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  • Does marriage strengthen commitment—or is it just a piece of paper? Some people vacillate between the two views. Tweet This
  • Finances, unstable families, fear of divorce, and anxiety about commitment all make young people leery of marriage. Tweet This

When I interviewed Rodney, 31, he was a restaurant manager who had been with the mother of his four-year-old son for 12 years. Although he said he and his girlfriend Cammi eventually wanted to marry, they had not yet even become engaged. In a series of interviews that spanned about two years, I tried to understand why.

When I first interviewed him, Rodney told me that marriage was not important enough to make it to the top of their priority list. For him, when it comes to “being with somebody,” it’s about “a relationship that you have. You know, you wear rings to show off that you’re with a certain person. But [do] you have to have some monetary item to say ‘I’m with somebody’? I can say I’m with Cammi all day long. People know that. I can smile at her, she smiles right back, that’s all we need, you know. I don’t need somebody telling me we’re married.”

“Honestly,” he said, “there is no guideline to, to marriage out there anywhere. You know, it’s basically just a commitment between the two people. And, for the most part, if you have a commitment without a marriage and you still have that commitment, isn’t it the same? The commitment’s the same whether you’re married or not. Just somebody else has listened to it, agreed to it and put it on a piece of paper, and said yes.”

In other words, he didn’t necessarily believe in marriage.

‘I don’t need somebody telling me we’re married.’

But he still proposed to his girlfriend with the ring his grandmother gave him. (Cammi said no because she wants him to buy her her own ring.) And when I asked Rodney if he thought there was a difference between marriage and living together, he didn’t hesitate:

Oh, I feel so…. I live with Cammi, I do my thing, she does her [thing]. When you’re married, decisions have to be made together. When you’re not married, I can make the decision to get up and leave if I want. If I’m married, I got to make my decision with my wife on when we can leave, when we can come back, how much money we can spend, how much we can’t. When you’re married, things are pulled together. When we’re not married—like right now we’re not married—my money’s my money and her money’s her money; we do this, we do that. I buy this this time. You buy this next time, and so on and so forth.

So while he didn’t necessarily believe that he needed to get married, because they had the commitment anyway, he insisted that marriage does make a difference.

The only thing stopping them from getting married, he explained, is the money.

The kind of wedding I want, I don’t really care. I’ll go down to the building downtown and pay the 50, 80 bucks and get married, it’d be fine. She won’t. Hers has to be a certain way. That’s why we’re not married right now. Hers costs about 25,000 dollars, and I just don’t quite have that right now to get married off of. If I had that kind of money, we’d be buying a house right now.

Moreover, he added, if they were to get married now, “I think it’s almost doing it worse because we’re so happy as we are now.” When you get married, he said, the “expectations” go up. Marriage is supposed to be about commitment, he pointed out, “But what if you’re wrong in your commitment? What if you get a divorce in a year: are you more committed than that person who never got married?” Yes, marriage is supposed to be about stability, he said. But is stability good? What if it hurts?

“I think I look at marriage and stability as something that’s gonna hurt me, because I’m not used to it,” he said.

Marriage, he said, “makes me nervous as hell.” As a child, he watched multiple stepdads come and go. “I’ve grown up in a family where marriage was never really a rock for anything.”

And he doesn’t “agree” with divorce, he said. He knows what it does to kids, and it’s breaking your word. “So I would rather not get married than have to suffer the chances of getting a divorce,” he concluded.

‘I look at marriage and stability as something that’s gonna hurt me.’

As I later reflected on that first interview, I was struck by the co-existence of at least four factors in Rodney’s mind: he downplayed the importance of marriage, while at the same time insisting that there was a difference between living together and marriage—and all of this within the context of saying that the only reason they weren’t married was because of finances, while at the same time acknowledging that marriage made him “nervous as hell.”

So, in my follow-up interviews, I tried to draw out some of the apparent contradictions. Did he really think marriage was just a piece of paper, or did it mean something important? Was the only reason he and his girlfriend had been delaying marriage because of finances, or did it serve as a useful cover for deeper and more emotionally fraught reasons, like anxiety about divorce and distrust in the relationship?

I asked Rodney if there wasn’t a contradiction to say that marriage was just a meaningless piece of paper that makes an important difference.

