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A World Without Marriage

But what about the children? They'll probably be just fine.

Nearly three decades ago, Princess Diana famously said, “There were three of us in the marriage,” and the world has never forgotten. But in the U.S. (and other places, too), there are three entities in every marriage—the two spouses and the government.

What’s the government doing there? In her just-published book, Moving Past Marriage: Why We Should Ditch Marital Privilege, Eschew Relationship-Status Discrimination, and Embrace Non-marital History, literature professor Jaclyn Geller of Central Connecticut State University makes a compelling case for getting the government out of the marriage business. Of course, in the U.S., that is a highly unlikely possibility, at least in the short run. But individuals can make the choice not to marry.

But why should two people who love each other, and want to commit to each other, choose not to marry? The subtitle says it all, and those three arguments are presented compellingly, and with considerable wit, throughout the book.

First, ditching marital privilege: Government-sanctioned marriage unfairly privileges married people. I have often mentioned the hundreds of benefits and protections that people get just for being legally married. The legalities are just the start: married people are privileged in many other ways as well.

Second, ending relationship status discrimination: The disadvantaging of people who are not married, and the people who matter to them, is the flip side of advantaging married people.

Third, embracing non-marital history: Geller scours centuries of history to unearth the unheralded place of people who have never married:

“Such individuals kept showing up as achievers, community builders, and thought leaders. I discovered never-married forbearers whose numbers were substantial; they were neither a tiny minority nor a lunatic fringe. Their impact on culture was incalculable.”

It’s Personal: How Singlist Laws and Policies Matter in Our Lives

About those ways in which married people are elevated above all others and people who are not married are devalued—to Geller, all that is personal. She has deep, long-lasting, and sustaining friendships; she is very close to her sister; and she has been in a romantic relationship for years. But legally (and informally, too), none of those people count, not the way a spouse would.

Rather than just reciting the laws and policies that separate the married from the not-married, Geller shows us, in dozens of ways, how they matter in her own life. For example, she has paid into Social Security with every paycheck. She wants to name her sister as her beneficiary. Surprise! She has never been married, so she can’t name a beneficiary. When she dies, her contributions go back into the system, a system that uses that money to pay benefits to married people’s surviving spouses and maybe even an array of ex-spouses, if they meet certain requirements.

If Geller’s sister, or her romantic partner, or one of her cherished friends falls ill, she cannot take time off under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to care for them—and they cannot do the same if she needed their care. The issue isn’t just that the important people in the lives of the never married are not protected in this significant way and so many others; it is also that, much more broadly, they just aren’t regarded as important. Friends are seen as “just friends.” No matter how close a lifelong single person may be to a friend or relative, no matter that their relationship may have lasted far longer than many marriages, no matter how interconnected their lives may be, none of those people will count as a “significant other.”

Marital status discrimination goes beyond just federal laws. There are state and local laws, too, that unfairly privilege married people and disadvantage never married people. There is singlism in many policies and practices—in workplaces, marketplaces, religious institutions, and just about every significant domain of life. For example, do you think spousal hires are a good idea? Geller has a thing or two to say about that.

Her one-sentence answer to the question of why we should move past marriage is this: “Pushing for a marriage-free society, we nonmarital Americans can celebrate our lives, savoring the joys of living alone; creating fluid, loving families; and giving our partnerships respect that the current marriage system withholds.”

Moving Past Marriage is chock full of points worth pondering. Here I’ll mention just a few.

Progress Happens, But Sometimes It Is Rendered Invisible: Laws and policies and practices do sometimes change in the direction of greater fairness for people who are not married. For example, Geller notes that in 2010, the Obama administration updated hospital visitation rules, such that hospitals participating in Medicaid or Medicare would need to honor patients’ wishes about visitors. “Spouses would no longer get automatic top billing.” The president’s memorandum about these new rules, though, never mentioned this provision. The relevance of the rules for race, sex, sexual orientation, and religion was noted, but marital status did not make it into the memorandum.

Change Toward Greater Fairness: Slow and Steady? I’ve always imagined that change toward greater fairness for singles would be incremental. Geller believes that something different may happen—that there will be a “galvanizing moment after which nothing is the same,” comparable to what happened after Stonewall or the Seneca Falls Convention.

How Marriage Gets Elevated and Stays That Way: “Transhistorically,” Geller argues, marriage has often gotten propped up by “legal force, social pressure, religious dicta, economic rewards, status accorded those who conform, and punishments imposed on people who dissent or renege.”

Freedom from Some Financial Risks: Divorce can be expensive. But if we were to move past marriage, Geller notes, “No one will have to worry that a truncated romance might drain them financially.”

People Who Resist Marriage Get Treated Condescendingly: Geller’s critique of marriage is longstanding, dating back at least as far as when she published Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique. She has thought deeply, researched extensively, and written forcefully. And yet, she has been subject to some of the same dismissive reactions that some of us who are Single at Heart know all too well—for example, she’s been told that her resistance to marriage is just a phase.

What About the Children?: Anyone who dares to challenge the special place of marriage is likely to hear that the dismantling of marriage would hurt children. Rather than just saying that children would not be harmed, Geller makes a bolder statement—she says that there will be benefits for children: “The state will remain obligated to protect minors from physical and emotional abuse. Its duty will warrant an interest in capable adult caretakers, not spouses. . . No one will be made to feel second-rate for being born out of wedlock. Without matrimony as the dividing line between family and nonfamily, nonmarital households will not be considered second rate.”

Moving Past Marriage Doesn’t Reduce Our Choices, It Multiplies Them

In 2010, Rachel Buddeberg and I shared here at Living Single the perspectives of dozens of people and organizations already arguing, in their own ways, for moving past marriage. Michael Kinsley was one of them. In “Abolish marriage: Let’s really get the government out of our bedrooms,” he explained how freeing this could be:

“End the institution of government-sanctioned marriage […] Privatize marriage […] Let churches and other religious institutions continue to offer marriage ceremonies. Let department stores and casinos get into the act if they want. Let each organization decide for itself what kinds of couples it wants to offer marriage to. Let couples celebrate their union in any way they choose and consider themselves married whenever they want. Let others be free to consider them not married, under rules these others may prefer. And, yes, if three people want to get married, or one person wants to marry herself, and someone else wants to conduct a ceremony and declare them married, let ‘em. If you and your government aren't implicated, what do you care?”

This post was adapted from a column published at Unmarried Equality (UE), with the organization’s permission. The opinions expressed are my own.

Facebook image: Pearl PhotoPix/Shutterstock

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