Wednesday, February 11, 2009
Why Marriage Matters
Image courtesy of Hammer51012
The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates has an interesting post about why he and his partner aren't married (this is an older post; I found it because of a more recent post by Ross Douthat):
As much as I can recall, there were basically three reasons for us to get married. 1.) I might leave. Marriage would force me to do the right thing. 2.) To declare our commitment to each other before a community of people whom we loved. 3.) The business reasons--the legalities of your estate and guardianship. I found--and still find--the first two reasons were utterly unconvincing. The third held some sway, but with the help of a lawyer we've managed to take care of that. The first turned marriage into a kind of insurance policy, and I just believed that if you felt you needed insurance for the person you were having kids by to stick out, you needed to reconsider the whole proposition. The commitment and community reason held some appeal. But I believed, and still believe, that long-term romantic partnerships are between the two people entering into it.
I hated the idea of public declarations, because the life blood of the relationship--what bills to pay, how to raise your child, your love life--all of that happened when no one else was around. Kenyatta knows more about me than any human being walking the earth--and this is as it should be. No one knows more about my strengths and my weaknesses, my failings and my successes. I trust her to the end. But that trust was worked for--it was not declared or conjured by the presence of other people ...
That gets at the essential truth for me--a relationship couldn't be about talking to other people. It couldn't be about telling other people what I was gonna do; it had to be about the actual work. From that perspective, a wedding was abominable to me.
While I agree in principle that a spousal relationship depends far more on the relationship than on any legal fictions surrounding it, Coates' view strikes me as
unnecessarily purist and counterproductive.
The fact is that human beings are predictably irrational. You might think that keeping your options open is the best move, but research consistently shows that you're better off reducing the number of options facing you.
Marriage does several very useful things. It's a public statement of commitment (which tends to reinforce that commitment). It imposes clear penalties for defecting (which tends to discourage cheating). It's a social norm that provides a positive penumbra (marriage is highly correlated with a lot of things, including increased sex and improved happiness--probably not a coincidence).
I don't think that love is something that is cheapened by marriage. Saying that a wedding is abominable because it distracts from the real work is like saying that we should ditch seatbelts because they don't help us be better drivers.*
* Yes, I realize that safety advances tend to make drivers less risk-averse...but they still save lives. Similarly, marriage might make you more complacent about your relationship...but only because it actually strengthened it.