“Yes and no,” he started out. Marriage is on a piece of paper, he explained, but when you marry someone, you can’t just argue with your spouse and leave; you’ve got to work toward a resolution. But when you’re living together, “You generally don’t tell the person where you’re going.” There is no “responsibility,” he said. In his eyes, marriage elevates expectations by inducing the responsibility of both spouses for each other. In other words, despite what he had initially told me about how “the commitment’s the same whether you’re married or not,” he seemed to think that marriage meant greater commitment—and precisely because it means greater commitment, you had better be sure you know what you’re getting into. Otherwise you’re headed straight for the last thing he wants: divorce.

Recalling what he said about how he’d rather remain unmarried than experience divorce, I asked him, “What is it about divorce that you don’t really like?”

He looked around the restaurant where we sat, and in a hushed tone said,

It’s not something that I would say is going to happen, but 99 percent of the time a divorce ends in some sort of domestic violence. Growing up as a battered child through the domestic violence of my parents—I don’t want to do it. I wanna undo it. And that might bring back memories that I don’t want to trigger, that I’ve made myself forget over the years. And if so, it might change my demeanor on how I look at life: “Oh, I’m divorced, I’m depressed. I’m not gonna do this no more. Life’s going down the drain.”

In other words, in his mind, marriage is associated with domestic violence and divorce. Yes, marriage is supposed to mean stability in the abstract, but in his experience, that’s not what it has felt like. It goes back to what he said about how, in his family, marriage has never been “a rock for anything.”

“So,” I said, sensing a synthesis, “you don’t want to get divorced, and that’s one of the reasons you’re not married right now.”

“Well,” he said, “the only reason I’m not married right now is because she wants a big wedding, and I can’t afford it.”

It was back to the financial obstacles—and I was confused again. It was his insistence that financial reasons were the “only” reason for not getting married that didn’t seem to fit with the story he had just told. In his own telling, there very much seemed to be other things going on. But for whatever reason, when directly asked, he insisted that his thoughts had nothing to do with why they weren’t getting married. Why?

I asked him about another apparent contradiction I had been intrigued by. Marriage, he said, was “more for the people than it is for the kids.” Marriage is about a couple showing commitment to each other. “Children,” he said, “are more or less for us to leave something behind. It’s more of a way for us to take some of us, put it into our child, leave them behind so they have something else to give on to the world that we didn’t. But as far as being married and having kids, personally with my experience, it’s more common now that you’re not married and having kids than it is if you area.”

In other words, marriage is about the couple, not kids.

But at another point in the interview, he seemed to connect the two: “I always told myself, if I have a kid, I’m gonna stay with that woman forever because I don’t want my kid growing up with somebody else being their father, because that’s how I grew up.” And then, to drive home the point, he said, “And sure, I’ll probably marry [Cammi] just because I don’t want to lose her. And I know that sounds bad, but I also don’t want to lose my kids and I want my kids to know their mom and their dad.”

‘I always told myself, if I have a kid, I’m gonna stay with that woman forever.’

I reminded him of those latter words in our follow-up interview. I wanted to know more about that.

“A girl without a mom or dad,” he began, “or a girl with somebody else being your mom and dad and taking that place, you learn a new perspective.” Then, he looked straight at me and asked, “Your parents still together?”

Yes, I said, they were.

“I had nine stepfathers,” he said. “I’ve been beat, abused, taken advantage of. I’ve had four stepmoms who have been better than my mom. I’ve got a stepdad right now…that I could call right now, he’ll be here today, before my own mom or dad would be. So you gain good relationships out of it, but I’ve got one good relationship out of all of them. My mind is, I don’t want my kid to ever not have me in his life. And when you have divorce—”

Before he could say more, though, Rodney’s manager interrupted us. He had to return to work, but I was on the edge of my seat. His experiences and feelings kept bulldozing his theories and official explanations.

Yes, marriage ups the social expectations, and transforms the relationship from an “I” to a “we”; no, my girlfriend and I don’t need a piece of paper telling us we’re committed.

No, marriage is not about children; yes, I’ll probably end up marrying my girlfriend just so I can give my kids the mom and dad I never had growing up.

Yes, marriage is supposed to be about stability; no, in my experience, marriage isn’t a rock for anything.

No, the only thing keeping us from getting married is finances; yes, I’m “nervous as hell” about marriage.

So why isn’t Rodney married? And what does he think about marriage? It’s complicated.