I recently got into a minor Facebook comment-discussion with TC contributor and friend Jessica Blankenship on the topic of marriage. And though the Facebook comment forum is undoubtedly the most conducive to incoherent swearing and screaming with your caps lock button, the conversation was actually amongst the most respectful I’ve had in a while on such a divisive topic. She (at least for the time being) is staunchly against the idea of marriage, while I look forward to one day tearing through wedding magazines while flecks of spittle fly from the crazed corners of my mouth. We disagree, but we do so civilly.
The thing is, I respect and understand her position, as much as she does mine. She doesn’t necessarily believe in a human’s ability to commit to loving someone else uniquely for the rest of their life, nor does she put a lot of stock in the institution itself as adding anything to a relationship that is already valued on its own merits. I can see the ideas behind this, and can understand how our individual lives and backgrounds and perspectives shape our ideas of what marriage, family, love, commitment, and unity are. For some people, a marriage really is just that — a piece of paper with two names on it. And for still others, the idea of saying “I will love you forever, and no one else, no matter what” is as ridiculous as saying “I will eat and enjoy only mint chocolate chip ice cream for the rest of my life, and no other flavor shall come between us.”
These are reasonable ideas to me, and my personal value of marriage is not cheapened by someone else not believing in it. I know of many couples who live together happily, in full commitment and as a family, who do not choose to get married. Whether for political reasons (they don’t want to do it until it is an option for every couple who should want to, regardless of sex) or simply because it doesn’t interest them, their relationship chugs along smoothly without signing on the ornately-decorated dotted line.
What is significant, though, is how remarkable my recent conversation with Ms. Blankenship was. Almost every other time I’ve engaged in the conversation or heard the argument made about why a couple remains unmarried, there was always a pointed dig to be made at the institution itself and those who participate in it. “Marriage doesn’t mean anything anymore,” “People get married out of fear or obligation,” “What do you have to prove?” “It’s stupid to commit to someone for life, how could you make a promise like that?” — the list goes on and on. And as the pressure to marry as a society steadily eases up, open season on what value a marriage actually has is clearly open.
It would seem silly, of course, to say things like this to, say, a couple who has been happily married for 20, 30, 50 years. To tell them that marriage means nothing, that one cannot knowingly commit for life, that they are together out of fear, would be ridiculous. They are living, walking proof that, for some people, marriage does hold a distinct value and brings something to their lives. There are many couples who, despite not being under any pressure to come together legally, got married out of love and a desire to unite two families in every way they can (at present) be united. For some people, changing names and becoming in-laws holds the promise of a deeper, more familial level of commitment that holds a profound appeal. And, as with those couples who have made it to their Silver or Gold anniversary, there are also certainly people for whom that holds true even after the luster of new love has worn off.
But to a couple who is standing on the precipice of a life together — young people who want to get married at an age or a life station where many would decry it “stupid” — these generalizations about what commitment means to human beings are delivered as truths. When explaining why they don’t get married (or why they think someone else shouldn’t), people can be quick to insist that no person is capable of making these choices, or that they add nothing to a relationship that stands on its own. And while it is true that no one can predict the future or ensure that they will love their partner with as much strength as they did the day before until their last day, for some people, that challenge is part of the appeal to marriage.
Most of the couples I know who have been together for a long time (and I am lucky enough to have many of them in my life) have told me that commitment and loyalty is not something that is decided one day when you are 26 and carried out like a congressional mandate for the rest of life. To them, being on their partner’s team is something that is decided and worked upon every day as both parties evolve, because they love each other enough to honor their promises and to be there even when it gets difficult. This doesn’t mean that there are no indiscretions which could merit the breaking of said promise, it only means that the promise is something they wanted in their lives to begin with, something they wanted to consider every day.
I have nothing but respect for love in all its forms — no matter how you choose to express your life with one (or more) people, it is only how you treat one another that really matters. I don’t need everyone to get married to prove to me that I am making the right decision by wanting to do so, or by seeing value in it. I only wish that we could be more respectful of each other’s choices on all sides, not trying to impose or devalue the path that another person is taking because it is not the one we want personally. If you are not planning on getting married, a simple “it’s not for me” would suffice, there is no need to talk about how ridiculous or untenable you think it is in general. Just as no one wants to be harassed into popping the question, it is unpleasant to be shamed or mocked for wanting to do so.
We are entering a world full of different kinds of love, love that is beginning to have the freedom of expression that was once reserved only for the most traditional unions. Let’s only remember that for some people, the bathwater of societal pressure should be tossed, but the bouncing baby of marriage doesn’t need to go with it.