Jaclyn Geller is guest-posting here to share her bold (and sometimes hilarious) Call to Action for single people who are tired of the pervasive unfairness that advantages married people and deeply disadvantages anyone who is not officially married. Geller, an English professor and author of Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique, has long been at the cutting edge of thinking on matters of fairness for people who are not married. I have been hosting her guest posts since 2009.
Today’s Call to Action is for people who have always been single (never married) and plan to stay that way. I posted a shorter version at Medium and Unmarried Equality. Geller also has advice for people considering betrothal, people who are engaged, people who are married, and people of all relationship statuses. Perhaps some of those Calls to Action will appear here in the future.
Maybe you won’t have the nerve, or the interest, in pursuing all of these suggestions, but anything you can do is a step in the right direction. In any case, I do think you will enjoy reading these! I’m guessing there are at least a few you have never seen anywhere else before.
Being the Change We Want to See:
A Call to Action for People Who Have Never Been Married and Never Plan to Be
By Jaclyn Geller
Every time I accept a lesser paycheck than those of married colleagues at the same professional level, I confirm marital superiority, reinforcing my own diminished status. At this point I have bills and see no alternative. Like countless others, I prioritize short-term survival over the long-term project of challenging unethical laws.
This conundrum illustrates how difficult it is to challenge marriage. Difficult does not mean impossible. There are better options than cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face by refusing a paycheck. Once non-marital people perceive our culpability in burnishing wedlock and preserving its shame hierarchies, once we grasp how dubious are the norms sustaining matrimony, everything changes. Understanding that marriage is neither inherent nor inevitable opens up a range of possibilities for what family can be. We can actualize these possibilities, beginning with small steps. But first, we have to get angry and channel our indignation meaningfully. This requires energy, focus, and time.
For example, a non-maritally born man opens a bank account. For proof of identity, he is asked to provide his mother’s maiden name. He wants to ask why the bank assumes his mother married. Instead, he says, “Potter.” This is her name; bending the truth saves time. If we want legal policy to shift in our favor, we must make time for truthful confrontation. Marriage-centric legislation, law, and corporate policy don’t stand independently. Attitude and habit uphold them. New attitudes and habits will take them down.
One way to further relationship-status equity is to behave as if it already exists. Instead of deferring to a world in which marriage rules, let’s refuse to live in that world. Toward this end, here are some suggestions.
- At the doctor’s office, when you fill out forms that define relationship status, repudiate the “married”/“single” binary. Make another box, check it, and write a description that best encapsulates your most meaningful relationships. If this is too time consuming, leave the boxes blank and write “Not applicable” or “Why is this important?” If the receptionist demands that you provide this information to indicate whether you’re covered under a spouse’s insurance policy, explain that the pertinent question is not, “Are you married?” but “Are you covered under someone else’s plan?” If enough people conceptually detach health insurance from matrimony, medical practitioners will have to reword their forms.
- Go to a department store’s bridal registry, and register under the title “Not a Bride” or “Bachelor by Choice.” If enough of these registrations take place, retailors will get the message.
- Visit your employer’s human resources department. State that you’re including your most important person as a health-insurance beneficiary. When the representative asks if this is your spouse, make a point of appearing confused. Then, ask why this matters. The rep will try to qualify your bond according marriage culture’s language. Don’t allow that. Say that it’s a long-term, caring relationship or a life-structuring friendship, or use whatever nomenclature feels right to you. When the representative says you can only enroll another adult you’re married to, act shocked. Ask for a rationale. Don’t leave until you get one, and point out inconsistencies in the explanation.
- Churches and synagogues often rent space to non-members for weddings. Visit a house of worship and speak to the facility booker about having an anti-wedding. Present this as something common. If you’re visiting a synagogue, ask if the sanctuary is available for a ceremony and the event-room for a meal. Weddings generate revenue for houses of worship. If enough unmarrieds produce similar proceeds, we can transform matrimonial spaces.
- If you’re a ritually-minded person, have a commitment ceremony. Celebrate the most important people in your life. One might be a lover with whom you live. Include that relationship, but don’t make it the centerpiece. You could articulate what you most value in each person and express hopes for where the relationship might go. There will be no state licensure, since government has no place interfering in your most loving ties.
If you prefer a commitment ceremony with an amorous partner, make it antipodal to marriage. The Anglican prayer-book traditionally finalized weddings with the following words: “With this ring I thee wed: with my body I thee worship; and with all my worldly goodes, I thee endow.” You might overturn this language: “I have no ring for you because I find that symbol of ownership repugnant. I do not worship your body but respect it. I also respect your mind. This means wanting you to have any privacy you need and trusting that you desire the same for me. I don’t endow you with any of my worldly goods, because you’re not my dependent. Nor am I yours. I admire your ability to take care of yourself. We are not one economic entity; may the government never treat us as such. Let’s be generous to each other in respective times of need and equally generous with our other life partners.”
