Supposedly, gays and lesbians getting married is going to destroy marriage (never mind all the havoc it has not yet wreaked), because marriage is supposed to be between a man and a woman. This leads me to believe that the “sanctity of marriage” is essentially about upholding traditional gender roles and maintaining an outdated status-quo. If that is indeed the case, then disrupting it is a necessity, not a tragedy.
Let me tell you what has been destroying marriage: its sanctity. What is sacred cannot be changed, cannot be touched, cannot be approached with a ten-foot pole. But the world has been changing, people are changing, expectations are changing, and marriage needs to change with it.
I’ll be the first to tell you that a woman doesn’t need a man for financial support or require children to feel fulfilled. It is essential that we counter-balance the opposing message women have received for centuries: that to remain unmarried and childless is to fail at womanhood.
But both of these messages come attached to a certain set of implications concerning what marriage and family life entails for women: dependence, sacrifice, compromise, a lack of agency, and recently, far fewer career opportunities.
Historically, men have been expected to be career focused with a subplot of finding a wife and starting a family. Family has always been a primary aspect of the “American dream” for men. In America, before the onslaught of female empowerment and independence, there was never any pretense about careers being fulfilling by themselves. Part, if not most, of the draw of a career was the ability to financially support loved ones. Men tried to find jobs they enjoyed, sure, but the real gain was the bacon they brought home at the end of the day for their families.
It was because of these lopsided gender expectations that women started trying to escape the marriage mold, and for good reason. For a woman, marriage was basically a job where she made her husband’s life more comfortable while he funded the effort. Though the details have changed, marriage is still viewed, at least subconsciously, as a job for the wife and a comfort for the husband.
For this reason, you don’t often hear people saying “men don’t need marriage/women” or “men should really wait to get married” because needing women has never threatened men; being married or needing marriage has never threatened a man’s choices or limited his options. For a woman, needing men is a weakness and getting married does threaten her choices and limit her options, even today.
A new generation of women is reaching adulthood on the shoulders of a movement that has told them to forget about marriage and focus on themselves. It was a necessary movement and an important stepping stone that forced women to realize their potential for independence and to reach for it, but the time for that strategy has passed.
Instead of encouraging women to be independent agents of their own lives by remaining unmarried, why aren’t we putting more energy into shifting the status-quo of marriage?
I am speaking entirely about display. Obviously, every marriage does not follow a specific model. Every relationship and experience is authentic. But patterns can be found, and as soon as patterns are noticed, they go up on the big screen, and BOOM. They multiply tenfold.
I don’t have any problem with women choosing to abstain from boyfriends/girlfriends, marriage and kids. Who am I to judge, or even care? A woman’s right to choose her own lifestyle is a staple demand of feminism, and one I fully support. However, we must admit that the current options we display for women are limiting to an extreme. Thanks to the rigid models for marriage and family, women tend to believe they can either:
- Have a fulfilling career and abstain from a fulfilling marriage and/or family life,
- Have a fulfilling family life and abstain from a fulfilling career, or
- Attempt to “have it all” by taking on two full-time jobs (professional and mother/wife) and either abstain from fulfillment altogether or purchase it at an exhausting price.
No wonder we have articles coming out in Time Magazine, The New York Times, and Cosmopolitan, about college women choosing hookups over boyfriends and young female professionals leading child-free lives. Feminism has made it impossible to see Option #2 as valid, and difficult to view Option #3 with appeal or excitement. The question women have to ask themselves is, essentially: do I want to be independent, dependent, or exhausted?
An alternative question: how can we adapt our model of relationships, marriage, and family life to fix this imbalance of options?
Personally, I believe that relationships and marriage can be a great source of emotional support and validation, as well as personal growth. The book I’m currently reading by Harville Hendrix called “Getting the Love You Want” discusses marriage’s ability to heal childhood wounds. It includes tons of insight into creating a deeply satisfying and fulfilling relationship for both people, regardless of gender. Here’s a hint: it’s not about roles or expectations, it’s about communication, validation, and support.
