Saturday, June 12, 2010

Why Marry?

Jessica Bennett and Jesse Ellison put their minds together in Newsweek and conclude that there is really no good reason for anyone to be married. They sympathize somewhat with their friends who are taking this fateful step, but they are presenting what they call "the case against marriage." Link here.

Of course, marriage is a universal human institution. It was not established because someone made a case for it, and it will not be eliminated because some very smart people concoct a case against it.

Bennett and Ellison ask why a woman would need to be supported by a husband when she can now support herself, very well, thank you. Clearly, the institution has not been having a very good run recently, and besides, unmarried couples are all the rage in Europe.

Why get married when you can have the same thing without the ceremony and without the commitment and without the celebration? In some places this would constitute a common law marriage, but the authors do not consider this point.

Despite all of marriage's inadequacies, and despite its evident failure to provide for the kind of happiness that the therapy culture tells us is our due, people still want to get married. And they still do, in extravagant ceremonies, with grand public displays, not just of affection, but of affluence.

People still want to take vows to remain committed to each other in front of family and friends. And they want their marriages to work. It is almost as though they are so fearful that they will not be able to honor their commitment that they make an extraordinary monetary investment in the ceremony. Divorce would make it all go to waste; thus it will provide a profound reason to stay together.

I would guess that the over-the-top wedding celebrations have something to do with our destigmatizing divorce.

So, people still want to get married. Most of Bennett and Ellison's friends are getting married. Why are these authors, both of them unmarried feminists, so intent on talking them out of it?

Therein lies a tale. The first hint is that both women are self-identified feminists. As I've said, I do not think that yo can be married to a person and to a cause at the same time.... unless, that is, your spouse is equally committed to the cause.

I suspect that the ongoing feminist crusade against marriage, crusade that has been afoot for four decades now, is predicated on the assumption that women are less likely to become committed to the feminist cause if they are also committed to their marriages.

Beginning four decades ago feminism began persuading women that marriage was institutionalized patriarchal oppression and that if you did not feel that cooking dinner for your family was the equivalent to being in a concentration camp-- I did not make that up-- then you were an unwitting dupe of the patriarchy.

When this idea first entered the culture women formed consciousness raising groups where they learned that their marriages were oppressing them, that they were miserable because their husbands did not do an equal share of the housework. They were told to make the kitchen into a battlefield, to fight for their rights on a daily basis, and never to cede to male pressure.

Best selling fictions like Marilyn French's The Woman's Room and Erica Jong's Fear of Flying presented a world where you could get divorced, abandon you family, and find true love and fulfillment in graduate school. If you didn't want to go back to graduate school, you could console yourself with an occasional "zipless f*#k."

The predictable result was a spike in the number of divorces and broken homes. The more divorces there were the more divorce seemed to be the norm. Thus, divorce became destigmatized, and even more people got divorced.

This might have been good for the feminist cause? It is quite something else to say that it was good for women? Accompanying this rise in divorces was the growth of what has been called "the feminization of poverty," a radical increase in the poverty rate in single-women homes. And also, the concomitant destigmatization of single motherhood has hardly been a boon for childhood development. By now we are all only too aware of the fact that children who are brought up by single mothers suffer a disproportionate number of social pathologies. Finally, divorce seemed ultimately to benefit those men who were now freer to trade in their aging wives for younger versions.

Despite what feminists said, divorce was not always a good thing for women.

But there is a paradox here. As Bennett and Ellison put it: "the idea of marriage has become so tainted, and simultaneously so idealized that we're hesitant to engage it."

I do not want to seem like I'm caviling but people do not, as this sentence suggests, become engaged to the idea of marriage, or even to marriage. A person becomes engaged to another person. I fear that when you are fully committed to a cause, everything seems like just another cause.

But why is marriage being idealized? One reason, as Bennett and Ellison suggest, is that we've allowed the therapy culture to define marriage.

In their words: "We are also the so-called entitled generation, brought up with lofty expectations of an egalitarian adulthood; told by helicopter parents and the media, from the moment we exited the womb, that we could be 'whatever we wanted'-- with infinite opportunities to accomplish those dreams. So you can imagine how, 25 years down the line, committing to another person-- for life-- would be nerve-wracking."

They continue: "Which means that when we do tie the knot, we do it for love. Young people today don't want their parents' marriage, says Tara Parker-Pope, the author of For Better-- they want all-encompassing, head-over-heels fulfillment: a best friend, a business partner, somebody to share sex, love, and chores. In other words, a 'soulmate'--which is what 94 percent of singles in their 20s describe what they look for in a partner."

