Marriage as a Constraint

Why some people do not marry.

I remember talking to a woman who came to psychotherapy primarily with a history of depression, but who very soon began to speak about her wish to settle down and marry. She was about forty years old. As far as I could tell, she did not display the usual impediment to serious dating, which is a refusal because of issues of pride or for some other reason to reach out to meet men. Most men and women who have trouble meeting and developing a serious relationship have trouble at the very beginning. They are not willing to put themselves through the process of meeting a great number of unsuitable partners before they find someone they like, and love. She had dated readily and frequently.

I saw her for over a year and watched while she found one man after another undesirable or unsuitable. Some of the men who pursued her were professionals who were still living at home with parents although they were into their mid-forties. She said, with some justification, that they were not mature. Some of them hesitated to approach her sexually, which struck her, again with some justification, as presaging a problem. On the other hand, when she met someone who seemed not too hot and not too cold, but just right, she found fault with him. He was sometimes, “too aggressive” sometimes “not interesting enough.”  Finally, when the subject of her dating came up again one day, she burst out with this remark:

“Why should I want to get married anyway–so I have to come home from work every day to make dinner for someone else? So I have to do his laundry and have sex whenever he wants and put up with all his opinions about what I should be doing and where I should be going?”

If she saw marriage as limiting her freedom in such a way—as a constraint—it was no wonder she had trouble finding someone. She did not really want to find someone! Although she was explicit with me, many other women imagine marriage as similarly limiting, although perhaps in more subtle ways. They talk about giving up independence, as if marriage was still what it used to be: a husband protecting and dominating a wife. Some, like the woman described above, feel it will be an additional set of responsibilities. They enjoy alone time and imagine that being married is not consistent with ever being alone. Sometimes, the sexual responsibilities of marriage seem to be onerous.

The men who regard marriage as a constraint talk about the prohibition of sleeping with other women, which is an important consideration for a small minority of men. Other bachelors say they don’t want to “have to answer” for purchases that may not be judicious in someone else’s eyes, such an expensive car or a fancy watch. Often, the whole idea of answering to someone at all seems undesirable. They say things like: “I don’t want to have to call up whenever I’m late coming home. I want to be able to play poker or practice in my band without having to apologize. I don’t want someone else spending my money.”

Still, most people get married; and for most people marriage is seen as liberating, rather than constraining—although certainly it is not commonly described in those terms. Marriage frees one, first of all, to have children. Although the various advantages of marriage usually go without mention, the wish for children is an exception. Both men and women have spoken to me of their desire to settle down for that reason.

Here are some of the other advantages of marriage: (When I speak about marriage, I do not mean having a piece of paper that legally binds a couple together. I include stable relationships which resemble marriage in all but the legal name.)

  1. Someone on your side. Someone who is rooting for your success in the world. Not only at work, but in all the other encounters and conflicts that burden everyday life. A helper. A confidant.
  2. Someone who is always there. Someone who can take care of you If you need care. Someone who is interesting to talk to.
  3. An economic partnership. Two people working can afford to live more comfortably than one person living alone. Shared economic goals are more achievable. Household tasks are less onerous when shared.
  4. Shared social and family relationships.
  5. A comfortable sexual relationship.
  6. And, of course, perhaps most important, children. The excitement and the worries of having children are shared more intimately with the another parent than with anyone else.

And love comes in here, somewhere. Marriage being difficult, it is a good idea to start off being in love. But after a number of years, romantic love is likely to fade or to turn into something more important, a life-long commitment. A successful marriage as described above is likely to lead a couple into this more substantial kind of love even if it does not start off with a head-over-heels, romantic attraction.

Does every marriage fulfill these promises? No, but couples entering such a relationship have an unspoken expectation of these benefits. For some, being unmarried is painful, and is one of the reasons people stay in unhappy marriages.

It is not clear why people construe marriage in such different terms. Most regard marriage as a positive—at least a potentially positive—experience; but some do not. The experience of growing up in happy or unhappy households surely has some relevance to how an adult views marriage, but not in any obvious, predictable way. Finally, it should be noted that even those who are afraid of getting married, for whatever reason, may find themselves marrying anyway when someone who seems very special turns up. (c) Fredric Neuman