Women might opt for a traditional ceremony like the one held in nineteenth-century China’s Canton-Delta region. Myriad women from this area became successful working in silk production. Financially independent, many devised strategies to resist marriage. One was called sworn spinsterhood: “Sworn spinsters chose spinsterhood over marriage with the endorsement of their natal family in some cases and over family objections in others. In the early twentieth century, sworn spinsterhood offered Canton Delta women the ultimate independent way of life.” Many females repudiated wedlock in favor of “the spinster lifestyle” for various reasons. Some felt reluctant to take on mothers-in-law (potent authority figures in Chinese culture); others enjoyed their independence. Pleasure derived from earning a living and fear of childbirth also factored in.
The sworn spinster ceremony was conducted at home. While spinsters typically wore trousers, they donned skirts for this ritual. Another woman brushed the spinster’s hair and tied it into a bun affixed with simple pins, as opposed to the colorful ones that brides wore. The spinster then took an oath of celibacy and paid homage to her paternal ancestors. A banquet sometimes followed the ritual. The ceremony marked a female’s new adult standing. Afterward, a participant typically changed her bun for a single braid. Among the Canton Delta woman, spinsterhood was passed on by older women.
A contemporary sworn-spinster or sworn-bachelor ceremony could mark the embrace of these roles as fulcra of adulthood. Hair-styling or dressing could be included, and principals could take pledges of celibacy, oaths of consensual non-monogamy, or vows that have nothing to do with sex.
- If there’s a young woman who is special to you, throw her an “I’m Not a Bridal Shower.” Likewise, if you’re close with and proud of a young man, give him an “I’m Not a Groom Party.” Ask every guest to bring a gift honoring the person’s non-marital status.
- Calculate the federal, state, income, property, car, and other taxes you pay compared to a married person in your tax bracket. (This may require an accountant’s help.) Since the frequently bemoaned “marriage penalty” is largely fictitious, you’ll likely come out behind. Figure out exactly how far behind you are. Once you have that sum, set a goal. It might be saving for the down-payment on a home or financing continuing education. Send a group letter asking married people you know to finance this goal. Don’t be shy about naming an amount; we subsidize married people every day, and they’re not self-conscious about it.
- Alter the engagement-announcement script. This requires willingness to be what gay legal-rights scholar and activist Katherine Franke calls, “a turd in the punchbowl.” (Apparently, taking unfashionable views on same-sex marriage earned her this reputation.) When receiving news of someone’s engagement, don’t gush. If a diamond is thrust at you, ignore it. Instead, politely ask why the person is marrying.
Putting this question to someone who solicits accolades is fair. Engagement announcers initiate dialogue by publicizing their plan to embrace a social institution. This may not be conscious, but it is deliberate: the intentional act of someone who could have chosen otherwise. Such people anticipate congratulations, having grown up in a country where betrothal is framed as a triumph, and weddings are pictured as frothy and delicious — fun for everyone. The opportunity to be admired is part of why people get engaged. Those of us who do not want to grant marrying people special status have a chance to remove one incentive.
For ten years I have withheld the customary tribute from betrothal announcers, instead asking why the person is marrying. I am struck by how many lack a coherent answer. Generally, I meet blank stares, which confirm my sense that numerous Americans wed from imaginative inertia, the need for a particular legal benefit, or fear of looking silly. These are non-malevolent behaviors of people scared to stand out as the remaining players in a game of musical chairs. All the more reason to press.
Sometimes the answer is, “I’m in love.” In this case, ask what love has to do with government licensure and regulation. Then, share a piece of information about non-marital history that shows the disadvantaging of people who live outside marriage. If the announcer asks, “What does this have to do with me?” reply, “Everything. Social customs are handed down generationally.” Speculate that while the past cannot be changed, an expanded understanding of it helps in building a different present and a better future.
These reactions will not generate warm feelings. Many betrothed people assume that wedlock is an autonomous self-propelled choice. They resist the idea that a marriage system pressures American’s choices in ways that controls couples and disadvantages non-couples. In requesting applause, they ask others to collude and preserve the fiction that matrimony only impacts married people. Some share pro-marriage organizations’ sense that wedlock must be revivified. Older spouses-to-be often see marrying as a way to expunge past emotional debris and start fresh. Certain engaged adults embrace their new spouse as the best friend who was always missing. For others she is a meal ticket. Cafeteria marriers usually combine a few of these reasons. And most betrothed couples share the notion that spouses come together to release each other from “single” life’s putative loneliness. A host of potential husbands precedes each bride’s engagement.” Likewise, there is a well-trod path to each groom’s bed, but none of those lovers was “right.” This one is, and their fit justifies contradictory practices: requests for gifts that amount to a shakedown of friends and a reprioritization of relationships, in which these same people are demoted as the conjugal tie assumes pre-eminence.
