Marriage made a lot of sense once upon a time. Mostly when women didn’t have the same roles and rights as men, and were effectively private property (a societal legacy that still influences our oddly-upheld traditions of a bride being “walked down the aisle” and taking her husband’s last name.)
Women didn’t have access to the workplace, so needed financial security. Men had income, but needed heirs. The exchange was simple. (And during the Victorian era, we prettied it up a bit by convincing ourselves it was about “love,” too.)
We’ve come a long way. Women have equal rights and roles in the workforce, so they don’t need financial security anymore. And while folks might still be interested in reproduction, does marriage still play a role?
Please note: we aren’t comparing “marriage” to “bachelorhood” or “single parents,” and we aren’t using “marriage” as synonymous with “monogamy.”
This post is about longterm, monogamous, cohabiting couples — why are we still getting married?
There’s a difference between what we say — and why we actually do.
Because it is emotion-based — but the emotion isn’t “love.”
The ‘taxes’ argument
Usually isn’t valid.
People mention “taxes” when they’re skipping out on the “emotional” argument and want to believe they’re making a “logical” one.
But most people don’t benefit.
Couples who pay more:
- Two roughly-equal high-income earners (the higher and more equal their incomes, the bigger the penalty)
- Two roughly-equal low income earners without children
- Most dual-income couples with children
There’s no benefit for partners who both work and earn roughly the same, regardless of whether they have kids. (Which is most of us.)
This isn’t an argument against marriage, because you can still file separately. The point is “taxes” aren’t a reason to get married — unless you both earn $8K/year and have 1+ kid (God help you.)
The ‘kids’ argument
Marriage makes sense with kids, but not for the reasons we think.
We say two-parent homes are better for child-rearing. This doesn’t, however, mean parents have to be married.
And all things being equal, studies show that children fare the same whether parents are married or not:
“Evidence indicates that school achievement and behavioral problems are similar among children living with both biological parents — regardless of marital status.”
The real argument for legally-married parents is that one often stays home (and isn’t employed.) Health insurance is provided by the working partner, and most employers only do so for legal spouses.
The ‘commitment’ argument
There’s a lot bundled up when we use the word commitment …
1. Making it public (i.e., “real” in everyone else’s eyes)
A major magazine wrote,
“Publicly declaring your love in front of friends and family in a formal ceremony, and then signing a marriage license that legally seals the deal can make your twosome feel meaningful.”
To be more blunt?
“It’s harder to leave if everyone you know identifies you as being part of a married couple.”
As Andrew Cherlin wrote in The New York Times,
“Marriage has become a status symbol — a highly regarded marker of a successful personal life. This transformed meaning is evident in … same-sex marriage cases… [They] reflect, in part, the assumption that marriage represents not only a bundle of rights but also a privileged position.”
But the dark side to external validation also means,
“People marry to show their family and friends how well their lives are going, even if deep down they are unsure whether their partnership will last a lifetime.”
Our desire for acceptance — and respect — within society runs that deep.
As Robert Cialdini wrote in ‘Influence,’ “social proof” is one of the six most powerful influencers, and
“People will do things that they see other people are doing.”
We want what others have. Because it secures our status in society. Does this make us happier? Yes and no. We value safety. But we also need ourselves.
2. Getting commitment from our partner
Major publications have printed, “A marriage contract puts a protective shell around your relationship that … gives couples a sense of security that they’ll stay together no matter what.”
Some argue it’s the labels: “Using the terms ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ often causes people to think of each other in a more permanent, you’re-a-part-of-me/I’m-a-part-of-you way.”
Some even go so far as to say, “Once you’re hitched, you can sit back and feel content that you’ve reached that hope of a lifelong, satisfying, loving relationship.”
But guys, that’s not this works. That’s not how any of this works.
“This (often illusionary) feeling of security is enhanced by the legal binding of one to another. It makes it more difficult to leave, and thereby relates to possessing. In short, we want to marry so we can hold onto another.”
