach our 30s, the men who want to commit to a long-term relationship already have and those that don’t are the single ones in the dating pool. When I look at how difficult the dating scene is for a smart, single woman, especially in the DC area, I feel incredibly lucky I found FH, and finding him wasn’t easy. But the only reason I did was because I let go of the stereotype that divorced = damaged/problem (just because a marriage doesn’t work with one person doesn’t mean it won’t work with someone else).

      • carrie

        Totally agree. I’m also a DC lady (well, MD suburb) and it was hard to find David and I thank the higher powers EVERYDAY for finding him. I worry that our new culture/society (?) is breeding a new kind of person. A kind of person I don’t really like – someone who never says thank you to a customer or to a cashier, who doesn’t look outside their two foot bubble, who thinks their life is nothing but “what else can I get” and/or a button on their smartphone. Which therefore makes it harder to find someone. I feel like I’ve said this very poorly, but this is something that actually worries me. Because even though I’m not looking for a partner, I would like to live in a world where I don’t want to punch strangers on the regular.

      • I’ve been wondering lately if the fear of commitment thing relates to our discussion of marriage as addition rather than something that takes away.
        There is a car commercial out right now (I forget who for, not that it matters) where the girl says she wants to get married and the guy has this panic attack and starts to say “but I wanted to do all these crazy adventurous awesome things in my life!” In the end it’s all sweet and he says, “yes but we have some things to do first.” Every time we see it my fiance turns to me and tells me how angry that commercial makes him, “it’s so stupid, being married doesn’t stop you from doing any of those things!”

        I think the cultural dialogue around marriage needs to change from one of settling down, boring evenings at home, more responsibility, boringness, to a dialogue about what marriage really is, deciding to celebrate love and commitment

        • meg

          CORRECT. Totally, totally, totally true.

          • Georgia

            On a slightly side topic – the same applies to becoming parents. I have a couple of friends who say “make sure you do all the fun stuff before you become parents because you can’t do it with a baby”. Um – I call bs. Yes, it might be a bit harder and you have to make comrpomises, but you can still have a life, same as I still have just an awesome a life as I did before getting married…

        • Not sure if there are multiple versions of that commercial, but the one I saw, it was the woman who said “We have some things to do first!” I thought that was kind of awesome, kind of subverting what’s seen as the norm—although yeah, I totally agree, marriage shouldn’t preclude any of that.

          • I think I saw the ‘baby’ version of this commercial. Husband and I were all, “aww man…” But yeah, it is stupid – you can do ALL those things married, and most of them with a baby. (That’s what baby wearing is for.)

        • Liz

          Its a Honda CR-V commercial and I yell at it every time.

        • Great point! I’ve actually done *more* adventuring (living in a mountain town, climbing Mt. Shasta and Whitney, trekking in Patagonia), more traveling (Spain, Italy, Mexico, US cross-country drive) , and learned more new things (skiing, home buying) in two years since I’ve been married than I did before.

          Part of this stems from the economic privilege of being DINKs that the article points to, and part comes from being fortunate in finding a partner who is not content to sit at home and have boring evenings.

        • msditz


          I am so glad it is not just me who goes on that rant every time it comes on.

      • Zen

        I wonder whether, with commitment-phobic men, it’s because the perceived benefits of a committed relationship don’t outweigh the perceived disadvantages. Historically men have had way more freedom and opportunity than women, in pretty much all cultures in the world. Why would you want to give it up to take on the “burden” of being responsible for another human being? (Because being married does make you responsible for another person — of course they’re still responsible for themselves, but you’ve promised to look after them as best you can too.)

        In contrast women have only recently started enjoying similar levels of freedom and opportunity, and only in certain countries/cultures. Historically freedom, opportunity and financial independence came for women *with marriage* — if they made a good marriage they’d basically sorted their career. (See e.g. every Jane Austen book ever!) So even now, even in countries and cultures where women have loads of opportunity, a committed relationship, a marriage, is a marker of success for women. And that maybe still outweighs the “burden” of marriage for free, independent, self-supporting women to an extent that it doesn’t do for men.

        This is all speculation, though! I think there are lots of other factors as well — the commitment-phobic man is just kind of a stereotype, but because being a player is seen as such an essential part of masculinity, I expect there’s lots of men who would probably just like to settle down who are encouraged by the culture not to admit it, even to themselves.

        • Two observations:
          1) Isn’t it ironic that studies show that most married men do better than single men because “they have someone at home to take care of them”, while it is the opposite for women, yet the cultural narrative is that women want marriage more than men?
          2) I have been reading for a while (eg here that young Asian women are marrying less because of what a traditional married life means to them and their careers. Have you noticed this trend, Zen?

          • MIRA

            Totally ironic. My second year of medical school, they told us that that being unmarried was a risk factor for depression for men, but being married was a risk factor for depression for women. This was right before I met my FH, when I was feeling very very single and I remember thinking, “if I’m gonna take on an extra risk factor for depression, he better damn well be worth it!”

    • Irene

      This line stood out to me, too, Sarah. C. My perception is that by “lack of marriage worthy men”, the article was referring to the availability of men that would provide at least an equal partner, if not upward socio-economic mobility. I am not so sure that cost-of-entry (big weddings) is a factor so much as avoidance of less-desirable marriages that would have otherwise taken place under social pressure. I wonder if, in that sense at least, there isn’t something to Meg’s initial reaction that there could be some positive aspect to this trend. I grew up surrounded by plenty of women who married under social pressure because they were pregnant to men who were emotional and financial drains to them. These marriages produced decidedly negative effects overall, and if some of these numbers are due to marriages like that being avoided, that could be a good thing. I wish that the article had addressed whether or not this sort of scenario was supported by the data at all.

      • Georgia

        Is there also a question here about why some women get attracted to/end up in relationships with/pregnant to such men? I was lucky in that all my long term relationships were with men who were emotionally and financially supportive and independent, but when this doesn’t happen, is there something we need to be doing to help people make the right choices about the people they bring into their lives?

        • Stacy

          I’ve been one of those women my whole life until I met my current boyfriend, who is actually available, stable, supportive and totally accepting of who I am. My parents have narcissistic personality disorder, which left me with emotional deprivation issues. Because they didn’t actually care about me and weren’t supportive of me emotionally, I started looking for someone who COULD love me when I was about 12 years old. The problem is that it felt most normal to be with people who were emotionally depriving, too, since that’s the way my family was (and still is). If I didn’t have to try to convince him to love me, it didn’t feel right to me. It’s really sad. So, if you don’t grow up feeling loved and supportive, you’re likely to fall into relationships that don’t give you that, either. It took me 10 years of therapy to finally raise my standards and see that I didn’t have to fight to be loved. I’m worth more than that. A lot of women never reach the point where they realize the same thing. It breaks my heart.

  • Abby J.

    What interests me about the NYT article is this:

    “Almost all of the rise in nonmarital births has occurred among couples living together. While in some countries such relationships endure at rates that resemble marriages, in the United States they are more than twice as likely to dissolve than marriages. In a summary of research, Pamela Smock and Fiona Rose Greenland, both of the University of Michigan, reported that two-thirds of couples living together split up by the time their child turned 10.”

    My question is, WHY does this happen? In many countries in Europe, the official cohabitation rate is higher than marriage, and those couples remain together long term. What culturally makes that different in America?

    • I’d really love to read more on this very topic. Has anyone read up on it, or have any suggestions for articles to read?

      • Carolyn

        I was so surprised this morning to read this here– I help publish this data! Try this link: to get more data and reports. It also has links to different government organizations’ websites, where you can get even *more* detailed info.

        • DanEllie

          And this is why I love APW! The fascinating research comes from one of our own. Yay!

        • meg

          Awesome. Carolyn, if you want to write your own post on the subject, consider this an open invitation.

          • Carolyn

            Lol, I just do the editing, but thank you! Besides, I think that NYT article really hits the highlights :)

    • I wonder if the domestic partnership recognition in other countries allows them to be more financially stable and cohesive as a family. I think other countries, especially in Europe, are a little more accepting of those (what we would call) non-traditional families. I feel like there’s more of a stigma in the US that makes them frowned upon (at least in more conservative areas) and that can add so much stress and friction to a relationship.

      • In other countries, you don’t *need* marriage to get basic things like insurance or parental leave. There’s a cultural component for sure, but in the US that’s backed by some pretty intense institutional benefits to marriage.

      • The US is way more religious than countries in Western Europe. That’s partly why we have more marriages than they do, and why we tend to stigmatize non-traditional relationships.

    • Sarabeth

      I’m also curious about this. Because a lot of the benefits of marriage really come from the relationship itself, which doesn’t technically require marriage. I got married because I had a strong and supportive relationship, not vice versa. Of course it’s more complicated than that; being married does affect my relationship, probably in ways that I don’t even realize. But looking outwards, I’m primarily concerned that people have the chance to build lasting, healthy relationships that work for them, if that’s what they want.

      • Liz

        I think that exactly is the point. It’s not a learned helplessness regarding marriage- but regarding lasting, committed relationships in general. People aren’t getting married because they don’t think marriages last. Not meaning that marriage itself is the problem, but that commitment is a faulty expectation.

        Maybe the question really is how to make lasting relationships available to all income-levels.

        • Yes. I remember reading some articles and having a discussion about this idea back in college with regard to voting, i.e. why is there lower voter turn-out in poorer communities (not sure if that’s still the case, but it was at the time). Aside from logistical issues (like ability to get time off work), we talked a lot about expectations. In the communities that we were reading about, individuals had no reason to believe that their views/opinions would make a difference. Voting seemed like a waste of time because they’d never had any indication that anyone in power cared about them. This is obviously a somewhat stark portrayal, but the expectation issue is similar.

          If all you’ve seen are tons and tons of divorces, then the couples that stay together seem somehow miraculous, and to make getting married worthwhile, you have to convince yourself that you and your boyfriend/girlfriend are equally miraculous. The view is that it’s not normal to stay in a committed relationship; it’s the exception.

          I don’t know how we make these lasting relationships more available or more an expectation, though. I think it’s about so many more things than the marriage itself – in many poor communities, it’s about providing support to family units. And as was mentioned, in some communities it’s about a lack of men – an actual numerical lack of men because of higher death and incarceration rates, which involves a whole other level of policy considerations about how we deal with poor communities in this country.

          • Newtie

            I think I’ve witnessed this phenomenon on a small scale. My fiance and I got engaged thoughtfully, but we didn’t really worry about whether or not we would “last,” whether marriage was a waste of time, or whether it was something we even wanted to do. We both assumed, without questioning it much, that marriage (with the right person) would be a plus positive in life. We both come from families with parents who have been married for more than thirty years, and we’ve both witnessed how loving and supportive those marriages are. All our older siblings are married, and our younger siblings definitely expect that marriage is something they’ll do if/when they meet the right person.

            My cousins, however, live in a family where no one is married. Every woman either got divorced very young or was never married (and had children). The fathers are noticeably absent – they come around for birthdays and Christmas, but it is essentially a multi-generational family of women doing all the working, daily caring, loving, supporting, etc of the kids. My cousins in their twenties are perfectly happpy, smart, healthy people, but NONE of them think of marriage as something they expect they’ll do — in other words, being children of single mothers hasn’t affected them in any noticeable way, other than how they think of marriage. They all assume they’ll become parents eventually, but marriage just doesn’t seem that important or that plausible. I can see where if you don’t get to witness any benefits of marriage, why would it be something you seek out?

            And of course, my family had certain economic benefits, having two income-earning parents, that my cousins did not get to experience. And now I’m continuing that economic benefit in my own future family by marrying. So I can see where something like a faith in marriage as an institution, or a distrust in the institution, could end up creating an economic benefit or lack of one that gets passed down through generations, even though that is not the primary reason for people to seek or eschew marriage.

          • Liz

            Yes! The incarceration rates!

            I just started Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color Blindness” and it is a revelation.

            And the effects of incarceration are far-reaching. Upon reentry, felons will have difficulty finding housing, a job, will be unable to vote, can no longer access social services or receive benefits. The US destroys whole communities by locking people up at vastly higher rates than the rest of the world.

          • Class of 1980

            Incarceration rates have soared. We have privatized prisons, so it’s now a growth industry with no incentive to reduce numbers.

