Are you married? If not, why not?

Why isn't she married? Because it's a patriarchal, homophobic institution, and always will be, says Victoria Dutchman-Smith.

, 19 March 2004

Are you married? If not, why not?

The Rules

I suppose you could call me an old-fashioned sort of a girl. The not-marrying kind. In theory, I’m not alone. Fewer women are getting married today than has been the case for the past hundred years[1]. When it comes to speaking out against marriage, however, it’s a different matter. That’s a trend that seems to have come and gone in the seventies, and it’s showing no signs of ever returning. Back then it didn’t bother me; I was too busy playing with Bridal Sindy and imagining my future as lived through a series of anorexic-cut dresses. It bothers me now, though.

Several years ago, I met the man with whom I chose to spend the rest of my life. We moved in together and now live happily ever after. In-between working, socialising and dividing up the household chores, we spend our free time plotting to undermine the very bedrock upon which our society is built. We are not married.

The very act of getting married has its roots in harmful, outdated notions of ownership and immutable gender roles

The reasons are simple. We are not married because marriage is, and always will be, a patriarchal and homophobic institution. We are not married because the very act of getting married has its roots in harmful, outdated notions of ownership and immutable gender roles. We are not married because we don’t have to be. All around us, couples of our own age seem to be getting married while under the illusion that theirs is a “modern” union and that all prejudice that clings to the marital ideal can gradually be eroded. Alas, I find that impossible to believe. As the ferocious Melanie Phillips points out:

… marriage is not a love affair. It is an institution which hedges a sexual union between a man and a woman with a dense network of law, custom, social pressures, tradition and ritual, because that union is the crucible of human identity which needs special protection. … marriage is unique, and is the only sexual arrangement which has a public dimension because of the calamitous social and cultural consequences if it goes pear-shaped.

For once, I find myself agreeing with the woman. This is exactly what marriage means. You can cut away at the corners, but in a fair and just society, in which all kinds of stable and loving relationships are acceptable, a marriage without the (hetero)sexism, the artificial gender divide and the pompous, fraudulent claim on everything that holds society together is a marriage that has no meaning at all. All you’ll be left with is committed cohabitation with a surfeit of new knives and toasters. Any couple can make a lifelong commitment to one another – being heterosexual and saying “I do” in public doesn’t make you more special, respectable or caring than the next person. The fact is, you just don’t have to do it. So don’t.

I’ve been to several weddings over the past few years and I’ve always had a good time. It’s great to see a friend happy and smiling, even if his or her happiness has come about through something which I don’t want for myself. The speeches after the ceremony are invariably

moving, so much so that I’ve often been tempted to arrange my own non-wedding just to force my dad to admit in public that, joking aside, he thinks I’m the best daughter ever. As for the ceremony itself, I can let it wash over me as I do with pretty much anything that happens in a church. It’s really the run-up to a wedding that I find infuriating. So many women completely fail to take into account the patriarchal implications of marriage, and then spend the whole of the engagement period constantly complaining about them. Should I have proposed myself? Why should my dad give me away? Does my husband have to wear a ring too? What I really want to ask is why any self-respecting feminist should have to listen to such whinging. The whole “shall-I-change-my-name-to-his” dilemma is such a joke. To suggest that calling yourself “Ms” and keeping your own name involves making a huge feminist statement is akin to claiming that not committing suicide makes you a health freak. The same might be said of those who show off about “not including the honour and obey bit”. I mean, really. Emily Davison died for you and that’s the best you can come up with?

People rarely believe me when I tell that I am happy with my relationship as it is

I know all this will annoy any married feminists out there (I don’t deny your existence), but I think any offence needs to be put in context. I’ve listened to people suggest that my partner doesn’t love me enough. I’ve been called arrogant and judgmental for refusing to accept that my relationship is less stable and committed than any marriage (I know Britney doesn’t count, but Elizabeth Taylor? Drew Barrymore, anyone?). I’ve had countless offers of sympathy from people who just know that it can’t be the woman’s decision not to marry, and that I must be dying inside. The fact is, people rarely believe me when I tell that I am happy with my relationship as it is. After all, it’s always the woman who’s desperate for a concrete show of commitment, always the man who can do without it, because who needs this validation most? The man of the world or the wife-in-waiting? Whatever my objections to marriage, I’d never dare to make similar uninformed assumptions about the nature of someone else’s personal life. Yet it seems that cohabitants, particularly female ones, are fair game. As a middle-class Oxford graduate I hardly see myself as a trailblazer for alternative lifestyles, yet many married women seem to view the way in which I have chosen to live my life as a deliberate insult to them; anything less than an open admission of the inferiority of the love between my partner and myself is, in their eyes, deeply offensive. The vanity of this viewpoint astounds me – it seems to presume that any woman who doesn’t get married is purposefully living her life as a kind of photographic negative, defined not by the person she is, but by the one she has decided not to be. Moreover, I’ve noticed that this attitude has many parallels with the way in which feminism is represented in general. If you work it’s because you hate stay-at-home mothers, if you want more power for women it’s because you love emasculating men, and if you don’t apologise for who you are, you’re the intolerant one.