If people were honest, they’d admit that when they talk about “love” in terms of “forever,” they’re really talking about fear and actually saying: “I don’t want to be alone.”
But there are two problems with this:
- Contracts can be broken, so they’re a false sense of security. We don’t control other people.
- Security becomes comfort, and comfort makes us lazy. And because relationships take work, “getting lazy” is a huge driver for many top reasons couples divorce.
Now, plenty of people argue that they know this (“of course relationships take work!!”)
So I’ll ask, then why the contract? Who don’t you trust — yourself or your partner?
I’d rather leave the door wide open for my partner than hold him legally obligated to stay. When I kiss him each morning, I want to know he’s there because he wants to be. And I want to work for that.
3. Giving commitment
This one’s valid. And backed by research. We love things more after we call them ours.
As Daniel Gilbert wrote in Stumbling on Happiness,’
“Consumers evaluate kitchen applies appliances more positively after they buy them, job seekers evaluate jobs more positively after they accept them, and high school students evaluate colleges more positively after they get into them. Racetrack gamblers evaluate their horses more positively when they are leaving the betting window than when they are approaching it, and voters evaluate their candidates more positively when they are exiting the voting booth than when they are entering it. A toaster, a firm, a university, a horse, and a senator are all just fine and dandy, but when they become our toaster, firm, university, horse and senator they are instantly finer and dandier.”
Which is probably why wedding days are often “the happiest days of our lives.” It’s not about having married “The One,” but having married.
And we don’t just feel this immediately after a commitment. Rather, we’ll keep it up as long as we can. People have a strong need to continue doing what they’ve previously done.
As Robert B. Cialdini wrote in ‘Influence,’
“If people commit to something orally or in writing, they are more likely to honor that commitment because of establishing that idea or goal as being congruent with their self-image. Even if the original incentive or motivation is removed after they have already agreed, they will continue to honor the agreement.”
And given our deep desire for consistency, “We all fool ourselves from time to time in order to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.”
But it still begs the question: does this have to be mutual?
Short answer? No.
As I’ve told my partner, “I don’t need your permission to commit to you.” Just like I didn’t need a label before moving in.
Taken to extremes, this can of course become an issue of self-respect. But all things considered, we can commit alone.
4. Finalizing our (own) commitment
This is valid too.
We all think we value freedom more than commitment, but in fact the opposite is true.
In one study, photography students were told they could keep one of their photographs. One group was told that once they chose, they couldn’t change their minds. The other group was told that they could swap their choice at any time.
Later, both groups were asked how much they liked their photograph. Results showed that the students who could change (or “escape”) their decision liked their photograph less than the students whose decision was final.
We’re happier with finality.
So what are we left with?
Even once we recognize that we desire social acceptance and false senses of security, and love things more after we call them ours, it still begs the question: what should we do? What does this mean for marriage?
The answer depends on our goals — and values.
What makes us happy?
If you value social acceptance (especially among family and friends, but also professional and/or religious groups), then just get married. And do whatever it takes to stay married.
But if we value deeper happiness, then we have to take a more complex approach.
(If we think we can have both only pursuing one, we’re wrong — unless we define “happiness” as“social acceptance.”)
Deeper happiness means we understand that the only thing we control is ourselves. And that everything changes, and sometimes people change, and contracts mean very little to the human spirit at the end of it all.
Deeper happiness means we view people as people, not “parts” to “complete the picture” of a “perfect life.”
What makes us happy?
- Focusing on what we can control (which is only ourselves)
- Committing (ourselves) to our partner — love them healthily and hard, every day.
After that? For added bonus happiness:
- Formalizing our (own) commitment, because we love things more when we do.
- Finalizing our (own) commitment, and entertain no possibility of “do-over” or “take-backsies,” because we love things more when we don’t.
It doesn’t need to be mutual for us to get the benefit.
The only thing we control is us. And “marriage” is about commitment, but it starts and ends with our own.
And after that, we only need to respect our partners as their own person, separate from us, who commit to us not by contract, but choice.