I wrote off marriage at the ripe old age of 13. Years later, I met someone, fell in love, and got married after all. But it wasn’t love that made us decide to marry. In fact, I don’t think marriage as an institution has anything to do with love.
Marriage, like many institutions, is historically rooted in ideas about ownership, maintaining the patriarchy, and government control—not love, independence, or real choices. The earliest records of marriage show that it was widely used as a means for men to maintain power: marrying off daughters and producing heirs to “forge alliances and accrue land.” Marriage was often a non-romantic act in which women had little say.
Just as we often do not closely examine the origins of marriage, we also overlook ways in which the institution needs to be reformed. Married couples are typically offered tax benefits, health insurance, family leave, and other advantages. Meanwhile, couples who choose not to marry are not allowed visitation rights if their partner has been hospitalized, cannot file taxes jointly even if they have combined their finances, and in many cases lack a degree of respect enjoyed by people who get hitched. Non-marital options, such as domestic partnerships and civil unions, have explicit limitations, and are often only recognized in the state in which they were contracted. These are just some of the ways the government encourages and even pushes us to marry.
It’s often said that since the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to legalize gay marriage, the institution has completely changed—that it now serves all communities. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Marriage is still widely understood to mean either opposite-sex or same-sex couples, a view that ignores both nonbinary couples (like my own) and polyamorous unions. There is still a class divide that serves to motivate couples to marry if one individual cannot afford adequate health care. And there’s still a major motivator to marry in order for one spouse to gain U.S. citizenship. Marriage has been established as a bridge to other institutions it does not necessarily have anything to do with.
There are more single people in the U.S. than are married for the first in history. Studies show that about one in five adults aged 25 and up have never married, compared to one in 10 adults in the 1960 Census. The average age of people marrying has also risen to age 27 for women and 29 for men, compared to age 20 and 22 in 1960. When asked if marriage makes society better off, today only 46 percent agreed, while 50 percent felt society was just as well without it.
When the media still touts marriage narratives doused in love, romantic ceremonies, and beautiful diamond rings, it only diverts attention from the pressing need for change. American couples dish out an average of $26,645 for a wedding, one of them going into debt in order to do so. Research seems to suggest that American society as a whole no longer considers marriage as important as we once did. We ought to encourage the flexibility of societal standards as well as new laws and policies that actually reflect our changing values.
Considering all this, you may be wondering why I got married at all. My partner and I married for the perks and the rights we would attain, cementing our decision based on the fact that we already felt like a family. In the end, our decision was reached after an emotional conversation about whether one of us might ever have to visit the other in the hospital—we knew we would want the right to be there for each other.
Now that we’re married, my partner has been able to get better health insurance, provided by my corporate day job. We also have the legal right to combine our incomes and file joint taxes, which for us is extremely beneficial. Marriage is the only way we would be recognized as family under the law all over the world, and for my partner and me, that was a necessity. We plan to eventually live overseas, in her home country, and the easiest way for us to make that kind of a move together was to tie the knot.
I am in a happy, healthy, and stable relationship, and I am deeply in love with my partner. I would never agree to marry someone I did not feel that way about. But we both know that our love, trust, and strength as a couple has nothing to do with our decision to marry. My partner and I didn’t exchange rings; we married with just one witness; we didn’t sign up for a registry; we kept our own names. We do not call each other “husband” or “wife”—we continue to use the term “partner.”
But no matter how much we try to customize our marriage to suit our own wishes and values, in the end we are still conforming so we can live more easily as a family in our society. I am married now because it is the best option for my partner and me given our needs, within the confines of our laws. That doesn’t mean I am content with how things are.
In my opinion, an ideal revision of marriage and state-recognized relationships and families would include a lot of different things. It would include free and universal health care, more inclusive hospital visitation policies for all different kinds of families, broader options in the ways couples that are not married can fill out taxes, and better immigration options for all immigrants. In our society and in the current political climate, ideas such as this might seem idealistic at best. But we shouldn’t discount the need for real reforms that could help more people. We deserve more choices when it comes to how we identify, live, and thrive within our relationships and our families.
What if, instead of an institution that attempts to be all-encompassing, there were many options of equal status and we could choose how to identify ourselves with our partners in the eyes of the government? What if there were options for couples with children who don’t wish to marry, polyamorous people, couples moving out of the country, and those in a variety of other situations?
I believe that I can both take part in the systems we currently have, strongly disagree, and still do my part to challenge and change them. I believe we are capable of change—and if that makes me an idealist, I’m okay with that. For as long as I live in this country, I will continue to vote, protest, and speak out about all the things I think we need to reform—including marriage.