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Marriage is an inherently misogynistic institution – so why do women agree to it?

Photograph: Mode Images Limited/Alamy:© Provided by The Guardian
Marriage is an inherently misogynistic institution – so why do women agree to it?

“And still I wonder how much harder it would be to get straight women to accept the reality of marriage if they were not first presented with the fantasy of a wedding,” Jia Tolentino wrote in her superb essay, I Thee Dread. Just shy of 30 at the time of Trick Mirror’s release, Tolentino describes the endless parade of weddings that have begun to fill her weekends as, one after the other, her friends line up to get married.

This being the US, where college students are more likely to attend institutions out of state before shifting to other cities to work, the wedding circus stops in towns all over the country. That’s a lot of flying, and a lot of hotels. The price of witnessing your friends pledge their young lives to an institution that until only recently gave men the legal right to rape their wives (and still does in some US states, thanks to legal loopholes) does not come cheap.

But this is par for the course for the wedding industrial complex, where the average cost of throwing a knees-up to celebrate asking the government to legitimise your relationship is roughly A$36,000 (and that’s before interest). According to a 2022 survey conducted by the Australian government’s Money Smart website, while 82% of couples use all or part of their savings to pay for their wedding, 60% of couples take out a loan. Almost one-fifth of couples pay for their wedding using their credit card – and given that the median length of time between marriage and separation in Australia is roughly eight years, there’s a fair likelihood a lot of these people will still be paying off their weddings long after they’ve finalised their divorce.

Marriage is not now and never has been designed with women’s happiness in mind – and yet we’re told that without it, we will be miserable. As any sociologist can tell you, it’s men who benefit from marriage: they live longer, they are generally healthier and happier, and their economic prospects improve. On the other hand, studies have shown that married women die earlier. And marriage alone isn’t a guarantee of happiness for women – they are happy if they have a happy marriage.

When it comes to divorce, the financial risk to women is more perilous: ASX research based on numerous studies has shown that women’s incomes drop by around 21-30% after divorce, an economic hit that it takes an average of six years to recover from. The same is not true for men, their income briefly dipping by about 5% before recovering. We can assume one of the reasons for this is the cost of raising children, both in terms of economic outlay and deprivation of economic opportunity.

Criticising marriage, the so-called “bedrock” of western civilisation, is perceived to be a criticism of those who do it. That can feel bad for the person on the receiving end, and anything that makes someone feel bad must be wrong. But we should be willing to engage with critiques of our institutions, particularly those that have the kind of lengthy history of oppression that marriage boasts.

While I know it doesn’t feel great to have your life choices questioned, it arguably feels nowhere near as terrible as being bride-napped (a common practice among the Visigoths, which led to the tradition of the best man, who was chosen for the role because he was the best fighter, and relied on to ward off any family members who attempted to reclaim their stolen daughter). Or being put in a halter and sold at market to the highest bidder (an option for men in the middle ages wanting to rid themselves of wives they no longer wanted).

Or being committed to an asylum (an option made available later on, when all men had to do was appeal to the authority of two male doctors to condemn their wives and daughters to die in Victorian-era sanatoriums). Or being denied the right to own property, even that which you inherited (because the law of coverture stated women had no identity and thus existed under the banner of male ownership). Or being unable to leave for fear of losing access to your children (because coverture also dictated they were the property of the father). Or a lifetime of being ridiculed, mocked and even criminalised for being unmarried (as was the case for a good portion of women executed as witches during the height of the European witch trials).

With all these facts about the history of marriage freely available, why are women still buying into the myth that it is romantic, or that it will supposedly bring us lifelong bliss? This is the question at the heart of my new book, I Don’t, an excoriating critique of marriage and the lies that are told to keep women enlisting into its service. From the days of empire building and daughter trading, to the advent of engagement rings and the growth of the wedding industry, to the mid-century myth of the “happy housewife”, everything we’ve been told about marriage, from start to finish, is a diabolical deception.

