Winning the Right to Marry Doesn’t Mean Couples Should

Matt Peiken

Matt Peiken

For several years after my marriage, which I lawyered my way out of 15 years ago with a book called “Do-it-Yourself Divorce,” I couldn’t stomach any friend’s wedding without ducking out before the reception. At one, I felt compelled to bolt before the ceremony began. I’ve since apologized to my friend, and she was very cool about it, but I can still recall the visceral feeling that I shouldn’t be there, of needing to throw up. Also, this friend is now working like mad for her divorce.

That aversion to marriage—mine or anyone else’s—is rooted in this acquired belief: When two people marry, they’re wagering they’ll grow compatibly through the rest of their lives.

It’s a sucker’s bet.

While half of all marriages end in divorce, at least half of those that don’t, from my vantage, should. We all know these couples—disconnected, dysfunctional, resentful or miserable, perhaps mired in dishonesty—people who have drifted past the point of no return but can’t find their way through finances, family obligations or fear to separate and, as individuals, start anew.

Don’t mistake this as a critique of committed relationships or the work it takes to build their foundations. I’m all for healthy, rewarding relationships that last as long as they’re meant to last—be it months, years or many decades—and the meaning and fulfillment that come with shared lives and experiences. I just don’t believe this must happen, or even should, within the legal confines of marriage.

The person you are in your 20s or 30s isn’t going to be the same person you see in the mirror in your 40s or 50s. Priorities and interests evolve, your sense of self becomes more layered and complex. Attractions shift and change. What are the odds that the person you married 10 or 20 years ago will be right for you today? Why do people shackle themselves to a legal construct that doesn’t have escape clauses for personal evolution?

I spent much of 2011 and 2012 working to defeat the proposal in Minnesota to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples, and I rejoiced a few weeks ago when Minnesota legalized marriage as an option for any couple. Championing equality, though, is different than endorsing marriage for marriage’s sake.

Through the final push to legislative victory, I sensed something larger than the drive for equality—that marriage is the ultimate, preferred destination for any committed relationship. No wonder so many same-gender couples are running to the altar in states where they can. It’s like crossing a finish line. Of course, many of them have longed to marry and now can. But they’re also responding to a cultural discrimination that paints unmarried couples (straight or gay) as lacking the standing (legal or societal) of married couples. And both trump the chronically single. This bias creates pressure on any couple, at some point, to make it legal—and this is just as responsible for our high divorce rate as the mismatched individuals involved.

While marriage can strengthen the resolve of healthy couples to work through tougher struggles, rather than cave into them, it discourages mismatched couples from parting. Nobody wants to feel like a failure. Most divorces are long, costly and brutal—often, one determined spouse can make it hell and next to impossible for the other to move on with his/her life.

The arguments that marriage is better for children don’t hold when you consider the countless gay and lesbian couples, previously unable to marry, who have raised amazing and wonderfully adjusted children. Indeed, many children are subjected to abject stress by parents who, rather than separate or divorce, remain married and together “for the kids.”

So why is marriage—or the ideal of it—such a societal bedrock? Similar to organized religion, marriage helps create senses of order, calm, cohesion and security—both for the couple and those around them. Few couples want others to know what’s really going on—or not going on—behind their closed doors. If you can’t live the picture of harmony, you’re motivated to present the illusion of it. Anything less stirs unrest in a couple’s immediate circle.

Despite this cynicism, through my advocacy for equality, I’ve come to a much deeper understanding of the richness of strong marriages. I marvel at these marriages and sometimes envy the seeming rightness of them. I don’t begrudge anyone’s marriage. I can now attend, applaud and eat cake at any friend’s wedding, in full joy, without nausea, and I wonder whether my own mistakes and hard lessons have prepared me to hold up my end of a rest-of-my-life relationship—without doing so under the bounds of marriage. I just wish that, in the push for equality, we could have stripped our cultural romance with marriage from the conversation and not treated it as a utopian destination.

Marriage isn’t a destination. Those who sprint to that supposed finish line will find they’ve unwittingly just committed to running a marathon laced with minefields. Nobody ever talked about that in the run-up to this civil rights fight. For those who take the leap and eventually feel compelled to step off the track, I have a book to recommend.

4 thoughts on “Winning the Right to Marry Doesn’t Mean Couples Should

  1. Thank you for your article. I agree with you but I would rather if your article probed more deeply into the question of raising children. My attitude on marriage has long been exactly the same as yours, for more or less the same reasons. But often when I voice the opinion publicly, someone presents the “better for children” argument and I am more or less silenced.

    I agree with your example. I think that a harmonious unmarried relationship is far better for a child than a broken marriage. However I don’t think that this example relieves us of the following problem. When people decide to have a child (which they can, thanks to birth control) they are taking on a responsibility; that is they are sacrificing freedoms and accepting duties in the interest of that child’s well-being. Given the average wage and hours of the American worker, it seems to me that it takes more than one person to properly fulfill this duty. I have heard of single parents caring for children effectively, but I’m sure that many of them would welcome not only a second income, but a second set of caring hands to aid in the task.

    This belief of mine that it usually takes at least 2 adults (women, men, or one of each) may be a prejudice that I was raised into and I am open to being wrong. However, I think that in this bleak, indifferent and unfeeling capitalist world, a concrete agreement needs to be made not between two adults, but from adults to the children that they produce or adopt.

    • Thanks for writing. I don’t know why you’re silenced for a response to people who bring up the “better for children” argument. There are numerous dysfunctional couples who many—including social service workers—would argue live and work against the interests of their children. Are there single parents who, if they could, would raise a child in loving partnership with someone else? Absolutely. But there are also numerous single parents who would tell you, in complete truth and sincerity, they’re doing just fine as it is, and that partnering merely for the sake of children is just as much of a gamble as raising children alone.

  2. So maybe the right answer is not to get married in one’s 20s. A rather antiquated concept since we are now living until we are in our 90s! As someone who got married in my 20s, with what I now refer to as my “practice marriage” — the second time came in my 40s after years of swearing I would not, did not, need to get married.

    Now nearly 20 years of being together — 16 of them “legally married,” — I can not tell you how lucky we both are. Amazing. I grow daily. I can not imagine how empty my life would have been without him. It takes an openness and a generosity of spirit, a sense of humor (!!!) and a perspective about the human existence to be “married.” It takes a REAL sense of EQUALITY and respect — which, if achieved, begins a ripple effect that transcends the mere boundaries of one’s union.

    Pretty neat. So Matt, now that you are past the nausea … maybe you’ll find that you are open to sharing your life on another level with someone who can make your life even richer. I wish that for you!

    • That’s wonderful, Beth. Thanks for sharing your story. I’m curious, though—how do you think things would be different if you had everything else in your current relationship but the marriage license?

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