ItIn 2009 I was able to marry my boyfriend in exchange for his health insurance. Aaron and I were 24, but we’d been in a relationship for less than 2 years. Marriage had never even come up. I wasn’t even sure if I believed in it. But I’d recently gotten a reporting job that offered insurance—which, in my pre-Obamacare bartending days, sort of felt like winning the lottery. So in a gesture of love from one insured person to an uninsured one, we tied the knot at Chicago’s City Hall.
It was not something we took seriously. He wore white, while I was wearing black. At a rooftop bar, we took silly photos and cracked champagne glasses. We texted all our friends that “hey, by the way, we got married, meet us at Gold Star,” the dive bar where Aaron worked. All night, we drank Old Overholt free of charge and enjoyed pulled pork sandwiches while crouching along the sidewalk. Our feelings of happiness and humor led us to fall asleep feeling happy.
Everybody is tickled by this story, the broad strokes of which, I admit, are romantic and organic and quasi-unconventional. This story was something I kept telling for many decades, mainly because it gave me the opportunity to bristle about how traditional values were exposed in our nuptials. I framed my marriage of convenience as a defiant gesture, meant to make a mockery of outdated institutions—not only of sentimental matrimony, but of the cruelty of our failed health care system. This was the key to my identity, a commitment that I could not change and which wasn’t tied to any binding contracts, without financial security or registries.
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Unfortunately, marriages—even marriages like mine—have never been that simple. About two years in, I realized I wasn’t happy, that our sexual and intellectual connection was not strong enough to sustain a lifelong partnership. But I continued to stay. Und stayed. Soon, I was eight years deep into a relationship that was making me miserable, but I couldn’t bring myself to end it. As a feminist self-sufficient and progressive, how did I find it difficult to let go of a unhappy marriage, which had been a screwy affair for insurance companies?
The most iconoclastic among us think we’re impervious to marriage’s charms, so we consider it safe to buy in ironically, for the benefits and nothing else. Since the institution was not important to me, it seemed that I would be able to bend its terms to my will, rejecting or using any part of it. But no matter how blasé I thought I felt about our transactional union, it managed to take on a life of its own. Because as I soon learned, there’s no easier way to defang a radical than the lure of a status bump.
While I was at collegeMy thoughts on marriage were somewhere in the middle of hostility and indifference. My classmates and I weren’t at all pressed to run to the altar after we graduated. To avoid recession, we were working as waiters while we pursued nursing careers and law school. From my 20s onwards, I was starting to get invitations for weddings from people at a rapid pace. Some of these same people had jaws dropped when they saw my casual wedding. Lots of those college drifters “got serious” with well-paying careers and paired up, often with each other. My inner circle was almost all against single parenthood.
They were surely married out of love. Theirs were what writer Emily Witt called “neo-marriages”: in most cases far from a “housewife-patriarch dynamic,” these couples acknowledged that some level of autonomy was to be retained. Their weddings were also a consolidation of their power and money.
Aaron’s social circles looked very different. He finally got his bachelor’s degree at 29, but his parents hadn’t finished college, and neither did many of his friends from his middle-class suburb or his service-industry jobs. For them, marriage was a distant goal they might consider once they started making good money or had a “real” job. Some married couples got divorcées within years. Some had kids and didn’t stay with their partners. Ours was a great example of a steady and mobile couple.
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For millennia, matrimony was tied to classes. In Victorian times, women of middle and upper class were expected to devote all their morally pure energy to tending to their families and homes. Wedded bliss is not available to enslaved people or those of other races. In fact, it was their very existence as farmers, domestic servants, wet nurses, and sweatshop workers that allowed rich white women to set aside grueling household tasks and concentrate on “uplifting” their homes. In 1850 there was twice the number of servants in a white household than there had been 50 years earlier.
Lower-class workers and formerly enslaved people could get married, technically, but their unions couldn’t hope to approach the ideals of the day. Mary White Ovington was a feminist and an early member of NAACP. She wrote her 1911 study. A Man is Half a Man that a Black woman in New York who did manage to marry also had to work outside the home, and thus “has no fear of leaving him since her marital relations are not welded by economic dependence.” And unwed women were financially on their own. As Jane Austen wrote in a letter to her niece while grudgingly defending marriage: “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor.”