When you peel back the layers of history and propaganda, it’s impossible not to want to completely destroy this inherently misogynistic institution. I think of marriage as being like the colourfully decorated wagon the children in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang are lured into by the royally appointed Child Catcher: once women are safely ensconced in it, the bells and whistles adorning the exterior fall away to reveal nothing but a cage.

Despite this, there are scores of articles and books being released pondering the question of how to fix marriage. How can it be improved, how can we reimagine it and so on and so forth. The establishment of same-sex marriage rights is considered to be a win for progressive politics, but there’s nothing radical about joining a club that worked so hard to deny you entry. Queer people getting married doesn’t radicalise marriage. On the contrary, it normifies queer people, giving us conservative status within a regressive framework.

Marriage is an unsalvageable lie, designed to keep women in service to patriarchy and away from realising our full potential. We should reject it entirely, and refuse on principle to willingly add our names to a list built primarily on the backs of women who had no choice, no rights and no freedom. The fact that many women still can’t make this choice freely – even Tolentino wound up married, because it was the only way she and her partner could access each other’s healthcare benefits – says everything. Simply put: if the government is bribing you to do something, it’s rarely in your best interest.

To paraphrase Mae West, they keep telling me marriage is a great institution – but I ain’t ready for an institution. What I’m ready for is a revolution.

Story by Clementine Ford:The Guardian:

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My partner concealed he had more than one ex-wife. Should I be nervous about our future?

Photograph: IanDagnall Computing/Alamy:© Photograph: IanDagnall Computing/Alamy

My partner concealed he had more than one ex-wife. Should I be nervous about our future?
n the early throes of a new relationship, most of us conceal how much we want to be liked,’ writes Eleanor Gordon-Smith. Painting: Anthony van Dyck Wooing his Model (1827) by Gustaaf Wappers.
After several months of dating, my partner revealed he had another ex-wife and three teenage children.

He’d only ever mentioned one ex-wife and two small children. He explained his rationale and I decided to continue with the relationship. I had been single for 15 years and I feel I’ve really connected with him.

We have the best time together, and although he’s away a lot with work, he’s communicative, considerate and has given me the sort of relationship I never thought I’d find. I feel he genuinely loves me and wants the best for me. He’s always saying how much he appreciates me. But I am nervous about the future as he has so many commitments (I don’t have children but hope to one day, and he’s on board).

My family feel he’s deceived me and they fear for my future. I don’t know how to navigate my way through this. All I’ve ever wanted is to meet someone to build a life with and I feel I can’t enjoy it. I’m scared I’m making a mistake. I’m scared I’ll never meet someone like him if I walk away. I’m scared my family won’t ever accept him. What do I do?
Eleanor says: Nobody likes to feel that something big has been elided. Transparency is, in a lot of ways, the ideal in close relationships. But I suspect there are ways we all fall short of that ideal, quite deliberately, all the time – especially in the early stages of dating.

Hoping someone will fall in love with you is a bit like hoping they’ll believe what you’re telling them, in that you actively set back your chances of succeeding by announcing that’s what you want. “Like me!” akin to “believe me!” makes you seem less deserving of the thing you want. So in the early throes of a new relationship, most of us conceal how much we want to be liked and we conceal other “warts and all” things too. Finances, health problems, neuroses, the worst lie you ever told – everybody has aspects of themselves they don’t bring to the first date.

But a whole extra family is a lot to not mention. We tend to conceal the things we think will see us unfairly written off, and I can see why he’d fear that two previous families look worse than one. Maybe he gambled that once you knew him, you’d understand, but that in those early stages you’d think that while one divorce looks an accident, two looks like carelessness.

This omission demonstrates a facility with concealment that might be troubling. And it makes me quite sad for the teens that they were the “extra” reveal: that the fact he’s their dad was a temporarily excisable part of his identity.

But I think a great deal lives in the details. It speaks well that he told you, that you didn’t have to find it out. Has he reassured you there are no more big surprises? Are there other indications that he takes his role as part of their family seriously? What do the kids and exes think of him?

If you’re satisfied with the answers, I’m not sure that your family’s impression needs to matter more than your own.

