Living together before marriage
Have we outgrown marriage?
Let me say first that I firmly believe most women and men want the same things. We all want to have connection, to be loved, to have someone we can trust as the parent of our children. We want friendship, sex and someone to take care of us when we are sick. These are not gender dependent desires. What has been true in the past is that in general, women sought marriage, while men avoided it.
To paraphrase Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice , it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single woman wants to be a wife. Most women grow up with the idea that they will grow up and marry, and indeed have a desire to do so. But why?
I realized that answer not long ago as I read Liz Gilbert's Committed. Until very recently in our American history, the single most effective way for a woman to achieve lifelong security, social status and potential happiness was to marry. The act of marriage enabled a woman to legally pass on property (since a woman was not historically allowed to own property in her own right), to have a home after leaving her father's home, secure rights for her children, to receive both physical and social protection from harassment from other men, to gain status in the eyes of other women, and quite literally to have enough money for basic needs like food and clothing. Since divorce was not an option for most people, this was a women's equivalent of a good pension plan. Of course, since many men (white men, anyway) had access to most of these rights, marriage was only one option from which to choose.
Put in that light, marriage bears a striking but appalling resemblance to prostitution. Why would women tolerate, even seek, such an exchange?
Firstly, many women had loving families that did their best to find a husband that the young woman could tolerate and hopefully grow to love. In some cases women were even allowed to choose their own husbands. Secondly, since universal literacy, access to legal counsel and employment were just not available to women, marriage accomplished in one fell swoop most of the legal rights that it took centuries for individuals like minorities and immigrants to obtain. Thirdly, religious feeling dictated for most people that the only socially acceptable way to seek universal desires - love, intimacy, sex and children - was within marriage. Lastly, in groups of people that are strongly homogenous, one person is very similar to another. Many women came from communities where the available men were strongly similar in terms of race, religion, occupation, income levels and physical characteristics. Put like this, one man is pretty much the same as another.
Flashing forward a century or two, these things that were a fact of life for most American women are no longer true. Women mostly have the same rights as a man. A woman without legal rights, physical safety, employment opportunities, access to free or reasonably priced sperm, love/connection/ motherhood without regard to marital status (and increasingly so, without regard to sexuality) is in a distinct minority. Even if we don't have each thing every moment, we have access and opportunity. Millersburg Ohio, Amish Buggys
As such, marriage itself is becoming obsolete. Like a buggy whip, it serves a need that is more quickly and easily met in other ways. Perhaps the best way to see marriage is to see it as the vehicle by which we have arrived at availability of universal desires to all. One appreciates the vehicle…but once you get to your destination, you get out.