The marriage institution made a lot of sense once upon a time.
This was during medieval times 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 it was embellished by being called “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 “Kids” Argument
Marriage makes sense with kids, but not for the reasons we think.
We say two-parent homes are better for childrearing. 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 behavioural problems are similar among children living with both biological parents — regardless of marital status.
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 blunter?
“It’s harder to leave if everyone you know identifies you as being part of a married couple.”
As Andrew Cherlin once 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 his book, 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 that’s not this works. That’s not how any of this works.
As William Berry wrote in Psychology Today, why you really want to get married is:
“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 a 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!!”)
Ergo, this begs the question: why the contract?
Who don’t you trust — yourself or your partner?
3.) Giving commitment
This is a valid postulation 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.
“If people commit to something orally or in writing, they are more likely to honour 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 honour 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.
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”, 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 by choice.