You mentioned being fearful of your future together. It’s true that he has a lot of commitments. To my mind, the possibility that his attention would be divided is actually a good thing – it would be no great recommendation if he was wonderful to you and your hypothetical children, but gave no time to his other families. That would just make you fear that if you did break up you’d be relegated to their category. So the more you have to share him now, the more reassurance you have that he’ll be supportive no matter what comes.

There’s a lot of fear at the end of your letter – of other people’s judgment, of missing out, of him. Unfortunately that means there’s fear associated with every option. It’s natural during big life shifts to fear we’re making a mistake. But one way to guarantee things go badly is to be consumed more by what might happen, than by what is happening.

Story by Eleanor Gordon-Smith: The Guardian:

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My husband wants to separate but I don’t. Can I save this marriage?

Photograph: Alamy: © Provided by The Guardian

My husband wants to separate but I don’t. Can I save this marriage?

My husband wants to separate but I don’t; what can I do? We have two small children, one with additional needs. I’m scared about how this will affect them. I feel my husband is deeply depressed and I worry that he is making a decision he will come to regret.

Since he has explained his need to separate from me, he has stopped drinking heavily and has started to meet with friends again, which I am really pleased about. He explains that he needs to find himself again outside the role of father and provider. I would like to support him in this within our partnership. I regret how I allowed him to drift from me and how little I challenged his drinking and self-isolation. He refuses therapy of all kinds. Is there anything I can do to help the children and him? Can I save this?

Eleanor says: First off, I’m so sorry to hear your husband has dropped this on you. The whole point of a marriage is that, when you join together, you no longer look at the world and your decisions through the lens of an individual out for themselves. You take on a shared perspective. One of the scariest betrayals that can happen to you, once you’ve pivoted to that perspective, is having your partner switch back. You’re left holding the upshot of decisions you made when you were still thinking like half of a team.

I think it could be worth separating out two questions. One is whether the collective can be saved. The other is how you can protect the individual you are, whatever happens to that collective.

Can the collective be saved? Perhaps, but not without his help. It sounds like your husband has been going through a lot. Depression (if you’re right about that), drinking, feeling pigeonholed into familial roles. It sounds as if he may be struggling with something that ambushes many of us, namely how to give enough of ourselves to others so we’re good spouses or parents, without giving so much that there’s none of us as individuals left. I think it can be especially hard for men to process these feelings under the yoke of ideas about masculinity and emotion – you said he refuses therapy of any kind, which (I know you know) makes about as much sense as refusing to see a mechanic.

Unfortunately, if attachment to others is starting to feel like a cage, processing that feeling with others is likely to create more claustrophobia. A whole lot of people sever connections because that’s the only path they see out of feeling consumed by responsibility.

But listen, you can’t make him want to change that. This is an absolutely hard and fast rule: you cannot induce people to feel things that they do not currently feel.

You may be right that he will come to regret this, but you cannot make him know that either. Some knowledge you just have to acquire first-hand – the affair partner won’t reinvent you, the sports car won’t make you younger, the bachelor pad will feel lonely and empty – sometimes the only way to learn these things is to have the scales fall from your own eyes.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight for the collective. But it might affect your approach. You might prioritise strategies that retain your dignity and clarity, rather than chasing his approval. You could say what you’ve said to me here. You could insist on therapy together, for your children’s sake. Sometimes in the candour of a relationship’s postmortem we find ourselves able to fully show up in a way that we didn’t during the relationship; you might be able to do that before it’s a postmortem.

But one of the worst experiences you can subject yourself to is contorting yourself to try to keep someone who is telling you they no longer cherish you. It doesn’t guarantee anything about how they’ll react. But it does guarantee how you’ll feel: small, powerless, debased.

If you cannot salvage the relationship, you can at least save your relationship with yourself. It will be a terrible grief if your husband goes ahead with this separation, but far better to lose his esteem than your own.

Story by Eleanor Gordon-Smith: The Guardian:

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Why have we fallen out of love with marriage?

Why have we fallen out of love with marriage?