            Then there’s the wasteful War On Drugs that never works, but ties up millions of dollars and puts people in jail just for their choice to use drugs.

            And those two things work hand-in-hand to destroy families and communities.

    • MDBethann

      I’m curious about this too.

      We talk so much in this country about the importance of stable, 2-parent households for children, but then we do little to support the ones that exist or find ways to make it easier for people to create them. Instead, we continually make it harder for people by narrowing our legal definition of “family.” It goes back to the post earlier this week about domestic partnerships and the legal issues surrounding them. I said it then and I’ll say it again – maybe if we separate the religious idea of marriage from the legal, civil union part, we might solve a lot of problems – we expand the legal definition and rights of families without interfering with the religious hot potato and let the churches do what they wish with it. Much of Europe does that and lo, they appear to have greater relationship stability than we do.

      • Karen

        You have a good point. As long as society sees weddings intertwined with the government, people won’t see the difference between the license and the wedding. A wedding isn’t required to be legally married, a license is. The license is much, much more than a piece of paper. I do think that a lot of people think that to get married they have to have some big event, which as we all know in APW, an “event” in terms of a massive budget, is not required. However, I believe that we are the minority in that kind of thinking. We need to spread the word about APW!

    • Abby I feel like it happens more in the US for a few reasons.

      1. I feel as a whole the culture has been very revolutionized by the information age of instantly getting things. People want things to be fantastic now now now, instead of being patient and working for something such as marriage or rush to the alter without thinking. This now now now mentallity I feel can lead to not realizing that sustaining a relationship for the long term isn’t as easy as finding a quick how to guide on the internet about it. You need to put time into a relationship, not just check in on how it’s going. I also feel it aids to quickly filing for divorce when there is a problem instead of working in. It’s the “quick” fix.

      2. The age old 7 year itch theory has shown that in very early times of more hunter gatherer culture, humans only stayed together long enough for their child/ren to be more independent which was around the age of 7 (by independent I mean capable of walking and eating on their own basic independence) so it could also be a revertion back to much older times.

      3. The it’s just a piece of paper mentality, which drives me nuts. If marriage is just a piece of paper, then why should anyone get excited for when someone they know gets married? If you expect others to be excited for you for when you get married or understand the big decision that you made to become married, if you choose to, don’t call a marriage just a piece of paper whether its from a JP ceremony or the fanciest party in all the land. Now if you changed your mind on marriage being for you that’s different because you understand it better than you at one point did.

      I really do wish more people would take more time to consider what marriage really is supposed to be, committing to another person for the rest of your lives. Obviously people change things happen and divorces will happen for various reasons, but I feel the rate would be less if more people took the time the consider what getting married truly meant. Obviously this is just some personal theories and I am sure someone else has a few other good ones too.

      • These are some very good points! I’ll play devil’s advocate on one of them just for discussion:

        “I really do wish more people would take more time to consider what marriage really is supposed to be, committing to another person for the rest of your lives.”

        At first, I was like “Um YES!” and then I realized that I don’t necessarily support “supposed to be” statements. That’s what marriage is supposed to be according to some people’s dogmas or belief systems or personal preferences, yes. And while I agree with and wholeheartedly support your frustration, I realize that perhaps people are changing their definition of marriage, and relating to it differently and thus participating in it differently. Perhaps marriage’s definition is shifting, vs marriage fading/failing as an entity in this country. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad or what, but I’m curious about the idea that other people may have a wildly different view of what it’s “supposed to be”, just as you could ask 50 different [insert religious group here] people how they are “supposed to be” and they all have different answers and different ways of relating to their faith, their practice and their church.

        Now this is semantics and you could debate all day, just putting it out there!

        • I use the supposed to be in reference to most ‘traditional’ vows of course.

          Actually I think it would be really interesting to know how many people decide to not include a vow along the lines of “til death do you part” or the multiple variations of it. Because then really I guess then they could have upheld their wedding vows even with a divorce. (not that if you get a divorce you broke your wedding vows, cuz again stuff happens and sometimes divorce is necessary regardless of what your vows were).

    • meg

      Yeah, I think that’s very interesting as well. I’d love some Europeans to weigh in, but I suspect it’s that in many parts of liberal Europe there is now a less cult-like obsession with marriage than we have in the US. So, lots of people in stable long term partnerships don’t decide to get married. In the US, if you’re in a stable long term partnership, chances are pretty good that you are going to get hitched at some point (the people that don’t are those that have a specific personal or ethical objections… in this case I’m defining marriage as the act of getting married, not if the government lets you get legally married, but I digress). So, that leaves the majority of couples that are not married as people partnered up in less stable long term ways. That’s my BET, but I could be wrong.

      • I think this is correct: it’s a selection effect. Western Europe has lower rates of marriage but not necessarily lower rates of stable cohabitation — it’s just that a bunch of the people who would get married here don’t get married there.

        Part of it may be cultural, but there’s also an institutional explanation: people in Europe don’t get married for the health insurance. In general, with a more comprehensive social safety net, marriage per se (as opposed to partnership) plays less of a role in risk management.

        • meg

          EXCELLENT point about health insurance.

          • Class of 1980

            Marriage has always been an economic institution designed for survival. Making some of the economic aspects part of the role of government changes private behavior. And what if they get it wrong? Then it changes behavior for the worse.

            In America, the government discourages poor people receiving benefits from getting married because of the loss of benefits. Our worthless money supply setup guarantees inflation, which means your money becomes worth less all the time. That makes becoming financially stable more difficult. Used to be, you could put the money in a bank and get enough interest to grow it without risking the stock market.

            Our government favors the rich who write laws to benefit themselves and stifle competition. The new health care bill isn’t like Europe; it was written by the insurance and drug companies.

            The more things that are taken from the free market and turned over to government to control, the more big wigs need to curry favor with politicians to gain access to that control … and the more centralized things are, the easier it is to gain control.

            Then the 99% loses big time.

            That’s a hell of a lot of personal power to give away.

        • Caroline

          If one of the big “reasons” people get married, I wonder what effect that has on poor couples considering marriage. If you don’t have insurance, you don’t gain insurance benefits from being married. If you don’t pay much in taxes, tax benefits might not seem significant. In addition, I don’t know how marriage affects our very meager safety net, but if marriage affects your eligibility for those safety nets in hard times, it might affect your risk assessment of marriage. Perhaps if you combine this with other factors, maybe it’s less of an incentive to marry.

          • Absolutely. If you’re in a stable, middle+ class job, marriage is a financial benefit. It’s also a huge safety net for people who want to stay home with their kids, since it entitles you to a share of your partner’s earnings and Social Security benefits even in case of divorce.

            If neither of you has insurance or much in the way of formal earnings, there’s less positive benefit to marriage. Means-testing for other programs (food stamps, TANF, childcare subsidies) means there’s actually some disincentive to formalizing the arrangement. Sometimes the applications ask about earnings of other household members, married or not, but without marriage it’s easier to get around reporting those.

          • Tamara Van Horn

            Yes, Laurel, yes! I got all het up earlier and didn’t see your post so I pretty much replicated it above, but exactly!! on so many levels.

            And Meg; don’t be nervous about posting this stuff- I for one love and respect you even more as site-leader, for continuing to bring these topics up with your combination of sass, intelligence, and humor! Thank you, I guess, would be the main point of what I am getting at here.

          • lmba

            I know that in the past, Canadian AISH (Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped) benefits were reduced for recipients who got married (even if both partners were recipients, which you’d think would kindof indicate that there wasn’t going to be a large economic benefit to getting hitched). I’m not sure if this is still the case. Anyway, the point is that for certain marginalized segments of the population, the way we’ve agreed to handle our social safety net may actively DISCOURAGE marriage. Although people don’t really like to admit that one.

        • Erica

          I think this is a great point. In Europe, you don’t have to get legally married to get benefits like health insurance whereas in the US, you often do. (At my job, for example, they don’t offer benefits to unmarried partners. They used to offer them to same-sex couples but even that has changed since NY ended marriage discrimination.)

          Another aspect of the benefits question is that many low-income US couples (individual incomes at or lower than about 20-30% of the poverty line) find that getting married and combining their incomes will disqualify them for benefits they’re now receiving, like food stamps, by pushing them above the income limit. So, for the least well-off, there can be real economic disincentives to marriage, further supporting the idea that marriage is becoming a privilege.

          I also read this article at the same time as I read the recent New Yorker piece about the staggering percentage of Americans who are incarcerated (many for minor, nonviolent, often drug-related offences) and think this speaks to the eligible men issue as well. In many communities, the percentage of men who are in prison or on parole is staggering. Since these men don’t contribute financially at all while in prison and are frequently discriminated against after prison, I think a lot of women are deciding that marrying them is not a good choice. And I’m not talking about serial killers – I’m talking about guys who got caught with a joint. And as someone already mentioned, the people who get jail time for these kinds of offenses are overwhelmingly not affluent, not well-educated/connected, and/or not white. Again, this creates pockets of society in which marriage is becoming less of an option.

          All of which is not to make the assumption that marriage is an ideal that should be held out for all couples/people. But I do agree with the point many have made that having a partner, an ally, in life can be enormously helpful, especially when it comes to the really hard stuff including raising kids. I guess I wish we could figure out, as a society, how to be more supportive of helping people build and strengthen those kinds of partnerships. Which gets back to Meg’s point about people being raised without good examples of supportive relationships (whether it’s a marriage or not) and needing guidance/resources to help them figure out how to build them.

          • Absolutely. I see the same politicians inveighing against low rates of marriage in the African American community and arguing for stiffer (!) penalties for drug use and possession (and therefore more incarceration), and I think — wtf are they smoking?

          • KA

            “Another aspect of the benefits question is that many low-income US couples (individual incomes at or lower than about 20-30% of the poverty line) find that getting married and combining their incomes will disqualify them for benefits they’re now receiving, like food stamps, by pushing them above the income limit.”

            As someone who might lose her “low-income” state-regulated health insurance because she got married and her husband promptly lost his job yet makes too much unemployment for them to continue to qualify, I can’t exactly this enough. I just cannot get over how all I hear is how everyone wants to get married and no one understands that there are circumstances under which marriage completely fucks you over.

      • Yvi

        German here (and for the record, saying “Europe” is an awfully broad brush… that’s over a dozen countries you are talking about there, even when only talking Western Europe, and there is a huge difference between for example Portgual, Poland, and Sweden…)

        As said elsewhere, there are pretty much no reasons to get married here for insurance reasons – we all have health insurance anyway and other insurances and so on usually recognize “partnerships” as equivalent to marriage. Tax benefits only come into play when the income levels of the two people are very different, otherwise you pay the same amount before and after marriage.

        • Yvi

          Oh, and adding to this: Parental leave (more than 2 years split between both partners – and yes, that’s paid leave) is available to both partners regardless of marriage status here, too.

    • Stella

      It’s all about access to health care.

      $0.02 from someone who was lucky enough to live in the UK (unmarried and cohabiting and getting free health care) for four years.

  • Edelweiss

    This was a trend I’ve seen in my hometown community as well as that of my fiancee’s. And one I’ve feared falling victim to as not having an example of a healthy relationship to follow. It’s one of the reasons I love the APW community, it sets an example of conscious thought and communication in relationships that I’ve only seen equaled recently in the couple I’ve met as adults.

    I work at a school and community outreach center in Newark. One of my (many) amazing co-workers provides free relationship counseling courses with her husband twice a year. She once told me she does this because “marraiages and stable families are the root of community strength “. I don’t feel I’m yet in a position to lead those kinds of workshops, but it is one of my incredibly long-term goals as I continue my work in low-income communites.

    You asked “how can we make it [marriage] a choice more available to everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their education, regardless of their socio-economic status?”
    I’m not saying this is the ultimate solution, but I think continuing your work with Reclaiming Wife pieces and continuing to strive to make those posts feel accessible to all people, including diverse socio-economic groups are a step you can take in that direction.

    • meg

      I was going to talk about how great it was that your co-worker provides free relationship counseling courses with her husband, and then I was caught off guard by your lovely complements. Thank you.

