Let me start by wishing you a Happy National Marriage Week! In case you didn’t know, it runs from February 7 to February 14 every year. It was started by a man in the U.K. named Richard Kane in 1996, and has since spread to many other countries across the globe. It was adopted in the U.S. in 2002.
If you visit the website, National Marriage Week USA, you’ll see that this coalition touts many benefits of getting and staying married: financial stability, greater happiness, healthier kids and better health, to name a few. These claims are based on studies of how married people compare to single folks and, while the studies are credible, they are a bit misleading. The government has a vested interest in you being married so they don’t have to cover your bills or subsidize your housing.
On one hand, I like the notion of promoting marriage. I’m all for people having healthier unions and would certainly agree that, when a relationship is good—or even just good enough—couples and their kids reap many benefits.
My concern is that this movement perpetuates the one-size-fits-all marriage model that I actually think is damaging to many. There are three main groups in particular that I believe this kind of social conditioning doesn’t help:
1. Those who want to get married but can’t because perhaps they want to hold out for the right person, the right situation or the right timing. I, for one, didn’t get married for the first time until I was 43. People often asked me what was “wrong” with me and saw me as unlucky or perhaps even a “loser” because I had not met “The One” (this despite having several long term and some live-in relationships). Although I had strong convictions about not wanting to marry just anybody, I admit I succumbed to the pressure and, at times, felt like there was indeed something wrong with me.
2. Those who can marry but who don’t want to or aren’t ready yet. Marrying because you “should” almost always comes back to haunt you in the end. I spoke with a woman recently who described the terrible ambivalence she had before tying the knot, but she ultimately decided to marry her now husband because he was in a good profession. Not only would he be a good provider, she thought, her biological clock was ticking and she sensed he’d make a good father. Her gut told her not to go through with it but all pressure from her own head, her friends and family (and society) won out. She’s now, 9 years and two kids later, entering divorce proceedings.
I’ve also heard stories about men and women who marry but who have no desire or ability to be monogamous. In some cases, this is a matter of maturity and not wanting to be tied down, but as we’re coming to terms with more and more these days, not everyone is cut out for exclusivity.
3. Those who are already married but not happily. These are the folks who tell me they feel like a failure because they want out of their nuptials. Perhaps they do have more financial stability with their partner than they would if they were single but at what expense? Their soul is dying a slow death because they married an addict or an abuser or someone who is emotionally or physically absent. Or perhaps they’re just unhappy because the person they wed years before has failed to change or has changed too much. There are any number of reasons why marriages don’t last forever anymore. Sometimes people exit because things are bad but, as Esther Perel noted, “people don’t leave marriage these days because they are unhappy; they leave because they could be happier.”
National Marriage Week to these people only serves to perpetuate their shame and make them feel bad about the choices they’ve made in life or the cards they’ve been dealt.
Marriage is clearly not for everyone and no one knows that better than Millennials. Marriage rates among this age group is down dramatically from just 35 years ago. They will not be pressured or shamed into getting married unless and until they choose to. Instead of “settling down,” the younger generation is choosing to focus on education and career first and then maybe head toward having committed relationships.
We have evolved as a species and we don’t need marriage in the ways we used to even 15 years ago, yet we keep trying to cram people into this “traditional marriage” model.
We will never go back to the 1950’s illusory lifestyle of very few singles, and families fitting into their tidy mold of one man, one woman and the requisite 2.5 kids.
I’d like to see us stop emphasizing traditional marriage as the sole vehicle to supply basic wellbeing such as social acceptance, health insurance, financial and emotional stability. It seems to me that it would make more sense to focus on making sure everyone is happy (single, married and even divorced people) by providing everyone with enough money and resources to live happy productive lives.
There is some good news, and that is that many smart, creative people are tweaking the institution to fit them. This is showing up in Live Apart Together (LAT) Marriages, Open Marriages and Parenting Marriages, among others.
If you fit one of the three categories above and you’re not willing to be shamed into making a decision that will impact you for the rest of your life, I invite you to read, The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels, a book I co-authored with Vicki Larson. If you don’t want to marry, check out the work by singles expert, Bella DePaulo. Her books include, How We Live Now and Singled Out, How Singles are Stereotyped, Stigmatized and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After.
On personal level, I’d like to invite you to create happiness and well-being that fits your personal belief system—regardless of your marital status.
And, on a larger scale, I’d like to invite us all to celebrate all lifestyle choices this week, and not push an old outdated paradigm that isn’t the right choice for everyone.