Last week, the Boston Globe ever-so-helpfully advised millennials (because god knows, everyone’s got great advice for us, like “Take out private loans to fund your education” and “Stop whining and get a job”) that we’ll regret it if we don’t marry in a “timely” fashion. Cue eye roll.
Tom Keane’s article says that fewer millennials will get married before 40 than in any previous generation, and frets over the possibility that we won’t get married at all. The only really viable argument he makes pro-marriage is that it comes with legal and tax benefits. Other than that, he confuses causation and correlation, calling marriage a “shield against poverty,” as if the reason people are poor is that they’re not married, and it’s not rather that they’re not married because of the plethora of circumstances of being poor.
The insight I think Keane and the authors he cites are missing into the millennial perspective on marriage is this: Yes, we see that the conventional family setup is generally better accommodated than unconventional families are in terms of legal and social treatment. But knowing that doesn’t make all of us feel compelled to enter a conventional family; it makes us feel compelled to change the social narrative about families, and to change the way the law treats single people and unconventional families.
In other words, it’s wrong that our government has chosen to reward people for getting married. Why is that perceived as socially virtuous in and of itself? It’s not like unmarried couples do a better job at raising children; or single parents, for that matter — ask our President. Instead of rewarding people for signing a contract with each other, we could very well create a culture in which we provide greater support for all parents to ensure that all children are treated equally and get the same opportunities. And instead of patronizing childless adults who aren’t married by denying them the financial incentives that come along with marriage we could just treat all childless adults the same way, attached or no. It would certainly make life easier for gay people and particularly trans people.
If you’re worried that marriage would be meaningless, then: Well, no. But let’s treat marriage as what it really is — not necessarily a virtuous and sacred act between two people (although if you want to see it as sacred that’s your biz and I won’t fight you on it), but instead a contract. A contract that sets up the terms of a life partnership two people are entering together. It’s unromantic but it’s what marriage has always been. We’ve attached extra meaning to it — both socially and financially — because we are trying to uphold the convention of two-parent, heterosexual families. That model has been becoming outdated for a long time and when I see or hear people like Keane et. al. wringing their hands over it, I can’t credit them with anything but a lack of imagination.
Furthermore, I take issue with the idea that marriage must be “timely.” This is the exact sort of rhetoric that makes people question their kids about when they’re going to get married and then when they’re going to have babies. There are theories abound about why it is that postponing marriage seems to make marriage stick, but the bottom line is that the likelihood of divorce is higher if you marry young than if you wait. What the hell does “timely” even mean in relation to marriage? It makes it sound like there’s a deadline on relationships or on marriage. Marriage when you’re not ready is a mistake that gets exponentially more complicated if you then add kids into the mix.
It seems like if the statistics tell us that waiting until you’re a little older and waiting until you’ve completed your education is going to better your chances of marital success, we should set that as the standard, not just “you have to get married and you have to do it as soon as possible.” In the meantime, you might find out that you don’t actually want to get married — and that should be OK, too.