Last week’s New York Times Modern Love column, by Jessica Bennett, executive editor of Tumblr, hit me right in the gut. The story was this: she and her boyfriend got engaged before she was quite ready, she called off the engagement almost immediately, though they stayed together. As the years went by she became an advocate for not getting hitched in the first place (she authored Newsweek’s 2010 cover story “The Case Against Marriage.”) And then her relationship broke up, and she reconsidered.
While I fully suggest reading the whole, and lovely, piece, here are some outtakes, which I think many of us will nod our heads over:
And yet the moment I saw that ring, I was terrified. I saw dirty dishes and suburbia, not lace-covered wedding gowns. Rather than thinking about the family we’d someday have, I saw the career I had hardly started as suddenly out of reach. The independence I had barely gained felt stifled. I couldn’t breathe.
I begged him to forgive me. I cried and pleaded. I promised I’d never leave him, and I meant it.
He was devastated, but he loved me too much to let go. So we came back to New York, to our tiny apartment, and tried to move on. We held each other — that night, and every night after. I cried and stroked his hair. I said I was sorry. I told him I loved him. We slowly moved forward.
There were plenty of times over the next six years that I wished I had said yes. We could have had a long engagement, I told myself. In a few years, I would have been ready.
But as time went on, as our couple friends broke up, as those who were the first to marry became the first to get divorced, I was glad we hadn’t done it.
We were happy living as partners, without the pressure of “till death do us part.” We were free of all the expectations of matrimonial bliss that make so many couples fall apart.
Her original conclusion:
A few data searches, some interviews and a pitch to an editor later, we were issuing a manifesto of our own. “I Don’t,” we would proclaim a few months later in a 2010 cover line in Newsweek: “The Case Against Marriage.”
Our argument took romance out of the equation. As we explained it, Americans were already waiting longer to marry, and fewer than ever believed in the “sanctity” of marriage. As urban working women in our 20s, we no longer needed marriage to survive — at least not financially. We weren’t religious, so we didn’t believe that unmarried cohabitation or even child-rearing was an issue.
But we were also cynical. As children of the divorce generation, we had watched cheating scandals proliferate in the news. We had given up on fairy tales, and we didn’t know how anybody could see the institution of marriage as anything but a farce. It was “broken,” one sociologist told me. So, what was the point?
When we got back to New York, he packed up his stuff, quit his job, paid a final month’s rent and moved back to his hometown, 2,000 miles away.
In the end, we had no shared bank account or property. We didn’t have to go through a trial separation or mandatory counseling. We had spent seven years living in a 600-square-foot New York City apartment, inseparable and intertwined. Yet in the end, the relationship ended in one night. No discussion required.
As I tried to make sense of it all, I had a glimpse into why that sheet of paper had been so important to him. Sure, it may well be a jaded tradition, an antiquated ritual. But it’s also a contract.
When he was packing his stuff, I remembered a conversation my Newsweek co-author had had with her mother about our article. “I’ll tell you why you need marriage,” she told her. “Because it makes it harder for the other person to leave.”
At the time, we snickered at her words. Legally requiring someone to stick around? It was desperate, pathetic.
But would it have worked? I’ll never know. What I have learned is this: While “happily ever after” may indeed be a farce, there’s something to be said for uttering “I do.”
Reading this article brought up complicated feelings for me. First, as Jessica Bennett nails in her eloquent change of heart, we don’t all need to be married. Marriage is far from a perfect institution, and it’s not right for every couple. The pressure for every couple to get married, and for marriage to validate all our relationships is, of course, absurd. Relationships are made valid by love and commitment, not by a ceremony, or a piece of paper that not everyone is legally allowed to get.
But it also brought me around to the question of our age group’s relationship with marriage. We’re the offspring of a generation that did a lot of good for the institution of marriage, who fought for more egalitarian partnerships, and who fought to get women out from being trapped behind a vacuum cleaner. But we’re also the offspring of a generation where marriages failed at a staggeringly high rate. Even for those of us whose parents were in happy marriages, it’s likely we grew up amid the wreckage of adult relationships. And the chances of both parts of a couple being the product of happy marriages, is frankly not huge. So while we may want to get married (commitment, cultural pressure, and the pretty weddings are a very compelling mix) we might not really have any idea of what it means, or what it should mean. And where does that leave us? What information are we missing? Where can we find it?
But the most salient issue that this article brought up for me was this: at its core, marriage isn’t just about love. Or as Amanda so eloquently put it years ago in her Words To Read When You Wed series for APW, “There isn’t a lot about love, I’m afraid, because I figure by the time folks are getting married, well, there’s just more to it than that squishy kind of love.” Because no matter what we pretend about weddings, marriage is about gritty things. It’s about contracts, it’s about rights, it’s about locking yourself into something that’s hard to leave (and if you’re not legally allowed to get married under DOMA, it’s often about drafting these contracts with the help of a good lawyer). It’s not about a theoretical commitment, it’s about a contractual commitment: here, you can have ownership of my stuff, and I’ll have ownership of yours. Now we are a legal family, I will make medical decisions for you when you can’t, I will be the one holding your hand in a hospital bed. Now we’re really stuck with each other, unless we want to spend a lot of money on lawyers to get unstuck. And discussions of joy, transcendence, and ritual aside, that gritty contractual business is important. Even if our parents’ generation divorced at a staggeringly high rate, it may be foolish to pretend that the contractual bits don’t matter.
What I really wanted is to throw this out to you Team Practical. What do you think? If marriage matters, how does it matter? And how do we figure out what it’s all about?
Photo: Leah and Mark