By withholding applause, asking a question, and injecting a piece of complicating information, we encourage thought. We may also give offense. Some value wedlock so highly that they feel nervous learning about it, as if overthinking matters will dampen the proceedings. As philosopher Carrie Jenkins observes, “Things that motivate us not to think are dangerous.” Nudging marriers to consider the implications of their actions is the responsible if not easy thing to do. Marriers should know that wedlock has long been theoretically incoherent. One European tradition named consummation as its defining feature. Another, validated by Church canons, stressed consent. Yet a third, embodied in Greek law, made consent moot since each bride was a gift of her closest male relative. Medievalist Christopher N.L. Brooke observes that the Middle Ages also “made marriage the key to the passage of estates and kingdoms.”
People like journalist Belinda Luscombe, the marriage system’s storytellers who give wedlock its public face, obscure these paradoxes. They pretend that never-married adults are not injured by a biased tax code, a prejudiced healthcare system, and marriage-centric immigration laws. Deception may not be their goal, but they foster a-historical thinking by keeping the fiancée’s gaze on toasts, flower arrangements, and herself. As much as it hurts never-marrieds, a-historicism damages husbands and wives. Living in a fiction is intrinsically unhealthy. When we invite newly betrothed people to become more aware of their impact on others, we ask them to open their minds.
Inquiring why someone is engaged strains a friendship. Obviously, saying, “Congratulations,” is easier. Five syllables, a perfunctory smile, and the person is satisfied. I think solvent relationships survive. And non-marital Americans cannot continue allowing the steamroller of wedlock to flatten us into polite acquiescence.
- Alter the marriage-interrogation script.
If you’re in a sexual relationship, chances are you have fielded the question “When are you setting the date?” Then there’s the blunter, “Why aren’t you married yet?” I have answered this query so many times that it’s become truly tiresome. But I’ve learned some ways to disarm the inquisitor. My fallback response is, “I have a B.A., an M.A., and a PhD. I don’t need an MRS. degree.” This riposte highlights status and the practical reasons people marry. Anyone with a high school, college, or advanced degree can use it. Those with a professional license can too. “I’m a licensed electrician. I don’t need to become ______’s licensed lover.”
If there’s more time, go deeper: “Your question assumes that matrimony is the best structure for love, household configuration, and family. Do you believe this?” As the person grasps for words, take the opportunity to state three excellent facts about unmarried life, such as, “I love the fact that neither of us can be held legally responsible for the other’s financial support,” or, “I feel too secure to demand paperwork,” or, “I value too many partners to enshrine one.” If the question applies, ask your interlocutor why she is married. Turn the tables.
- Alter the getting-engaged script. If you’re in a sexual relationship and feel romantic, book a table at your favorite restaurant. Once you’re there and seated, ask your romantic partner not to marry you. If your partner agrees, tell the wait-staff and ask that they share this news with the whole room. If you aren’t offered complimentary glasses of champagne, request them. Have someone take a picture, explaining that this is a big moment; you’re committing to non-marital life and becoming part of non-marital history. Future generations in your family will hear about this, and you want to preserve the magic. If enough people do this, restaurateurs will understand.
- Challenge marriage-centric reporting. When you read an article such as the ones Time magazine regularly publishes, praising marriage to the skies as they devalue non-marital life, write to the editors and object. Such articles are gap-ridden and suffused with prejudice. For instance, Belinda Luscombe writes pro-matrimony articles for Time magazine, where she grabs piecemeal from pundits who agree that mediocre marriages should not be truncated unless one spouse is pounding the other like a chicken cutlet. Recently she has descended into utter schlock with a book entitled Marriageology: The Art and Science of Staying Together. It contains very little art and no science. Rather, it’s filled with observations shaped by the incredibly positive bias Luscombe applies to herself and her husband, whom she characterizes as an absent-minded creative-genius-style architect. “He’s handsome and strong and great in bed,” Luscombe rhapsodizes. “He’s patient and stoic…I’d be lost without him.”. She cites Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober’s Getting to 50/50: How Working Couples Can Have It All by Sharing it All, And Why its Great for Your Marriage, Your Career, Your Kids, and You (2009) and Harriet Lerner’s Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts (2017). These are self-help books without methodological bases. Luscombe reveals her Marriage-Movement affinities by quoting The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce, which has been widely discredited for its defective methodology, when solid research on spousal separation is now available: “Judith Wallerstein argues that the cumulative impact of divorce increases over time.” Ignoring sources that evaluate wedlock in relation to other styles of living, she showcases her armamentarium of wifely techniques. These include rallying as hubby’s teammate in the kind of false dilemma matrimaniacs adore: it’s us against the world. “Having an architect in the family means that you should you travel anywhere, you will see buildings,” she effervesces. “Not just wonderful churches and interesting art galleries, but public housing, local government offices, or even private homes…” Not every member of the household likes to stare at buildings, but not everyone has a choice. She comments with dictatorial breeziness that “families are not democracies and parents win. Every time, Luscombe votes with her architect.