Having seen their parents' marriages fail, these young people have often never seen a good marriage. So they are relying on a fictional representation, a fairy tale version, and expecting to have real life correspond to it. Reality was not, and never has been, constructed to fulfill your wishes and dreams, so this formula makes a successful marriage that much more difficult to attain.

If you want to find everything in a partner, you are likely to find nothing. The portrait of a soulmate seems to imply that your spouse is going to be everything to you, the entirely of your social life. If that is the way you define your marriage, you are almost guaranteed to fail. No human being can or should be the entirety of your social existence.

If that is how you define marriage, then you will feel any distance and detachment, however temporary, as a threat of social isolation. You will become clingy and possessive, to the point where the situation will surely become unbearable. Or you will feel trapped in a situation where you have no time or space or privacy of your own.

A generation that does not know what marriage is, and that has not been taught the social skills, to say nothing of the forbearance and perseverance, that are necessary to sustain a good marriage will doubt their ability to participate in one.

More than that, for having witnessed and experienced the trauma of divorce up close, many young people are hesitant to go through it themselves.

While the authors are correct to assert that women have far more economic opportunities today than they did a century ago, they fail to mention that holding down a job while bringing up children on your own is a very difficult task. No one should confuse this sub-optimal condition, with the more optimal two-parent home.

As a mating ritual, marriage attempts to create the optimal conditions for child-rearing. Marriage wants children to be brought up by two people who have the greatest genetic stake in them, and who have publicly vowed to stay together.

Clearly, things do not always work out this way, sometimes by choice and sometimes by chance. The institution of marriage is not responsible for what people choose to do with it.

If optimal conditions are not always maintained, that does not mean that all arrangements are equally valid and equally nurturing.

People who believe in commitment should be willing to swear to it in public in a recognized commitment ceremony. Giving your word to another person in front of witnesses is not a bad idea. Having that commitment be contractually binding through civil or religious authority would seem, at the least, to make the gesture more serious.

And why should such a union not be celebrated by family, friends, and even the community at large. Isn't it a cause for celebration, especially in this day and age, when two people commit themselves to bringing up their children in a two family household?

You might say that it is becoming the exception rather than the rule, but I fear that it will become increasingly exceptional if intelligent young women keep writing feminist tracts on why marriage is such a bad idea.

If all of Bennett and Ellison's friends are getting married, they would have done better to have sent presents and to have joined the celebration.


Jordan Henderson said...

Despite what feminists said, divorce was not always a good thing for women.

I'm not going to go look it up now, but I think you've seen the studies that, on the average, divorced men's lifestyles go up while the divorced women typically do worse.

Then, there's other studies that pretty plainly show that the real victims of divorce are the children. Kids don't understand why their parent has abandoned them. A lot of children feel abandonment when a parent has died.

Jordan Henderson said...

I remember reading somewhere that most marriages in the American West of the 19th century were "common law", no license or ceremony, but I don't recall where I read this.

Also, I read that divorce was unusual in the US before the 20th century. I don't recall where I read this, either.

Susan Walsh said...

Stuart, Bennet and Ellison were the two bloggers who crashed the Male Studies conference, and ridiculed it afterwards. Particularly telling was their description of deboarding the Staten Island Ferry and walking past many cabs before they could find one driven by a woman. When you're unwilling to ride in a cab with a male driver, how could you even date, much less marry a man? These two women have demonstrated a loathing for men, so they couldn't possibly value the institution of marriage.

Ralph said...

Marriage is not as superficial as providing an income for yourself, or being self indulgent. When you marry you gain a family. Quite a few years ago I read a quote by a celebrity (and can't remember who) who said the difference in marrying and living with someone is that Uncle Joe will give his niece's husband a job before he'll take her boyfriend under his wing.

Marriage increases your circle of support, you become part of a larger family, you get a bunch of kin if you are lucky.

I agree with Jordan in that kids are ultimately the real victims. Just watched "The Courtship of Andy Hardy' recently.. love the part where Judge hardy explains to the bickering couple that the daughter is his, not their's, because they can't be decent to each other.

I also think marriage was left up to the church's, but a lot of law involves property, and in a marriage, that is a large issue. In my state, a married woman can solely own real estate, but a married man cannot (his wife is an automatic co owner). I think it had something to do with protecting the women in case a man left. While it sounds chauvanistic and would drive the bloggers crazy, a wife and children as private property meant a man would more than likely take care of them as he would other property he owned, also a way of protecting the vulnerable

FiKaLo said...

Excellent article.