“I Don’t.”

January 11, 2012

If only she’d known! Gillian Anderson as Miss Havisham in BBC1’s “Great Expectations."

With the Republican primaries now in full wallop it’s time to talk about something serious: Marriage. Specifically, its decline. A friend came by the other day in a welter of gloom, discouraged by six weeks of cohabitation and the true personality of his beloved. The details aren’t important. “Into their inmost bower, handed they went” and discovered they had very different notions of togetherness. She likes to cuddle and he wants to read.

“I’m beginning to think that living alone might be easier,” he said.

“Not just easier, better,” I answered. “Better.” I never pause in my promotion of the single life. If not celibate, I am anti-connubial, seriously non-nuptial, and it seems I’m now in the majority. A new report from the Pew Research Institute indicates a “startling” drop in the U.S. marriage rate – down 5 percent in 2010 and more than 20 percent since 1960. Similar studies in Britain reveal that only 48 percent of eligible adults in the UK are currently yoked for life.

“We don’t know why,” says Pew researcher D’Vera Cohn, whose task it was to break this news to unbelievers. “We can’t really say for sure that it’s the recession or bad economic times. There are other kinds of living arrangements that are socially acceptable now, such as living with someone without being married, living on your own, or even living as a single parent. So people may feel they have options that they didn’t used to have.”

Well, yes, they do. And in Cohn’s depiction, at least, the benefits of marriage are distinctly unromantic.

“Economically speaking, married couples tend to have more income and more wealth,” she explains. “The kind of partnership marriage encourages is one in which you plan for the future, share your assets, build wealth together. There isn’t that evidence yet for people who [just] live together. If people who aren’t married are less able to build wealth, that will affect the overall wealth of the country.”

So if you’re not getting married, I guess, you’re a slacker, a drain on the economy and a threat to GDP. At the least, probably, you aren’t buying in bulk at Costco. There are, of course, “the children” to think of, a mantra guaranteed to stop any debate in America.

“There’s research indicating that children have a higher likelihood of turning out well if they come from a household where their parents are married,” Cohn insists, before backtracking and saying that no, in fact, there isn’t: “Most children turn out well regardless of whether their parents are married or not, so I’m not at all trying to suggest that children will turn out badly if their parents aren’t married.”

What is she trying to suggest?

“There’s a somewhat higher likelihood that these children will face issues,” Cohn concludes, “and some of those may include economic hardship.”

Ah, Americans. Always trying to put a shine on shit. But if the best defense of marriage is more money in the bank we might as well go back to camels and grandmother’s linen. Historically, till the Industrial Revolution, at least, athe institution of marriage rested on the backs of chattel, women and children whose job it was, not to create wealth, but to provide services for the home enterprise, which itself was not expected to turn money but to keep everyone alive. Marriage and its contract were an exchange of labor, in olden times, divorced from profit and, for that matter, romantic love.

Now, all families are owned by banks, subject to market forces and the rules of investment. This is where the gays come in. In a brave essay for Lapham’s Quarterly (December 2011), Justin E. H. Smith argues that the drive to same-sex marriage is, au fond, a triumph of commerce and not a blow for human rights. The modern nuclear family, consisting of Mom, Pop, the kids and no one else, “with only casual or symbolic ties to friends and extended family,” is such a recent invention that some well-behaved homosexuals can hardly be a menace to it.

“In this respect,” Smith writes, “gay marriage is not a reduction to absurdity of an ancient institution, so much as it is an instance of late capitalism’s voracious absorption of everything that might otherwise stand as an obstacle to it. … The rebranding of couples as ‘partners’ is the sad culmination of the modern transformation of couples into work-love units” – i.e., it’s your job to be married, with children, and shopping till you drop. Anyone can do it.

You can read all of Smith’s essay here. And don’t weep for bygone times. By stubbornly remaining single, you’ll be doing your bit for the #Occupy movement.

UPDATE: Look, it’s getting worse! Unhitched In America: Only 1 in 3 Americans Wants to Get Married, in Slate, 3 February 2012


2 Responses to ““I Don’t.””

  1. John Hayes Says:

    Never under-estimate the power of “late capitalism’s voracious absorption of everything that might otherwise stand as an obstacle to it.” It has proven capable of doing this with every counter-culture movement that’s arisen in the past 60 odd years, & I’m only waiting for it to do the same to the Occupy movement–which I suppose beats having the folks who are involved in that movement interned in some camps somewhere. Meanwhile, I am unquestionably a slacker, a drain on the GDP & I do not shop at Costco.

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