Mary Rolfes: The im-Pact of the nuptial narrative

Wednesday, December 4, 2019 - 6:12pm

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Like many students across the University of Michigan’s campus, on Monday, Nov. 11, I spent the evening distracted from my work in anticipation for a special inbox notification. It wasn’t related to an internship update, a grad school application or even a dreaded Canvas posting. On Monday night, I waited with bated breath for the results of an online dating survey — the Michigan Marriage Pact. Created by U-M students for U-M students, the survey originated as a project for a psychology class and quickly became so much more. Word of this matchmaking service spread across campus, and within a few weeks, it seemed like everyone had taken part — even those of us already in relationships. Soon after the results were sent out on Monday night, the U-M Facebook meme page was flooded with Pact-related content, including lamentations over large age differences, mismatched gender preferences and the algorithms’ failure to pair them with anyone at all. Unfortunately, after all the anticipation of the evening, I found myself among the unmatched. Despite my previous successes in online dating, the Marriage Pact left me loveless — well, within the boundaries of campus, at least.

My relationship journey with the Michigan Marriage Pact ended that Monday night. But for the survey takers who were properly paired up, the question changed from ‘So, who?’ to ‘Well, what next?’ The project’s title implies a motive of tying the knot. Of course, this response would be a bit extreme — even the survey’s creators acknowledge this, disclaiming on their website that while ‘Marriage’ is in the name, they “never said it applied to your match.” And, yes, it does seem excessive to jump from an email notification to a nuptial celebration. But if a Pact match does happen to create a spark, shouldn’t the ultimate goal be to fan it into a lifelong flame and validate it with a legal ceremony? Whether one dates via swipe, soirée or online survey, there is an ever-present push towards the finish line of a marriage certificate. Any relationship that doesn’t achieve this end is regarded as not having worked out — as a failure. And every connection is, at some point, evaluated on its ability to be ‘the one’ leading to marriage. In the United States, the popular narrative of love is one of dating to marry. The domination of this single story normalizes an expected progression of relationships, leaving out the many alternative, equally valid pathways for lifelong love. The popularity of the Michigan Marriage Pact presents the perfect opportunity for us to reexamine and challenge the expectation of marriage and to promote the diversity of relationships and the expression of love in whatever form it may take. 

There is no questioning the prevalence of marriage in the United States. While it certainly has decreased since the mid-20th century, the percentage of adults who are married has stayed about 50 percent for the past decade. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, love and lifelong commitment are cited as the two most important reasons for tying the knot. This sentiment may seem beautiful at first glance, but a deeper look at these high proportions naturally leads to the question of why so many people feel that marriage is such a crucial validation of love and commitment. There is nothing inherent about the relationship between love and marriage, yet through the domination of legal regulation in the realm of love, they have become inextricably intertwined. The same 2013 survey also pointed out the reality of the financial and legal benefits of marriage, which approximately a quarter of respondents claimed were important motivators for marriage. It’s difficult to deny these motivations when public and private institutions offer numerous advantages which can only be achieved through marriage, including tax deductions, Social Security benefits and health insurance savings. These benefits not only incentivize marriage, but also further normalize it as the ultimate form of a relationship when the same perks are not extended to other long-term commitments that don’t, or can’t, involve getting married.

Though the necessity of nuptials has remained a dominating idea in the U.S., the beginnings of a challenge to this norm are already underway, and millennials are the ones starting it. That’s right — the nation’s most vilified generation is back to kill yet another industry. And this time, they’re after the marriage complex. Millennials are the first age cohort to drop below a 50 percent marriage rate for 25 to 37-year-olds. The progression of love, then marriage, then baby carriage is also beginning to break down — the proportion of unmarried parents who cohabit nearly doubled from 1997 to 2017, and a recent study revealed 55 percent of millennial births are occurring before marriage. It’s nearly impossible to investigate this trend without running into discussions of its negative consequences, such as financial hardship, on parents and children. But what these fearful arguments fail to recognize is that marital status itself does not produce these negative consequences — it is the social institutions that prefer married parents to unmarried ones. As late Gen Y and early Gen Z babies move into phases of serious dating and relationships, it’s important to continue challenging and restructuring the oppressive social structures that uphold marriage as the most valid expression of love.

The institutional regulation of relationships and repression of love has been slowly but surely decreasing in the past few decades. In June 1967, the Supreme Court decided unanimously in Loving v. Virginia that laws prohibiting interracial marriage are unconstitutional. In June 2015, the court made a much closer 5-4 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges declaring the right to same-sex marriage to be guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment. These decisions were, without a doubt, crucial steps in terms of both civil rights and the liberation of love. But if we hope to move further in these fights, we must move beyond legalization and begin to question the need for a legal regulation of love in the first place. Instead of pacts, certificates and ceremonies, let’s focus on partnership, consent and communication. Let’s make freedom of love accessible to all by freeing love from regulation. To those of you who caught a match through the Marriage Pact, consider what you’re ultimately looking for in this and any dating venture. And for those of you who didn’t, just remember there are plenty of flexible fish in the sea. Of course, you may not even want to go fishing — and that’s fine, too.

Mary Rolfes can be reached at morolfes@umich.edu.