The Great Unraveling: Marriage Liberated Us by Coming Undone

Adults in the 21st century have the opportunity to live radically liberating lives. For that, we have The Great Unraveling to thank.

Once upon a time, many of the big, important components of adult life came all rolled up in the ball of marriage. Now, the threads have been pulled, and are left scattered haphazardly on the ground. Each of us as individuals gets to reassemble them any way we want – or leave them behind and come up with entirely different threads for stitching together just the right life.

Here are some of the parts of life that were once packaged all together in the product called marriage. You didn’t get to customize. You bought the box, and if all was as advertised, you got everything that came in it.

  • Love. Love meant romantic love and it leads to marriage. And you got to love just one person.
  • A place to live. That came with marriage, too: You lived with your spouse. And you only lived with your partner after you got married.
  • Sex. Supposedly, that also came with marriage. You were supposed to wait until you were married to have it. And you were only supposed to have it with your spouse.
  • Children. They also came with marriage. You weren’t supposed to jump the gun and have kids before you married. And once you did marry, you didn’t get to skip the step of having kids.

Now look what’s happened:


  • Today, more and more people realize that romantic love can thrive just fine outside of marriage. Adults can love each other and commit to each other without ever marrying.
  • A small but brilliant movement is afoot to topple romantic love from its place at the top of the relationship hierarchy. Why should romantic love be valued above all other forms of love and all other kinds of close personal relationships, this movement asks? We get to decide for ourselves what kinds of people and relationships matter. We don’t need a hierarchy at all. And we don’t need to limit our love to just one person.

A place to live:

  • When couples moved in together before they got married, that used to be called, unironically, “living in sin.” Now cohabitation is anything but shocking – it’s just ordinary.
  • Today’s eyebrow-raising option for couples is not living together. A nontrivial number of couples – including committed couples, even some married couples who have children – are choosing to live apart in places of their own, not because they have to, maybe because one of them has a job in some far-flung place – but because they want to. “Living apart together,” as this is called, is a thing. In fact, people have been doing this for quite some time, but it is now getting more recognition. And it seems that some people are looking at these couples not with reproach but envy.
  • For people who are single, the choice of living arrangements is limited only by their imaginations (and, of course, their resources). They can, for example:
  • Live alone
  • Share a place with friends or relatives or some combination
  • Have a place of their own within a community of people who are committed to being neighborly, who want that old-fashioned village life, only with a bit more privacy. Co-housing communities are examples, but other people come up with their own ways of having both privacy and community, time to oneself and time with other people.
  • Single people who have kids have the option of finding another single parent who wants to share a place; the parents have each other to share expenses and chores and babysitting and friendship, and the kids have each other as friends, too. (CoAbode is an example of a platform that supports this.)


  • Hardly anyone gets stigmatized anymore for having sex without marrying.
  • Within couples, sex doesn’t have to happen just with your partner anymore, and that doesn’t have to mean cheating. What’s called “consensual non-monogamy” is now an option. It has been for some time, but increasingly, it is getting recognized and sometimes even accepted.
  • Perhaps the most radical notion about sex for our sex-obsessed time is asexuality. That is now a recognized sexual orientation in clinical psychology. Some people are just not interested, and not because there is something wrong with them. They just aren’t interested. Interest in sex falls along a continuum from none at all to a whole lot, just like so many other human attributes do.


  • Raising children without a spouse is no longer unusual. Although single parenting is still stigmatized, there has been progress.
  • A serious choice for today’s couples, increasingly embraced, is not having any children at all.
  • Today, there is also a radical choice for single people who want to have children but do not want to be single parents: Raising children with a partner who is devoted to parenting those children with you at least until they become adults – but that partner is not a romantic partner. You are partners in parenting. A romantic relationship is not part of the package. There are websites such as “Family by Design” and Modamily that help you find parenting partners and guide you through the process.


You don’t need to design your life around a romantic partner or kids at all. You can choose everything about your life, from who matters to you to how to live to what you care about. Your life can be about your passions rather than your spouse or your children. Your life can be about whatever you want to make it about, and it doesn’t have to be anything big or splashy. It can be the deep fulfillment and joy of living, every day, the kind of life that is right for you, the life that fits who you really are. Now there’s a radical notion. Here’s hoping it will soon become ordinary.

[Note: This post was adapted from a column originally published at Unmarried Equality (UE), with the organization’s permission. The opinions expressed are my own. For links to previous UE columns, click here. For more on different kinds of marriages, check out The New I Do by Susan Pease Gadoua and Vicki Larson, discussed here, and for more about the many different ways we are living now (beyond marrying), see How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century.]


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