Last February, in a Huffington Post article that resonated with thousands of readers, Natalie Brooke, a married American woman like myself, explained why she believes that marriage is not an accomplishment. The text went forth with a temporal framing of 1950s housewife culture as a means of anchoring the stance of marriage as severely limiting and thus subordinate to other “more worthy developments” in a woman’s life. The author also posited a banquet of professions that women currently pioneer within as a way of illustrating the great progress we’ve made as a gender, such that it would be regressive to view our marriages as accomplishments, as juxtaposed to said strides.
“Women are entrepreneurs, lawyers, teachers, CEOs, inventors, designers, researchers, writers, consultants and so much more. Women are going to college and then getting their masters and doctorate degrees. Women are endlessly working to climb up the corporate ladder. Women are key figures in our government. Women are changing the world with their innovation…And while many of these women are married, they are definitely not solely defined by their last name.”
While it is certainly true that women are not solely defined by their last names and that we are a gender that has endured and succeeded throughout decades of strife, it is unclear how exactly this translates to marriage being altogether devoid of accomplishment. In fact, it is difficult to discern why the clear and marked social progression of women necessitates the de-emphasis of marriage to the point where it is not worthy of being deemed a marker of success. In other words: why can’t all of these things be harmoniously encased in the wrapping of achievement? Why must there be exclusion whereby the progression of our personal lives is deemed less important than that of our professional lives? The truth is, both are significant markers of our social empowerment.
Hidden in the penumbra of this discussion is a troubling but abundantly clear conclusion: marriage is simply not seen as an accomplishment by those with an antiquated understanding of the institution. That is, those who view marriage as an encumbrance limiting their professional mobility, or as a life sentence to an existence of domesticity, are also very likely to dismiss marriage as an institution that is worthy of little credence in our world today.
Except marriage is not a devotedly monolithic experience.
To be clear, marriage is not by any means a social necessity. Support, love, and family can all be achieved without the humdrum of a lavish proposal and wedding reception oozing with Pinterest inspired Mason jar centerpieces. But this discussion is centered on those who do, in fact, opt into the institution and focuses on the deficiencies surrounding this discussion thus far with regard to those people. Now, with respect to the pursuit of marriage, it is unfairly restrictive to define marriage as simply “having a willing partner” as Brooke describes it. It is also an unfair characterization of a relationship that requires endless emotional efforts. While, yes, marriage does require a willing partner, it is also representative of the initiation of our very own independent and deeply personal endeavor of partnership. It is, thus, incredulous to say that such a significant relationship—one that is so impactful on our daily life experiences—is one that is unworthy of the trappings of achievement. If you do not look at that relationship as an accomplishment, then perhaps it is because you either (1) have partners who do not inspire a sense of ascendancy worthy of achievement, or (2) characterize marriage as the logical opposite to the pursuit of success and progress.
Just as gender roles have evolved vis-à-vis desperately needed progression, so has the institution of marriage. Thus, if one is comparing present-day marriage to 1950s social frameworks, then their antiquated understanding of the institution is in need of some updating in order to realize that marriage can be whatever you want to make of it. It does not mean the minimization of other achievements, nor does it mean the inhibition of life goals. Rather, it can very well mean the pursuit of all of those things—each and every dream you could ever muster—while having someone by your side to both witness and provide support throughout it all, and vice versa with respect to the pursuits of your spouse.
In my own experience, every single major accomplishment of my adult life—graduating from law school, passing the bar, getting a book deal—took place after I said “I do.” Being married was neither here nor there with respect to the pursuit of my dreams. The two are distinct, and very much compatible. If they were not compatible, then it would not be because marriage as an institution was incompatible with my goals, but because my partner and I did not allow our understanding of how a marriage should operate to be one that accounts for the sanctity of individualism. Thus, if marriage is something that you understand to be an encumbrance to that pursuit, then it is your own view that is limiting a potentially beautiful institution to one of regression when it, in no way, is required to be. Why subscribe to such self-limitation? Why allow that self-limitation to minimize and dwarf the significance of a truly significant relationship?
It is of further interest that, in her piece, Brooke characterizes marriage as an insignificant pursuit because it does not require having, “a brain, drive or special skill,” as support for her contention that marriage is not an accomplishment. This essentially postulates that the realm of the accomplished is solely populated by those with skills and credentials—that we are only as accomplished as our professions and/or our competencies. This quite unfairly subordinates women who choose lives as homemakers as tragically “unaccomplished.” Thus, while Brooke’s points may have been celebrated as a pioneering think piece on gender progression, it is actually quite regressive in its very limited view of feminine success by framing certain choices as ones devoid of accomplishment. Brooke recently backtracked this ideal in a follow-up piece in which she clarifies that “finding happiness” is actually the real accomplishment—in marriage or otherwise. Despite this clarification, the same problematic hierarchy pinning marriage as less of an accomplishment as other endeavors remains unscathed and no less divisive.
As a final point, a bit of cultural relativism is quite evidently missing from this discussion. To be clear, there is a certain level of privilege that is inherent in marriage that not all women, or men for that matter, experience in the same way. Unfortunately, the nuances that are required in these discussions because of cultural disparities often come up missing, leaving much social discourse resoundingly incomplete. You see, for women who descend from peoples who have always had full romantic agency, marriage may not constitute much of an accomplishment anymore, as such romantic agency has always remained within their historical grasp. For many people, however, this is not the case.
African American women, for example, have only enjoyed a few generations of such uninhibited romantic agency subsequent to the vile history of slavery that not only separated husbands and wives and children, but also summoned with it an era in which interracial marriages were punishable by law. The pursuit of autonomous marriage is not an insignificant one in the face of such a tumultuous and violent history. Historical implications similarly affect the way the LGBT community experiences and relates to marriage, as it is a right for which they still ardently fight. As a further example, with respect to cultures in which arranged marriages are still prevalent, the ability to choose a life partner is not simply an unaccomplished pursuit. In many of these cases, romantic agency is nothing short of a cultural rebellion. I, myself, am only of the second generation in my father’s family to depart from the construct of arranged marriages, thus descending from a long line of men and women whose romantic partners were chosen for them. Whose futures were pre-written and locked in by a panel of elders. My pursuit of romantic agency through marriage is not an insignificant one.
These examples are just a handful of the many materializations of marriage that are so clearly worthy of the lexicon of accomplishment. Getting married is worthy of a flood of congratulatory messages and dancing the night away in celebration. Of course, our professional progression is worthy of veneration. But so is the accomplishment of taking a chance on what will be one of the most intimate relationships of our lives.
Simply put, marriage is not an unaccomplished pursuit that fails to be indicative of success. It is a living, breathing experience and choice that can be as regressive or as empowering as your own ideals. It can be your source of support or your source of pain. The celebration of marriage does not serve as a marker of regression. In fact, being married is an accomplishment that bears absolutely nothing except a source of support upon other accomplishments, unless, that is, your world view of marriage is one that is far too antiquated to allow that to be true.
Image courtesy of Andrew Itaga/Unsplash
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