Marry, Marry, Quite Contrary! ( by Jane Page)
Love and marriage, love and marriage
Go together like a horse and carriage
This I tell you brother
You can’t have one without the other
When Sammy Cahn penned these lyrics and Frank Sinatra sang them in the mid 50’s, many folks nodded their heads with the beat and in agreement. But in the year 2002, Mr. Sammy Cahn, wherever you are, I beg to differ.
Folks, here’s a little quiz for you!
Which of the following statements is true?
a) 90% of Americans marry at some point in their lives.
b) Most Americans spend the majority of their lives unmarried.
c) The marriage rate in the U.S. is significantly higher than marriage rates across Europe.
d) The majority of Americans who marry today have lived together first.
e) All of the above.
The answer is (e), all of the above — a collection of contradictions. And hence, the title of this message is “Marry, Marry — Quite Contrary.”
According to Dorian Solot, Executive Director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project:
Americans love marriage to death, though not necessarily ’til death do we part. We love marriage so much that 9 out of 10 of us marry in our lifetimes, and that movies that include wedding scenes sell more tickets at the box office. We place so much importance on the marriage ceremony itself that we delight in throwing the most lavish, elaborate weddings of any culture in history, spending on the average wedding nearly the amount the average American earns in a year. We have such confidence in marriage… that President Bush has proposed promoting marriage among people on welfare as a plausible solution to poverty.
However, the information shared by the Alternatives for Marriage Project demonstrates that marriage doesn’t play the role in people’s lives that it used to. Here are some of these contradicting trends:
- More than 3 in 7 American adults are not currently married, and at the rate of increase of the last five decades, the bare ring finger crowd will be a majority in a few decades.
- But even if we’re not marrying as soon or staying married as long, Americans are forming relationships at about the same rate we always have; the decrease in married couples is mostly offset by an increase in unmarried ones.
- In fact, unmarried partners are one of the fastest-growing household types, increasing by 72% between 1990 and 2000.
- These unmarried partner households don’t necessarily fit the stereotype of a young, childless couple either: 41% of them include children
- And speaking of babies, usually when we hear of single women having babies, we assume all of these women are raising these children alone. But 41% of children born to unmarried women are born into a household with a cohabiting couple.
Nevertheless, marriage is a extremely old institution and will more than likely continue to be with us for a very long time. I’d like to invite you to take a trip with me back in time and let’s look a bit at the history of this institution.
Most ancient societies needed a secure environment for the perpetuation of the species and a system of rules to handle the granting of property rights. The institution of marriage handled both of these needs. Some say that the concept of marriage began as a way to protect women. While others may view the arrangement as assuring the enslavement of women. But most would agree that ancient marriages were not for love..
Historian John Boswell makes this interesting comparison of pre-modern Europe love and marriage with today’s culture.
In premodern Europe marriage usually began as a property arrangement, was in the middle mostly about raising children, and ended about love. Few couples in fact married “for love,” but many grew to love each other in time as they jointly managed their household, reared their offspring, and shared life’s experiences, Nearly all surviving epitaphs to spouses evince profound affection. By contrast, in most of the modern West, marriage begins about love, in its middle is still mostly about raising children (if there are children), and ends – often – about property, by which point love is absent or a distant memory.
Since women in an earlier world were confined to activities which would not fully support them, the marriage did offer some protection and the contract was often one that would protect them even if their husband died. For instance, ancient Hebrew law required a man to become the husband of a deceased brother’s widow. The husband often received a dowry or other property settlement from the family of the bride. So it was a mutually satisfying arrangement for the father of the bride as well as the husband. And it was extremely important for the father to “marry off” the daughter. Look at the lengths that Jacob’s father-in-law went to in tricking Jacob into marrying Leah – the eldest daughter – first.
The Romans can be credited with getting the government fully involved with the institution of marriage. Marriage became so important to the Roman Emperor Augustine that he enacted severe marriage laws in the year 18 CE which penalized people for not marrying and carried severe penalties for adultery. The Emperor Constantine’s laws were not so harsh but he did seek to more completely standardize marriage. (Yes, this is the same emperor whose desire for conformity provided the Councils which standardized the belief in the divinity of Jesus and the doctrine of the Trinity.)
Although there are many recorded ceremonies and rituals of marriage in the early days of the Catholic church, many marriages took place outside of the church. People who simply announced they were married were considered as such. There appeared to be many marriages taking place without witness or ceremony in the 1500’s. The Council of Trent was so disturbed by this, that they decreed in 1563 that marriages should be celebrated in the presence of a priest and at least two witnesses.
Although Martin Luther declared that marriage was not a sacrament but a “worldly thing,”all the Protestant sects have continued to regard it as religious in the sense that it ought normally to be contracted in the presence of clergy.
Years later, the Puritans (our Unitarian ancestry) referred to marriage as “the highest and most blessed of relationships.” They saw that every day in marriage is “an opportunity to love and a chance to forgive.
And indeed, most of us who are or who have been in marriages would agree with our Puritan ancestry that marriage does provide opportunities to love and to forgive – and forgive – and forgive…. And love some more.
So what’s happening to this institution of love and forgiveness?
According to the 2000 Census, there are currently about 11 million people living with an unmarried partner in the U.S! . Eleven percent of these unmarried partners are same-sex couples.
As noted earlier, the number of unmarried couples living together increased 72% between 1990 and 2000.
And, the number of unmarried couples living together has increased tenfold between 1960 and 2000.
Who are all these unmarried folks?
Well, according to the Alternatives to Marriage Project, economics often plays a large role.
Poor people are much less likely to marry, for reasons ranging from an inability to afford keeping a chronically unemployed spouse around the house, to the realization that marrying a poor partner would likely put a permanent end to any dream of upward mobility. A vast body of research makes the links clear: when the country’s economy improves, marriage rates go up. The same holds true on an individual level, where rising incomes make people more likely to marry.