    • Caroline

      I think things like your coworker does, making relationship counseling available to poorer people and making it more visable might help with making lasting relationships seem possible to more people. I’ve talked to so many women who could use and would like to do couples counseling, but couldn’t afford it or find free or low cost counseling.

  • Jess

    An interesting aspect of weddings that we don’t often touch on (because we’re often, rightly, focused on the personal emotional and community impact of marriage) is that a wedding can represent a significant opportunity for the transfer of wealth. At least in our upper-middle-class Mid-Atlantic experience, our tiny nest-egg grew exponentially during the months before and after our wedding, due to the generosity of friends and family. My husband had been struggling with un/under-employment in the months leading up to our wedding, and just knowing that we had significant (to us) savings sitting and accumulating profoundly changed our lives. There’s no understating it – the wedding gifts we received relieved a lot of the economic stress we were going through due to the “Great Recession.” My husband is now happily and gainfully employed, and we’re hoping to purchase a house within the next year or two. If we decide to purchase, it will be YEARS ahead of when we initially thought we’d be able to, all because of the generosity of our family/friends. If that’s not marriage as economic privilege, I don’t know what is.

    Similarly, my parents have told me that they never would have been able to purchase their first home when they did without the gifts their received at their wedding. I showed up nine months to their wedding day, and had a stable and happy childhood, in part because of that economic privilege (also in part because my parents are awesome.)

    People often speak of a household as a mini-corporation: managing expenses, savings, financial opportunities. I feel like, at least for us, our wedding was like a meeting with a crazy venture capitalist who invested in our little start-up. And we’re running with it – trying to show those who believed in us that they made a wise investment.

    The logical follow up from this is – how do we “invest” in couples and families everywhere in society? Why does a wedding have to represent transfer of wealth, and how can we help men and women who choose not to get married, or who can’t get married due to discrimination? One of the follow up blog pieces to that NYT article (located here: commented, in APW fashion, that people are often waiting to get their “ducks in a row” before marrying or having children, but that the less educated are “more likely to feel like they don’t even have ducks” in this economy. We need to help people get their ducks, so they can line them up in a row (or in a circle, or a square, or whatever flying-v formation they choose).

    • amysee

      Totally. Everyone deserves ducks, or at least access to a certain level of duck-having that will allow for the meeting of basic human needs… regardless of whether they’ve “earned” it through getting married or anything else.

    • Edelweiss

      Marraiage as an opportunity for venture capital investment is culturally very true in other countries! In Committed, Gilbert talks about a village where the wedding gifts are actually planned to be equal start-up capital for each couple.

      • Granola

        That’s what I remind myself when I feel uncomfortable with the materialistic aspects of weddings. Sometimes all of this stuff is related – the community coming together to support a new couple/family as they make their way. That’s how it’s always been and while dialing down the conspicuous consumption is certainly something I strive for, eliminating that support seems like denying the community the gift of helping and the couple the gift of the help.

        • meg

          Yup. Hence my conversation on the site and in the book about registries.

          • Lauren

            I’d like to see these registry posts – this is something Im struggling with in planning my own wedding.
            Everyone expects and wants to buy you things… but as established adults, how can we ask people for the “stuff”?

          • (Replying to Lauren right above)


            This one was the registry post that really resonated with me. We went through the same “but we already HAVE kitchen stuff, how can I possibly ask for these things?” struggle.

            But having come out the other side of the wedding, I can tell you that, a.) people REALLY LIKE giving you stuff. Like the post says, it’s about “letting our friends and loved ones build that home for us.” Also, b.) you end up with a house full of durable, high-quality items that will remind you of the lovely people who gave them to you. That’s been the most delightful surprise for me–how often I smile and think of family and friends simply while putting those plates away or using that towel.

            That’s not to say that filling out the registry wasn’t a little bit torturous at the time, but I’m glad we did it. :)

          • meg

            It’s right there in our drop down menu. If you go to “Dilemmas”, just select “Registry” and you’ll get every post on that issue. You can even sort them from earliest written post to most recently written post, if you’d like to read chronologically.

    • JEM

      Your comment rocks. I love the interesting dialogue APW supports.

    • ANDREA

      “I feel like, at least for us, our wedding was like a meeting with a crazy venture capitalist who invested in our little start-up. And we’re running with it – trying to show those who believed in us that they made a wise investment.”
      “The logical follow up from this is – how do we “invest” in couples and families everywhere in society?”

      This is SO interesting. I feel like this all must, must be connected. Especially when the wealth transfer is more difficult if not impossible. Like the obvious one — could be that people in more vulnerable areas, when they can’t access the “investors” (money, emotion, time, etc) are less likely to stay together, just as the little start-up with no investors is more likely to fail?

    • Cass

      Wow, this is a really interesting comment. I’ve often thought about something along these lines. It seems like young adults are saddled with so much more debt and career challenges then our parents generation was. The costs of living and education have soared and wages have not kept up. On top of that, so many jobs require a degree or even an advanced degree to even get started, which was not the cast a few decades ago. It just seems like there’s more of a hole to dig out of.

      My FIL never attended college and worked like a crazy person to get to a senior position at his company today, but he admits that he doesn’t think he would have received the chance to prove himself today. A friend of a mine’s husband was told he’s not eligible for a manager position because he doesn’t have a degree, even though he’s qualified. He’s routinely passed over for less experienced candidates because he wasn’t able to go to college in his early 20’s. He’s trying to go to school now, but that’s a lot of debt to incure to get what will amount to a fancy piece of paper for him.

      I don’t mean to whine about how unfair it is, but it does bother me when papers like the NY Times write about how ass backward we are – we don’t married, we aren’t working, we’re living with our parents, we aren’t buying homes, etc. The game has changed. 30 years ago when my parents got married, their parents gave them cash for a down payment on a home. There’s no way our parents could afford to do that today and even if they could, that money wouldn’t go nearly as far. Obviously the game has changed for them too.

      So wow, that was a long tangent. Anyway, I really love the idea of
      “invest[ing] in couples and families everywhere in society”. Or just investing in opportunities is general. Despite all my blathering above, I know I lead a privileged life compared to most. How can we enable people don’t grow up with that privilege?

      • Umpteenth Sarah

        This “investment” stuff is fascinating. Our family/friends/community was not forthcoming on the gifts or financial investment, nor could we be to a new couple, but one of the moments I most remember at our wedding was when a close friend said (during some free form speaking time during the ceremony) that we help him in his relationship by having an open-door policy and always having space on our couch or in our guest room. That’s our investment into other couples, and it costs nothing. You can invest and nurture relationships and marriages without physical capital.

    • “People are often waiting to get their ‘ducks in a row’ before marrying or having children, but that the less educated are “more likely to feel like they don’t even have ducks” in this economy.”

      This is exactly how I felt for the past few years, even with a college degree and a good education. My fiance and I ran ourselves ragged looking for work in our fields after college (Which we finally both have, after 3 years of constant applying, thank goodness). We both took jobs in restaurants to try and save a little money and get by in the meantime, but when anyone broached the subject of planning a wedding I looked at them like they were crazy. In retrospect, we could have pulled off a wedding with the help of the family, but at the time I just couldn’t fathom it. We were far below the poverty line, living in his parent’s basement, and scraping by. With the WIC average of “this is how much you spend on a wedding” staring me in the face, even setting a date seemed pointless and futile.

      APW definitely helped drag me out of that little pit of “we’ll never afford a wedding, we’ll never be married” despair, but you’re absolutely right. People need to know they can get their ducks in a row/circle/line formation, no matter their social or economic level.

    • meg

      Want to write a post on this?

    • Carrie

      I definitely know of a few people who are holding off on getting married because they can’t find stable employment at a living wage. They feel like they have nothing to offer as a husband or wife if they’re unemployed or underemployed. They’re in committed long-term relationships, but they feel like marriage would only make their partners suffer for their financial “failures,” or would be a form of mooching off their partners.

      Basically, they feel pretty worthless because they can’t find work. So they can’t imagine why their partners would sign up to be with them permanently.

      And these are middle/upper-middle class people with graduate degrees, even. I bet in groups with higher unemployment, this happens even more.

    • One thing to note is that this is a way that middle+ class, especially white, households are often in very different situations from other households. There are a couple of good books by Thomas Shapiro about the wealth gap between whites and African Americans, which is much bigger than the income gap. (For those interested, African American household income is about 58% of white household income, but African Americans own only about 5% of the wealth that white households own.)

      Because of racial segregation in social networks and the role of transfers, this matters no matter how much wealth you personally have. If your extended social/family network holds assets, they can do things like give you wedding presents, help you with the down payment on a house, give you cash gifts when you have a kid, sell assets to pay for your education expenses, subsidize education for your kids, etc. Many white people are in this situation, so even if they don’t have high income they have a measure of stability/assistance via their family networks. By contrast, people who are part of social networks with few assets don’t have that resource; in fact, higher income people in such networks often have a hard time saving because they end up needing to help family in emergencies.

      I think about this stuff a lot (in fact, my dissertation will be about assets and government subsidies). One thing I think would really help is reducing the role of assets in acquiring important services like education — reducing college tuition and reducing the variation between school districts — because that reduces inequality based on asset ownership.

      • Jess

        Agreed! Particularly on the role of government subsidies for asset accumulation v education etc. I acquired an astounding amount of student debt while in law school. I am one of the lucky few recession-era law grads who got a job, and I’ve been paying back my loans the best I can. Yet, I pay thousands of dollars in interest each year, only to run into the cap on the student loan interest rate deduction come tax time. It’s incredibly frustrating to me that the limits on the student loan interest deduction are set much lower than the cap on mortgage interest deductions.

        I think a reasonable policy measure would be to raise the cap on student loan interest deductions to match (or mirror) the mortgage interest caps. This would help graduates who are paying off loans build wealth, especially if they’re reaching that higher level of income with a social network that has accumulated assets. I’m not a tax lawyer, so I’m not sure how exactly it would work, I just know that many people I work with are burdened with enormous student debt and run into this every year.

        I’ve written my legislators about this, but obviously haven’t gotten too far!

        • Student loans are already heavily subsidized by the government, mostly via the interest rate. I don’t personally think increasing the student loan deduction to help people with very high loan balances is the way to go. Most people get such high loan balances via professional preparation for a lucrative career, itemized deductions only apply to people with fairly high income already, and I’d rather see that money go to helping deal with poverty. Also, the cheaper and more available student loans are, the easier it is for universities to jack up tuition.

          • Tamara Van Horn

            Laurel, come 2012-2013, no more subsidized student loans for graduate students at all (now it’s only a portion that get subsidized), and no on-time-payment rebate. And I wonder if those high balances are coming from professional career preparation for lucrative jobs, or the new rash of for-profit colleges and “access programs” that shove underprepared students into college because of our cultural narrative/hiring field that requires college. There are so many people in my family who took out all kinds of loans for essentially vocational education and after 4 years, still didn’t have a 2-year degree. Multi-causal, but dangerous for the outcome of high student loan debt.

            Also if recent media reports are to be believed, it seems that the jobs that are available aren’t the “lucrative” professional careers we are preparing for. This is coming from a very poor-just-married graduate student studying sociology so I can switch careers from non-profit arts management to

          • The idea that high loan balances means preparation for a lucrative career is not true. Many who work at a nonprofit in a low-paying job that requires a masters degree can attest to this.

          • Sorry I disappeared yesterday — actual work called. To clarify about student loan subsidies:

            — Student loans get the label “subsidized” if the federal government will pay your loan interest while you’re in school. Starting this year that won’t happen for grad students.

            — All federal student loans are subsidized, because they charge a lower interest rate than private student loans.

            — It’s hard to tell whether and how much private student loans are subsidized. Private mortgages are subsidized because the government is a key purchaser of mortgage bonds (via Fannie and Freddie) and so makes it cheaper for banks to lend. Sallie Mae is the analogous student loan agency but now appears to be fully private; we’ll find out how private if and when the private student loan market collapses.

            I absolutely agree that people have been oversold on the lucrativeness of some graduate programs, especially law school, and I should have been less flip about that. Nevertheless, I don’t think increasing the deduction for student loan interest will help. First, only 35% of taxpayers (who are by and large at the top of the income distribution) itemize in the first place. Second, the real beneficiaries of cheap/easy student loans are universities, who are thus able to charge higher tuition. Third, increasing that deduction reduces the money available to the federal government for other, potentially more useful/worthy/important projects, including food stamps, health care subsidies, grants to K-12, etc.