Given the kind of comments I’ve had to put up with, it’s particularly galling to hear people who have chosen to get married describe it as a “sacrifice” or “something you really have to work at”. I don’t doubt that many married couples are just as devoted to one another as my partner and I. Nevertheless, it seems to me that far fewer actual displays of devotion and self-sacrifice are demanded of married couples because they’re perceived to have “done their bit” and don’t have anything left to prove in our rather easily pleased society. Apparently, standing in front of your family and friends in order to say that (within a strictly circumscribed cultural context) you love one another is truly the biggest thing you can do as a couple. Bigger than raising a child together. Bigger than sharing joy and grief. Bigger than

just being together, day in, day out, for the rest of your lives. It would have taken a very strong marriage to cope with some of the outside pressures that my partner and I have had to face over the years, yet it’s generally assumed that, if you’re not married, the very same problems suddenly become fun! Because you’re so damn frivolous! I guess the fact that cohabiting couples have absolute financial independence, special “pretending we’re single” flats and magic fairies who come and do all the housework has contributed to this impression. Oh, and each year together only counts as, like, a day in “married time”. Since I don’t know just how hellish marriage is, it would be unfair of me to comment on rising divorce rates, other than to offer an apology (apparently, women like me are to blame because we cheapen the status of all relationships and encourage men not to treat women as the treasured possessions they so clearly are).

Not getting married remains yet another non-offensive non-act that women have to spend their whole lives justifying

The misogynist right-wing press loves to suggest that cohabitation is a proven failure. “It breaks up more frequently than marriage and is a major factor behind the relentless rise of fatherless children” shrieks Phillips in The Daily Mail. What’s more, “research also shows that cohabitation actually increases the risk that men will turn to crime” and “unlike married men, who have a very great deal to lose if their marriages fail, cohabitation requires no commitment and therefore far less investment in the family unit”. I must confess, this got me going for a moment. “Damn, I thought my partner had just nipped out to the library. What if he’s abandoned me and is holding the rare books archivist hostage because I haven’t given him an adequate support network emanating from the traditional, nurturing values of the marital home?!” I was just about to rush out to buy “The Rules” and “Why Men Marry Some Women and Not Others” when I remembered that the statistics on the relative stability of cohabiting and married couples are fatally skewed. One group of couples at an arbitrary stage in their commitment to one another is compared with a very different group, some of whom will never reach that stage and many of whom already have. As fewer and fewer people get married, more and more unmarried couples will stay together on a long-term basis. Or are people like Phillips so insecure in their own relationships that they know they’d crumble without creakingly outdated laws and the sharp delights of prejudice to hold them together? Marriage itself does not create stability, just as passing an exam does not, in and of itself, make you intelligent. Yet even so, the fact remains that not getting married remains yet another non-offensive non-act that women in particular have to spend their whole lives justifying.

I do resent the fact that marriage is the only means by which the commitment made between my partner and myself could gain any adequate legal status, and for this reason I support the idea of civil partnerships for any lifelong pairing, be it gay, straight, or purely asexual. A fresh start is needed because marriage will never be reformed to the extent of becoming inclusive for everyone. I would love to live in a world where one relationship was not prized above all others, leaving so many people out in the cold or searching for something they neither need nor truly want. Since such a world seems a long way off, my partner and I did once consider getting married in secret in order to obtain all the legal advantages of marriage without having to make a public statement. We decided against it, partly because we’d still be supporting something we hated, but also because I’d be bound to blurt it out one day. Probably at a wedding, after too many glasses of champagne, just to shut everyone up. There, that’d show ’em. We’d no doubt get divorced soon after and return to the domestic bliss that we’re enjoying right now.

In a few years time I hope to become a pro-choice, unmarried, too-posh-to-push mother. My partner and I have never had any problems deciding whose surname our children should use. Since mine’s a double-barrel already, a triple is out of the question, and since my partner’s name is nondescriptly crap anyhow, they’re having mine. It’s more unusual, posh beyond our means and the resultant bullying at school will only serve to make them stronger. More seriously, my family name would die out otherwise, and I tend to place sentimental family ties above meaningless patriarchal practices, old traditionalist that I am. I suspect that Bridal Sindy never could have imagined the vision of domestic harmony that I have planned. A nice house, a lovely garden, my offspring armed with buckets and spades – “Go on, kids! Get digging at that bedrock!”

Notes

  1. There were 249,227 marriages in England and Wales in 2001, a fall of 7 per cent from 267,961 in 2000. This is the lowest annual number of marriages since 1897 and continues the long-term downward trend that began in 1973, despite a rise of 1.7 per cent in 2000.

    http://www.statistics.gov.uk/cci/nugget.asp?id=322

Victoria Dutchman-Smith lives in Cambridge with her partner. They might be married after all, but it’d be a secret.

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