Going to the chapel and we’re… not gonna get married, as it turns out. That’s because, for the first time on record, the percentage of over-16s in England and Wales who are wed or in a civil partnership has fallen below 50 per cent, according to just-released Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates for 2022. The figure had dropped to 49.4 per cent from 51.2 per cent a decade previously.

It’s the latest stat proving the immutable fact that marriage is on the decline. And not just in the UK – it’s a trend that’s happening in countries all over the world. Almost 90 per cent of the world’s population now live in countries with falling marriage rates; in the US, marriage has decreased by 60 per cent since the 1970s.

Right-wing think tank Civitas has gone so far as to predict that marriage will all but disappear by 2062 after analysing marriage trends over a 50-year period. “One couple will get married for every 400 adults in the UK (0.52 per cent of the population over 16) compared to one couple for every 100 adults today – a drop of more than 70 per cent in two generations,” said the research.

So why is it that we’ve fallen so dramatically out of love with marriage? It’s not that the desire to get hitched has disappeared. Based on a 2023 survey of 906 Generation Z and millennials who are currently in relationships but not married, the Thriving Center of Psychology found that 83 per cent anticipated tying the knot at some point.

“It’s still the case that people want to get married, that hasn’t changed greatly, unlike lots of other societal attitudes over the last 30 years,” agrees Paul Dolan, author of Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life and professor of behavioural science at the London School of Economics (LSE). “But there is a general trend for people doing things later.”

That’s certainly true of marriage; the age at which people get married for the first time has consistently been on the rise. In Britain, the median first marriage age for opposite-sex couples in 2020 was 35.3 years for men and 33.2 for women, about five years older than they would have been in 1995, and nine years older than in 1964.

One factor, particularly amid the cost of living crisis, could be cold, hard cash. An annual national wedding survey of 1,800 British newlyweds conducted by found that the average cost of a wedding had increased to £20,700 last year, up from £18,400 in 2022 and £17,300 in 2021. Couples didn’t set out to spend this much – more than half of those surveyed (59 per cent) revealed they had gone over their original budget.

“It’s very difficult to separate out the rising cost of living with the decline in married couples,” says the editor of, Zoe Burke. “As the cost of living rises, couples look to cut spending and a wedding can often feel unjustifiable when you are working to a budget. With the average cost of a wedding rising by 12.5 per cent in the past year to £20,700, it makes sense that for many couples it won’t be a priority to get married. However, with that being said, it is possible to get married on a budget. Registry office weddings have risen in popularity in recent years, as well as the popularity of civil ceremonies, as couples look to pare back their celebrations.”

According to the Thriving Center of Psychology survey, 73 per cent of respondents felt it was too expensive to get married in the current economic climate. However, a higher proportion of those surveyed (85 per cent) “did not feel marriage is necessary to have a fulfilled and committed relationship”. It could simply be that marriage is seen as less necessary for modern couples. “Been together 32 years, not married – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” says Chris Coleman from North Yorkshire. “I definitely don’t see the point, it’s just not for me. Plus, I’m not religious.”

Writer Debbie Rolls has similarly lived with her partner since 1988 with “no intention of ever marrying”. “When we were young we felt our relationship had nothing to do with church or state,” she tells me. “Now it seems a waste of money and time. There was a point where we might have done it for financial reasons but now our teacher pensions are transferable without marriage. Why would we get married?”

Many women have more choice when it comes to marriage than ever before: whether to marry, who, and then whether to stay married

Rachael Lennon, author
The decline in marriage rates is often cast in a negative light, particularly among conservatives with a small “c”. “Societies throughout history have encouraged marriage because they know it’s the most effective method for bonding men with the mothers of their future children,” said Harry Benson, research director of Marriage Foundation, a charity “championing marriage for the good of society”, in response to the latest ONS stats. “The continued trend away from marriage is bad news for couples and bad news for children. Nearly half of all teenagers do not live with both natural parents, most of which due to the separation of parents who never married. Marriage may not be a panacea but it stacks the odds in favour of stable families.”

