|Look, Ma, no vows
Miller and his partner Dorian Solot, now in their late twenties, never gave much thought to marriage when they started dating in college. But after they graduated, they began to realize how heavily the institution weighed on their relationship. As an unmarried couple, they faced discrimination, they say: It was harder to obtain health insurance coverage, landlords were reluctant to rent apartments to them, and friends and family questioned the commitment of their relationship. "It seemed that ours was a culture that believed everyone should be married," Miller says.
It was then that Miller and Solot got the idea to start a non-profit organization to protect the interests of unmarried people. "We conducted qualitative interviews with unmarried couples and found great diversity in the stories," Miller says. "Some had legal or financial problems: One woman had lost her husband in a coal-mining incident. She later had a relationship with someone else, but would have lost her pension, which she needed to support her children, if she got remarried." The couple also sympathized with the dilemma same-sex couples face: Presently, no U.S. state permits gay marriage. "It didn't seem right to us that we could receive legal rights that same-sex couples, who were equally committed, couldn't," Miller says.
Founded in 1998, Miller's group now has 2,500 members. Many are heterosexual couples like Miller and Solot, who could marry legally but oppose the institution of marriage--because of their distaste for its high divorce rate, or a fear that marriage might adversely affect their present relationship, or an aversion to its history of privileging men over women. Other members include people who don't believe in lifelong monogamy, same-sex couples who cannot get married, and individuals in relationships that involve more than one person. Besides offering a community for unmarried people, the group provides them with help in obtaining the rights and protections that married couples already enjoy--the group's Web site, for instance, provides information about domestic partner registries, which employers use to decide who is eligible for certain health benefits and insurance rates.
Critics, however, argue that unmarried people already receive too much encouragement from today's popular culture, and the Bush administration and Republican lawmakers are now considering legislation to promote marriage. The proposals range from mandating marriage-skills classes in high schools across the country, to funding marriage-mentoring programs administered by community or faith-based groups, to even offering poor mothers cash incentives to get married and stay married.
According to proponents of such measures, there are two reasons to consider marriage superior to other types of relationships. First, not marrying sets a relationship up for failure: Studies show that couples who live together before marriage are more likely to divorce than couples who marry without living together beforehand. Second, the children born into cohabiting households suffer, as these homes tend to be less stable than ones with unmarried parents.
Miller counters that marriage is hardly an indication of stability either, given the high divorce rate in the United States. Most of the fears about the difficulties that out-of-wedlock children might face are also groundless, he says: Unmarried couples can sign an "acknowledgment of parenthood" statement for legal protection in the case of one parent's death or a breakup, so that children are spared some of the pain of separation. Furthermore, with American families taking on ever more forms--from single-parent homes to gay and lesbian households to interracial families--children today are more likely to expect these differences than their elders were.
Miller also disputes the notion that couples who marry without living together beforehand are more successful in their relationships. Studies also show that people who choose to live together are less religious than couples who choose not to live together before marriage--and hence, less opposed to divorce. Therefore, what the research actually shows is that people who are more opposed to divorce are less likely to divorce, Miller contends.
Still, there are some questions that even Miller and his group seem unable to answer. For one thing, how do alternatives families define themselves, now that the married father's family line is no longer the safe bet? What will it mean to be a Smith or a Chawla or a Weinstein in the future? Can you even be one if your mother never gives up her maiden name?
There's also the problem of discrimination closer to home: If couples are happy in non-matrimonial bliss, they still have to deal with their would-be in-laws. Even as the numbers of unmarried couples grow, the American public continues to show solid support for the institution of marriage. And some parents are still not willing to accept the long-term boyfriend or girlfriend into the family fold without a certain walk down the aisle.
"We feel some pressure to get married," says May, whose parents are Catholic. "But it's just not a priority for us right now." Nevertheless, his partner's parents have made it clear they prefer that the two be married. May still remembers his chagrin at the wedding of Walty's brother last year: The photographer gathered everyone together for a family picture, and May, to his surprise, was left out. "Jenny and I were really sad about it. Her mom was, too," he says. It made him realize one of the main reasons for getting married is not to join together two people in the eyes of the state, but to bring together two families. It's still possible to do that without marriage, May adds--but it's a lot harder.
Look, Ma, no vows