The XX Factor

Against Marriage: A Ring Does Not Define a Relationship

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A few years ago my boyfriend and I took our vows. “Let’s vow never to get married,” I said. And he agreed.

Last week Julia Shaw implored Slate readers to “Marry Young,” arguing that becoming a wife at 23 means she and her husband now enjoy an “unmatched companionship.” Amanda Marcotte replied by bringing up the fact that early marriages often end in early divorces. Her conclusion? “If he’s good enough to marry, he’ll still be around when you’re ready to make that leap.”

Eight years into our relationship, the furthest my boyfriend and I have “leapt” is designing a ring we both wear with the inscription, “To hold but not to have.” That’s our idea of living happily ever after.

But the expectation that all “good” relationships end in marriage is not limited to Marcotte or Shaw. The latter quoted a study stating only 40 percent of unmarrieds want to stay that way. At the same time, fewer couples are marrying than ever before. A report released last week by the National Center for Health Statistics revealed that 32 percent of couples skip nuptials entirely (48 percent of women aged 15 to 44 said their “first union” was cohabitation, not marriage). “Cohabitation is a common part of family formation in the United States, and serves both as a step toward marriage and as an alternative to marriage,” the report said.

For those of us who see marriage less as a tie that binds and more as a tie that strains, foregoing the knot is essential to a healthy relationship. Like any institution, marriage has rules. It’s these rules—the unspoken societal ones as well as the legally binding ones—that my boyfriend and I worry will weigh us down. Take the expectation that the male member rules the couple. One of my boyfriend’s best friends recently told me he had been “pressuring” my boyfriend to ask me to marry him, as if, should I wish to enter holy matrimony, I couldn’t just propose myself. 

My boyfriend wouldn’t want me to anyway. “I would never be just Chris ever again, I would always be Chris and Soraya,” he says of post-marriage life. And he’s right. With marriage, identities suddenly become fused—there is no husband without a wife and vice versa. For two people who fell in love with each other precisely because of their individuality, sacrificing this distinction would be counterproductive. 

Perhaps it wouldn’t be honest to discuss our stance on marriage without mentioning that both my boyfriend and I come from divorce. When you consider the apparent ease with which the never-married Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis drifted apart after 14 years together, it does seem that parting occasions less sweet sorrow for the unwed. Not to mention that you’re under less pressure when every argument doesn’t necessarily push you closer to the institution of divorce.

But one of the main reasons marriage is not important to us is that we already feel united. Putting a ring on it is not only superfluous, it’s limiting. Our relationship cannot be symbolized by a solitaire or even a 20-carat Kardashian carbon copy. As Oprah Winfrey said in 2005 in response to why she and her partner of 27 years had never gotten hitched, “A piece of paper does not define a life.” And a ring does not define a relationship.