        • Class of 1980

          Check out this video on the government’s role in increasing tuition.

        • Diane

          In addition to what was noted above, Stafford loans are now fixed at 6.8% which is a much higher rate than many of us would pay on a mortgage, for instance. These are the most common student loans and as a medical resident, a loan program that I know well. Stafford loan interest rates used to float with the market so in low interest times like the last many years, were a great deal. There have also been periods when they were much more expensive. The purported goal of the fixed interest rate is to level this, which is a laudable goal in many ways, but also kind of stinks for those of us who took out a lot of loans since this change (July 1, 2006). It will cost me tens of thousands of dollars during residency since my current salary doesn’t leave much room for big loan payments.

          Also I’m one of the people going into a potentially lucrative field (medicine) but it’s important to know that post-residency salaries can vary from around $80,000 to >$300,000 depending on specialty and location. Those of us who choose less lucrative but high need specialties aren’t exactly getting rich.

          I guess my point is that even simple student loan interest is a more complicated issue than it sounds, and while society provides a good by having student loans, we also serve a public good by going through grad school, taking on all of that debt, and then going into fields that require educated people.

          • moonitfractal

            I wonder about this in terms of draw to those fields. I went through most of my life planning to go into medicine, but during college I decided I’d rather go into research to avoid med school loans. I can’t be the only person willing and able to go into medicine who decided against it because of the cost of medical school combined with the often false assumption that ‘doctors make loads of money.’ Furthermore, this high interest loan structure is probably increasing our healthcare costs as doctors are forced to charge more in order to repay their loans.

      • ElisabethJoanne

        Yup, Laurel, as I was reading the comments, I was thinking about how there was no “affording the wedding” issues for us. We both come from stable, intact, tradition-minded families that assumed they’d be paying. Yes, I’m spoiled. But this spoiling is not just my wedding, it was my 12 years of private education, which didn’t consume the trust fund that paid a big chunk of grad school. It’s our parents’ too-big houses we could move back into if we absolutely had to. It’s the professionals our families know – doctors, lawyers, accountants – to give us job leads and free and reduced-cost services. And on it goes for an upper-middle-class WASP like me.

        I think sometimes how to pay it forward, but when I think how lucky I am by mere accident of birth, it’s seems a bigger task than a lifetime.

    • Love your comment about your wedding as a meeting with a venture capitalist.

      Could we start crowd funding for nest eggs for couples who want to have a stable healthy relationship but don’t have the means to get started? Like Kiva or Kickstarter?

      • Sharon – I LOVE this idea.

        And I just started looking at your blog. So, so cool and absolutely inspiring. If you want to come to south Florida you both are welcome to stay with us (as long as you’re not allergic to cats) – we’re in Delray Beach.

        • Thanks RIZUBUNNY – currently we are in a holding pattern in Flagstaff Arizona while I work a temp job with AmeriCorps. My fiance’s never been to Florida and we really want to go, so hopefully we will get there in the next year or so!

  • amysee

    Thank you for writing about this, Meg. I work in a social policy/anti-poverty field, and I find myself deeply, deeply conflicted about marriage particularly as a policy proposal.

    The statistics are really pretty clear: marriage is associated with better economic outcomes for women and children, better health for men, and the life-stabilizing factors that come with getting out of poverty. And for [heterosexual, presumably] African-American women in particular, cohabitation results in poorer economic outcomes (i.e., the woman “loans” her partner money, she never gets the “investment” back because they break up). I know from my own experience (as a middle-class, white, highly educated woman) that cohabitation with my fiance resulted in me taking on a disproportionately larger financial burden than him, which is money I could have been using to build wealth through investing, mortgage down payment etc. (I would have just bought clothes and plane tickets, but that’s on me). Of course, we moved in together intending to stay together, but without the legal and psychological bonds of marriage this was a much riskier proposition than we admitted or knew at the time.

    However! All logic and statistics aside, if you tell me that the way to lift women out of poverty is to encourage them to marry, it will be all I can do restrain myself from punching you in the face. Sometimes this idea comes from well-intentioned people who are just drawing conclusions from the evidence, but oftentimes in my estimation this comes from people who have a retrograde agenda centered on controlling women and defining marriage as one man, one woman. Check out the National Healthy Marriage Resource Center, which is a federally-funded project advised by none other than enemy-of-marriage equality Maggie Gallagher (among others). Not listed on the list of NHMRC “friends?” Stephanie Coontz.

    Sorry for the tangent. [and sorry for not citing any sources!] I swear, though, with the way marriage is used and abused in the policy context, APW is sometimes one of the few things that makes me think my fiance and I should become part of that institution at all.

    • ANDREA

      Thanks for this comment!

      I have a related question about the stats. I’m a little worried about the causality of the whole thing. Marriage is associated with a whole bunch of benefits, and now marriage appears to also be associated with the socioeconomically privileged…. see where I’m going with this? Is being socioeconomically privileged associated with a whole bunch of benefits that lead to couples being more able to stay together longer (and maybe this involves marriage), and that in turn leads to the “marriage benefits” we think we’re seeing?

      I should probably just read more articles, but I’d like to know if, at the higher education levels, do the benefits of marriage still hold? i.e., if you’re well-educated/rich and married as opposed to cohabitating, do you still see those benefits? And at the lower education levels, could “just getting married” actually help anything? I imagine, as you said, that it probably wouldn’t — but the numbers would be interesting.

      • Ceebee

        I think, in an Asian context, until you’re married, people don’t take you seriously, you’re just one of those kids that everybody wants to give advice to. Once you get over the threshold, you get to take part in discussions. Pfft.

      • amysee

        I think the “benefits of marriage” still hold at higher income levels, in as much as if you have more money as a couple, you have more beyond-subsistence resources that you can use to generate wealth (and by wealth I’m talking about using money to earn more money, through investments). Wealth generation has a huge long-term, multi-generational impact since you’re not just surviving, you’re able to pass on wealth to any kids you may have.

        I would assume that if you’re poorer (regardless of education level), things can improve through marriage because in theory there are two earners, so if one partner’s wages are cut you can still survive, and a surviving spouse can benefit from a pension, Social Security or other death benefits. But that’s not getting the poorer couple over the hump into wealth or even comfort, necessarily.

      • meg

        Yup, the benefits of marriage hold at all income levels. Though, on the flip side, the economic punishment for Divorce is pretty severe.

    • low talker

      Thanks Amysee and Andrea for these comments. There’s a lot of confusing angles (and agendas!) to these statistics. Andrea, my recollection is that the benefits of marriage do come after controlling for socio-economic factors – but I’m not an expert and I don’t have any sources at hand!

      I totally agree that marriage in itself is not a solution to poverty – somewhere I think the solution to both could be connected to the differences in cultural expectations for men and women that are ingrained in our society – the themes that are eloquently presented in Jean Killbourne’s Killing Us Softly documentaries come to mind. (youtube this! I can’t do her justice here, but she clearly shows us how popular culture’s portrayal of women minimizes their agency and reinforces their objectification which in turn encourages a lack of respect by men). Perhaps this is related to why there are so few “worthy” men? Where the link to income level comes in is less clear, but could certainly be related to education and media literacy.

    • meg

      “All logic and statistics aside, if you tell me that the way to lift women out of poverty is to encourage them to marry, it will be all I can do restrain myself from punching you in the face.” Totally agreed. It was interesting, listening to Rick Santorum’s take on this same article last night, I got fairly violent. That said, I suppose we both agree that marriage (is, or can be) a generally good thing. A few of our many differences are: I don’t think marriage is the right choice for everyone, I don’t think marriage is the only choice, I don’t think marriage is between a man and a woman (gag). But I can hold all those beliefs and still think that marriage is an important and empowering option, that needs to be more accessible to people in poverty. And well, all kinds of people.

      And funny you should mention this. I have some Stephanie Coontz reading in my near future.

      • Stella

        I honestly don’t understand how you (we) can separate marriage being “empowering” from marriage being a form of privilege. And this is the kernel of my opposition to legal marriage (for straights, gays, everyone). No legal, financial, health, employment, or other benefits should be in any way dependent on the status of one’s sexual relationship or family type. The ONLY legitimate benefit to legal marriage that I can see is the ability for adults to make other non-biologically-related adults their family, legally (especially regarding medical decision making and end-of life issues).

        I think we should disestablish marriage and replace it with flexible legal partnerships defined by the participants: gay or straight, couples or polyamorists, sexual or platonic, romantic or friendship-based. Why can’t two old ladies (or sisters, even!) who have lived together for 50 years sign on for these benefits, including making medical decisions, receiving a waiver of certain capital gains and/or property taxes at the death of one partner, and receiving a portion of said deceased partner’s Social Security benefits?

        The reasons to keep legal marriage, as far as I can see, are:

        1. Religious hysteria about “traditional” “family values.”

        2. The interest of the Powers That Be in maintaining a pronatalist, nuclear-family-based social structure, because this is the optimum environment for the creation of obedient corporate workers, soldiers, and taxpayers.

        I would also add the caveat that I think people should of course be free to have whatever religious, cultural, or personal ceremonies they want. But the government should not be in the family-defining and privileging business.

        I lurk on this site a lot, and I have read virtually ALL of the sociological treatises on the history and evolution of marriage. And I still haven’t seen a satisfactory refutation of my arguments. I suspect this is because most people are too invested in defending their own privilege (and penchant for sentimentality) to look at the issue objectively.


  • Brefiks (formerly Kate)

    In a previous discussion here, I was chided for holding that marriage always confers privilege, even if you might be in a microcommunity where it isn’t considered “cool.” This post, and the comments here, are great examples of the kind of thing I was talking about.

    It’s tricky too because in recent years (under the Bush administration) federal and state governments spent money on a type of marriage promotion that was uncritical about the risks and rewards of marriage, only open to heterosexual partnerships, and probably more closely allied with religion than state programs should be. I’m looking for a great longform article about such a program reaching out to poor women in, I think, Kansas and I’ll post it if I can find it.

    Do we think there actually are helpful, healthy ways for government to promote marriage among poorer people, or is it just too personal of a decision? Plus the risk of adding stigma for single people who would prefer to be coupled and aren’t, which is a somewhat different discussion . . .

    • meg

      Well, actually, I still agree with my past self. Marriage doesn’t always hold privilege. I actually operate in communities where it does hold privilege, and communities where it does not hold privilege (and is even somewhat stigmatized) at the same time. Both things are possible in different contexts, and I don’t buy into black and white thinking on these issues. My past issue is that you can’t argue with what people’s personal experiences are. If I tell you that I operate in communities where marriage is stigmatized, it doesn’t work for you to just tell me that’s not true. Just like if someone in poverty tells you they don’t want to get married because in their experience marriage doesn’t work, you can’t just step in and tell them that it’s not true. It IS true, in their personal experience. And with me, it’s important to keep in mind that I grew up in two very different worlds simultaneously, and when I fought my way out of the poverty that surrounded me my whole childhood, I ended up in a world almost 180 degrees from where I started. For the (few?) of us who have had these experiences, we have a wealth of conflicting cultures and perspectives inside us. Knowing how to go to school in a neighborhood with regular drive-bys, and how to go to post modern art school in Downtown NYC at the same time, creates a complicated personal narrative, not served by black and white thinking.

  • I’m getting married in July but I have planned our wedding 3 times. I live in London our local registrar office charges £350 for a wedding on a week day. That’s for the room, (because in the UK you can only be married in certain places) for the officiant and your marriage certificate then we wanted a simple dress and sit with rings on top. That still works out £400-£500 for the most basic of weddings. This time I’ve found a venue in another part of the city that is much cheaper and friends and family have pitched in.

    But my Mum and Dad, Grandparents and siblings all married when they were young a broke and have been shocked by how much everything costs now. I feel like £350 is far to much for a basic wedding and at times have felt that maybe marriage is only attainable for people older and better off than us. We are having to scrimp and save everything we have just for the simplest of marriages.

