Melissa is a 24-year-old writer, who lives in Brooklyn.
How did you arrive at the decision to not get married? How firm are you in this decision?
It was a bit of an impetuous decision I made when I was first becoming seriously politicized by feminism, but it grew and deepened over time. I’d always been critical of it as an institution: the way it had historically reduced women to articles of property, the whole thing where you have to change your name (I like my last name!), and the disingenuous idea of remaining sexually faithful to one person forever, by law. Hearing new and more complex arguments criticizing marriage helped me to feel more comfortable with my own reservations, and over time I’ve built a pretty strong case against it. I remain neutral to other people’s reasons for getting married, but try to convey myself as a resource for those on the fence or similarly opposed to it.
I’d say I’m pretty firm in my decision, just because I’ve never seen any utility in marriage beyond purely economic purposes—and I vehemently disagree with the way so many societies privilege and reward married relationships over others, both socially and economically. Entire welfare states have been built on the ideal of monogamous married nuclear families, and have handsomely rewarded those who comply, with tax benefits, subsidies on health care, access to their loved ones in hospitals and care facilities, and legal rights to guardianship—to say nothing of social respectability and legal visibility. For those who don’t agree, or who can never hope to attain this kind of family structure, it costs them dearly. For example, as a non-monogamous person opposed to marriage, I nonetheless become involved with people who are married. I may become an integral part of my married partners’ lives, maintaining loving relationships with them, their spouse or other partners, and their children. But without the benefit of being their legal partner, I’m in a pretty vulnerable position should that relationship dissolve. I don’t agree with an institution that imposes a hierarchy of legitimate intimate relationships and stratifies people based on those choices.
Ultimately, families and relationships are flexible but enduring configurations of people that (ideally) come together from a place of love and kinship to support each other and survive. I don’t believe that institutions of the state, the market, or of religion have any place telling people what those configurations may be. If anything, their responsibility is to protect individual people from harm in its basest forms: discrimination, violence, hatred, and abuse. My choice to refrain from marriage represents my resistance to an institution that has long harbored gross violence and abuse of women’s bodies and psyches.
I’m also freaked out by weddings.
Where did you get your thoughts about marriage?
It’s probably obvious that a number of my thoughts on marriage come from a certain understanding of social policy as well as feminist theory. I read a lot of Marx and Engels early on, as well as Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women”— all problematic texts in their own ways, but nonetheless helpful foundations. I’ve also been a longtime follower of Stephanie Coontz, who writes not only on the social policy and marriage, but also how unstable the idea of marriage has been over time. In an indirect way, I’ve also been very influenced by some critics of same-sex marriage, who argue that while the boundary of acceptability is being expanded, it is still nonetheless a boundary that doesn’t solve the central problem marriage itself creates.
Beyond these particular voices, I’ve worked through a lot of my thoughts on marriage through experience. As a child, I watched my mother narrowly escape an incredibly abusive marriage that immediately plunged her into the poverty so typical of single motherhood. I think I’ve been very influenced by that at a visceral level. In a more positive way, I’ve been lucky to have loving relationships with partners who have been open and supportive of my views on marriage, which I think is really helpful given the fear-mongering that women face if they express a disinterest in marriage and/or children. Like many people, I struggle with an anxiety about being alone in my old age, which is a very real possibility—but I’d rather take the chance, knowing I’ve already found wonderful people who embrace my choices.
What do you say to folks who ask you when you’re getting married?
The question really bothers me, so I’m not often friendly about it. I find it very presumptuous and condescending. It typically doesn’t serve me much to invoke political reasons, especially when it concerns people who have no critical stance on marriage and wish to be educated about it. Most of the time, I simply state firmly that I don’t believe marriage is realistic if you don’t practice monogamy. I think the dropping of two bombshells (rejection of marriage + rejection of monogamy) in one fell swoop does the job of shutting people up.
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 stigma has affected you?
Patriarchal society has this way of devaluing women so much that I think a lot of people find it inconceivable that a woman wouldn’t want to be married. Part of it, certainly, is rooted in the historical economic necessity for women to marry, and that persists today for most women. Another part of it is the reproductive assumptions many people harbor around marriage, since even married couples face a stigma for not having children. I haven’t yet been impacted that much by this stigma because I’m still quite young, but I have a feeling that aging will really transform how people look upon me as an unmarried woman.
What are your feelings on the word “spinster”?
I don’t really get much out of it, perhaps because I haven’t heard it used that much. I wouldn’t want to be the recipient of it; like most insults directed at women, it reduces the recipient to their sexual/marital potential or legacy, and one that’s defined in extremely narrow ways. I respect immensely women who have lived out their lives without marriage, who have the guts and confidence to have relationships on their own terms, and who have become adept practitioners of solitude and independence. Perhaps I do because of the way unmarried women are so thoroughly disparaged. Women live so much longer than men, on average, that I kind of find a term like “spinster” to be stupid and not worth the energy getting upset over. If I can reasonably assume I’ll outlive most of my male partners, there’s no real point in crying over whether I was ever married. I’m looking forward to the return of all-girl slumber parties in my old age—I don’t know, haters are gonna hate.