Marriage: Do People Really Think it’s Just a Piece of Paper?

11.16.2012, 10:18 PM

In our interviews with working class young adults, Amber and I heard a lot of people throw out the line, “Marriage is just a piece of paper.” But for as often as I heard it, I’m beginning to doubt that it reflects people’s considered judgment about marriage.

Take Myron, who is only 23, but is already divorced, and has a two-year old child by his ex-wife. When I talked with him, he was engaged to Christa, 22, who was pregnant with their first child.

Myron knows that he wants to marry Christa eventually. But they have other things they want to do first — Christa wants to finish her college degree, they want to have the baby.

But some people in his family – “the older ones,” like his grandpa – believe that “you’re married once, you’re married for life, and you don’t have kids out of wedlock.” Even though most of his people in his family have warmed up to the idea that Christa is having a baby before they are married, he still catches some flak from some relatives who think that they need to be married.

In response to their nagging, Myron defends himself, saying that they will get married “in due time,” they just don’t wanna rush it. Besides, he says, it’s not like anything will change after they get married. “We know we wanna be together forever, and I don’t feel like that little piece of paper changes anything.” Nothing would change for better or worse in their relationship, he thinks. “I mean, I consider myself married.” After all, he wakes up to her every morning. The guys at his workplace call Christa his “wife.” She’s in his phone as “future wife.”  His mom even introduces Christa in public as “my daughter-in-law.”

And unlike Christa, who thinks that marriage will increase the level of commitment in their relationship, Myron thinks that if you’re with someone you care about – and he knows he cares deeply about Christa – “you can’t just walk out. You have the same stake, just like if you’re married.”

“The only thing that would change,” he says, “is I’d have a ring on my finger.  That’s the only difference, and we would have a piece of paper saying we were married.”

So does all this mean that he would be fine staying in a long-term, unmarried relationship with Christa? Far from it.

“I wouldn’t be content with us not getting married,” says Myron. ”I want us to be married.  I want to have that experience with her.  I want to walk with her down the aisle. I want to show everyone – have all of our family and friends standing around as I profess my love to her.  I wanna do all that.”

In other words, he wants to be married in the eyes of his family and community. Even though he considers himself already married, he wants the public to recognize their relationship as a marriage.

He wants to get married, and not remain forever after in a live-in relationship with Christa. He wants to have the wedding, with his friends and family watching him walk down the aisle and publicly professing his love and commitment to Christa. Sure, sometimes his talk does suggest that he would be content with remaining in the closet as Christa’s private soulmate. But, ultimately, he wants to come out in the broad light of day and be recognized in the eyes of his family and community as Christa’s husband.

 So what’s up with the “marriage is just a piece of paper” line?

Well, there’s probably a few different things going on. In Myron’s case, I wonder if it’s more of a convenient cultural meme to rebut his grandpa’s questions about why he’s not rushing to the justice of the peace to get married, than it is an indicator of his desires (he wants to be married to Christa) or of a personal disregard for marriage (which he believes involves a public expression of commitment and love).

In other words, he may use the “marriage is just a piece of paper” sentiment in the same way that other young adults I’ve interviewed sometime appear to use it – as a defensive answer to why he’s not married right now, or has no plans of rushing to the justice of the peace right now to get married. But most young adults with whom I talk still believe that marriage is a serious commitment.

All that said, it may also be true that, for however effectively the “marriage is just a piece of paper” line shields a person’s ultimate understanding of marriage – however stealthily it explodes nagging questions from Myron’s grandpa and great-aunts about why he’s not getting married– it probably also reflects a certain reality.

After all, if “marriage is just a piece of paper” is a convenient cultural meme, from whence came the meme? It wasn’t just created out of nothing, to be deployed by millions of young adults every day, unless it corresponds to something that is actually happening on the ground.