    I agree that it totally depends on each person on whether marriage is right for them or not but I think all consenting adults should be able to get married for a reasonable amount of money and not have to have a completely basic wedding be their only option.

    • Anon

      Wow, 350 pounds for getting married! I had no idea it could cost so much. Marriage licenses are free here… so technically, you can get married and it doesn’t have to cost you a thing.

      • Wow that would be my dream! You also can only get married in licensed places, with a licensed registrar and between 9am and 6pm. And you have to give notice of marriage up to a year in advance that is £60 odd. So no wedding by the sea at night surround by stars and fairylights for me….

      • Karen

        Um, I wonder where “here” is. My understanding is that most cities in the U.S. charge for a license, have waiting periods, etc. It is not completely free – but far cheaper than 350 pounds.

        • I live in the UK (not in London) and here you can get married at the Registry Office for £110.50. That’s £33.50 each to give notice (which you have to do 16 days before) £40 to get married, and £3.50 for the certificate.

          If you want a Registrar to come to your chosen ‘approved premises’ then it will be more like £350.

        • Anon

          I live in the north of Spain, and civil (non-religious weddings) are free here. (I don’t know about religious ones). You can be married at the justice of peace or at City Hall. I *think* if you choose to get married in a City Hall that doesn’t correspond to you, or choose Saturday/Sunday as a date, then they might charge you something – but we’re getting married on a Friday in our local City Hall, so all I know is I don’t have to pay anything for the license/ceremony.

  • Cara

    Articles like this serve as a prescient reminder that the discussion about whether to work or stay home with kids is extremely privileged.

    • Class of 1980

      It didn’t used to be. It was something that was available to most. That’s the real tragedy. It’s not a choice when there’s no choice to be had.

      • Cara

        Well, it was “available” to most middle/upper class women in the 20th century. Everyone else has pretty much always had to work. And for most of the 20th century, the women that didn’t *have* to work weren’t *allowed* to work – so staying home was “available” only because it was essentially mandated. It’s pretty much always been a privilege to have the choice.

      • meg

        Correction: historically it was only available to upper and middle class white women. Over most of the course of history, most women had to work, whether in the home (farm) or outside of it.

        • Class of 1980

          Yes. But working on your family farm was still closer to the staying at home option than modern-day choices. Kids were working on the farm too along with their parents. And the work was staggered over more hours of the day. Flexibility.

          I grew up middle class in the sixties and seventies. All the mom’s were at home except for two, and they were divorced.

          Even lower-middle-class moms were at home then. Now, it’s an upper class privilege. I don’t think we should lose sight of this or stop asking why.

          • Urban women also worked. Poor rural women weren’t always working on their own farms — in many places, especially the South, they worked in other people’s homes or on other people’s farms.

            The post-war prosperity that allowed lower-middle-class families to make it on one income is a real historical anomaly.

          • Class of 1980

            It’s still worth asking what was different in the time-frame where it was possible for women to have choices.

            I’d be willing to bet that in those times where it wasn’t, it was another historical period where wealth was concentrated in fewer hands.

            We want to avoid that.

    • And remind me up in Canada at just how lucky I am. Because we’re allowed to split a year of parental leave between the parents and collect employment insurance while doing it, and have a guaranteed job to go back to. It allows people at various income levels to spend time with their babies, without having to make a semi-permanent decision.

      There are better systems out there. (Ours may not be perfect, but it does level the playing field a lot.) Questioning the system is a good start.

      • I was randomly thinking about this at breakfast today. And feeling very thankful for the paternal leave options and all in Canada. Just knowing that it could one day be something available to us (if we have kids) gives me a sense of security… And it still kinda blows my mind (having grown up in the US).

  • Thanks for writing this, Meg. This is really fascinating to me. I was actually just talking to my wife and a friend last night about how I think I have a really different perspective than most of the people in our current group of friends, because although I now live in the realtively poor South, I grew up solidly middle class (perhaps even upper middle class), with educated parents, on the East Coast. When I was younger, I don’t think a single kid in my friend circle had divorced parents. Once we’d moved, though, that changed rather drastically– and in the small town where I went to high school, I remember realizing that only I and one other close friend had parents who were still married (to our original parent) out of a group of 8 or 9 people. That was a pretty staggering realization to me.

    I went to college and met my (now) wife, and married into a family where getting married young, having kids young and divorce are all pretty normal. (In the past year, her 18-year-old cousin, her 20-year-old cousin, and her 21-year-old sister got married.) It’s interesting to think about.

  • Class of 1980

    MEG WROTE: “Does marriage matter? If it does, why? And if it does, how can we make it a choice more available to everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their education, regardless of their socioeconomic status?”

    You can’t. The whole thing hinges on economics and until that changes, the situation will remain the same.

    I have read several of these studies in the last couple of years, all saying the same thing. One study found that the single mothers did want to get married, but found it out of reach for them. The single fathers helped a lot more than they are given credit for, but were not financially stable.

    The same studies not only confirm what the article said, they also point to an entirely different divorce rate according to socioeconomic status. Anyone who says the divorce rate is 50% is just repeating a sound bite. The divorce rate is in the 20-SOMETHING PERCENT RANGE for college grads. In previous decades, the divorce rate was pretty much the same no matter the level of education.

    With manufacturing going overseas, an entire segment of our population has been left with jobs that can’t sustain family life. Even if that segment of the population all got degrees it wouldn’t help. There aren’t even enough jobs now for the college grads we have.

    In the last couple of decades, the divide between rich and poor is greater than ever. Funny, it’s the same pattern you see in third-world countries. Several years ago, I read that the hotel chain, Ritz-Carlton, said they were having to add more and more over-the-top luxury experiences because their clientele was so much richer than before. It’s no coincidence that during that time we got a show called “Platinum Weddings”.

    My ideas about the economy were changed 10 years ago when we went into our own business. For the first time, I had to pay attention to obscure news headlines that are under the radar for most people. What we learned is that we do not have a free market system at all, in spite of the term being used in every election.

    Instead, we have a system where big business can literally write laws that curtail competition … and they can do it in very arcane ways that are not visible. This secrecy leaves the public scratching their heads about why some basic things are so pricey that they’ve become a luxury for many – like health care.

    Plus our money system is designed in such a way that the rich get first dibs on it to create vast income and the taxpayers get nothing much except debt. Until you change the way money works, you change nothing.

    If you were to go back and look at previous generations of these families that can no longer achieve marriage, I think you’d see a whole lot more stability and financial health. And you’d wonder what went wrong.

    What that segment has been living through is now working it’s way up the ladder. Hence, we now have college students doing the Occupy Wall Street thing. The OWS kids don’t always connect the dots correctly, but I think they will. Eventually

    • meg

      All very good points. The number of friends we have without access to family supporting jobs is STAGGERING. And yup, the divorce rate for college educated couples who marry in their late 30’s after they are financially stable is insanely low… which means just one more advantage.

  • Kelly

    I think there are probably two separate issues here. The first being that for the most part people don’t dramatically change their socioeconomic status over the course of their life and so figuring out how to raise marriage rates (and the benefits that might come from that) among certain groups is challenging and more complex than I understand right now.

    However, if you really want to make marriage more available to everyone, it seems like there is a pretty simple solution – let’s separate out the legal and social/religious aspects of marriage. Let’s say, regardless of where you want to get married, whether it’s religious or not, you officially get married when you and your partner go to city hall or the county clerks office (or whatever) and sign a piece of paper. Then you can go and socially affirm the commitment you’re making in front of friends and family in a church or reception hall or the woods (or wherever) if that’s important to you and you are able to do so. I know it’d be a huge cultural shift to think of the big party and celebration as optional (even though a large part of being married is sharing your decision with your community which can be very important and beneficial), but I think it could relieve some of the WIC induced strain and be a way to truly get marriage equality.

    • meg

      While I agree that this should happen, just on a personal and theoretical level, I don’t think that solves the problem at hand. People who are less well off are not just getting married because they can’t afford a wedding. They are not getting married because of a wealth of other issues: can’t afford family life, both partners can’t get steady work, don’t have good family models, and on and on and on.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      I like the idea, Kelly, but for a different set of reasons, from a different perspective. If people were more used to literally seeing the legal/civil/government aspects of marriage as separate from the religious/spiritual/emotional aspects, I think the same-sex marriage debate would be more polite, more sensible, and over more quickly.

      I’m a devout Anglican Catholic, and in nothing else that happens at my church is the government allowed to take any serious interest. We had a Baptism a couple weeks ago. We had Mass last night. We see both as more important than marriage. But with a wedding, suddenly it’s “And now by the power vested in me as a minister of the sacraments and the State of California…” What the…?!

      Forget the government. I don’t understand why the churches tolerate being the agents of the State. I think if they stopped, their members would better understand the churches’ teaching on marriage, too. Win-win, except, yeah, there’d be a few extra steps in wedding planning, but they’d be meaningful, so win-win-win.

  • Bluejay

    As someone who’s worked representing parents – usually, but not always, single mothers – in child welfare proceedings, this is something I’ve thought about a lot. Though there are innumerable factors at play, I noticed two over and over again talking to women I was representing.
    One was affordable access to birth control – in the context of the attack on women’s reproductive autonomy, which disproportionately affects poor women, many of my clients simply couldn’t exert control over the circumstances under which they had children.
    The second was decision fatigue. I know this came up a while ago in the humorous context of wedding planning, but it’s also a serious problem for people near the poverty line. I worked with a lot of women who were just not in a psychological, decisional headspace to do the kind of soul-searching necessary to make decisions that protected them, their children, and their economic, social, and emotional futures.
    The complexity of the problem means there are no really good answers, but from my perspective the beginning of a solution is making sure women have the tools and the opportunity to protect and use their autonomy.

    • Edelweiss

      1000 times Exactly! Decision fatigue never even occurred to me as an applicable term for the weariness of daily problems that so many low-income people/families face. And it is 100% spot-on!

    • Diane

      Thank you for bringing up the issue of access to birth control! I work with a similar community and have seen just what a privilege family planning is becoming as clinics close and funding is stretched further and further. It frightens me to see that this is under even greater attack during this election cycle and I think it’s an issue that APWers need to be paying attention to and (if willing) vocal about. In a former life I was a teacher in a poor area of a mid-sized southern city, though, and along with lack of access to birth control, I was stunned by the lack of knowledge about reproduction and contraception among my students. All the data refute the idea that teaching adolescents about contraception encourages promiscuity and in a school where a non-trivial portion of the girls were pregnant or already had a child, frankly the horse was already out of the barn! This same community had, at the time, the second-highest rate of new HIV infections in the country. I can understand the concerns of parents who want to be the ones to teach their children about reproduction but an awful lot of parents at my school were literally or effectively absent, and an abstinence-only curriculum deprived my students of even having the opportunity to make informed choices.

      • Yes yes yes! I went though a system of thorough sex ed, starting in grade 4, and I know about *two* people who got pregnant before or shortly after graduation. Frankly, the risks and downsides scared most people in to waiting. Not that it was a fear based program – it just laid out the risks, and the birth control options, and treated us like thinking people. And well, it worked. More sex ed seemed to lead to less actual sex. Bizarre but true.

    • Yep. I used to teach high school in a super poor neighborhood in Philly, and I was just unbelievably impressed by how HARD my students worked to get to school and get through their lives, let alone try to envision themselves in an environment (like college, a professional job, etc) with which they had no experience and for which they had no template. Marriage is a little like that as well, though I tend to think low rates of marriage are a result of instability rather than a primary cause.

    • meg

      YES. Decision fatigue in poverty is one of the THE DRIVING factors in people’s lives, I’d argue. And understandably so. The exhaustion of worrying if you’re going to be able to pay rent/ buy milk/ not have your kids get shot/ etc, saps up the energy you might otherwise use for planning to change your circumstances.

    • Suzanna

      YES YES YES YES YES. As a nurse who works in women’s health, and as someone who grew up poor, this is the Numero Uno issue for me. When you educate girls/women, and they have access to proper health care, all these other things fall into place.

      Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, people. As Meg said, you don’t really have the emotional/practical skills for long-term stability if you’re constantly living on the edge.

      For me, we need to invest in women. Then families will be invested in.

