I don’t think I was ever one of those people who planned their dream wedding. There’s so many misconceptions about love, romance, and happily ever afters. I think the biggest is that no one ever lives happily ever after, not really. Because life isn’t happy all the time, and a relationship isn’t happy all the time, and moments aren’t happy all the time. I think marriage is a lot like paying taxes: everyone expects you to do it eventually, but no one prepares you for the reality. In spite of the fact that millions of people have done the same thing before you, you’re not given an extensive education on the subject. You go in blind, hoping for the best, not necessarily prepared for the worst, but you try anyway.
It’s interesting to think about the reasons why people get married in the first place. There’s all the right reasons of course: meeting someone you genuinely want to spend your life with, meeting someone you want to start a family with, wanting someone to love and share all the good and bad moments with. There’s a beauty and an almost fantastical ideology behind love. It’s probably the only thing in this world that can make us feel like, in the right moments, that we’re living in a magical place. But other reasons people get married is to avoid something that is uncomfortable to them, primarily the idea of ending up all alone.
Most people feel their best knowing they have some level of independence. But human beings are highly dependent creatures. We want to know that if we need help, someone will be there to support us. Whether it’s physical or emotional, we rely on others to keep us content, healthy, and safe. Despite this need for human connection, there’s so many cultures in our world where people are largely left to fend for themselves. We’re a species that needs others, and yet when someone (typically an adult) is in need, we want them to deal with it themselves. One thing that becomes apparent as you enter into adulthood is that there’s very few people who are there to support you in all the big ways.
When you’re young and in school, you often have a wealth of communities to be a part of, and people who will offer you support simply because of your age, and consequently, lack of ability to be more independent. There’s an emphasis to make sure kids have community, an education, and activities to be involved it. Adults have to carve these things out for themselves, and depending on location and circumstances, that can be a challenge.
That’s not to say that adolescence is an inherently more enjoyable time in one’s life (even though some people may indeed feel this way). Ironically enough, the freedom and independence that adulthood can bring can be liberating, scary, but ultimately something many of us wouldn’t want to give up. For me, it’s less about wanting to be a kid again, and more about wanting to bridge a gap. I want the independence and self-sufficiency that I need to develop as an adult, but I also want to have access to many of the (often free) programs I had as an adolescent, many of which made it easy to do things I loved while meeting other people.
The transition from adolescent years to adulthood raises an interesting question: does independence have to equal isolation? What would an America that emphasized a greater sense of community and support among adults look like? Can we value independence and ingenuity while also acknowledging that none of us can handle life’s hurdles alone?
I think that, in some ways, marriage (and committed relationships of all kinds) are one answer to the problem of adult isolation. But is it enough? When I was in school (even in college), I noticed an attitude toward romantic relationships that was quite different, and maybe a bit more negative, than the attitudes people have when they are no longer in school. When I lived in my dorm, there was one girl in my hall who didn’t socialize much with the other girls in the building, but her boyfriend visited her often. I knew more than one person who expressed that it was unhealthy for her to spend so much time with her boyfriend without making other friends.
Naturally, no one could know what her social life was like outside of the dorm. Perhaps she had enough friends. Perhaps she was in more of an adult mindset than her peers were. When I was in high school, there would sometimes be a level of animosity if it seemed like a girl was choosing her boyfriend over spending time with her friend group. In school, everyone wants to be dating someone, but there’s almost this unspoken rule that platonic relationships are key in order to have a healthy, balanced social life.
But in the adult world, past the college stage, keeping up with friends becomes less realistic. People have jobs or they are dealing with unemployment. Some people are getting married and others are getting over breakups. Some people are having children. Suddenly, a person is spending most of their time with their significant other, only this time, it isn’t “unhealthy” or odd or antisocial, it’s just the norm. Spending time with a significant other and family makes sense. There’s a change in lifestyle and, consequently, a change in social expectations.