I believe that such reporters understand how much people can respect what they don’t understand. Most Americans — until recently, myself included — don’t grasp the nuances of statistics. Non-marital readers can find marriage-supportive numbers intimidating. Married people can find them reassuring, especially when they come with bromides for conjugal longevity. “Does Your Partner (a) chew too loudly, (b) ask the same question repeatedly, or (c) steal the best piece of bread?” asks a recent Marie Claire magazine article. “Fear Not: Belinda Luscombe says all is not lost.”
Luscombe’s memories of growing up in Australia show someone nurtured by a society not unlike ours, which produced a mass-culture of marriage. Before taking vows, she and the architect had to seek counseling. She registers no objections to this intrusive government requirement. The counselor was a clergyman who warned that spouses don’t frankly discuss their sexual needs. “…He had a point,” she concludes solemnly. Then come the statistics. In 2014, the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy “asked 293 already happy (emphasis mine) spouses about their sexual disclosure habits.” Interviewees confirmed that speaking about sexual tastes made them more satisfied with their unions. Note that this study asks happy people to tell a retrospective cause-and-effect story about what made them happy. Retrospective research shows people looking backward and making their own causal connections. A prospective, open-ended experiment would include a comparative focus group of unhappy couples, direct them to frankly discuss their sex lives, and monitor outcomes.
- Take one day to honor a non-marital figure from history. As more historians focus on non-marital life, we learn how many westerners lived outside wedlock. In the mid-thirteenth century, for instance, Western Europe saw a burgeoning of female mysticism, evinced by the emergence of beguines: women who eschewed marriage without taking formal Church vows. Especially in the Low Counties they cohabited in beguinages, which could be single homes for a handful of occupants or walled-in rows of houses where 1000 beguines might live. Unlike nuns, they could leave their communities without permission, which makes it hard to determine how many beguines existed at any one time. The late-medieval Belgian town of Huy boasted more than nineteen beguine collectives.
I would devote one day to Europe’s most renowned beguine, a widow named Juetta (1158-1228), who left her biological children in Liège some time around 1181 to care for lepers at a spot across the River Meuse from Huy. Sister Laura Swan explains that “Juetta expanded the humble facilities into a well-equipped chapel hospital with a lovely chapel and additional living space for beguines.” Because leprosy was seen as divine punishment for sin, lepers were outcasts who could not legally enter cities. To survive they begged from the outskirts of towns. Beguines like Juetta took it upon themselves to care for these unfortunates in rural hospices known as leprosaria. Beguines also built leper communities, erecting huts around a hospice accompanied by a simple church. With this work, they emulated their movement’s pioneer, Maria d’Oignies (1177-1213), who married at age fourteen but convinced her husband, John, not to consummate the relationship, left her wealthy home in Provence, and joined a group of Christian mystics caring for lepers in Williambroux. “They fed and bathed lepers, cared for other sick and destitute people…and sat together in prayer.” Beguinage declined in the fourteenth century, but one Huy community lasted until the French Revolution.
Laws and customs that acknowledge non-marital families will emerge when wedlock loses its sheen. Matrimaniacs want to prevent this. They claim a monopoly on definitions of family. They see wedlock as its basis and homogenize married people from various regions and centuries, as if spouses constitute one group. Authors like Luscombe attribute to this group salient features of postwar American households. This model contrasts with the increasingly common arrangements of part-time cohabitation, L.A.T. relationships, consensually non-monogamous relationships, bachelor-focal and spinster-focal homes, singleton living, and chosen celibacy. No amount of evidence to the contrary will convince matrimaniacs that non-marital relationships are anything but flimsy or detrimental. But when we honor our non-marital forbears, we repudiate this prejudice.
About Jaclyn Geller
Jaclyn Geller is associate professor of English at Central Connecticut State University, where she specializes in Restoration and Eighteenth-Century Literature. She publishes scholarly articles on this period, analyzing subjects like early-modern satire and authors like Samuel Butler and Samuel Johnson. She is the author of Here Comes the Bride: Women, Weddings, and the Marriage Mystique. Her second book, an analysis of non-marital people’s relationship to history, is forthcoming from Cleis Press. She lives in Central Connecticut and Brooklyn with her family, friends, and books.