But the poor aren’t the only ones not married. Studies indicate that:
Many people are unmarried because:
1. they haven’t met the right person – yet – or for some – yet again;
2. they want to avoid the pain or expense of divorce;
3. they don’t want the government to “regulate” their relationship; or
4. they don’t plan to have children and see no other reason to wed.
Also, same-sex couples can’t marry anywhere in the country (although they can obtain a legal union in Vermont), and thousands of different-sex couples have chosen not to marry to avoid taking advantage of a privilege available only to some.
Additionally, many senior citizens and disabled people would lose significant financial benefits (perhaps a pension from a previous spouse) if they married or remarried.
And thanks to employment for women and the invention of TV dinners and washing machines for men, husbands and wives are no longer essential to survival.
And last, but not least of course, there are folks who simply “vant to be alone.”
The historian Merel Hoffman, provides a glimpse of a famous personage that made the decision early in life not to marry. Here is the story he tells:
Elizabeth I had a proper perspective on political marriage. Having seen both her mother and her stepmother beheaded by her father, Henry VIII, for political expediency before she was 10, she wisely decided to live and die the “Virgin Queen.”
She revealed to an imperial envoy in 1563 that “If I follow the inclination of my nature, it is this: beggar woman and single, far rather than queen and married.”
Elizabeth was in a profound sense a power hermaphrodite. Not being a modern woman wanting to “have it all,” she was willing to pay the price of being childless, despite constant pressure from her advisors to marry to secure the succession. “I am resolved never to marry,” she told the Scottish Ambassador Melville in 1564.
“Your Majesty thinks that if you were married you would be but Queen of England,” he replied. “Now you are both king and queen.”
Her political position, however, did not prevent her from expressing her passionate nature. At 63 she embarked on the last great love affair of her life with the 34-year-old Earl of Essex, courting him with all the skill and power of her personality and loving him with all the intensity of her emotions. He responded by leading an open rebellion against her throne. Her answer to his betrayal was to cut off his head. It was business — not personal.
Now, Elizabeth I did not have the same choices that women of today have for marriage and career. But she got along just fine without a husband. And I personally agree with Dorian Solot, when she says:
For the most part, we unmarried folks do just fine, thank you.
However, she goes on to say that
Many describe the pressure to marry as intense (and without regard for whether marriage is in their best interest), and with it the message that their relationship as it currently stands is second best, inadequate. Legal barriers compound the problems. Everywhere that families come into contact with the law – housing, employment, health care, insurance, taxes, immigration, adoption, pensions, social security, inheritance, and more – the legal system is oblivious to the needs and realities of unmarried families. Even the most basic issue of self-definition creates problems when the language and categories available to us don’t adequately describe unmarried lives. Every form seems to have check boxes that ask us if we’re married (no) or single (I certainly don’t feel single). And one of the most common things unmarried couples wrestle with is what to call each other. Everyone in an unmarried relationship has had the experience of being introduced, “This is Margaret and her – uhh … mmmm … eh … friend.”
Those of us who do recognize marital status as a social justice issue can make a difference. As social theorist Peter Drucker said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”
- Some of us can implement or agitate for workplace benefits policies that include employees’ partners and dependents regardless of marital status.
- In our fellowship we can continue to create a culture of support and acceptance for diverse families.
- Ministers can strengthen unmarried couples’ relationships by presiding over union or commitment ceremonies for those who seek a religious blessing but cannot or choose not to marry.
- Some of us can encourage legislators to expand the definition of family, so that families are recognized as people linked by emotional and financial care and interdependency, not limited to those connected by marriage, blood, or adoption.
- And, all of us can become conscious of our language and assumptions. We can talk about partners along with spouses, pay attention to the word someone uses to identify his partner/sweetheart/significant other, and make an effort to understand the meaning of a couple’s own relationship rather than applying a one-size-fits-all model to everyone.
The times, they are a changing though.
A few weeks ago, Greg and I were in Sam’s Club. My mom had opened a corporate membership for a small corporation that she and I have together and I was going to add my name to it and get a card. The lady at the customer service desk explained their policy of adding family members and said to me, “You know you can add your husband’s name to the account also and he can have a card.”
I looked up at Greg and said, “Sweetie, did you hear that. I can add my husband’s name.” And Greg said, “Well, I guess that would be some incentive for getting married,” And I said, – “Yes, but not enough.” And we laughed.
I continued to complete the paperwork as Greg looked at some items across the aisle. The lady leaned over the counter and said in a low voice. “You know you don’t really have to be married to add his name.” – (nodding to Greg). I said, “well we do live together.” (And she nodded.) Then I turned and said in a loud voice to him, “Hey Greg, this nice lady said that since we live together you could add your name and we don’t have to get married.”
Greg came over and said to her – and this is the truth – “Well, that’s mighty liberal of you. Are you by any chance a Unitarian Universalist?”
So folks are beginning to accept us – at least if they want our money!
Now, please do not regard my advocacy for alternative families as being anti-marriage. I do believe legal marriages will remain a valid option. ( I only wish they were an option for all loving couples.) And I will gladly participate in and hope to serve as the officiant for both legal marriages and other services of holy union. But I believe that Sammy Cahn’s cute little lyrics about love and marriage are just plain wrong. Any of you who have ever climbed up on the back of a horse know that a horse does not have to be hooked up to a carriage to provide a glorious ride! So whether you are a couple riding in a beautiful marriage carriage, or a couple enjoying their ride on that free spirited horse of love, or perhaps one who gallops alone, have a wonderful ride. And to that divine ride I say,
Amen, Blessed Be, and Giddy-up!