In 2009, I married my boyfriend for health insurance. I was 24, and Aaron and I had been dating less than two years. Marriage had never even come up. I wasn’t even sure if I believed in it. But I’d recently gotten a reporting job that offered insurance—which, in my pre-Obamacare bartending days, sort of felt like winning the lottery. So in a gesture of love from one insured person to an uninsured one, we tied the knot at Chicago’s City Hall.
We went out of our way not to take it seriously. I wore black; he wore white. We posed for goofy photos and clinked champagne glasses at a rooftop bar. We texted all our friends that “hey, by the way, we got married, meet us at Gold Star,” the dive bar where Aaron worked. We drank Old Overholt for free all night and ate pulled-pork sandwiches crouching on the sidewalk. We fell into bed feeling happy and irreverent.
Everybody is tickled by this story, the broad strokes of which, I admit, are romantic and organic and quasi-unconventional. I told it for years, mostly because it was an opportunity to brag about how our insurance nuptials exposed the farce of traditional values. I framed my marriage of convenience as a defiant gesture, meant to make a mockery of outdated institutions—not only of sentimental matrimony, but of the cruelty of our failed health care system. It became key to shaping my identity as someone whose commitment was pure yet subject to change, unrelated to a binding contract, uncontaminated by cynical things like registries or honeymoons or financial security.
Unfortunately, marriages—even marriages like mine—have never been that simple. About two years in, I realized I wasn’t happy, that our sexual and intellectual connection was not strong enough to sustain a lifelong partnership. And yet I stayed. And stayed and stayed. Soon, I was eight years deep into a relationship that was making me miserable, but I couldn’t bring myself to end it. How did I, a self-sufficient progressive feminist, find myself loath to give up on an unhappy marriage that had started as a screw you to insurance companies?
The most iconoclastic among us think we’re impervious to marriage’s charms, so we consider it safe to buy in ironically, for the benefits and nothing else. I had assumed that since the institution meant nothing to me, I could bend it to my whims, rejecting and using aspects of it as I saw fit. But no matter how blasé I thought I felt about our transactional union, it managed to take on a life of its own. Because as I soon learned, there’s no easier way to defang a radical than the lure of a status bump.
When I was in college, my thoughts about marriage ranged somewhere between indifference and hostility. My classmates and I weren’t at all pressed to run to the altar after we graduated. We were doing things like waiting tables while nursing music careers or going to law school to avoid the recession. Then, starting in my late 20s, I began to receive wedding invites at an impressive clip from some of the same people whose jaws had dropped at my off-the-cuff wedding. Lots of those college drifters “got serious” with well-paying careers and paired up, often with each other. Virtually nobody in my inner circle opted for solo parenthood.
These friends married for love, surely. Theirs were what writer Emily Witt called “neo-marriages”: in most cases far from a “housewife-patriarch dynamic,” these couples acknowledged that some level of autonomy was to be retained. But their weddings also marked a consolidation of their money, power, and social capital.
Aaron’s social circles looked very different. He finally got his bachelor’s degree at 29, but his parents hadn’t finished college, and neither did many of his friends from his middle-class suburb or his service-industry jobs. For them, marriage was a distant goal they might consider once they started making good money or had a “real” job. A few who did get married got divorced within a few years. Some had kids and didn’t stay with their partners. Among his crowd, ours was an example of a stable and upwardly mobile partnership.
Matrimony has been tied to class for millennia. During the Victorian era, middle- and upper-class women were expected to pour every bit of their morally pristine energy into tending to their homes and families. People who were enslaved, or poor people of any race, needed not apply to wedded bliss. In fact, it was their very existence as farmers, domestic servants, wet nurses, and sweatshop workers that allowed rich white women to set aside grueling household tasks and concentrate on “uplifting” their homes. By 1850, there were twice as many servants per white household as there were just 50 years before.
Lower-class workers and formerly enslaved people could get married, technically, but their unions couldn’t hope to approach the ideals of the day. Mary White Ovington, a suffragist and early member of the NAACP, wrote in her 1911 study Half a Man that a Black woman in New York who did manage to marry also had to work outside the home, and thus “has no fear of leaving him since her marital relations are not welded by economic dependence.” And unwed women were financially on their own. As Jane Austen wrote in a letter to her niece while grudgingly defending marriage: “Single women have a dreadful propensity for being poor.”
