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We’ve all heard the statistics: Nearly half of first marriages end in divorce, women tend to be less happy in their marriages than men, bad marriages lead to heart disease, and more. In fact, we’ve become so familiar with this scientific discourse that it seems these statistics have led to another: According to the Pew Research Center, 25 percent of millennials will "never get married."
Although I’m skeptical to believe every “new study” I hear about the status of modern relationships, this one seems to be strikingly reflected in my own peer circles. Now more than ever, I hear friends happily discussing their rejection of marriage, and even poking fun at it through “group marriage” themed parties.
Lately this paradigm shift in relationships has me questioning my own views: Perhaps believing in an institution that is trending toward the obsolete is foolish. After all, most of us are well aware that marriage can be a patriarchal institution intent on reinforcing and reaffirming certain backwards gender stereotypes. It is also an inherently exclusionary tradition that prohibits many loving couples from gaining certain legal protections and benefits. But if the Pew Research statistic is correct, 75 percent of millennials still intend on participating in this tradition. Despite all the controversy surrounding marriage, it seems we still value it as an institution.
There are many explanations for why this may be. Part of it is historical—marriage is a time-honored tradition of affirming a romantic relationship. Part of it is political—marriage accords a legal legitimacy to a relationship that allows for numerous social and financial benefits. And yet another part of it is religious or cultural. But what if we were to wash away all of these associations? What would be left? Or, more importantly, would there be anything left worth saving?
I’d argue yes for a few important reasons. First, life boils down to a series of decisions. If you’re monogamous, or believe in monogamy, at some point that decision becomes, “Do I want to commit myself fully to someone else?” Marriage is one of the many ways to affirm that commitment. Even more than that, marriage implies the permanency of that commitment in the face of struggle or hardship. For married couples, an exit clause is still available in the form of divorce, but the exit sign isn’t always flashing a bright green in their faces, giving them an easy out.
Of course, there are other ways to remain committed to your partner, and even within marriage there can be a lack of commitment. But marriage means more than simply binding yourself to another human being. It also means affirming your love and devotion to one another in front of the people who mean the most to you. It means having the courage to stand up in front of your friends and family and exchange promises for the future, promises that hold you accountable for your actions.
These kinds of promises can also condition us to think less selfishly through what psychologists call a “transformation of motivation.” Although this is also the case in long-term relationships, marriage provides a fast track to thinking in terms of “us” as opposed to “me.” In this way, marriage is admittedly performative—by exchanging certain vows, we create a notion of our spouse as family—but it’s a performativity that’s helpful in establishing a loving commitment between human beings.
This is not to say that marriage is for everyone—many of the advantages of matrimony can be acquired through other forms of romantic relationships. Nevertheless, I am still inclined to believe that there’s value in marriage beyond any of the social or financial benefits it offers. Unlike some of my peers, I look forward to the day when I can stand before my family and friends and say, “This is the person I choose. I could have chosen someone else, I could have chosen not to get married at all, but I’m pledging myself to this person for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” To me, that’s accountability. That’s dedication. That’s commitment.
Aria N. Bendix ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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