Sarah Wright is the board chair of Unmarried Equality, which advocates for fairness and equality for unmarried people. Find her on Twitter: @socwkinprogress
In a recent opinion piece wondering why media mogul Rupert Murdoch and actress Jerry Hall would bother to get married, the writer noted that “marriage is passe.” It’s hard not to notice this: Demographic trends indicate that marriage is not only in decline, but it will end by 2042 if current patterns hold.
A cover story in the Christian Science Monitor Weekly last year announced that “singles outnumber married adults,” right before the Supreme Court decision in Obergefell v. Hodges — possibly the most important ruling on marriage in decades. Yet the views Justice Anthony Kennedy expressed in that decision underwhelmed me.
I imagined the never-married Justice Elena Kagan rolling her eyes when she read his paean to married life: “Marriage is a keystone of the Nation’s social order.” For that matter, I could picture the widowed Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the divorced Justice Sonia Sotomayor scratching their heads and wondering what world Kennedy lives in. There is life without marriage, thank you very much, and marriage itself isn’t always such a good deal.
[Other perspectives: Being single shouldn’t mean being alone. ]
In an era when the average American now spends the majority of his or her life unmarried, it is time to stop glorifying and privileging marriage to the total exclusion of all other patterns of family formation, caregiving relationship, living arrangement and property ownership. Despite its ubiquity, marriage is exactly “one size does not fit all.” Yet at the same time, the high price of being single in the United States is a well-known fact of life. What’s a thinking person to do?
For the majority of children now born outside of marriage, (estimated at roughly half of births today), the ramifications of growing up in an unmarried household are generally immediate and negative: Increased poverty is all but guaranteed. At the same time, promoting marriage at taxpayer expense to solve this problem has been a colossal boondoggle. For starters, there was little demand from its target audience, not to mention that marriage has a nearly 50 percent failure rate. (The fact that marriage doubles as an ex post facto welfare program for much of today’s middle class and is nothing short of a luxury good for the upper crust reflects growing income inequality.) Rather than reinforcing these economic divides, family law and social welfare policy would do well to adapt to the rise of nontraditional family forms in which the spousal pair is no longer the core of family life.
In fact, public support for people who constitute functional but poor families of any type should be based entirely on need. If the body politic ever reaches consensus on comprehensive immigration reform, for example, marital status could be replaced by citizenship as the basis for doling out various benefits. This is in line with more recent suggestions that the state remove some of the benefits attached to marriage and give them to those who need them most. Another option would be to expand the definition of family to encompass more than just romantic unions, and to extend the benefits of marriage to the unmarried, including the advantages that accrue through Social Security and tax law.
Or, the state could leave the marriage business altogether. Various red states moved to eliminate all marriage licenses as recently as last year, in anticipation of and reacting to the Obergefell gay marriage decision. Just last month, a Republican lawmaker in Indiana introduced a bill that would abolish marriage licenses in the Hoosier State. Admittedly, this sour-grapes proposal was merely an effort to accommodate state officials who do not want to sanction same-sex marriages. It will surely die in committee.
Privatizing marriage is an idea that draws together strange bedfellows — from libertarians to feminists; liberals to conservatives; and academics to clerics. Yet what binds our common view is the notion that personal relationships are best defined by individuals themselves. Since we all engage in various contractual agreements everyday, the basic concept is hardly new.
Abolishing marriage as a legal category would not eliminate the institution, which has enduring appeal for many people. What it could bring is a real understanding that unmarried families exist and that unmarried adults deserve full representation in society — not just a little extra love around Valentine’s Day.
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