I am certainly not instructing everyone to jump into relationships or insinuating that a person cannot be happy or productive by themselves. But I do think that we need to re-evaluate the reasons women choose to stay single, if we so choose. Is it because relationships are a lot of work and, as a woman, we don’t have time? If so, I believe that may be a flawed reason. By forfeiting a relationship during the college and early career years, women are letting potential partners get away with not emotionally supporting them through that turbulent era.
As a young woman in a committed, loving relationship, the attitude I receive from people, either explicitly or implicitly, is one of skepticism. I’m in college, so I’m constantly asked about what career I want to have, but when it comes to a long-term relationship, I’m not supposed to know yet, or even care. I’m expected to have short romantic flings and one-night stands and make my resume the priority. This is one result of the feminist movement for independence: people assume I am choosing a relationship over other things, or that it will distract me from having an independent life and career. The thing is, having a relationship doesn’t have to mean that. I still do what I want. I just do a lot of things with someone else.
My relationship is a constant source of support and comfort, as well as personal growth and maturing. Even while brainstorming for my future career and choosing which classes I want to take, I feel relaxed in knowing I have a loving partner who will be, at least emotionally, by my side each step of the way, and I also know that I can learn things from my partner that I could not learn by myself. There’s a key word in that sentence: partner. In the same way that my partner supports me and my decisions, I support hers. There is no sacrifice involved, much to the majority’s disbelief. On the contrary, there is growth.
The current model we display for relationships, whether we realize it or not, is less like a partnership and more like a symbiotic game of role-play. One half provides the spades and the hearts, the other half provides the diamonds and the clubs, and together we have a full deck of cards—enough to play a game! But what happens if both parties come to the table with a full deck of cards and decide to set them aside in favor of authenticity?
Why not create a relationship as an equal partnership between independent, productive individuals who love and emotionally support each other? Sure, it’s still a lot of work to keep that relationship strong, but it’s much less work if both parties share the load. And it can make all other loads feel lighter.
Then there comes the question of having kids and starting a family. There’s a good reason more and more women are enjoying a “child-free life.” The old model—Mom stays at home and raises the children, making daily housework and childcare her full-time job—has been made thoroughly inaccessible to current generations of women. The current model, with a few exceptions, is that Mom goes to work each day for some period of time, comes home and still does the majority of housework and childcare.
Where are their partners?? Again, we’re talking about display. I am sure there are plenty of husbands out there who take an active role in parenting and housekeeping, but we don’t hear much about them. Feminism has made it acceptable and even expected for a woman to be a professional, but not for a man to be a parent—at least not completely. We are so caught up in our symbiotic model of marriage that we can’t envision both parties doing a little bit of everything. As a result, one partner (usually the woman, in a heterosexual marriage) gets stuck with the majority of the work.
Why not create a family life that divides the workload evenly between both parties (or all, as kids get older)? When I was growing up, my mother would say, “a family that works together, works.” This can be true of a marriage too. Instead of working for each other, one paying the bills and the other doing the laundry, why not work with each other, both earning money, both cleaning the house, both making lunches, both attending work meetings, both reading bedtime stories, both chauffering, both grocery shopping, etc.? Certainly company policies on paternity and maternity leave, vacation time, and flexible work hours play a huge part in this shift, but the attitude we have about running a family will go a long way in making those necessary changes.
The assumption that a relationship is a compromise, and that one half must always get the short end of the stick, is harmful. The expectation that a family must be provided for by a father and cared for by a mother is equally detrimental, to both the parents and the kids.
Marriage is sacred, conservatives tell us. The nuclear family is the cornerstone of all communities; it binds us together, makes us human, keeps us grounded, etc. This is true. But it’s not because everybody feels secure and happy playing their part and knowing what to expect; it’s because strong, healthy, loving relationships between partners and between parents and their children foster success in other areas of life. Loving parents make for happier children; happy children make for vibrant neighborhoods; and strong families invest in their communities. It has nothing to do with heterosexuality, or with who pays the bills and who washes the dishes. It has to do with love and support between individuals.
Marriage is vitally important, but in order for it to thrive and succeed, it must grow and adapt with the changing times. Disrupting the “sanctity of marriage” will allow it to grow and adapt, making marriage a more versatile and appealing option, leading to more marriages and stronger families built with love and support.
What are your thoughts on marriage?