What is happening on the ground is that, compared to the large, living force – pulsating with the promise of sex, shared living, and new life – that once roamed the earth in the days of Myron’s grandpa and great-aunts, marriage has been reduced to size significantly. Sure, it still involves a monumental, lifelong commitment that makes people nervous, particularly in an era of high divorce.  But in comparison to the magnitude and concreteness of the old marriage model, the new marriage model is airy (O Soulmate, where art thou?) and abstract (how exactly is a public commitment important?), and therefore, more elusive and difficult to comprehend.

So, comparatively, it does seem as if marriage is, truly, “just a piece of paper.”

Still, when young adults like Myron take the time to ponder marriage’s meaning more deeply, they recognize that, beyond all the sex and sharing space and bearing children that they are already doing, there is still some gold, worth a great price, yet to be mined in marriage. Indeed, for many young adults with whom I talked, I get the sense that that price is so great that you had better know with absolute certainty that you have struck true gold, lest you crown your relationship – and betray your deepest aspirations for a permanent love – with what time will surely expose as mere fool’s gold.


18 Responses to “Marriage: Do People Really Think it’s Just a Piece of Paper?”

  1. diane m says:

    If it were just a piece of paper, they would go get it for the benefits.

  2. La Lubu says:

    So what’s up with the “marriage is just a piece of paper” line?

    I think it reflects the idea that marriage is a personal commitment; that the personal commitment a couple feels towards one another isn’t really salient to the impersonal community at large. Myron’s grandfather might want him to get married (or conversely, is opposed to Myron and Christa’s relationship because of Myron’s previous divorce and/or Christa’s pregnancy; that was unclear here)…but the likelihood of either Myron or Christa’s larger circle outside of family caring whether or not they get married is slim. I could be wrong about that; perhaps Myron and Christa live in a very close-knit community that hasn’t experienced the population loss and economic stresses that are endemic in most working-class communities in the U.S.

    It isn’t stated here what Myron and Christa’s financial situation is, but for working class young people employed in unskilled labor, retail or other service-industry work, marriage doesn’t come with many benefits. Basically, Social Security survivor benefits for a spouse. They’re straight, so the chances of them being denied hospital visits are slim. I’m just throwing that out there because in “the upper working class” (cops, firefighters, unionized building trades, etc.) younger people aren’t postponing marriage; they receive formidable, substantive, material benefits from marriage (ex.: in my Local, family healthcare at no extra cost). Does either Myron or Christa have healthcare through employment? If not, they’re better off unmarried. Christa may be able to get on her parent’s plan or Medicaid to cover the delivery of their child, or if those aren’t options, to be covered under the Medicaid spend-down program for medical bills, or the hospital’s own program for uninsured patients (which is income based—the less income, the larger percentage of write-off).

    I’m going to be spending the day driving up I-55; I’m going to a benefit for one of my cousins. He’s a cancer survivor, and while he is cancer-free, complications from his treatment have left him temporarily disabled to the point where he has been unable to work. His medical benefits will be terminated soon (his employment already has—he wasn’t able to return after his FMLA ran out). He never left the general area he grew up, and there’s still enough people up there to attend the benefit (a side benefit of living north of I-80—there’s still an economy up there). It’ll be good to see him, good to see my family. With any luck, whoever is cooking the pasta won’t make an abomination out of it (translation: sauce and pasta must remain separate. People who mix the pasta and sauce need to be taken out and shot. It makes for soggy, limp pasta. AL DENTE, people! /end Sicilian food snob rant). But the thing is….if he, if we, really had a community that cared? There wouldn’t be a need for emergency benefits (that frankly, just postpone the inevitable). We’d already be taken care of.

  3. Alana S. says:

    i’ve been dealing with this a lot lately.

    The chef at my local bodega has been with his partner for 12 years, they have 3 kids together but are not married. I’ve been pestering him as to why he’s not married to her and finally he admitted that he was once married before.

    but she divorced him.

    So its left him weary of marriage. He said to me, “It’s just a piece of paper. And besides, my girlfriend and I are happy so what difference does it make?”

