I have hopelessly fallen down the rabbit hole of reading memoirs that deal with complex relationships with one’s self, romantic partners, and society. A common topic that has cropped up in every single one of these stories is marriage. Perhaps this is not surprising; all memoirs that I have recently read feature female authors writing in their late 20s to mid-30s. These women, however, are not eagerly planning their dream weddings, instead they all share an ambivalent, if not oppositional, view of the whole institution.
Romantic comedies have perpetuated the idea that when women reach a certain age they become obsessed with hunting down a man and trapping him in wedlock. This is wrong and oversimplified for many reasons (not to mention heteronormative); this narrative also does not reflect the experiences of the authors I referenced (Elizabeth Gilbert, Ariel Levy, Jia Tolentino, who incidentally happen to represent different ethnic, sexual, and religious backgrounds). Instead of approaching marriage like a check box to be filled on life’s to-do list, these women question whether this coveted path is right for them.
Marriage as we know it today is a relatively new reincarnation of the institution. In our own lifetimes, we have seen the legalization of same-sex marriage. In fact, in this past century, much legislation has been passed to grant more rights to women and minorities who enter into marriages, including (but not limited to):
- 1900 – married women gained the right to own property in their own name
- 1933 – married women were allowed to retain citizenship independent of their husband’s
- 1967 – laws prohibiting interracial couples from marrying were overturned
- 1975 – married women gained the right to have a credit card in their own name
- 1993 – marital rape is considered illegal in all states
Considering that marriage is a near ancient institution, it is not an exaggeration to say that for the overwhelming majority of its history, marriage has been a union of inequality. While the authors discuss the legal aspect of marriage in their musings, they also discuss the realities of marriage outside of the law.
In her book Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert cites a Rutger’s University study on marriage. In this study, researchers found that married men on average are wealthier, happier, and more successful in their careers, while married women seem to fair quite the opposite. In modern societies, it is customary for women to take majority responsibility over childrearing and household management on top of work outside the home. In this way, in a heterosexual union where traditional gender roles are observed, it is the woman who must be the accommodating party when it comes to flexible work schedules and household duties. Additionally, Gilbert cites a study that suggests that single women enjoy greater career success than married women. I, however, have found two studies that contradict these claims and suggest that there is either no significant difference between single and married women or that single women in fact fare worse. In short, there’s no consensus on whether single women or married women ‘do better’ so I will not expound upon these claims.
Regardless, Elizabeth Gilbert and Jia Tolentino cite marriage as a sacrifice for women. To these ladies, marriage represents a contract in which women are expected give up more than men to support the marriage and the family. As a result, women’s aspirations and desires are expected to come second or virtually disappear. This, of course, is just the opinion of two women and only represents one view on the matter. Other opinions include those who vehemently disagree with the very premise of a woman’s ‘sacrifice,’ many others do not see supporting a family as a ‘sacrifice’ but a choice (and beautiful way to live!), and a handful still believe in the idea of the woman who has it all. So, to conclude this point – Gilbert and Tolentino feel that even though women are legally equal partners to men, in reality, women still receive the short end of the stick in marriage.
What does all of this mean? To me, it simply means that marriage is not a one-size-fits all proposition. This is, of course, by no means a profound observation, however I just thought it would be interesting to look at marriage from this very specific angle (i.e. that of the career-driven woman, who does not want to be slowed down), especially, considering that pop-culture prefers to focus on the white-wedding, best-day-of-her life, diamonds-are-forever aspects of marriage.
Whether you love marriage or hate it, at least today in 2020 practically all of us have access to join or depart from this institution without losing rights or facing jail time, which is a beautiful thing whether or not you choose to say “I do.”