Nineteen fifties America was a veritable marriage propaganda machine, one that can’t be separated from peak consumerism. The times looked better after two decades of war and Depression. By the middle of 1950s, almost 60% of Americans were considered to be middle-class. In 1955, only 10% of Americans believed that an unmarried man could live happily.
Of course, the breadwinner-housewife nuclear family wasn’t attainable for everyone. This perception of the “universal” norm put families who couldn’t achieve it—namely, the working class and virtually every person of color, who couldn’t afford to be a one-income household—in the position of having failed. Housewives were often envied by women who worked hard and had to be paid a lot of money. The reaction of Black women to white feminists demanding to enter the workforce often was, “We want to have more time to share with family,” Black feminist bell hooks wrote in 1984. “We want to leave the world of alienated work.” When you’ve spent years improving other women’s domestic lives for little pay, inhabiting your own with a stable partner feels like a sacred privilege.
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White, rich people have long used marriage’s supposed virtues as a way to denigrate low-income Black families under the guise of concern. Ovington, in the same 1911 study, wrote that most Black women in New York were beset with “sexual immorality” and deprived of their “full status as a woman” because they were not properly courted by male suitors. These attitudes were evident when Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1965, a Labor Department official, that Black children born to single mothers are doomed. The government continues to promote marriage as the panacea for poverty. The George W. Bush Administration’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, which would continue funding programs for nearly two decades after its establishment, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting marriage rather than alleviating the poverty of families that already exist.
Despite this persistent messaging, the cultural narrative of the last few years has been about marriage’s decline. Last year, the Pew Research Center analyzed census data and found that in 2019, 38% of American adults ages 25 to 54 were neither married nor living with a partner—and that “all of the growth in the unpartnered population since 1990 has come” not from divorced people, but “from a rise in the number who have never been married.”
It would seem that singlehood would lead to greater social acceptance, since it is more prevalent. But one consequence of fewer marriages is that they’ve become luxury items for the privileged. The college-educated are much more likely to marry than those with only a highschool degree. Their marriages also last longer. Educated people also wait longer to get married and have children—which not only affects their earning power but also improves the prognosis of their marriage. Pew’s report points out that Black adults are the least likely to be partnered, and that single people’s median incomes and education levels are lower. Like that of many status symbols, marriage’s power lies precisely in its exclusion: It’s an institution that remains desirable, yet more and more out of reach, for millions of marginalized Americans.
A 2013 study out of the University of Virginia and Harvard found that the shift from authoritarian marriage to “companionate” marriage among equals came at a price, literally. The couples who can throw money at their problems—from therapy to date nights to babysitters—have a better chance of surviving. Couples who are financially secure invest in their spouses by pooling resources. The researchers also found that economic instability had a direct correlation with mistrust and instability in one’s relationships. Many of the working-class interviewees were focused on their own financial survival, not providing “materially and emotionally for others.”
Besides the tax breaks and the security of health insurance, marrying Aaron wasn’t exactly an investment. Our marriage occurred during the depths of the recession, when our bank accounts hovered in the mid–three figures on any given day. Even after many years, it felt as though we were too poor to have children or to afford to own property. However, the news of our nuptials opened up something much more mysterious and insidious than financial gains: an attractive social acceptance that was hard to resist.
The difference was obvious to me almost immediately. People, who have never been able to express much of anything to me on social media suddenly began to shower me with well wishes. Coworkers in the suburbs were relieved that I had figured it out. Aaron’s family started treating me . . . Well, it’s like your family. A few of my friends shared stories and advice about how to get married. The appeal of weddings was something I came to appreciate. Everyone is happy to see you.
Before long, I’d discovered the effectiveness of saying “husband” when dealing with bureaucrats. The word proved useful for my reporting job too: when I was interviewing senior citizens or Christians, using “husband” helped us find common ground. I now had an ironclad comeback for sleazy guys who wouldn’t stop hitting on me. (It hadn’t yet dawned on me how depressing it was that identifying myself as another man’s property was more convincing to a harasser than “I’m not interested.”)
But it wasn’t just these little sparks of social capital that I could reach for dispassionately and only when necessary. My horror! You truly are there self-satisfied. Even though my marriage was never meant to be a happily ever after, I felt “settled” in a way I hadn’t before. The partnership was seen as solidified and validated. My elders stopped treating me like a kid and started to address me as an adult. Aaron and I discussed our relationship in private, and how it was a moving entity that could eventually lead us to children and a mortgage.