Nineteen fifties America was a veritable marriage propaganda machine, one that can’t be separated from peak consumerism. After two decades of Depression and war, times were better than ever; by the mid-1950s almost 60% of the population were middle-class. Meanwhile, less than 10% of Americans in 1955 thought an unmarried person could be happy.
Of course, the breadwinner-housewife nuclear family wasn’t attainable for everyone. This perception of the “universal” norm put families who couldn’t achieve it—namely, the working class and virtually every person of color, who couldn’t afford to be a one-income household—in the position of having failed. Women who toiled at backbreaking jobs often envied housewives and viewed the home, not work, as the fulfilling aspect of their lives. The reaction of Black women to white feminists demanding to enter the workforce often was, “We want to have more time to share with family,” Black feminist bell hooks wrote in 1984. “We want to leave the world of alienated work.” When you’ve spent years improving other women’s domestic lives for little pay, inhabiting your own with a stable partner feels like a sacred privilege.
White, rich people have long used marriage’s supposed virtues as a way to denigrate low-income Black families under the guise of concern. Ovington, in the same 1911 study, wrote that most Black women in New York were beset with “sexual immorality” and deprived of their “full status as a woman” because they were not properly courted by male suitors. It was evident in 1965 that attitudes like these had staying power when Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then a Labor Department official in the Lyndon B. Johnson Administration, wrote in a much-criticized report that Black children with single mothers were doomed to fail. The government has continued to tout marriage as a cure-all for poverty. The George W. Bush Administration’s Healthy Marriage Initiative, which would continue funding programs for nearly two decades after its establishment, has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting marriage rather than alleviating the poverty of families that already exist.
Despite this persistent messaging, the cultural narrative of the last few years has been about marriage’s decline. Last year, the Pew Research Center analyzed census data and found that in 2019, 38% of American adults ages 25 to 54 were neither married nor living with a partner—and that “all of the growth in the unpartnered population since 1990 has come” not from divorced people, but “from a rise in the number who have never been married.”
One would think that since singlehood is becoming more common, social acceptance would follow. But one consequence of fewer marriages is that they’ve become luxury items for the privileged. Nowadays, the college educated are more likely to be married than people with only a high school degree, and their marriages last longer. Educated people also wait longer to get married and have children—which not only affects their earning power but also improves the prognosis of their marriage. Pew’s report points out that Black adults are the least likely to be partnered, and that single people’s median incomes and education levels are lower. Like that of many status symbols, marriage’s power lies precisely in its exclusion: It’s an institution that remains desirable, yet more and more out of reach, for millions of marginalized Americans.
A 2013 study out of the University of Virginia and Harvard found that the shift from authoritarian marriage to “companionate” marriage among equals came at a price, literally. The couples who can throw money at their problems—from therapy to date nights to babysitters—have a better chance of surviving. Financially stable marrieds invest in each other by pooling their resources. The researchers also found that economic instability had a direct correlation with mistrust and instability in one’s relationships. Many of the working-class interviewees were focused on their own financial survival, not providing “materially and emotionally for others.”
Besides the tax breaks and the security of health insurance, marrying Aaron wasn’t exactly an investment. Our marriage occurred during the depths of the recession, when our bank accounts hovered in the mid–three figures on any given day. Even years later, we felt like we were still too broke to have kids or save up to buy property. But the announcement of our nuptials unlocked something more inscrutable, and therefore more insidious, than financial gain: an alluring social acceptance that would prove hard to resist.
I noticed the difference almost immediately. After I posted a few pictures from City Hall on social media, people who never had much to say to me were suddenly showering me with well wishes. My coworkers from the suburbs seemed relieved to have figured me out. Aaron’s family started treating me . . . well, like family. Acquaintances gushed with advice and marriage-proposal stories. I began to understand the appeal of weddings. Everybody is so happy for you!
Before long, I’d discovered the effectiveness of saying “husband” when dealing with bureaucrats. The word proved useful for my reporting job too: when I was interviewing senior citizens or Christians, using “husband” helped us find common ground. I now had an ironclad comeback for sleazy guys who wouldn’t stop hitting on me. (It hadn’t yet dawned on me how depressing it was that identifying myself as another man’s property was more convincing to a harasser than “I’m not interested.”)
