I wanted to blame films like Twenty-Seven Dresses and My Big Fat Greek Wedding for brainwashing my friends and family into believing that a wedding is (of course!) the climax of a sexual relationship. But I knew that my aversion to marriage was uncomfortable for everyone else because it blurred the lines between “legitimate” and “illegitimate.”
Williams’ observations are echoed by Stephanie Coontz:
While marriage is associated with a positive vocabulary and public image, other familial arrangements remain undefined, if not ignored. “Arrangements other than marriage are still treated as makeshift or temporary, however long they last,” Coontz writes. “There is no consensus on what rules apply to these relationships. We don’t even know what to call them.”
Only marriage provides us with the vocabulary of legitimacy – hardly a sign of progress given the patriarchal and sexist history of marriage. As if social stigma isn’t enough, there are real costs to choosing not to be part of this institution. Writes Williams:
The cost of a “nontraditional” relationship status is great because it directly impacts the economic, and even physical, well-being of many unmarried partners. Cohabitating, heterosexual partners are still excluded from protections like partner sick leave, hospital-visitation rights, automatic inheritance, and a slew of other incentives afforded to married couples.
Williams decided that she didn’t want to continue to face the discrimination and stigmatization.
[American Prospect author and Feministing editor Courtney] Martin hit the nail on the head with her observation that for many, the desire for marriage is about a desire for inclusion.
Rather than fighting for her right to have her relationship recognized – as Alternatives to Marriage Project founders Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller did, for example – Williams takes the personal route: She gets married in a simple ceremony. Disappointing but totally understandable. And she clearly is still struggling with this decision because, at least in part, it was not based on a choice. She was forced to marry by a society that values only one type of relationship: Marriage to the exclusion of any other relationships, which is short-sighted and socially detrimental, plus discriminatory.
Women no longer forfeit their individuality when they say “I do.” Even so, marriage is problematic because it is still conflated with moral “purity” and notions of stability; meanwhile, relationships that exist outside of the single-married dichotomy are viewed as a threat to moral order and are penalized as such.
Just like no one shouldn’t be kept from the right to marry, no one should be forced to marry simply to protect themselves. As long as marriage remains something other than a commitment – it is now a socially sanctioned institution heavily rewarded – getting married (or not) is not a choice. It should be.