Choosing Marriage in the Anti-Marriage Age

by Kelsey Fox

You've seen the articles. They pour out of the internet in a deluge of accusations, finger pointing, feelings of superiority and, sometimes, rational discussion. They get there by various routes, but they all come to the same conclusions: Don't get married.

Marriage is all about the patriarchy, one article says. Another insists all marriages are still just as likely to end in divorce as they are to last, so why do it at all? The sex gets bad, yet another columnist wants you to know. You don't get to be selfish anymore, another states.

And I read them all. Some authors are angry, some fling insults, some are imploring, and others just lay out their own experiences laced with foreboding, but after I read them, I find my feelings don't budge. I still couldn't be more excited about my upcoming nuptials. So how do I defend my choice to marry in this age of the anti-marriage sentiment? In the time of Tinder and serial dating and female empowerment, why choose to "settle down"?

Marriage used to be about the patriarchy, but it doesn’t have to be anymore

I hear it a lot: Marriage is about ownership. That once was true. Marriage was how women could be sure they would be "taken care of," and men had someone at home to tend to the things they didn't want to be bothered with. In the past, you basically had to get married to keep up with social appearances, and most doors were closed for (and a lot of whispers were to be passed around about) single women, so many jumped into long-term relationships based on necessity and survival. A lot of people see it as women taking a man's last name and losing her own identity as she deigns to run "his" home and take care of "his" children and be the model homemaker, with nothing else as an option, but this idea is incredibly outdated.

Today, women can work and take care of themselves, the stigma about cohabitation before being wed is all but gone, and marriage isn't necessary to have a long, fulfilling relationship. This means that now, marriage is a choice, not a necessity, and that's exactly what feminism is about. Feminism paved the way for women to get out of the house and make their own way, but it also created an environment where women are no longer boxed into a single, societally defined role and can now make choices for themselves. Women can be CEOs if they want, but they can also be stay-at-home mothers if they want. It would be equally anti-feminist to force women out of their homes as it is to force them to stay in.

Similarly, to say women should not choose marriage is doing exactly what we accuse the patriarchy of doing: Taking the choice out of women's hands. No one should tell women (or men) that they have to get married, but no one should tell them they're not allowed to either.

In the age where men are increasingly taking women's last names (or both partners keep their own last names), and where there may be two men or no men in the marriage equation at all, marriage has become a totally different entity than it was when it was built to keep women down in the past. Instead of fighting against marriage, perhaps our efforts are better spent continuing to redefine it until it becomes something truly egalitarian in the best possible way.

My partner and I both know I will be continuing on with my career after we tie the knot (and so will he), and we wouldn't have it any other way. Decades ago, this type of equal union would have been immensely scandalous and unlike anything anyone had ever seen. Now, it's commonplace. It seems that our ideas about what makes a "traditional" marriage need to catch up with the traditions actually being practiced today. We still have a lot of progress to make, but still, we have forged ahead in many ways.

That divorce statistic is misleading

Another so-called reason not to get married is that oft-quoted statistic: "50% of marriages end in divorce." That's what I've heard my whole life, and you probably have too. The facts, however, show us that the numbers are a bit misleading if you don't delve a little deeper.

For instance, according to Time, in 2016, divorces hit a 40-year low, continuing a three-year trend of decline. Meanwhile, the number of marriages have been going up.

So where is this 50% statistic coming from? Well, a few places. First of all, old numbers are to blame. People used to get married much younger due to different social situations (a partner going off to war, "shotgun marriages," or getting married in order to cohabitate or engage in intimacy in a socially acceptable manner) and those rushed unions would work out less frequently. These situations occur less often today, though the old statistics are the ones that still get passed around.

Secondly, this research has some nuances to it people don't often talk about. First marriages are more likely to last than second and third marriages (the latter two having much higher rates of divorce), and those serial marriers skew the numbers a bit. Most of us are less interested in whether our second marriage might work out and understandably more concerned with our first (and hopefully only). Today, people are waiting longer to get married, staying with their partners for more years before tying the knot, and being more selective overall about with whom they choose to settle down. Thanks to this, today, a couple's first marriage has a much higher rate of success than the quoted 50% chance of working out in the end. Only when looking at couples who have already divorced before do we start creeping into the higher percentages, skewing the whole package.

But lots of couples are still splitting up, according to the stats, so who is getting all these divorces, then? Baby Boomers, of course. According to Bloomberg, Baby Boomers "started divorcing at record rates in the 1970s and never stopped." In fact, the study goes on to explain that "while divorce fell somewhat among younger Americans over the past 25 years, it has soared among older adults. From 1990 to 2012, the divorce rate for 55 to 64-year-olds more than doubled […and] the rate for people 65 and older tripled." These numbers are what put us closer to the 50% rate of splitting, on the whole. Young people, however, tend to be sticking together at much higher rates, according to the same studies.

I think we all know a few people who got married really early into their relationship and have remained happy and fulfilled in their union, but most people tying the knot these days have been together for quite a while before making that leap and also tend to cohabitate for a large part of their relationship before making things official. This means couples usually know each other very intimately and have a good idea of what their married lives will be like together well before they ever take that step, leading to fewer surprises and more stability in the long term. So, though you'll probably still hear the same statistic 50% again and again, don't let it mislead you, because reality paints an entirely different picture for couples today.

