A Peculiar Institution: The Afterlife of Marriage
Something people say at parties: “All my friends are getting married all of a sudden!” It’s common to the point of cliché, and the commiseration is always double-edged. On the one hand: “They’ve only been dating for six months! And she’s moving to Missouri for him?” We’re never entirely convinced of the wisdom of the enterprise. On the other hand, we have the sense that we may be left behind: we still don’t own a blender, we’re still skeptically considering online dating, and they’ll be buying their first condo together soon. Other people getting married conjures the image of a gradually emptying dating pool which will in a few short years be full of balding heads and ticking clocks. We want to be saved from all this someday—from the string of “relationships” (such a formal word!), of affiliations more or less formative, contingent, joyous and unfortunate, but always undertaken in the light of their potential to end, always a bit less than the last word. We want to meet the person who will save us from this, and we are willing in principle to pay the price, to take our last first kiss. In principle, yes, but please, lord: not yet!
Suffice it to say that marriage leaves us in a bit of a fix.
Oddly, a good deal of what produces this fix is the fact that all the really pressing reasons to get married have dried up over the past fifty years. One no longer needs marriage to have sex, to survive economically, or even to have children. Perhaps most surprisingly, one no longer needs marriage to lead a respectable upper-middle-class life. It has become possible to live alone. The social transformations which centuries ago began to allow us to choose whom to marry have at last presented us with a new choice: whether to marry at all.
In such inauspicious circumstances one might have expected the whole institution to wither. What is left of marriage without the social taboos and economic imperatives which enforce it? There was a time when many answered: nothing. This was the promise of the sexual revolution, the idea that love could be pleasure without possession or eternity. It was what a thousand rightist jeremiads promised, too: that sex, freed from its age-old bondage, would destroy love, and society too. Some even thought they saw it happening: Allan Bloom said of his students in the late eighties that they “do not experience love,” that couples live together as roommates, “with sex and utilities included in the rent.”
We can now say with little fear of contradiction that these people were wrong. The sexual revolution has bequeathed to us a vastly expanded repertoire of sexual positions without much changing the nature of love. Love still knows possession, love still dreams of permanence. And one way or another, more or less, we still fall in love. The ubiquity of couples, of long-term monogamous relationships, and the degree to which they orient our lives, is proof enough of that. The question of whom to love, how much to love them, and for how long remains the weightiest question of our private lives. And so, although the question of marriage has changed, we are by no means done with marriage. But why? Why does marriage, despite everything—despite our profound skepticism, despite the oft-quoted divorce statistics—continue to insist?
Negatively speaking, we can say: marriage offers a dilemma. To get married is to guarantee adulthood at the cost of childhood; wanting to grow old with someone means you’re already too old. Hence the tremendous anxiety around this decision, that in it which inspires flight: to get married means to agree that what one has is enough—and maybe that means giving up on oneself. “Monogamy,” Adam Phillips says, “is the difference between making a promise and being promising.” Are we ready to cease to be promising? And first of all to ourselves?
But the other road has its terrors, too—and we know these terrors better. It is a frightful thing to be always only promising. Between misremembered childhood and what we imagine to be maturity, the pervasive threat of unreality looms: one reads, writes, dates, fucks, and all of it melts into air, “experience” in preparation for nothing, perhaps mere self-indulgence. A career provides a certain grounding, but it’s not enough by itself; making good art might solve the problem, but after all it’s hardly likely. The figure of the middle-aged bachelor—his engrossing hobbies, his self-satisfied opinions, his empty apartment and empty bed—can only arouse pity. (And of course for women it’s even worse.) Marriage may be no more than a folie à deux, but at least you’re in it together. Many of us have been driven by the sorry spectacle of our parents’ marriages to speak bravely of the prospects of solitude; whether we can match this bravery in practice remains to be seen.
So, negatively speaking: we don’t know whether we’ll stay single because we lack the courage to marry or marry because we lack the courage to be alone.
Are we then doomed to make the major decision of our lives backward—edging slowly away from the anxious unknown? In another way we are extraordinarily clear-eyed. By the time we marry, if we marry, most of us will have a solid decade of serial monogamy under our belts. We will know the difference between love and lust, and the difference between love and comfort. We will know the onset of the first passion and the way it fades. We will know how much selfishness and how much hatred there can be in love, and we will know that this need not be disastrous. We will know the specific gravity of sex and the strange equations of compatibility. We will know the difference between argument as necessary hygiene and argument as beginning of the end. We will be spared the breathtaking naïveté with which the heroines of nineteenth-century novels took the plunge. We will be wiser than that.
Just as important: we will know more about being alone—not only in the desperate loneliness of the adolescent but in the richer, freer solitude of the adult. We will know the tremendous relief that a breakup can be, the degree to which coupleness is constraining, and we will understand that aloneness can be chosen.
Perhaps best of all, we will know some of the contours of the intimate relationship between together and alone. We will know that the merging of souls is a myth—that within every relationship, solitude persists, not only as residue but as potential. And we will know a few of the thousand shades of sociality between being together and dying alone. Our forefathers’ sentimental education proceeded along the old arc from passion to disillusionment; ours will go farther.
The two forces which have always sustained marriage, sexual love and the threat of death, have not disappeared, nor will they. But the old obligatory forms which guided men and women in these regions have lost much of their binding force. We might cling to these forms, of course, and no one can fault our prudence: these are dangerous waters. But we might have the opportunity, and we will have the time, to do something better.