    And my sister has a kid w/ her live in boyfriend. I keep pressuring them to get married. But the whole family is demanding that I stop bugging them. Her boyfriend’s mom even has a diamond ring she wants to donate. But they want to buy a house together first. And they want to pay off my sister’s debt first.

    Did you catch that?
    They won’t get married because they want a HOUSE, and they want to be debt free.

    In other news my mom wants to separate. Citing her debt problem too.
    She wants to move across the country for a job that pays better than the one she already has because she thinks the key to all her depression is her debt.

    That’s right. She wants to break up her family (again), move to a place where she has no friends whatsoever, so she can establish her own home (and buy all the furniture and dishware that goes along with it) so she can work at a government job… so she can be HAPPY.

    I hate it!!!

  4. mythago says:

    Ha, I used to have this argument with my mother when I was living with the gentleman who is now Mr. Mythago. “Go get married,” she’d tell me, “it’s just a piece of paper.” “If it’s just a piece of paper, why is it a big deal if I skip it?” I’d reply, and then she’d get mad.

    Of course marriage isn’t “just a piece of paper” any more than a birth certificate or an writ of eviction is “just a piece of paper”. I think people who say this (like most people) don’t understand the legal obligations of marriage, and think that all it does is to put a kind of meaningless rubber stamp on a relationship.

  5. David Lapp says:

    La Lubu, Your hunch about how the upper working class is more quick to get married because there are real material benefits to getting married intrigues me. Myron does have a good, stable job repairing tractor trailers. I have to go back and check, but if memory serves me, he does have health insurance through that.

    Mythago, if I had interviewed you and Mr. Mythago while you were in a living relationship, and I asked you, “So why aren’t you married?” What do you think you would have said?

    Alana, Do you get the sense that the chef at your local bodega really does believe that marriage is just a piece of paper and that’s why he’s not getting married? And/Or does it seem as if there some element of “I really don’t want to get divorced again, and having a private, live-in relationship is safer than going public with this relationship, because who knows if it will last?”

    I ask because sometimes I wonder when people tell me that marriage is just a piece of paper, that there is some fear and gender mistrust mixed in with sentiment. I talked with another guy who gave the whole “just a piece of paper” schpiel when I was asking why he’s not married to his pregnant girlfriend — but he then changed his tune about marriage when I asked if he thought getting married would make any difference in their relationship. Yes, he said, it would mean that, unlike the live-in relationship we’re in right now, we’d be completely committed to each other. And it became clear that he wasn’t ready for that (they had arguments about, among other things, she was texting with her ex-boyfriend). In other words, he wasn’t ready to get married precisely because he recognized that marriage was more than just a piece of paper.

    Sadly, they broke up a few months after their baby was born.

    So for this young man, was the “just a piece of paper” line more of a rationalization to cover up his mistrust of his partner/fear of divorce? It kind of seems like it to me.

  6. Maggie Gallagher says:

    Here’s how a member of my family persuaded her cohabiting boyfriend to propose. He was divorced with a child. His position was “it’s just a piece of paper, we’re the same as married.” Her response? “Well if its just the same to you then let’s get married because its not just the same to me.” (This was 20 years ago).

    He was busted! People who do not marry because “its just a piece of paper” are fooling themselves for a reason. I suspect mostly divorce averse.

  7. David Lapp says:


    People who do not marry because “its just a piece of paper” are fooling themselves for a reason. I suspect mostly divorce averse.

    That’s what I’m beginning to suspect in some of the stories I’m reflecting upon. When I ask them why they’re not married, they belittle marriage as a piece of paper. When I ask them about divorce, they magnify it as one of the most tragic things that would ever happen to them (and, of course, it is tragic). But if marriage is just a piece of paper, why is divorce not just a piece of paper? If divorce means so much, doesn’t marriage have to mean something?

    By the way, they don’t have the same fear of a break up of a cohabiting relationship. It’s easier to walk away, they say. (Though the stories of many people suggest that it’s often just as personally devastating.)