To be clear, a stable partnership isn’t bad in itself; the devotion and acceptance Aaron gave me during our marriage was profound. It’s more my own smugness that disturbs me in retrospect. For a woman, “the status marriage confers insulates her somewhat from rejection and humiliation,” my mom, early radical feminist Ellen Willis, wrote in 1969, recalling her first foray into wifehood. “At least one man has certified her Class A merchandise.” Forty years later, marriage was still offering me a ticket to acceptance. This reminded of the intrinsic desire I had as a middle school floater for to be loved by popular girls. Even as we gossiped at sleepovers about them,
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Once it was obvious that Aaron’s and my relationship was breaking down, the smugness turned into fear. That fear smothered my doubts when the early limerence of our romance started to fade, when I realized that our connection wasn’t as strong as it needed to be, long after I knew that this was not a forever match. I’d gotten a taste of marital privilege, and I didn’t want to let it go.
This was a shameful decision to end our marriage. Who among confident and independent women was afraid to be single? What person of integrity applauds the concept of “single at heart” in public, then secretly pities unattached women? Is there a class-conscious leftist who clings to some privilege that was semi-accidentally granted to her at the expense her own happiness
These private emotions were accompanied by a culture celebration that praised the single woman. The narrative of “smug marrieds” talking down to singles like Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw had been replaced by cultural touchstones like Rebecca Traister’s Alle Single Women which made a convincing and exhaustive case for single women’s rising political power, and Kate Bolick’s SpinsterA paean which featured contemporary-minded gentlewomen such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman or Edna St. Vincent Millay. (It’s worth noting that all the “spinsters” featured in the book ultimately got married, as did Bridget and Carrie.) A woman’s earning power gets hurt the moment she gets married, studies discovered— even if she never has children. Single women, especially if educated, were often politically and economically influential.
My friends were mostly single at the time. Their lives were filled with joy, activity, and happiness, no matter if they wanted to get married. Their lives were full and happy, which was something I didn’t have even though they had a partner who is able to live with them. Even though they were my closest friends and I was more close to them than I am to married people, I never envied their independence. But I was afraid of the unknown and vulnerability that comes with being an unmarried woman in my 30s. I chose to ignore the joy of their spontaneous decisions and the blissful mornings they spent alone in bed, fixating instead on the moments when they’d explain what skin hunger and extreme loneliness felt like.
I finally got divorced, though it was many years later than expected. It was not worth the social approval or culturally accepted anxiety over loneliness and abandonment to suppress my desire for a new relationship, a new life. But I also now understand why lots of people—including supposedly confident, autonomous women—choose to stay in unsatisfying unions. Even after all these years of tweaking it and dilating it to suit our modern world, marriage has remained a social and financial aspiration, a sort of bribe for getting society’s full benefits. It continues to stigmatize single people by promising entry into a certain club with seemingly endless perks, the extent of which aren’t fully obvious until you actually join.
Seit dem Fall of Roe V. Wade, Congressional Democrats have been trying to shore up other rights that may be under threat, including the right to same-sex marriage granted by 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges. This was not only a victory for the LGBTQ community but it also represented a major civil rights win. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Some of us—including queer people—pointed out that Kennedy’s ultrasentimental framing was a strike against alternative models of intimacy. Domestic partnerships and civil unions were “an opportunity to order our lives in ways that have given us greater freedom than can be found in the one-size-fits-all rules of marriage,” Katherine M. Franke wrote in tHe New York Times New York State passed gay marriage the day before. “Having our relationships sanctioned and regulated by the state is hardly something to celebrate.”
I’m grateful for Obergefell v. HodgesI hope that the rights of gay couples to wed is preserved, as discrimination is wrong. However, the idea of correcting an injustice by expanding an oppressive institution is still something that bothers me. A world that values all forms of love, and eliminates marriage’s power is what I long for.
The book BAD SEX by Nona Willis Aronowitz, Truth, Pleasure and an Unfinished Revolution, will be published in Plume, an imprint under Penguin Publishing Group, a division Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Nona Willis Aronowitz
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