Living Single

The truth about singles in our society.

Redesigning Marriage: Experts Miss the Best Idea

Market marriage only to those who want to be institutionalized

In the New York Times a few days ago, Matt Richtel warned that it was time to acknowledge “the harsh truth that nearly half of marriages in the United States end in divorce and many others are miserable.”

Marriage, clearly, is changing in ways that some find worrisome. The age at which people marry – among those who do marry – is higher than it has ever been (approaching 29 for men and 26.5 for women). The divorce rate is no longer increasing overall (it is decreasing among younger people but has doubled since 1990 among those 65 and older!), but it is still high.

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So what can be done to strengthen or rethink marriage? The reporter heard that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes had signed a five-year marriage contract. Gently mocking himself for using Hollywood celebrities as sources of marital wisdom, Richtel nonetheless wonders whether they were on to something. Five years is a bit thin, but how about 20? Should we overhaul marriage by instituting 20-year renewable contracts and setting aside the forever thing?

He asked a number of experts on marriage what they thought of the idea. Along the way of providing answers, some of the usual claptrap emerged. We hear, for example, about how marriage is good for men’s health because wives nag their husbands (with no acknowledgment of the evidence that after people get married, they also get fatter).

The experts responded with points such as the following:

  • Make the renewals more frequent – say, after every five years instead of every 20.
  • Why limit the contract to 20 years? Let couples decide for themselves how many years they want to put in their contract.
  • Peg the contract to events, not number of years. So, marriage gets renewed when the first kid comes along, or when the kids all leave the nest, or when one person gets a new job.

My personal favorite came from Virginia Rutter, who objects to the 20-year idea because (in the reporter’s paraphrase) “it presupposes people want to build their marriages around children.” Then, what she added was even better. Without using my word, matrimania, she suggested that we get rid of it:

“Ban all performative weddings, ban all crazy expenditures. Ban the marriage pages in The New York Times. Ban those things that turn otherwise sensible people to start buying into the fantasy.”

She is right that we should stop stepping into the fairytale of marriage, the idea that you get to live like royalty (or Hollywood celebrities?) forever after, upon saying the supposedly magical words “I do.”

That’s as close as the reporter came to what I think is one of the most powerful ways of strengthening marriage, and that is to stop making it seem obligatory. His story seems to assume all along that just about everyone wants to marry (one of many myths about single people), and the only real question is how to make marriages more resilient. Apparently, none of his expert sources did anything to dissuade him of that presumption. No surprise, perhaps, since it probably never occurred to him to interview anyone who might have something to say about alternatives to marrying, such as staying single. (This is where I mention all of the enlightened singles bloggers whose feeds appear at Single with Attitude.)

We need to challenge not just all the matrimania, but also the singlism – the stereotyping, stigmatizing, and discrimination against people who are single. My passion is single life. I want to make it common knowledge that marriage is not for everyone. For people who are single at heart, to live single is to live your most meaningful and most authentic life.

I have said all along, though, that if matrimania and singlism were vanquished, it would not only be single people who would benefit. I think the most powerful way to strengthen marriage is to construe it as something that is the best way to live for only some of the people some of the time. If we could dissuade from matrimony those people who marry only because they think it is what they should be doing, and not because it really is right for them, the ones left in the institution would be more often be those who belong there.

[Note: Below are some of my recent essays posted elsewhere, in case you missed them.]

Bella DePaulo, Ph.D., is author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After. She is a visiting professor at UCSB.

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