  8. La Lubu says:

    David, I think you’re missing the nuance of the statement. There are people for whom marriage brings far more material obligations than it does benefits. That’s income-related. Marriage licenses are very inexpensive; even the cheapest divorce decree is very expensive. Among the obligations of marriage is the obligation of financial support to one’s spouse. Most of the folks postponing marriage indefinitely fear (quite rationally) that this is an obligation they may not be able to meet (either now or in the future). Living together does not entail this obligation. Divorce carries a considerable social stigma when it comes to future relationships; an unmarried breakup carries no stigma (and is assumed to be the smart decision).

    I also don’t think you can set aside the fact that most people could care less whether or not you are married. Hence, “it’s just a piece of paper” reflecting that most others’ reaction is one of indifference. Onlookers are more concerned about divorce than about marriage (divorce still carries stigma, but marriage doesn’t come with opposing “attaboys”).

  9. Alysse ElHage Watson says:

    Maggie and David make a great point, about divorce. From my experience with family members and friends who are cohabiting, divorce is a huge reason they are not married, especially for those who have come from broken homes. They are so afraid of divorcing like their parents, or in some cases, divorcing again for those who have been married, that they put their kids through one cohabiting relationship after another, mistakenly believing that this is somehow easier on the kids than an actual divorce.

    David, I would be interested to know what the cohabiting women (especially those with children) you are interviewing say about marriage and whether many of them view it as just a piece of paper. Is this view something you find more among men than women? From what I have seen in my own family and with friends, I think having children changes things for the cohabiting women. Most of my cohabiting friends/family, who once said “marriage is just a piece of paper” and not necessary, have a change of heart after they get pregnant. They want the man to propose, and they want a marriage for their children, most likely because they want a father for them who will have more of a reason to stick around.

  10. Diane M says:

    @David Lapp – If you had interviewed me when I was cohabiting and said why aren’t you married, I would have said because I wasn’t ready and I wanted to be sure before I got married. I might have talked about marriage changing things and not being sure about the institution, but I overall thought it would probably be a good idea someday. I just really didn’t want to end stuck in a bad marriage.

    @LaLubu – When I got married, there weren’t a lot of economic benefits. I was able to give my husband health insurance through my job. We went on for a while living like people who are cohabiting as far as the money went.

    @David Lapp, I have to say that the economic benefits I got/get from marriage were not obvious at the time we got married. We didn’t have kids. We had jobs that paid about the same amount. We were way too young to be worrying about death or disability. We didn’t even change the way we looked at money and bills right away.

    Over time, however, the fact that we were definitely planning to stay together changed what we did economically. It made is better at how we handled money. Once we had kids, it meant I was willing to stay home with them. It made us willing to do more for each other and in the long run that paid off financially.

    @Alana – Debt is one time when it might make sense to not get married. Marriage ties you legally to the other person’s debts. This is a huge problem for the current generation.

    Of course, if you’re in debt, divorcing and moving is probably a bad financial move. I think people who are depressed often think they can escape the depression if they just get a different job or move somewhere else or change spouses. Since depression is cyclical and often goes away with time, that might seem to work for a while.

    @everyone, I agree with the comments above that saying it’s just a piece of paper is often a cover. People who’ve been divorced or had parents who divorced are afraid of going through the pain. Men who’ve been divorced know that they might end up having to pay support to an ex-wife, but they won’t to an ex-girlfriend.

  11. Greg Popcak says:

    Scott Stanley’s work at the University of Denver on the difference between “sliding vs. deciding” for marriage is, I think, instructive on this point.

    He argues that the traditional path to marriage involves a series of conscious, public choices to increase commitment and decrease alternative choices. Dating, “going steady” (or whatever you want to call it), Engagement, Marriage, are all public declarations of increased commitment combined with a public acknowledgement that I am intentionally narrowing my field of choices.