      • I was going to say that I was glad that Bluejay brought up decision fatigue because it made me think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and how certain needs have to be met before other needs can even be considered. So true, and such a good reminder to consider decision fatigue in this particular conversation.

  • Granola

    I think Andrea’s comment about correlation vs. causality of marriage is an important thing to consider. Many of the studies that show a host of benefits from marriage were most likely conducted during a time when there was no socially acceptable option other than marriage, and in a world (which we still live in) where social policy heavily favors marriage.

    When I read that NYT article, I noticed a quote from one of the women about how getting married to her partner would make her ineligible for some of the social welfare programs she currently has access to. A cynical person might say “See! She’s a welfare queen and is avoiding marriage to game the system.” But I looked at it as a woman realizing that there was nothing to gain from getting married to a man who could barely take care of himself, let alone be a partner and a parent. Why would she give up what she has now for that? Such a situation made me deeply sad.

    As privileged as I am, even I have felt the shame of “we don’t have enough money to get married, we could never afford a wedding!” The idea that a wedding is something you have after you’ve arrived, not a vehicle to get there, is something that really hit me and I still haven’t figured out yet. Even though my parents are paying for our wedding, I struggle not to feel like that’s “cheating” in some way. That’s in stark contrast to my parents’ assumption of “of course we would do this. It’s how it works.” While I know that’s not true for everyone and it’s important to have the wedding that works for you and your partner, I wonder if sometimes we accidentally imply that the default should be the couple paying for the wedding themselves (often a byproduct of getting married slightly older). This can unintentionally add more pressure to a couple because it cuts them off from the social inclusion/wealth transfer that’s been mentioned above.

    I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m advocating “Make your parents/family etc. pay”. I just want to make sure we’re not accidentally creating the system that excludes ourselves from feeling like we too can get married by putting every role on the couple.

    • amysee

      To add onto the whole issue of losing eligibility for certain programs when marriage increases income, people who have certain kinds of criminal convictions basically can’t live in public housing or other federally subsidized affordable housing in the US. There is an astonishingly high rate of incarceration among African-American men (due much more to structural factors and institutionalized racism than to anything else), so there are huge pockets of the US where for lower income women, marrying the man you love means getting evicted.

    • Class of 1980

      GRANOLA WROTE: “When I read that NYT article, I noticed a quote from one of the women about how getting married to her partner would make her ineligible for some of the social welfare programs she currently has access to. A cynical person might say “See! She’s a welfare queen and is avoiding marriage to game the system.” But I looked at it as a woman realizing that there was nothing to gain from getting married to a man who could barely take care of himself, let alone be a partner and a parent. Why would she give up what she has now for that?”

      Exactly. Exactly. Exactly. All these public admonishments about marriage conferring benefits miss the point. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

      The reason most married people have stability and financial advantage and tend to raise more successful children, is that they achieved a certain maturity/educational/financial status BEFORE they married, which then ENABLED them to provide stability.

      A marriage certificate can’t pay the bills or create a stable life in the absence of financial stability.

      I once read a study that began with the words “Show me what socioeconomic group a child is raised in, and I’ll predict their success.” Statistically speaking, you are far more likely to be successful the higher your socioeconomic status was as a child. A high intelligence person from a lower socioeconomic group usually has a lot more obstacles to overcome just to achieve what an average intelligence person from a higher socioeconomic group does.

      Part of the reason is that financial stability brings more choices and opportunities, and part is that financially stable parents tend to know how to teach good habits that will promote stability for future generations.

      Every time an ultra-conservative politician says that declining marriage rates and single-parent households are the whole problem, I want to cry at such a simplistic view. They never ask why marriage rates are declining in the first place.

      • Granola

        Yes! The whole “collapse of traditional values” line drives me nuts. Another thing I learned recently (I might have read it here) is that the history of marriage licenses themselves is fraught with prejudice and exclusion. The only reason they were every required was so that certain groups could be excluded from legal marriages – i.e. african americans, interracial couples, LGBT couples, etc.

        But Meg also has an interesting point – how can we help people acquire the interpersonal skills they need to successfully create and sustain a marriage (or long-term commitment)? Not everyone can wait till their ducks are in a row, because maybe they don’t have ducks. Or maybe they want to get their ducks in a row with the person of their choosing. Which should be totally OK. How then, in the relative absence of socioeconomic privilege can we support these partnerships?

        • Class of 1980

          I was the one who wrote that about marriages licenses!

          I still say what I said way above. We can’t. If we don’t make an effort to understand economics, we will get more of what we’ve got. Otherwise, you just end up creating social programs that sew a patch on a system that created the problem in the first place. The underlying problem is still rotting away underneath the patch, and eventually the patch fails.

          Should we continue this way, even a college degree won’t be a guarantee. Oh wait. That already happened. :(

  • LAS

    How can we make [marriage] a choice more available to everyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, regardless of their education, regardless of their socio-economic status?

    I think it starts with reducing the unemployment rate, and making sure that everyone who wants to work in this country can find a job. I think it also means that making sure those jobs come with benefits that include family health insurance options. If marriage is going to be a viable option for all persons in the United States, then everyone should be able to access the financial “goodies” that come with marriage. Unfortunately, in many states, certain types of welfare assistance programs are set up for single parent households exclusively. This means that marriage would cut a woman off from many potential means of support. When unemployement rates are so high, and many of those jobs don’t come with benefits that will help support a family, staying single may make more financial sense. If we want to support marriage in all communities, regardless of education level and socioeconomic status, we need to ensure that their are jobs available, that those jobs enable employees to provide for their families, that those jobs come with some form of job security, and that there are government, public, and community supports in place to help the family remain financially viable.

  • I’ll tell you what, if I knew how much @*(^&&*!^&! money I’d have to pay in taxes once married, I would have thought twice about it.

    I know that’s not what you meant, but it’s HUGE. HUGE. I don’t know when we’ll be able to pay off the huge amount we owe this year. Insane.

    • Umpteenth Sarah

      Can anyone explain to me how and why this happens? We have the choice to file separately or jointly, and I want to avoid paying higher taxes, so…. any tax lawyers or accountants in the APW world?

      • I don’t think separately or jointly matters – it’s combined income total, so if your combined income is enough over your single income to throw you in a new bracket, you can go from paying 9% of your income to 30% pretty quickly.

        The “married” tax code ASSUMES that one spouse will always not work & will essentially be a “dependent”, which is maddening. And gross.

        • Yvi

          But that 30% would only apply to anything earned over that threshold – I don’t quite understand how that can work out to having less income available after taxes.

    • On the other hand, if your combined income suddenly throws you into a new, lower, tax bracket (yep, happened to me), getting married can be a huge direct financial benefit. It’s pretty arbitrary, and definitely unfair when so many people are excluded from this benefit, that I’m not sure it’s a great idea (not to mention folks like you who get slammed with the other side of it), but this year, while we are pretty desperately underemployed, I am very grateful for it.

      • It’s enough that it makes me wonder if it’s worth working at all. I need to do some fancy math to figure out how much I can stop working. Sounds good to me! Thanks, govt!

        Also I don’t understand how combining would make you in a lower bracket, unless you changed/lost jobs?? I’m assuming that the couple is keeping the jobs they had when unmarried, so literally nothing is changing but a piece of paper.

        • Caveat: I know nothing about taxes or being married, which is why I got so screwed.

          • Anne

            Getting married can lower your tax bracket if you have a disparity in taxable income. The bracket amounts for people filing with a married status are about twice the bracket amounts for those filing as single (eg if the upper number on a tax bracket for a single person is 50,000 then it is likely 100,000 for the marrieds–so if you earn 55,000 and you marry and your combined income is 95,000 you might drop a tax bracket and pay a lower percentage of your combined income than you did of your single income, though the dollar amount of those taxes may be higher).

          • Rachelle

            Can’t reply directly to Anne because the thread is too long, but she is correct.

            There is really no way to predict what is going to happen to you tax-wise when you get married except for putting your informaion into a tax calculator and running the numbers. Usually 2 people with similar incomes will pay more (higher bracket when combined) and 2 people with very different incomes will usually pay the same or less. Sometimes if one of you has credits that you lose part of because you can’t take more credit than your income, your credit can now offset some of your spouse’s income instead of you losing it. There are a ton of various situations.

            The tax code is old and yes, it favors couples who have one main income and it also favors families with children. There is some theoretical stuff behind it, like how 2 people living together have more economic power (like your rent for one place is less than it would be for you both individually, for example) but of course that assumes the options are 1) truly single and 2) married. It does not take into account living together in a similar fashion to being married and not actually getting married, which would obviously confer the same benefits without the tax penalty. It also doesn’t account for couples who marry and can’t live together (due to work, etc.).

            I highly recommend that anyone getting married in 2011 check out what their taxes will be because you get taxed as though you were married the whole year. Many people will need to adjust their withholdings now so that they don’t get slammed with a huge tax bill next April.

        • @ Rachelle: Interesting tidbit about Canadian tax law: if you have been living together for more than 12 months, you have to file jointly as common-law partners. However, there are no major perks or disadvantages to being common law or married so it doesn’t affect much. (I think when I switched, the only affect was I lost a GST credit of less than $200/year.) I just think it’s kind of neat that it’s a legal requirement up here to file together when you live together.

        • Amelia

          My single bracket (marginal rate) was 25%, but my married bracket is 15% because my husband makes less money than I do and the thresholds for married income are much higher than for single income.

          If two people with relatively similar incomes marry, they can end up in a higher bracket.

          For low income people – especially folks who don’t make enough money to have to pay income taxes in the first place – the tax benefits aren’t helpful at all, but the risks of losing social services like SNAP (food stamps), Section 8 (housing) or WIC (supplies for children) are huge.

  • amysee

    Okay, a suggestion from me before I stop stomping all around in this conversation (I AM REALLY INTO POLICY, YOU GUYS). I have not read this book, but I’ve read *about* it and it seems really fascinating and relevant: “Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.” Possible APW book club selection?

    • Granola

      Gail Collins and David Brooks talked about that book yesterday in a follow-up column to the article (sort of.)

    • I love Kathryn Edin! That book is excellent.


      This is an EXCELLENT book! I was lucky enough to actually see both of the authors present their research on seperate occasions at conferences. Interestingly enough both times it was at the national grantee conference for organizations receiving federal grants to promote healthy marriage — what was interesting to me was that the authors were presenting some really fascinating data that in reality did not support the common themes that are prevalent at these conferences, which typically focuses on, hey if we could just get all those poor women married all ready, every single problem in this country would be solved! Don’t even get me started on how far too many of the people who are actually conducting research on marriage and relationships in this country are completely clueless about the difference between causation and correlation — attending those conferences was an exercise in frustration and all too often I become that obnoxious person in the audience challenging all of the findings they were presenting.

    • Lea

      Oh my goodness I am SO glad you mentioned this book, Meg if you have the time I definitely recommend you read this too. It relates to so many of the different arguments in this discussion. I read it as part of a class on wealth and poverty for my degree and it changed my perspective on a lot of the struggles that young women go through when they start off in a lower socioeconomic bracket. I second the suggestion to make it a book club pick!

  • I wonder if part of the problem is what we tell ourselves about what it means to be successful and independent. Yes, the economy is a huge problem – it’s hard to make plans for the future when you’re trying to pay rent today. But at the same time, maybe we make it worse for ourselves when we buy into the ideals of independence and success that were sold to us in the 1950’s – two adults, 2.5 children, one house in the suburbs with a nice yard, two cars, matching appliances. At that level, it would be awfully hard to ever think you can get married, because nobody I know can afford to live that way anymore.

    Maybe part of the solution is to tell each other about what successful marraige can look like – that it means finding partnership, stability, support, and that it still “counts” when you’re in a houseshare, a co – op, a multigenerational home, or any of the kajillion arrangements that work. Or in other words, more APW style talking about the reality of marriage/partnership/success, in person, all the time.

    • Granola

      I want to exactly this a million times! That’s what happens to me I think “I’ll never be able to [insert life dream that I think I should want here]” – buy a house, have kids. Hell, have kids and rent a nicer apt (but then if I spend so much on NYC rent shouldn’t I just buy a house…..). Great point. I’m really loving this discussion today.