But it wasn’t just these little sparks of social capital that I could reach for dispassionately and only when necessary. To my horror, I started to truly feel self-satisfied. Even though my marriage was never meant to be a happily ever after, I felt “settled” in a way I hadn’t before. Our partnership was perceived as validated, solidified. Elders went from treating me like a child to addressing me as an actual adult. Even in the privacy of our own home, Aaron and I talked about our relationship as a forward-moving entity that would eventually lead to children and a mortgage.
To be clear, a stable partnership isn’t bad in itself; the devotion and acceptance Aaron gave me during our marriage was profound. It’s more my own smugness that disturbs me in retrospect. For a woman, “the status marriage confers insulates her somewhat from rejection and humiliation,” my mom, early radical feminist Ellen Willis, wrote in 1969, recalling her first foray into wifehood. “At least one man has certified her Class A merchandise.” Forty years later, marriage was still offering me a ticket to acceptance. It reminded me of my intrinsic desire as a middle-school floater to be liked by the popular girls, even as I gossiped about them at sleepovers with my more offbeat friends.
Once it was obvious that Aaron’s and my relationship was breaking down, the smugness turned into fear. That fear smothered my doubts when the early limerence of our romance started to fade, when I realized that our connection wasn’t as strong as it needed to be, long after I knew that this was not a forever match. I’d gotten a taste of marital privilege, and I didn’t want to let it go.
I was ashamed of this reticence to end my marriage. What kind of confident, independent woman was petrified of being single? What person of integrity applauds the concept of “single at heart” in public, then secretly pities unattached women? What supposedly class-conscious leftist clings to a privilege semi-accidentally afforded to her, at the expense of her own happiness?
I was having these private feelings just as a cultural celebration welled up in praise of the single woman. The narrative of “smug marrieds” talking down to singles like Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw had been replaced by cultural touchstones like Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies, which made a convincing and exhaustive case for single women’s rising political power, and Kate Bolick’s Spinster, a paean that profiled modern-minded gentlewomen like Edna St. Vincent Millay and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. (It’s worth noting that all the “spinsters” featured in the book ultimately got married, as did Bridget and Carrie.) A woman’s earning power gets hurt the moment she gets married, studies discovered— even if she never has children. Especially if they were educated, single women were not only enviable; they were politically and often economically powerful.
Meanwhile, a fair number of my friends were single. Whether or not they wanted to wed, their lives were full, busy and pleasurable. They also had an autonomy I did not, even with a live-and-let-live partner like mine. Yet I seldom envied them, even though I publicly related to them more than to my married friends. Instead, I dreaded the uncertainty and the vulnerability of being an unpartnered woman in her 30s. I chose to ignore the joy of their spontaneous decisions and the blissful mornings they spent alone in bed, fixating instead on the moments when they’d explain what skin hunger and extreme loneliness felt like.
Finally, several years too late, I did get divorced. I decided that neither the promise of societal approval nor the culturally endorsed anxiety about loneliness and abandonment was worth suppressing my desire for a different relationship, a different life. But I also now understand why lots of people—including supposedly confident, autonomous women—choose to stay in unsatisfying unions. Even after all these years of tweaking it and dilating it to suit our modern world, marriage has remained a social and financial aspiration, a sort of bribe for getting society’s full benefits. It continues to stigmatize single people by promising entry into a certain club with seemingly endless perks, the extent of which aren’t fully obvious until you actually join.
Since the fall of Roe v. Wade, Congressional Democrats have been trying to shore up other rights that may be under threat, including the right to same-sex marriage granted by 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges. The decision was a civil rights coup for the LGBTQ community, but also a win for the cult of matrimony. “No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy.
Some of us—including queer people—pointed out that Kennedy’s ultrasentimental framing was a strike against alternative models of intimacy. Domestic partnerships and civil unions were “an opportunity to order our lives in ways that have given us greater freedom than can be found in the one-size-fits-all rules of marriage,” Katherine M. Franke wrote in the New York Times the day before gay marriage was passed in New York State. “Having our relationships sanctioned and regulated by the state is hardly something to celebrate.”
I’m grateful for Obergefell v. Hodges and hope the right of same-sex couples to marry is protected, because discrimination is immoral. But correcting a wrong through expanding an oppressive institution still irks me. I wish instead for a world that respects all kinds of love and neutralizes the power of marriage altogether.
From BAD SEX: Truth, Pleasure, and an Unfinished Revolution by Nona Willis Aronowitz, to be published by Plume, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Nona Willis Aronowitz