Marriage was once immutable, like forests and wild animals and clean air. It was as inevitable and reliable as the tides. But it isn’t inevitable anymore, nor reliable. With the majority of the people in the United States now single people, not married ones, we’re looking at a clearly more fluid entity when we look at marriage. But, just as I hated that Atlantic cover that asks us to conflate the rise of women with the end of men, so do I hate being told that the rise of single people means the end of marriage. It doesn’t. Marriage is alive and well and being entered into by more couples now than it ever was, thanks to gay marriage. Has it changed? Yes. The forever marriage we aways idealized has gone the way of clean air, and the kind of wife we’ve always always idealized—the perfect one that made more wives unhappy than it did happy, may be mercifully gone. Because here’s the thing those scary magazine and newspaper headlines forget to say: Women changed marriage. We changed it intentionally.
We said No Can Do when we saw the futility of trying to be as dutiful and selfless as tradition asked us to be—while having a career, too. We said We Can Do Without This, when facing a terminally unhappy relationship, because we knew we could manage to put a roof over our own heads. We said, Why Can’t Men Be More Nurturing? and Why Can’t They Do Half The Housework?—when such questions would have been preposterous if husbands continued to be the sole financial providers, as they once were.
So now we can be the kind of imperfect wife history prohibited. And, we can leave. We can marry more nurturing, helpful men. We can still keep the contract stipulating the same permanence and fidelity it always did, or we can tailor our marriages to the couple we actually are, if we see ourselves as less upright and traditional. So when we mourn the loss of marriage, the happily-ever-after ideal we’ve conjured in our heads, remember that we’re actually lamenting the loss of a wonderful fantasy that mostly never was. We’re mourning the loss of safety and everlasting love that both didn’t necessarily exist in marriage, and didn’t make women happ anyway! Scary as it is to give up the promise of perfect love forevermore, we can instead make a marriage that works for the couple we really are. If that means marrying men who don’t make very much money; or getting married later than we’d hoped; or not having a big wedding; or reimagining how we will or we won’t have a family; remember that the majority of women wanted it this way. Yes, we really did: The 65 percent of women who leave marriage and initiate divorce, asked for something else. If that means they, and we, don’t get everything that once was comforting and “perfect,” at least we’ll figure out a way to create marriage as a huge space, one massive enough for two thriving people to share their two vital lives: That alone is cause for celebration.