Adulthood comes with a certain expectation of self-sufficiency. A person is expected to have a career that can support their lifestyle: one that probably includes paying for their own housing, food, car, healthcare, clothes, etc. It’s the whole reason our parents, schools, and communities raise us, so we can eventually obtain all of life’s essentials and luxuries on our own. There’s also an expectation that one will enter a long-term, committed, typically heterosexual and monogamous relationship. This person should also be self-sufficient, having a career so they can afford housing, food, clothes, etc. Then, there may be an expectation that this couple will have children, whom they will raise until they can be self-sufficient themselves.
It’s a cycle. But are we doing this thing right?
It’s been expressed for years now that in the U.S, about half of all marriages end in divorce. Do I think this is a bad thing? No. I’m twenty-five years old. I don’t want the same things that I wanted when I was twenty. And the things I want when I’m thirty may be entirely different than what I want now. People change. People and relationships should be allowed to change. I don’t see the divorce rate in this country as a failure. I see it one way our culture’s obsession with self-sufficiency has actually paid off: no one feels the need to stay in an unhappy or unhealthy marriage out of fear. Fewer people in the history of humankind are left to worry that without their marriage, they have no means of meeting their needs for basic survival.
In the grand scheme of things, I probably know relatively few married couples. And I know even fewer who have relationships that I’d aspire to emulate. Too many people, from the outside looking in (and with an enormously limited amount of information) seem to be in unhappy marriages. There’s a lot of reasons why people get married, and usually those reasons are on the extreme ends of things they hope for and things they fear.
But why do people who are unhappy in their marriages stay married? New relationships are always more exciting than those that have been established for a while. Unhappy people might stay married for their children. Another reason is, again, fear. Leaving a marriage means going into an unknown future where one is scared, uncertain, and of course, alone. That fear of loneliness can influence a lot of people in their most life-changing decisions.
One of the reasons early adulthood is so stressful is that it seems everyone wants, and feels they are expected to, achieve all of the adult milestones at once. People want to have their careers and their love lives in order by the time they reach the age of thirty. But that first decade of adult years is more often filled with trial and error than certainty.
Lots of people reach their mid-twenties and find a good relationship, maybe have their first child, but are still figuring out their careers and finances, and many are still supported financially by their parents. Others have their career path figured out and a decent level of financial stability, but haven’t found the relationship they want. Few people seem to have both of these areas balanced out in their twenties, and nothing is set in stone or “finished” because these are areas of growth, Relationships, careers, and one’s sense of self are constantly evolving.
When I was younger, if I thought of marriage, I probably thought of it as a simple, singular, and even somewhat isolated concept. But now, I can’t think of it without acknowledging how it connects to other areas of adulthood. I don’t know for sure if I want to be married. But I do know that I want to be financially independent first. I know I want to find new ways to do something I love while meeting new people. I know that I want to be free to grow, change, and evolve without the weight of other peoples’ expectations influencing my choices.
I know that if I do get married, I don’t want it to be because I’m afraid of being alone. And I don’t want it to be because people think it’s odd that I’m not spending all of my time with a significant other, much like my school peers thought it was weird if someone didn’t spend more time with their platonic friends.
It’s a complex idea to navigate; the concept that we should be these independent beings, but also that we should be partnered with someone. This idea that we should be able to handle paying bills, feeding ourselves, and keeping a roof over our head on our own, but also that too much independence is considered strange.
There’s a lot of potential in the human ability to be independent while maintaining a need to rely on others. If only our society could learn to allow these needs to intersect instead of prioritizing one over the other at different times, tipping the scales to opposite extremes and constantly leaving people to feel as though they are failing at something–the paradox of either having too much independence or not enough of it.
One’s ability to support themselves with food, clothing, and shelter are needed for survival. But marriage? Marriage is but one solution to the complex problem of loneliness. Our views of family, relationships, and community rarely extend to support those who are not married. It leaves few other options. But maybe people who aren’t married need more options to feel like they aren’t alone in this world.
I think that in many ways, (consensual, healthy) marriage is good for people. But that doesn’t mean it’s good for everyone. I don’t have much of an answer to the question of whether or not I want to get married. I’m twenty-five. Ask me again when I’m thirty.