    • Class of 1980

      To be fair, if you’re talking about the 1950’s, most families only had one car and lived in a much smaller house than the average house now. They had less of everything, but more time.

      Ditto for the sixties and seventies. Until the late seventies/early eighties, two cars was a luxury.

  • Raen Tate

    Knocking on the age of 50 door I found myself getting married last November … FOR THE 5th TIME!
    From the first at age Sixteen (not pregnant) to the 4th I know what it is to seek a HelpMate. After number three, and again after number 4 I’d said NEVER AGAIN. Did I love these guys? In what I thought was the proper way, yes. Did these guys love me? In their way, yes.
    What is different this time. This time my beloved not only cares for me, but by small (and large) acts of concern and consideration for my well being SHOWS he cares for me. This is something I had been doing for YEARS for others. Never knew it was supposed to work both ways!
    And why didn’t I know? The southern Culture I was raised in? A woman is supposed to do for and submit to her husband while voraciously defending her children. The husband’s job is to provide. Makes my stomach churn just thinking of that teaching.
    Happy now, gratefully so. Marriage IS important. That feeling of mutual comfort and belonging, being mutually wanted and needed. Shame it has taken me till age 46 to feel this way with another. Content I am to have finally found what has been void in my life!

  • Thanks, Meg, for bringing these questions to the forum. After plowing through all these comments and thoughtful musings, it’s clear that we come to this from myriad perspectives, all valid and worth pondering. But I do think one of the most telling factors — maybe THE most telling — has to be the growing disparity, in our US culture, between those who have and those who are struggling to have….. ducks in a row or bucks in the bank ……. or a job with benefits. The class gap that some politicians deny is so very real and the lack of marriage among that demographic is a clear indicator that some folks do not swim in the middle/upper middle class Ozzie & Harriet world.

    Thanks to everyone for your consideration of this topic, now how do we do something about it? What do we do? How do we make a difference? I’m going to take a look around my life and find something to actually do…..

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  • katieprue

    Wow, this post brings me HOME. I would say that yes, marriage is abso-friggin’-lutely an economic privilege. As one of the first commenters pointed out, the WIC does have something to do with that (as in, you can’t get married without the horse-drawn carriage) but there are so many other factors shaken and stirred into that bubbling pot.

    I grew up with divorced parents that ended up about an hour away from each other. They were on completely different ends of the spectrum in regards to economic status so I really got to see and experience life on both sides of the coin. My home-hometown (born there, grew up a bit, left for awhile to the Big City Privilege, came back for high school) is a generally poor area with not a lot to do or any opportunities. I feel like marriage is really put on a pedestal in this community, like it is this almost unattainable great lifetime achievement that yes, is reserved for the upper echelon of society.

    You have to consider that getting married takes a lot of planning, whether you are going down to the courthouse, flying to Vegas, or having a larger celebration. Even for the courthouse you need a license and 75 dollars (I think that’s what they are running here). When so many relationships are crumbling around you, why bother? It’s a hurdle, a hassle. Babies on the other hand, particularly in situations where you have low income and low education, they show up whenever they damn well please! This is not to say that all young/single mothers are ignorant and getting knocked up unplanned, but once those pink lines show up you really don’t have a choice (let’s not go into religion and politics here, it’s just generally NOT seen as a choice in this area). So it’s then that you introduce children into a situation with unmarried parents, and there isn’t a stigma with having a child *gasp* out of wedlock. Not around here, y’all. In fact, it’s grown to almost be a badge of honor, a kind of sisterhood amongst the mothers who are dealing with whatever mess is between them and the fathers.

    I think a lot of it boils down to choice. When you’re poor, you get what you get. Like Meg said, you don’t see taking risks as good thing–it’s mothereffing terrifying! You don’t know if you’ll ever recover if you take a risk and it doesn’t turn out so well. You don’t have a cushion. Mom and dad don’t have money, you don’t have a rich uncle, no one has a place for you to stay. When you don’t have any perceived choices to make, you don’t need to take any risks and, given how marriage rates are publicized, marriage is a risk that people just don’t have the time or money to take.

    I could keep going. Meg, I’m just so thrilled that you are starting these conversations and exploring what is and has been a reality for so many more people than you’d ever think.

    Completely random side note: I think I know exactly where that photo was taken, and it hurts my heart with happy memories that I am missing so bad right now!

  • Such an important topic! I so very much want to continue to the conversation, but doing so in a meaningful way definitely won’t happen until the end of the work day. Le sigh.

  • Being a married person who loves marriage and fully knows how much healing can come from being in a committed relationship with someone who loves you more than they love themselves, I do think marriage matters. I think the issue of having children outside of marriage is a much deeper issue, however, especially for those in the ‘lower classes.’ Like you, I grew up in a very poor neighborhood. We had a drug house down the street, a 7-11 where the clerks were shot every other month during a robbery, and I was one of the only white kids in my school growing up. Many of my friends had family members in gangs, and some were already looking forward to being in gangs themselves when they got out of elementary school. I’ve known a lot of women who have had children outside of being married. Some are educated, empowered women, others barely finished high school. And that’s where I see the biggest difference – in the motives of each for having children. Of my friends who had higher educations, having a baby was often by choice, either with their long-term partner’s consent or outside of a steady relationship altogether. They wanted a child because they wanted to be a mom, to take care of and love a little human. Or if it was an oops baby, they kept it, kept their jobs, and are making a good go of being a woman who ‘has it all.’ Of my friends with little education, many of them thought the man they were with when they got pregnant loved them and would stay with them at the time of their pregnancy. Some thought gettign pregnant would be the key to keeping the man int heir lives. Many of the men left when they got pregnant, or became intermittently involved with their lives and hooked up with other women. The sentiment I’ve heard over and over, especially from the girls whose daddy left their mom or grew up with the same kind of familial battle scars you wrote about, is that they were thrilled to have a baby, because now they had someone in their lives who would love them no matter what and would never leave them. It was more about them than it was about the child, which just breaks my heart. Other family members (usually the grandmother) are called on to pick up the slack in parenting, while the mom goes out to find another man that she hopes will love her.

    I know this can’t be a blanket statement as to the motivations of different class women for having children, I’m just relaying my experience and what I’ve seen.

  • I’ve thought about this a bit as my husband and I have worked with innercity kids and youth for most of our relationship. When we were dating, the young kids always asked if we were married (and why not). It probably wasn’t a class issue – little kids don’t really have a paradigm for seriously-committed-but-not-married relationships. The high school kids, though, didn’t seem to get why we DID get married. Their family situations were all pretty different, but there was definitely a correlation between the more stable homes and the kids who seemed happiest for us. My hope is that, now, we can be an example of stability and commitment for those who otherwise won’t have any.

  • Ok, having ranted about taxes, I’ll actually comment on the actual post. Where I grew up and where I am now living again after 20 years away, people are very poor. But, this is rural poverty and in this area, everyone gets married. EVERYONE, and they do it before 25. If you’re not the marrying type, you probably leave to go to college. (College, also not happening for people who stay, for the most part.) It’s extremely rare not to be married. So I could say that in this tiny corner of the world, it’s not considered an economic privilege, but a deep economic necessity.

    The fact that I got married at 34 makes me basically the biggest freak of nature ever here.

    • I think there is definitely a large rural vs urban component to this. You get married and then you have children. Or you get knocked up and then you get married. Probably before you’re 21.

      Unemployment here is historically high. The economy is centered around natural resource extraction and two incomes is often a necessity to get through the lean times. (Families tend to live the boom-and-bust cycle just like resource prices…new cars and toys when the going is good and barely getting by when it’s not).

      Marriage is also non-feminist here. As in, the man runs the house and no one thinks otherwise. It is just what is done here. I wish I knew how to (positively) start the seeds of good change.

    • meg

      It’s so interesting. Where I grew up, the most likely scenario is that you got pregnant young, stayed in a relationship with the father for a period of time (married or not), then it broke up, and you raised your kids on your own for awhile.

      • Yeah, you do NOT get divorced here. My brother’s situation is very rare and both families expected they would work it out.

      • Yeah, I don’t know any single mothers here that are not at least co-habitating with someone. And then they usually marry. Lots of pics with kids about 2 at their parents weddings.

    • K

      Yes! I grew up in a farming community in the 70s and early 80s (I’m a bit older than most posting here), and yeah, everyone was married and everyone was strapped to some degree. I remember my parents talking regularly about whether they were going to have to declare bankruptcy.

      Also, another thing about farming: I grew up with an image of marriage as a full partnership for sure. “Women’s work” was absolutely necessary and not seen as lesser at all. Kids too. Although I didn’t always appreciate it at the time, looking back I can see how significant it was for me that even in elementary school I had a sense of contributing in a real way to the well being of my family.

      It does make the whole discussion of marriage and economic class a little befuddling to me at times, just because what is being said (and I’m not trying to say it’s inaccurate) is so at odds with my experience.

  • stefanie

    i read apw all the time even though i’m a queer woman who is not engaged and don’t know if i ever want to be. i read in part because i love this as a space to sort out my feelings on the institution itself with a bunch of smarties. this post gets right to the heart of my questions and reservations about marriage, and i’m grateful for this conversation.

    this data about the socio-economic privileges of marriage make me feel a lot more like dismantling that institutional privilege that comes with marriage than it makes me feel like trying to crack open some windows for more people to get in. it’s one of the reasons marriage equality as THE major LGBT political agenda makes me tear my hair out. it’s not that i don’t want queers to get married, it’s not that i don’t think it’s ridiculous that we can’t in most places in the US, it’s not that i don’t cry at all the gay weddings i attend–it’s just that all of my community’s political capitol being poured into a fight that doesn’t address the barriers of racism, classism, ableism, or the myriad other structures that oppress us, feels like our horse is in the wrong race.

    the economic benefits of married coupledom should be available to all families and single folks, full stop. i don’t want anyone–queers or people living in poverty or anyone else–to need to get married in order to access full basic rights. one of the most infuriating aspects of welfare reform since the 90s is the way access to government support has been tied to marriage promotion/coercion. i believe the personal decision to get married should not be attached to a grab bag of social (i realize this one is contextual), political, and economic rights unavailable to everyone else. i think real change will look like loosing the strings on that grab bag rather than encouraging more folks to get ahold of it.

    and the truth is, if that were the case–if marriage were truly just a relationship decision and not a way to access rights–then i believe that the ritual, communal, and personal functions of marriage and weddings would only be amplified. it would certainly make it easier for me to decide to tie the knot with my beloved girlfriend.

    • meg

      Totally agree with this points. That said, studies seem to show that people who are married end up better off financially in part because long term couple-dom seems to make people able to make better economic decisions (probably in part due to the support of another person, and the long term commitment to building a future together). That sort of real, tangible, personal benefit is part of why I think on a personal level, marriage is important. Even though it’s not right for everyone.

      That said, I’m nodding my head along to your comment, even though I’m personally invested in different political strategy.

    • Yes exactly. EXACTLY. Marriage is important for queers in the US because it helps us get health insurance, but marriage equality is maybe the 5th best solution. The best solution is just HAVING HEALTH INSURANCE FOR EVERYONE. Which will kind of happen in 2014!

      I’m not sure I agree with you about the political capital thing, because I think marriage captures [straight] people’s imaginations and increases the amount of political capital available. Might as well use it while we have it.

    • Stella

      Stefanie, have you heard of the Against Equality movement?

  • Tamara Van Horn

    Can I just say, that complx issues aside, APW just RAWKS as a community? Women, we are fierce.

  • I read this 30 minutes ago, and had to think about it, before commented. And I wanted to comment, especially as a wedding planner, because I think it’s an important issue.
    1. Marriage isn’t an economic privilege. Weddings are.
    And in this society, there isn’t much psychological division between the two. People are set on the idea that in order to get married, you have to have a wedding. You can’t get married without a wedding, and weddings in the U.S. average around $20k, which very few people have in their back pocket. So there’s that. Obviously, it’s a false premise – Weddings are $20,000, marriage is about $100 – but folks have them intertwined in their minds. So, they can’t afford the $20k, but they can still have the relationship and the children.

