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The funny thing about marriage (well, there are many, but let’s narrow it down) is that lots of people seem to have a “secret” that will magically transform everyone’s marriage into a manageable, doable and supposedly happy union. Like this week’s Modern Love written by Gabrielle Zevin — except her secret to marriage isn’t necessarily what you might expect:  The Secret to Marriage Is Never Getting Married. 

Zevin, a novelist and screenwriter, describes the 21-year relationship she has with her partner, Hans:

I have had four dogs with the man I am not married to. I have dedicated several of my books to him, but really, they all could be. He is my most important reader and creative collaborator. We have traveled the world with one suitcase. We have cooked more than 100 Blue Apron meals without killing each other. We have shared a dozen different addresses. We have built a life. tweet

But, they’re not married.

And that’s where Zevin reveals the complications of committing to someone without actually tying the knot, even though, given a complicated and unfair debt Hans brought into the relationship two decades ago, it made sense not to co-mingle expenses — then. Still, she had found herself unable to explain that to people — many often don’t understand the financial realities of a marriage license. It isn’t just about love, it’s about money and property and a lot of other stuff, too.

Which is why her longtime accountant is advising that they now tie the knot. Why?

I guess because I am turning 40 this year, he said, “Well, there are reasons to be married when you are old.” The reasons fell largely into two categories: What happens when I die? And what happens if I get sick and then die? tweet

Marriage is not just about love

And this is what hetero couples don’t understand about marriage but same-sex couples do: The big reason why same-sex couples fought so hard for the right to legally marry is exactly because of the sick and dying part, the importance of which was made glaringly clear during the HIV epidemic.

It’s really important for people to understand just what that marriage license offers you; it isn’t just about love and commitment.

Zevin ventures — somewhat blindly — into that territory, too, and it bothered me. Friends of theirs had gotten divorced and when she asked the wife what percentage of the time they would say they were happy, the wife responded 20 percent, then revised it to 2 percent and later bumped up to 3 percent (probably because wives are generally unhappier than husbands although it’s unclear if the couple is hetero or same-sex). Zevin has thoughts on that, too:

Hans and I are happy together most of the time. We have the usual domestic squabbles. Our most frequent argument ends with him throwing up his hands and saying, “I’m not a handyman!” Sometimes I think the secret to a long and happy marriage is never to get married in the first place, although there are surely married couples that are as happy as we are. tweet

Yes, there are married couples who are as happy as they are — maybe even happier — but it isn’t necessarily because of a marriage license. But let’s continue with her thinking:

When I say I don’t believe in marriage, what I mean to say is: I understand the financial and legal benefits, but I don’t believe the government or a church or a department store registry can change the way I already feel and behave. Or maybe it would. Because when the law doesn’t bind you as a couple, you have to choose each other every day. And maybe the act of choosing changes a relationship for the better. But successfully married people must know this already. tweet

Being bound by marriage

And here’s where her argument gets iffy. Yes, “successfully married people” most likely know her “secret.” Because the only way to have a relationship — married or not, cohabiting or not, monogamous or consensually non-monogamous, you name it — that continues happily is to have each person choose each other over and over because they love each other in a way that they want to stay together (which, of course, is the thinking behind a renewable marriage contract). Marriage is harder to get out of, which leads some people to stay in unhappy marriages because of lethargy or fear or a religious “until death” dictate, but it’s still an easily available option.

And while it’s true that a department store registry won’t change the way she already feels and behaves, the government or church or community just might. Society seems to understand marriage but not other arrangements, such as cohabiting partners, and because of that we treat married couples differently and they view themselves differently. And you bet that impacts how we feel and behave. Even she — unknowingly, I think — confirms it when she writes “by the time we had the means to make honest people of ourselves, we felt as if we had been together too long to bother.”

So … married people are “honest people” (clearly a dated and sexist phrase that had more to do with legitimizing a sexual relationship)? If that’s how she sees it, then on some level, she is acknowledging there’s a difference — no matter how slight — between being a married and unmarried couple.

Want to learn how to create a renewable marital plan? (Of course you do!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.

2 Responses to “The ‘secret’ to marriage is …”

  1. Jono says:

    Love is one thing and marriage is something else. Marriage can include love, but all those other reasons seem to complicate and compromise the love aspect. Not always, but relationships of all kinds can and do work. Marriage wouldn’t even be a thing if it weren’t for government and religion which seem to be two of the most imperfect human creations.

  2. Rob says:

    To state the obvious, marriage is good for women and children but very bad for men – at least those men who are reasonably well off financially and desirable to women. If you are ugly or poor it might not be a bad choice though.

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