Jill has a post up this week: I’m Never Getting Married. It opens
I actually donâ€™t know if thatâ€™s true (her claim in the title of the post), but the closer I get to standard marrying age, the less I think itâ€™ll ever happen â€” first because I think marriage is kind of a crock, and second because Iâ€™m becoming fairly certain that there just isnâ€™t anyone out there who I want to be forever bound in marriage with.
It’s an interesting and lengthy post, though Jill doesn’t spend as much time on the second part of her reasoning (the near-certainty that there is no one out there whom she wants to marry) as she does on her first. Part of Jill’s criticism of marriage is directed at engagement and wedding ritual; she specifically calls out diamonds and bachelor parties. She makes some excellent criticisms of both (particularly the anti-feminist implications in the former and the horrifying behavior of many men at the latter).
Back in 2004, when I was engaged but not yet wed, I posted about diamond rings here. I noted that while I bought my wife an engagement ring, she bought me one as well. Here’s an excerpt:
…itâ€™s important to remember that the origins of our traditions do not dictate their contemporary meaning. There is little doubt that the practice of having a father walk his daughter down the aisle to her groom (rather than having both parents escort her) is rooted in notions of the marriage as property transfer. But in the modern world, we are free to take older traditions and remake them, transforming their meaning as we please. What was once oppressive need no longer be so. Iâ€™ve known some strong women who walked down the aisle on Dadâ€™s arm dressed in white â€” and they werenâ€™t property (and they sure as hell werenâ€™t virgins). At some point, oppression is entirely in the eye of the beholder, and these women didnâ€™t feel oppressed by the ritual itself.
It is absolutely true that folks will make judgments about a manâ€™s wealth and status based upon the size and perceived expense of his fianceeâ€™s engagement ring. But again, their perceptions do not determine the exclusive meaning! For me, the engagement ring does not symbolize wealth or ownership; rather, it symbolizes sacrifice and enduring commitment. In many traditions, it is customary for a man to say to his bride “with all my worldly goods I thee endow”. In the modern world, that means he is surrendering his financial (as well as his sexual) autonomy in order to build a blended life with his partner. Thatâ€™s no small sacrifice for either party when it is genuinely meant! The engagement ring symbolizes his commitment to share all that he has with her. (I suppose she could wear his 401K plan as a doily, but that wouldnâ€™t be nearly as appealing.)
As for bachelor parties that involve strip clubs or other forms of sexualized entertainment, I’m obviously appalled by them. (I’ve had small bachelor parties before each of my weddings, though a number of them have consisted of just hanging out with a group of friends of both sexes. None involved strippers.) I’ve posted many times about the sex industry in all of its forms, and won’t repeat those posts here. I do want to offer a ringing endorsement of what Jill writes on the subject:
Bachelor parties where the boys get together and go fishing or out to a nice dinner are one thing. But the â€œtake the groom-to-be out to watch naked women dance aroundâ€ is problematic not only because of the feminist issues with paying women to strip, but because it strikes me as a direct statement of power over his to-be wife â€” the message is that marriage is such a burden and a bore that he has to get all of his youthful energy out before he enters into it, even at his fianceeâ€™s expense.
There’s no question that going back for more than a century, pop culture has set men up to believe that marriage means the end of “fun”. The jokes about “the old ball and chain” go back to the furthest extent of living memory. And of course, there’s a small grain of truth in all of this ugly humor. If your definition of happiness is the pursuit of everlasting novelty, then yeah, marriage will be dull by comparison. If your definition of freedom is the freedom to sleep with as many women as you can, then yes, marriage will seem confining.
But I’ve already written my paeans to monogamy; I’ve already said (to the exasperation of many of my readers) that I consider monogamous marriage to be the best vehicle I know for personal growth. (See my marriage archive if you want more of that.) I’m not going to repeat myself here, though I will say again that I know plenty of very evolved, interesting, compassionate people who have chosen alternatives to monogamy. To paraphrase Symmachus, there are many roads…
I respect Jill’s reasons for — at this stage of her life — rejecting marriage. But in her post, I don’t read the reason I hear from many young women (and not-so-young women) for their wariness. Whenever I launch into my glowing defense of marriage as a vehicle for personal transformation, someone (invariably a woman) remarks that in most marriages she’s seen (or been in) one partner is shouldering considerably more of the burden of creating that change. Almost always, that partner is a woman.