    2. These stats also cuts a very important factor in all this – the man. There’s all this talk about what women are doing, but what does the man, the other side of that relationship, think? It takes two to tango, so why doesn’t he want to get married? Does he not want to make the commitment, is he just not that into you? Does he not want to be legally contracted to share half his income with the mother of his child? Does he just not think it’s necessary?

    3. There are as many reasons for couples to not get married as there are, well, couples. What I’ve found is that most of it, like with everything else, has to do with fear: Fear that if you get married, you’re going to make less money, even though you have two incomes. Fear that he doesn’t want to marry you. Fear that you have to have his child in order to get him to stick around, and that it’s the only way to get him to stick around. Fear of losing control of your life. Fear of the unknown – the status quo is working, and there’s no guarantee things are going to get better, so why even try? I know from experience that that last one is a huge factor in poorer communities.

    It’s just not simple, and everyone has a different reason, or more accurately, a different SET of reasons. It’s never just one.

    • meg

      Ah, but I disagree with #1. I think that weddings aside (because where I grew up, people get married in backyards with no money, because no one has any money so whatever) MARRIAGE may well be becoming an economic privilege. It takes a whole host of factors to have a successful marriage: partners (most often men) who are marriageable (huge issue in areas with very high long term unemployment and incarceration rates), the basic economics to support a home or family, emotional skills to make a partnership thrive, and more. I’m less worried about weddings being an economic privilege. THAT we can solve. But marriage becoming an economic privilege is a bigger issue… that is… if marriage matters. I posit that it does as an option, but I could be wrong.

      • Lea

        I know I already mentioned Promises I Can Keep, but I think it relates here as well. I agree with Meg that it’s an issue of being Married that has an economic divide moreso than the very real and exorbitant costs of a Wedding. A lot of the interviews in this book imply that couples still value being married as highly or more highly than ever. But they don’t think theirs will last or that their partners are suitable for the honored role of Husband. So rather than have a mediocre or failing marriage, they choose not to marry at all.

        And (this part is my own hypothesis), if these couples had more of a societal pressure to marry or more positive examples of how marriage leads to greater contentment or self-worth, there would be more married couples. I don’t think that forcing families to get married for economic reasons is a good idea. But there is something to be said for a stable childhood with two parents and if marriage is the best way for Americans to be stable, maybe pushing for the Ideal Family shouldn’t be as vilified as we make it out to be.

      • But with your premise, you also have to believe that it’s ECONOMIC privilege that give you the emotional skills to sustain a successful marriage. That’s not so – it’s character, and that doesn’t come with money. You and your husband are proof of that, just sitting there. Marriage doesn’t come sprinkled with fairy dust, which is why, rich, poor and everything in between, the divorce rate is still close to 50%. They don’t see past the aisle.
        And I can’t completely buy into the whole idea that they don’t get married because they won’t have as much money/economic standing – they just THINK that they don’t. It’s two different things. If you’re committed to someone who’s got your back, and is willing to have your back no matter what it takes, that’s not as much of an issue. Many times, it”s not that you don’t have the mindset or money to get married, you don’t have the partner. And that’s a problem that’s as old as time.
        Meg, I feel like we should be debating this on NPR or something…
        My point is that There isn’t one answer to this, not “one reason why.” There are tons of reasons, and they’re all tangled up in each other. Bottom line: People don’t get married because they don’t want to get married, for whatever reason.

        • You’re entirely right about the characters of the involved parties being what helps marriages work, but I think Meg is very right when she says that people are statistically more likely to develop the skills within their characters to enable them to work at marriage if they come from a more socioeconomically advantaged position in the first place. It’s a really complex intertwining of factors, and as I see it money may not necessarily be the root cause, but may be an easier marker to measure than some of the other factors which run in parallel with it.

          Also, on your second point about where are the men in this debate, I think this quote in the article raised some interesting and disturbing thoughts on that: “Women used to rely on men, but we don’t need to anymore,” said Teresa Fragoso, 25, a single mother in Lorain. “We support ourselves. We support our kids.” I certainly know that within the black community in my home country of Trinidad there is a lot of very controversial debate around the huge single motherhood rates about the men of the community just not stepping up and contributing enough to family units, leading to the women needing to be massively ‘strong’ and ‘independent’, when really they might be being neglected. (I say this as a black Trinidadian woman, by the way, and of course, there are very complex historical, cultural, and socio-economic reasons why that might be the case.)

  • Sara

    Access is a big problem and having children outside of marriage isn’t just about access to marriage, it’s also about access to reproductive health care. The rate of unintended pregnancies overall has gone down, but it’s actually gone up among low-income women. A lack of access to preventative health care that leads to unintended pregnancy usually also means a lack of access to other types of health care, including abortion, especially since abortion isn’t covered under federal Medicaid. But there are organizations out there, like the one I work for (the National Network of Abortion Funds), who try to change that and help out women with the money they need to access abortion so they can have children when they want to, not when some politician tells them they must.

  • How does feminism plays into this issue? (Especially in places where the word “feminism” is taboo.)

    The male-dominated marriages I see here seem to only further the idea of the man as breadwinner and decision maker while the woman takes care of the house (even when she often works full time as well) the potentially freeing parts of a strong egalitarian marriage. In a place where examples of such egalitarian marriages are lacking, if not completely absent, how can that be presented as an option? Especially when the few examples of egalitarian marriages are, shall we say, ostracized?

    • Class of 1980

      I actually don’t know anyone in a male-dominated marriage. The closest thing to it would be someone in an abusive marriage in my world. And even the one person I know with an abusive partner makes a lot of money and can leave! ;)

      Does anyone know someone in a male-dominated marriage?

      • A marriage of two men would be male dominated ;-)

        I guess male dominated wasn’t the word or the way to describe what I see. What I see is a world in which it is still okay for a man to get “mad” (not in an abusive sense!) because the house isn’t clean and one where women usually defer to men’s opinions (at least publicly).

        Does that make more sense?


        I was engaged to a man who wanted a male-dominated marriage. In his view, the Bible told him he would be the “head of the household” so therefore I would defer to decisions he made (“because they would be inspired by God!”). I don’t think he would ever be abusive (physically/emotionally), but he was pretty convinced about his role as the decision-maker in the marriage. I was (am) convinced otherwise, so thankfully we never got married. ;-)

    • Sarabeth

      My understanding is that survey data show that egalitarian marriages are also highly correlated with class. In other words, people with more money are more likely to 1) hold egalitarian marriage as an ideal and 2) actually have an egalitarian partnership after they get married.

      This seems to me certainly tied into the overall issues here. In low-income communities, women now are likely to be better educated and out-earn the men around them. When you combine that with non-egalitarian marriage ideals, it’s maybe not so surprising that women aren’t in a hurry to get married.

      Then there’s the whole economic theory that part of the reason for this class disparity in egalitarianism is that “marriageable” lower-income men have more power in their relationships, precisely because there are relatively few of them (due to incarceration, primarily).

  • Before I even get to reading the comments of this post, I wanted to say something–

    This post comes at the perfect time, because I was just thinking this morning about why I read APW. I’m not married, engaged, or even “pre-engaged”, although I am dating someone I believe I’ll marry one day.

    The alt title for this blog should be “What Is Marriage? No, But REALLY”. I’ve always been down with the idea of marriage, probably because my parents are still married themselves. But I never really thought about it. The media makes marriage out to be a lifelong nagfest (/fartfest/nosexfest) and my concept of my theoretical future husband stopped at Prince Eric from the Little Mermaid. Marriage was this elusive club that I was doomed to know nothing about until I was already in it.

    But APW has put actual definition to “marriage” (…and “partnership” and “wife” and “husband” and “partner”) that has helped me look at my current relationship in a much more mature way than I’ve ever done. So instead of simply asking “Am I willing to be stuck with this one?” I can ask meaningful questions, from “How will we do chores?” to “How will we support each other during difficult times?”

    I wish there were more people on this site who aren’t yet in the marriage/partnership realm, because I think everyone could get some lessons in how to exist in a meaningful, longterm relationship. I wish that people who don’t see a lot of successful relationships around them would come here, and see the community of people trying to make it work and coming at it from a thousand different angles.

    • meg

      “The alt title for this blog should be “What Is Marriage? No, But REALLY.””

      Yeah. Probably true :)

    • Stella

      I’m an unmarried longterm cohabitor! High five!

      (No plans to marry, though.)

  • What’s really interesting to me is the gap in how women from my home town are perceived by getting married at 19-22 and then 22-25. I had several friends who joined the army and got married around 19-22 so the girlfriend would have financial support, and there were definitely whispers about how that was “white trash.” Meanwhile, some very wealthy friends from the same city got married at 22-25, right out of college with big traditional fetes, and that wasn’t snarked at all; in fact envied by most.

    It’s amazing an initial advantage like a stable family could influence the way people look at you for completing the exact same ritual within 5 years of another person with a different background.

  • Jo

    This is really interesting to me, and I loved the article.

    I grew up in a more rural area, and where I was, the under-privileged, those who felt they had no other choices, got married. But the weddings there were church halls and potlucks, that was the norm. I was lucky because I WAITED to get married, I went on to college. That was weird for my friends.

    And then among my college friends, I am once again the odd one for getting married at 25. But my marriage is much different than that of my friends who got married at 16, 18. But it’s what I chose, and I was incredibly lucky to be ABLE to choose it. I’ve always felt very privileged about that. And I don’t want it to be that way.

  • This comment thread is getting out of hand. I was actually late for work this morning because I got caught up reading it!!! Can we turn this into multiple new Reclaiming Wife posts? Please =)

  • Oh my. This is issue hits home hugely as it’s a massive problem back home in Trinidad (see the 73% of black children born outside marriage bit – heartbreakingly similar statistic there too), and it’s been a bugbear of my dad’s forever.

    My mom was one of those women in the group for whom rates are rising – accidentally pregnant under 30, with partially completed college education – but my dad was insistent that he would not allow me to be born outside of marriage precisely because of all the stats about how kids do better within stable family units. He was born in a really poor area, in a not particularly stable family (my paternal grandparents remained married, but my grandpa had a second family and all sorts, so, yeah), and saw for himself how the chaotic family structures seemed to make it so much more difficult for those around him to fully achieve their potential, including his own siblings. He had no immediate examples of functional families to look to, but talks about finding inspiration from college lecturers, and a few other people who were kindly to a poor boy trying to make something of himself. My mom’s family was more middle class, and somewhat more stable, so she at least had something of a template of a functional marriage to draw upon, but my dad had to make up his ideas of the good enough husband and father role as he went along, with very little guidance. He did really well (he pretty much rocks as a dad, and my parents’ stupidly happy marriage attests to how well he’s done as a husband), but the fact that he’s the only one of 9 siblings to quite achieve that shows how very hard it is when you’re starting from a disadvantaged position.

    At any rate, Meg I think you’d really enjoy talking with my dad. I grew up listening to him proselytising for marriage among young people at home, who often use the excuses quoted in the article, but certainly his personal experience is that the team he and my mom formed when they chose to get married enabled them both to achieve the dreams they had for their lives, and to achieve beyond their wildest dreams for me, and while those achievements may well have come to fruition had they not married (because they’re pretty awesome people) it’s their view that together it was all so much more doable. That is certainly being my experience in my own marriage, but I have them to thank for breaking previous transgenerational patterns and making it incredibly easy for me in comparison.

  • Melissa


    As part of a long-term, committed relationship, I have wanted to get married for some time. It took finding APW (and squirreling my way through the archives) for me to realize that what I wanted was a wedding and that we/I were in no way ready for a marriage. I think coming from a background much like the one described in the Times article plays a huge role in my readiness, or lack there-of. My mother had me “out of wedlock” at 30 and has remained single and poor for my entire life. She has always hoped, and still hopes, even in her 50s, to rekindle a one-sided fling from her college years and have the picture-perfect wedding and marriage.

    Coming into my relationship from that, I am ill-equipped to deal with, well, a relationship. No one in our family has/had a healthy marriage, and I never learned how to be in a giving, loving, and nurturing partnership. It’s a massive learning curve, made even larger by the fact that his entire family is happily married off to their high school/college sweethearts and have been for 20 plus years.

    Long story short, I know what those women are facing, socially and economically. It’s a daily struggle to make ends meet and figure out the intricacies of a marriageable relationship.

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