What Makes A Marriage?

As our generation creeps slowly towards our 30s, more and more of us are starting to think about the M word: Marriage. What we want out of our partnerships is a question mark for many of us as we grapple with what could be called the ultimate badge that says, “We are now adults.” Some have already been divorced, others have never been in a relationship, and many are in committed relationships with or without a marriage license. 

This was the angle at which I approached “The New I Do,” a guidebook and call-to-action to remake marriage for all couples. Written by Susan Pease Gadoua and Vicki Larson, and published by Seal Press, “The New I Do” argues that marriage as is doesn’t meet the needs of too many couples, and that making a more flexible framework with clearly defined contracts can help couples find an arrangement that works for their needs. 

The premise behind “The New I Do” is hard to argue with: Traditional marriage, with strict gender roles and little wiggle room, is on the way out and for good reason. But the book falters when the authors try to find a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Marriage as it once was is becoming harder and harder to find, but that doesn’t mean the institution needs to be officially reworked. Plenty of couples, including millennials, are already doing that.

In ways big and small, millennials are reshaping marriage the same way we’ve reshaped other institutions that don’t seem to work for us. Our generation is a totally different beast, with entirely different problems from those that faced our parents and grandparents. As a result, we’re finding ways to make adult milestones fit our situations, and for many that means shifting established goalposts or changing an existing framework. 

Marriage is no different. “The New I Do” relies on outdated statistics to make the case that half of marriages end in divorce, a misleading talking point that’s recently been disproved in part because our generation is staying married. We’re highly educated and getting married later, two factors that have indicated a lower chance of divorce in the past. We’ve also been key in passing landmark marriage equality legislation, suggesting we think of marriage in a way that past generations have not. Marriage, rather than being a straightjacket or obligation, is a progressive and exciting civil right.

Millennials also live together before marriage in larger numbers than generations past, in part because society is more accepting of young couples shacking up. This makes sense: Given the economic toll still being taken out on our generation, two have a much better chance of making rent than just one. Sure, it’s not romantic, but it’s smart, which suggests we think of our relationships not just as passionate affairs but as multi-faceted partnerships.

But “The New I Do” is less than enthusiastic about living together before marriage, writing it off as “nothing like marriage.” For a book that seeks to embrace the nuance of personal relationships, it’s a pretty flippant and condescending way to address the 7.8 million couples (as of the 2012 census) building a life together prior to tying the knot. According to the authors, cohabiting couples have an “easy way out,” a dig that belies a lack of respect for the deeply intertwined lives of domestic partners and overemphasizes the assumed changes a couple goes through after marriage. As more and more couples buy homes, have children, or make other significant commitments prior to marriage the idea that living together is not enough is becoming extremely outdated. 

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In place of traditional marriage, ‘The New I Do” advocates various contracts that outline roles that deviate from the once-assumed roles taken on after marriage. Some of the marriages discussed are built around the desire to explore marriage with limited commitment (Starter Marriage), make one specific need the focal point of the relationship (having children or having a companion), or eschew monogamy in favor of open arrangements. None of these are revolutionary, and most of them are already taking place inside marriage as it is today.

That’s, ultimately, where “The New I Do” trips over itself. For millennials, marriage means one million different things. We are the generation who have grown up in a time of unprecedented diversity in the way “family” is interpreted and represented. There are many millennials who still find traditional marriage a great fit, and there are plenty of examples of families in pop culture and real life who embrace the husband-wife dichotomy in a way that is empowering and enriching to their own lives. Even though there’s still a long way to go, today it’s easier than ever to see families that look like your own or look like something you could envision yourself in. Same-sex families, interracial couples, marriage with no children or with twenty children, power couples who jet set around the world solo while married—today we’re accustomed to seeing it all. Even open marriage has a fabulous and outspoken poster-couple, as author Neil Gaiman and musician Amanda Palmer regularly field questions from fans on their marriage.

Marriage isn’t really an institution anymore, but more a nebulous label applied to many different things for the sake of simplicity. Whether it’s religious, traditional, secular, entered for convenience or out of uncontainable love, every single marriage is different even if the couple in the marriage doesn’t feel the need to label their arrangement. “The New I Do” is right when it advocates making marriage work for you and your partner, but it’s late to the party. Millennials are already reinventing marriage, and making it stronger in the process.

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