However, marriage equalling a more stable upbringing for children isn’t something we should accept as fact, argues Dolan. “People will often talk about how divorce is awful for children,” he says. “But you need to know what the counterfactual would be – how would those children fare if the parents had stayed together? Quite often in high-conflict marriages, it’s arguably better for the kids that they do divorce.”

One positive contributing factor is the fact that women have more independence and agency in 2024 than they’ve ever had historically. “Generations of women in the past found that their only means of accessing sex and parenthood, a household and opportunities to contribute to society was as a married woman,” says Rachael Lennon, author of Wedded Wife: A Feminist History of Marriage. “Jane Austen’s Charlotte Lucas [in Pride and Prejudice] preferred the idea of marriage to Mr Collins than the alternative of unmarried life – [being] dependent on her parents at home. A woman’s entire identity and status were routinely transformed at her wedding.

“It’s great that so many women feel freer from the pressures to marry that their predecessors experienced. Many women have more choice when it comes to marriage than ever before; whether to marry, who, and then whether to stay married.”

This sentiment is echoed in a piece of global research documenting the lives and marriages of women, conducted by Dinah Hannaford, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Houston and co-editor of the book Opting Out: Women Messing with Marriage around the World. It identified various reasons why more and more women are choosing not to get married: increasing career opportunities and independence, finding more security living with their parents and siblings, and partners’ infidelity.
“Marriage has mostly not been a great situation for women historically and across the world, and they’re trying to find alternative solutions,” Hannaford wrote. “As new opportunities open up for women to be full people without it, they’re opting for that.”

Hannaford and her team found that, in many of the societies they studied, when women had the option of staying with their own family rather than moving in with a husband, they preferred the former. They also highlighted the value of friendship: “Anthropologists are so focused on lineage and marriage, we don’t think about how friendship plays a really important role in everyone’s lives,” Hannaford wrote.

This is something that Dolan agrees is paramount to our overall wellbeing. “If there was one question I could ask that wasn’t directly related to happiness, but was a good guide to how your life was going, it would be: ‘Have you got someone you can talk to?’ Close relationships are fundamental to the human condition and help us flourish. But they don’t need to be monogamous or intimate. Friendships are critical; marriage is an add-on.”

Perhaps for this reason, men benefit more from being married than women do, according to Dolan’s research. “Lots of men are not very equipped to deal with the absence of a partner, while women are generally better at cultivating networks of friendships and relationships,” he says. “He’s the one losing out by not getting married more than she is – so why do we judge unmarried women more?”

Maybe women are finally waking up to the fact it’s not always in their interests to get married

Paul Dolan, author
In fact, while married men are generally healthier and happier than their unmarried counterparts, data analysis in Dolan’s book found that women who are single with no children live longer and often claim to be happier than those who are hitched. “Maybe women are finally waking up to the fact it’s not always in their interests to get married,” he tells me. “Maybe the power of the narrative that they need to do it is getting less potent.”

Rather than tying ourselves in knots worrying about why people aren’t tying the knot, maybe we should all be prioritising friendships and social networks that will stand us in good stead, no matter our marital status. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to marriage,” says Dolan. “But marriage can sometimes be a proxy for close relationships. If you want to be happy, focus on working out what good, healthy relationships look like, and how to cultivate them.”

While it doesn’t look like the institution of marriage is going anywhere anytime soon – it’s existed in some form or another in almost every society in recorded history – we “need to keep questioning the assumptions and expectations that have come down to us – and to continue to let go of bad habits”, argues Lennon. “Nearly 90 per cent of women in the UK continue to give up their name following their wedding. Why should women be disproportionately pressured to change their names? Why shouldn’t we expect women’s voices to be heard in wedding speeches as much as men’s? In different-sex weddings, do women really need to be ‘given away’ while their husbands-to-be remain qualified to give themselves?”

And, the million-dollar question: “Can we let go of outdated ideas of what it means to be a woman and a wife and see a fairer distribution of social and domestic labour in our society?” Lennon asks. “We still have some way to go. Marriage needs to keep evolving to survive.”

Story by Helen Coffey: The Independent