The sex doesn't have to stop

Now I'm not trying to say anyone's getting married just for sex, of course, but sex after marriage is discussed a lot, so it's worth talking about here. I'm not married yet, so I can't comment on this one with personal experience, but many writers say the spark and excitement leave the bedroom after marriage and the weight of both partners knowing this will be the only person they'll sleep with for the rest of their life settles over the bedroom like a dark cloud. However, while couples do undoubtedly struggle at times with how to keep things spicy with someone they've been with for decades, studies show that married couples are still getting it on, and getting creative with their intimate time to boot. According to Dr. Laura Berman, a sexual health expert, "studies have found that married people have more sex than single people, and they also have more varied sex." She adds that "oral sex is also more common among married people," so there goes that stereotype as well.

Another study released by the Center of Sexual Health Promotion at Indian University in 2010 reported that around 61 percent of singles said they hadn't had sex within the past year while only 18 percent of married people said the same. A quarter of married couples between the ages of 25 and 59 said that they were still having sex two to three times per week, but only five percent of singles could say the same.

So it seems like, while individual couples may have struggles (and I'm not trying to negate or invalidate those issues), overall, sex while married isn't as nonexistent as all the jokes on sitcoms lead us to believe. I would also venture a guess that it's not marriage itself that causes things to get a little stale sometimes, but simply being together for so long. Since, traditionally, if you're with the same person for year and years you tend to be married, it appears we have come to think of marriage as the culprit instead of time itself. Now, I'm not sure if there are studies comparing decades-long monogamous relationships with marriages that focus on differences in bedroom activity, but I would hazard a guess that it's the time together that is the biggest indicator of what is or isn't happening, rather than whether a couple has signed a legal document or not.

Either way, as far as sex in long-term relationships goes, it seems like there are two routes to take: You can get stuck in a boring routine, devoid of excitement and eventually leading to an unfulfilling sex life, or you can celebrate being with someone who knows your body better than anyone else and both partners can exploit that with each other to get the best out of every encounter. Plus, a long time together means you can become so comfortable with and trusting of that person that you get to venture together into uncharted territory, trying new things you might never had had the courage or inclination to do with partners who know you less intimately. Monogamy (whether marriage is involved or not) can be as much a period of sexual growth as it could be an issue with sexual stagnation, but it's up to the couple to keep the lines of communication open and keep things fun.

It can still be about you sometimes

The final point I want to address is this idea that once you get married, your life isn't yours anymore. While I understand the concept of being "in this together," that doesn't necessarily mean that after marriage it's all about the other person and you lose all freedom and autonomy. As someone who teaches Chopin's "The Story of an Hour" to her students every year, I get the sentiment, but we aren't in the 1800s anymore. We aren't even in the 1950s anymore. Though some people's whole world revolves around giving their support to someone else and they're perfectly happy that way, most of us have aspirations that are independent from (while still being inclusive of) our partner, and there's nothing wrong with that either.

But how do you achieve that balance? Well, I've long been an advocate of ridding ourselves of the aspiration to find our "other half." If you're expecting to find someone who completes you, to find someone without whom you cannot be a whole, independent person, then no wonder marriage becomes a union in which you can no longer pursue individual interests—your whole identity is now based on them and the idea of "us." If you never even try to stake claim in individuality or prioritize independence in in at least some aspect of the relationship, you can't blame the institution for working the way you personally set it up to function.

But this is not how it has to be. I've said it time and time again to friends looking for love: Find yourself first. Be a complete person, and find that other complete person who complements you in your entirety. Don't depend on them to define who you are.

It's not about being selfish, per se, but about maintaining that idea of self. If your relationship begins with you both having your own drive, ambition, and goals, then that can easily continue into marriage. You can be in it together while supporting each other in your individual goals. It's only when you lose yourself in the other person to the point of losing your own identity that marriage can seem to erase you as an individual.

While my fiancé and I are happy to be referred to as "Kelsey and Steve," like a unit, our friends and family have no problem seeing where one of us ends and the other begins, because we're both our own, independent people supporting another independent person whom we love completely. So, yes, while marriage (and long-term relationships in general) often means compromise and sacrifice for the sake of your partner, it doesn't have to mean loss of self. First, though, you have to set those boundaries early and maintain that independence throughout. Marriage will only change what you let it.

So in the end...

I'm not saying marriage can't have downsides or that a positive attitude is going to ensure everything works out perfectly, but I am saying that marriage does not have to be the bad guy. It can be the beginning of something, rather than the end. If you think of marriage as an end to freedom, individuality, and good sex, that's likely what it's going to become, but if you think of it as a beginning to (or a continuance of) a journey, an opportunity to grow and trust and develop, it can very much be that instead. Marriage can be stability, encouragement, and adventure, if that's what you make it.

It's important to note, though, that you don't have to get married to have any of that. If marriage is something you want, don't feel guilty about it; go for it! Don't let all the anti-marriage rhetoric get you down. That being said, if marriage isn't something you're interested in, by all means, make your choice and be proud of it. You have every right to live the way you want and to let your relationship culminate in whatever form brings you the most happiness. What's important for us all to remember is that choice is at the heart of equality, and married or not, as long as you're the one making that decision for yourself, you're doing the right thing.

And for me, that thing is marriage.