Why Is Marriage Still the Default Metric of Relationship Success?

what we talk about when we talk about marriage man repeller wedding rings


his time last week, it was still the part of March that cosplays as February, and I was sitting cross-legged on the floor, opposite my boyfriend. I was writing, he was doing something that was not writing. We were not engaging save for the occasional hand on a neck, or the refilling of water glasses. His living room smelled like tobacco and olive oil, and I wrote that down.

We have carried out some form of this tableau, in different apartments and different T-shirts, for years now. This is how I have learned to articulate love.

In our early stages, we checked all the standard boxes — sleeping together, then sleeping together without parting ways circa 9 a.m. the next morning, followed by the declaration that we were no longer sleeping with other people, which for some reason did not yet classify us as “in a relationship.” Commitment came with all the moving pieces of a business deal or a bathroom renovation.

We are no anomaly. This dragged out, begrudged approach to officiating a relationship is par for the modern course. It has become standard among my generation to skirt along the edges of monogamy, loitering near the perimeters, avoiding devotion in its full form until we’re absolutely, positively sure that there’s a future to be had.

But as far as I’ve observed, we are rarely absolutely, positively sure of anything at all. So why do we continue to gauge the value of our relationships using the metric of “forever”? Is it not a mistake to believe that our romantic entanglements ought to come with lifetime guarantees?

As someone who feels otherwise content romantically, the question of marriage rears its tacky, veiled head incessantly — at parties, in office happy hours, over the telephone with my grandmother: “So, do you think you and J will get married?”

I hate this question.

For one, it seems far too intimate a question to have earned a place in the lexicon of small talk. “Do you think you’ll marry him?” feels no more appropriate to chirp at a party than “is your rash improving?” More pressingly, it places my relationship in a paradigm I never agreed to. If I love unabashedly but perhaps not eternally, is my relationship somehow invalid? Is the version of devotion I experience rendered less meaningful if it doesn’t end in marital vows?

I am not purporting that I don’t believe in marriage, or even that I don’t want it for myself, but rather, that I am tired of defending the worth of my present relationship simply because it is, rather than because it serves as a precursor to infinity.

When my mother talks about old boyfriends, they are most often characterized as failures — blips on a record that eventually adds up to a perfect union. Weeks ago, my colleague admitted that she found it difficult to go on second dates with men whom she couldn’t picture as fathers. My single roommate, meanwhile, has already selected a venue: an austere, industrial space in Gowanus, perfectly suited for a winter wedding.

There is nothing inherently wrong with prioritizing marriage, but I wonder if we do ourselves a disservice in the process. The partners who fall short under the “til death do us part” clause are often among the most formative forces we encounter. In our relationships, we offer ourselves up at our most malleable. We walk away shaped differently. For this, we owe our exes some small measure of gratitude, even if it comes knotted inside a much larger supply of resentment. Consider Ariana Grande’s ever-wise mantra: “Thank U, Next.”

I recently spent six hours in bed next to a friend, eating dry corn flakes and drinking red wine out of stained mugs, while she agonized over a relationship that had met its demise earlier that morning. “He said he was really happy,” she explained in between bites of cereal. “But that it wasn’t sustainable.”

While refilling her glass, I assured her that men are vile, friendship prevails, and love is probably overrated. That a healthy combination of Malbec and pantsless whining would help. I also told her that we are rarely comfortable with the ends of things — that people are sometimes willing to forfeit beginnings and even middles for fear of their imminent conclusions. This particular man had surrendered a great thing, all for his aversion to impermanence.

I am still unsure how we ought to talk about the role transience plays in our relationships — or if we ought to talk about it at all. But I am fairly certain that happiness as a quality is no more reliably sustainable than, say, a perpetually clean room. I believe it’s a misstep to bar ourselves from indulging in relationships simply because they do not point, clearly and directly, towards some everlasting virtue. Everything need not be eternal to be worthy of our efforts.

There is, of course, truth to the fact that our past relationships are poised to dent us in ways that ache in the long term. But I don’t believe that the accumulation of hurt acquired from a personal history in intimacy amounts to anything other than a body more readily equipped, in new and magnanimous ways, to love and be loved. This has value unto itself. And looking to matrimony as the North Star denies us the absolute privilege of being broken down or built up by the people who will come to take up sufficient real estate in our lives.

In the context of my own relationship, I am not ready for the end. Whenever and if ever it comes, it will hurt in ways that are both deafeningly painful and utterly cliché.

But then there’s this: right now, angled beneath slants of dull sun splayed across empty plates and discarded issues of The Atlantic, the man who sits across from me shuts his laptop. “This is good light,” he says, reaching for a camera.

There is no declaration of eternal devotion wrapped up in this exchange. It is merely an instance, embedded in a framework of a million instances, all of which amount to a strange, spectacular thing that cannot be rendered meaningless, no matter how long it persists. It is good and it was good and it will have been good, even after its theoretical end.

Illustrations by Liana Jegers

Eliza Dumais

Eliza Dumais

Eliza Dumais covers food, fashion, lifestyle, and Justin Bieber in no particular order.

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