N is a law student in New York City.
How did you arrive at the decision to not get married? How firm are you in this decision?
When I was 19 I started dating a man 8 years my senior, a good friend of my brother. At that time, I was not opposed to marriage, and although I didn’t feel necessarily that I needed to get married, there were certain elements of it that I was very drawn to: one was a sense of security, that somehow M & I, by talking things through, could arrive at some clear agreement that we would grow together and accommodate one another and that I would never have to be alone; the other was a sense of familial acceptance. So, I initially chose not to marry M because he had a strong preference against marriage, and I did not have a strong preference for marriage. Although I wasn’t able to bridge the familial acceptance gap, I did not accord my parents interests significant weight in my personal life, and I felt confident in the future security of the arrangements M & I had made. Unsurprisingly, however, so serious a relationship embarked on at so tender an age did not last. At the very start of our relationship, I had battled M to be taken seriously. Then when he finally did, and I had settled into a life with him, I lost my job. That was at 23. From the age of 18 up until that time, I had been working; I had not gone to college. M suggested that since he was doing quite well financially, if I wanted to, instead of finding a new job, I could go to school & he would support me. It was a wonderful opportunity for me, and I will always be grateful to M for making it possible. It is also clear to me that this change was the beginning of the end for our relationship.
As I started to become a bit more educated and worldly, I felt more entitled to be on an equal playing field with M than ever before. At the same time, because he was now my benefactor and sole source of support, the psychological playing field was less equal than ever. I felt constricted and resentful of the domestic cage I had so bitterly fought for a few years earlier. My opposition to marriage really solidified when I left M. I had terrible feelings of guilt and shame. I realized that these feelings had more to do with the marital notions I had bought into — my belief that we firmly committed and were ‘life partners’ — than with anything about my actual relationship with M. I was ashamed that something I had fought for & believed in – permanent security and commitment – was something it turned out I, not the other person, was apparently incapable of cultivating. At that point the my perception of marriage evolved. I went from believing it to be unnecessary, to finding it dangerous & deceptive.
My personal story aside, I find marriage to be dangerous at a system level. The most common cause of poverty is divorce, making poverty a problem that overwhelming burdens women & children. Women frequently take enormous economic risks upon enter marriage: they give up employment, and allow their social and professional networks to be weakened, in order to devote time to raising children. Then, some years down the road, either they realize that the cost of being in the marriage is greater than the loss they will suffer, or their husbands decide to drop out of the marriage. As a culture we are quick to criticize single parents, but we are equally quick to promote unquestioning faith in marriage. Despite how common this phenomenon of situational poverty is, we seem to lack a social sensitivity to underlying problem: that we treat marriage like an infallible institution, when in fact, marriage is a very weak institution that offers few protections.
I absolutely do believe in love, and I think that it’s often good to take risks with people. But I don’t believe in the institution of marriage. Not only do I believe it to be too much of a risk, I believe that marriage is anathema to love. Why not fall in love and make babies but still be separate individuals, building a life together, yet not symbiotically? Why create a situation where the you risk love being replaced by co-dependence and fear of leaving? Institutionalizing a relationship takes away freedom & choice. I prefer to be with someone because I want to be, not because I am afraid of the consequences if I leave, and I prefer them to be with me because they want to be, not because they are afraid to leave.
I do on rare occasions suffer moments of self-doubt. I recently had a conversation about marriage with two men. One, already married, expressed a very typical male trope: he claimed to empathize with my anti-marriage sentiments, and said that was why he & A waited so long to get married: he wanted to be sure this was a definite thing and that they would never divorce. The other was skeptical of anti-marriage, and said that he felt he would not want to be with someone who was not able to make a commitment. This struck me as a typical female response to the ridiculous claim made by the first man, but it did make me think: if I know intellectually that I don’t believe in the institution of marriage, shouldn’t I be able to get married and keep myself separate from the institution, if I meet an otherwise ideal partner really values marriage? Is it possible that I am unnecessarily restricting my pool of potential mates for purely ideological reasons, reasons that have as little to do with the real meaning of being with someone as marriage itself ought to? And maybe there is something to that. Nonetheless, every idea I associate with ‘marriage,’ from the institutionalized commitment to the overblown ceremony, makes my stomach turn. I hope that as a culture we will dispense with marriage altogether soon.
Where did you get your thoughts about marriage?
From my life experiences, my observations of my own parents’ marriage, and conversations with partners, friends and strangers.
What do you say to folks who ask you when you’re getting married?
After M, I dated D for 7 years, so you would think this would have come up often, but actually I don’t think it did. On the rare occasions that I was asked, I would simply say, “Oh no, we’re not. We don’t want to get married.” If people asked why, I would explain that I think marriage is an institution which alters people’s fundamental relationship, and that D & I were together because we wanted to be together.
I read an interview with Goldie Hawn once, who famously never married her long-time partner Kurt Russell. She said, “I think it’s much sexier to call Kurt my boyfriend.” I thought that was great, and true.
Why do you think there’s such a stigma against women who aren’t married/choose not to be married? How do you think this this stigma has affected you?
I suppose the stigma for most people probably stems from a lack of creativity with regard to social structure. I think most Americans have a hard time imagining a meaningful support system outside of family. Men aren’t subject to the same stigma as women because they are seen as being beyond the need for a support system at all. I also think that we still have a perception that men are active participants in public life, and that women are oriented only toward family. Despite everything feminism has done, we still sub-silentio assume that women ultimately get their greatest chance for happiness and a secure future from cultivating a family.
Personally, despite the fact that I have a fairly active civic life, and a wonderful community of friends, I do have concerns about what will happen to me when I become elderly and infirm. Who will take care of me? It’s not that I think getting married or having children is the answer. Clearly that’s little more than a myth, if that. On the other hand, I think as a society we have not put in place much in the way of protections & mechanisms to ensure social welfare. There’s still very much an individualist/tribal mentality defining our social structures. This scares me on behalf of us all.
As to more immediate effects of the stigma, I used to struggle with my parents, who were, and perhaps to some degree still are, uncomfortable with my ways. During the time I was with M, my brother, J, got married to K. M & I were together for a total of about 5 years. We lived together, had shared credit lines, and got pets together. From a day-to-day perspective there was no difference between my relationship with M, and J’s relationship with K. And yet, to my family, it did matter: J & K were allotted their own bedroom when they stayed with my parents for holidays; M & I had to stay in separate rooms. Fast forward some years: a couple years after D & I had moved in together, my mom called during a summer heat wave to suggest that if I was in need of AC I could come stay with them. ‘And D?’ I inquired. ‘Well, I don’t know, I don’t think so, your father wouldn’t be comfortable with it…’ ‘Okay, well ask him. I’m not interested in accepting any invitations that apply only to me.’ I knew that it was my mom who had the issue, not my dad. I got a call back a few hours later that my dad didn’t mind, and we could both come. As more time has passed, and I’ve firmly established that I am never going to be getting married, and that I will never be having children, my parents have relaxed quite a bit.
What are your feelings on the word “spinster”?
I associate it with 19th C novels. Black clad women whose great love died in some long forgotten war, or turned out to be monstrous. Spinsters are women who have never moved past a tragic moment of love lost: Jane Eyre or Mrs. Havisham. In the 18th C., it seemed, a mysterious, dark history was needed to explain the phenomenon of a never-married woman. I have no personal identification with the word, and nor do I associate it with my older female friends who never married.