A few months ago, I asked, does getting married make you an adult?
It’s a question that came up when my The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Cynics, Commitaphobes and Connubial DIYers coauthor, Susan Pease Gadoua, and I met with two soon-to-be-married couples separately as we gathered research for our book.
“Marriage is just the next thing you do,” one bride-to- be said as her fiance nodded in agreement. “You graduate, you get a job, you get married.”
“Our married friends just seem more adult,” the other bride-to-be said, despite the fact that she and her fiance had been living together for five years and are well established in their careers.
Put the two comments together and what I heard is this: getting married is an essential part of the trajectory of being an adult — even in this age, when there are so many other options available.
Now comes Kristin Koch at Your Tango insisting that you’re not an adult until you tie the knot. Although she and her boyfriend were in a committed cohabiting relationship for six years, and although she insists they “didn’t need a piece of paper to affirm” their commitment, it’s pretty obvious that she actually did need a piece of paper, or at least ring on her finger:
I was far more likable, interesting and respectable now that I was engaged. … I’ll be the first to admit, that’s what I was going for. I still didn’t care about the wedding or even the ring (though I love it). Andy and I were already committed. I just wanted the title; the status change. If a piece of paper would afford me the ability to be a real player in my career and a respected adult, I figured, why not? … Had I known how quickly a rock on my finger would have made my life easier, I might have popped the question to Andy a long time ago.
The article bothered me ever since I read it. I kept wondering, well, what about people who don’t want to marry or can’t — are singles, gays and lesbians, and choice parents not adults?
Beyond that, the bigger message Ms. Koch is saying is that even if you are in a happy, loving and committed relationship, others treat you as “less than” if you’re just living together and therefore getting married is the only way to redeem yourself. (A recent book, Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation After the Sexual Revolution by Elizabeth H. Pleck basically confirms that; Pleck describes how cohabitation in America has long been “considered poor people’s marriage” and that even today, “cohabiters form a second tier of citizens.”)
Although we marry for many reasons, marrying because you feel “pressured by girlfriends who insisted, ‘Everyone wants to get married’ and, ‘You’re just saying you don’t care because you haven’t been proposed to yet’” shouldn’t be one of them.
Everyone does not want to get married, nor is marriage right for everyone. Pleasing friends, family and coworkers, and caving into societal pressure just aren’t good reasons to tie the knot.
But for those who see marriage as a dead institution, the 30-something Ms. Koch speaks to a deeper underlying societal expectation for young adults:
I’ve come to think of getting married as more akin to college or high school graduation than a romantic gesture or the real-life fairtyale we’re led to believe it will be. It’s a rite of passage that marks a person’s transition into adulthood. And although we may leave the nest and support ourselves long before we marry these days, whether we like it or not, society still sees marriage as the ultimate maturity gauge — for better or for worse.
It’s exactly what the two engaged couple Susan and I spoke with — “You graduate, you get a job, you get married.” It’s part of life’s trajectory.
While a few of my middle-aged divorced friends are now in cohabiting relationships, I don’t know many long-term couples who never married — just three, and of them only two have raised their children without “a piece of paper” or a ring on a finger. Unlike in Europe, where marriage isn’t as essential as it seems to be here and where cohabitation is more the norm, few American couples live together for the long term; most split or marry.
Yes, you can be an adult without being married. Yes, you can live together and raise a family together without getting married. So, why do we treat people who cohabit as “less than”?
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