A good friend of mine, several years older than Jill, is recently divorced. She pledges never to remarry, saying: “In the end, most men expect women to take care of them once they’re married. I don’t mean financially, I mean enotionally. I’m just tired of thinking about someone else’s needs all the time, particularly an adult’s. I’m prepared to take care of a baby. But I don’t want my first-born to be my second child!”
My friend isn’t describing every American man. But she’s describing all too many. And it’s not just a reference to housework she makes. All of the research shows, of course, that even when both parties in a marriage work an equal number of hours outside the home, the woman tends to spend more time on domestic work. But the problem my friend is really focused on is less about doing the dishes and more about emotional intelligence (what’s often called “EQ”). Far too many men fail to do adequate self-care when they are in relationship with women. Far too many men becoming enormously reliant on their girlfriends or wives to urge them to see a doctor, to be the sole source of professional encouragement, to monitor their alcohol intake or the content of their diets. Far too many men unintentionally turn their girlfriends or wives into mother figures; in a sense, they outsource their emotional maintenance.
Every romantic partnership ought to be just that, a partnership. And while the partners are rarely going to be equally adept at every physical and spiritual and emotional task, it is important that the overall psychic workload of their union be shared fairly. Too often, women like my friend feel that when they marry, they end up focusing all of their time and energy on meeting the needs of their husbands. And while there is an element of need in even the healthiest of marriages, too often many women begin to feel that they are doing for their husbands what they damned well ought to be doing for themselves. Men can wash dishes (with hot water and detergent). Men can talk about their feelings with their friends just as so many women do, and thus alleviate some of the emotional burden many wives feel to be their husband’s sole source of psychological support. Men can stay faithful in body (and in fantasy), even when their wives don’t feel like having sex every night of the week.
Of course women have a huge part in this as well. Far too many women have traditionally derived their sense of self-esteem from their skill at providing pleasure and happiness to others. Some women deliberately seek out men who will be emotionally needy; part of the “bad boy” syndrome is sometimes less an attraction to the “bad” than it is to the “boy” who, beneath his truculence and his self-destructiveness, just “needs a little special TLC”. Both women and men can be architects of their own adversity in this regard. I am not absolving women of all responsibility here.
But in the end, I’m convinced that a great many women (not necessarily Jill) are reluctant to marry (or marry again) because they believe that their are relatively few men worth marrying. Many women look at the colossal sacrifices other women make in marriage, they look at the legions of husbands and fathers who are emotionally distant or desperately dependent, and they say to themselves “no thanks.” They are legitimately concerned that when they marry, a part of themselves will disappear; they fear — sadly, often rightly — that they will be forced to neglect their own growth to focus on enabling the growth of their husbands and their children.
I am not a perfect husband. One of my most important jobs as a husband, however, is to strike a balance between genuine intimacy and interdependence on the one hand, and emotional self-sufficiency on the other. Even now, at 40, after four marriages and a decade of therapy (including two years of formal analysis), after a dramatic and enduring spiritual conversion, after years and years of serving as a mentor and a counselor and a gender studies professor, I still have work to do. I still have to be vigilant not to slip into a pattern in which my wife ends up doing for me what I ought to do for myself. It’s not my wife’s job to make sure I eat right and get enough sleep, it’s not my wife’s job to tell me that I need to cut back on the exercise. If I am to be the man God calls me to be, I cannot outsource my self-care to my spouse.
My wife and I are trying to save chinchillas, trying to bring about social change, trying to plan for our own futures, trying to be agents of justice and love in the world. And we’re trying to have fun while we’re doing it. We rely on each other for encouragement, for comfort, for friendship. We focus our romantic and sexual lives on each other, knowing that if we put all our intimate energy into our relationship, we will emerge from our private moments recharged and more ready than ever to do the important work we are called to do.
So what’s the bottom line? There are many reasons not to want to marry. But one big whoppin’ reason for many women is that they’ve seen the available men. And while these lads may be cute, sexy, witty, kind, and bright, far too many of them strike the women around them as poor long-term investments. Far too many seem as if they’d end up being sons rather than husbands. And if we who believe in marriage want to see the institution thrive, we need to work on getting our brothers to grow up.
Note: This is an-MRA free zone, folks. No anti-feminist bromides permitted.