    Cohabiting, by contrast, represents an unconscious “sliding’ into marriage in which sleeping together becomes keeping some stuff at her apartment, becomes having half the closet, becomes “I might as well move in since my stuff is here,” becomes “we’ve been together so long we might as well get married.” The problem is, marriages founded this way are fundamentally unstable because no one really ever chooses them, they just kinda happen over time, leading to a fair number of divorces caused by the feeling that “I never really wanted this. I never chose to get married.” (keep in mind this this is gross simplification of Stanley’s theory for the sake of a blog post).

    My point in bringing all this up is that I think David Lapp is on to something and Stanley’s work highlights his point. It IS a piece of paper, but it’s a public one. One that says, “I am consciously and publicly choosing to increase my commiment and narrow my choices down to this one person.” It is this statement that marriage avoiders are actively trying to keep themselves from having to make.

    If you really look at the behavior and thinking of people who hide out behind the “it’s just a piece of paper” line, I think you see, more often than not, someone who likes the companionship of a particular person, but is afraid to believe that there may not still be someone else, at some point, who wouldn’t be a better companion.

  12. annajcook says:

    Greg, I don’t think the poles are as opposed as you paint them to be. My wife and were cohabiting (as roommates) for over a year before we were sexually involved, for example. While we didn’t open a shared bank account until we were a sexually-active couple, our physical space and worldly goods were pretty thoroughly intertwined even before we were together.

    And that didn’t lessen the deliberateness with which we decided to marry and thought about what that commitment meant to us. The fact that we lived together for nearly five years before getting married doesn’t make our relationship inherently unstable or somehow less intentional than relationships embarked upon through more public modes of courtship and declarations of intent.

  13. Amber Lapp says:

    Annajcook, it’s great that you were very intentional about your relationship and its levels of commitment even while cohabiting, but I wonder if you are in the minority on that. The sharing of “physical space and worldly goods” (and the experiences and memories that go along with that) often make it emotionally harder to leave a relationship, even if the relationship is less than ideal.

    And beyond worldly goods, the ultimate example of this is the sharing of children. The child the couple created together can form such a strong bond, that it’s not uncommon for people, even after they break up, to get back together with their baby mama/daddy at some point or another. They may have unintentionally “slid” into a relationship without meaning for it to be long-term, but they find themselves staying in and out of it (at least for longer than they would have otherwise) because of the circumstances (in this case, a child). It seems like cohabitation can work in a similar way.

  14. David Lapp says:

    Thanks everyone for your comments. They are very helpful in prodding further thinking and keeping our eyes wide open to things that we may have overlooked as we listen and re-listen to what young people are saying.

    Alysse, Yes, Amber tells me that she did not hear the “marriage is just a piece of paper” line as often from women. Fascinating what you say about your female friends who seem to be more desirous of marriage after a baby. One of the women I was just reading about the other day said explicitly that. We’ll be on the lookout for all of this as we continue our analysis and writing.

    La Lubu, We did hear people talk about how divorce is an “expensive mistake,” and some of the guys were wary of being financially wedded to a woman, and would share horror stories of women who (as they see it) took the man for all he was worth. I think you’re right in saying that’s a part of the story. But, not sure if you were suggesting this or not, I would be radically simplifying people’s views if I said that they are only afraid of the financial repercussions and stigma. Many of them also talk about the emotional pain of not having their mom and dad together. And they want to make sure that they give their children a happier family than they had growing up.

  15. Diane M says:

    David Lapp, what you’re saying gets at my most cynical interpretation of what the guys mean by “it’s only a piece of paper.” I wonder if they mean, marriage can’t stop my wife from leaving me, but it can force me to pay spousal support or give her some of my belongings.

    Greg Popcak, I did not experience living together before marriage as sliding into marriage. We weren’t living together just because it was more convenient. I think for us and probably many couples, living together has become “a public declarations of increased commitment combined with a public acknowledgement that I am intentionally narrowing my field of choices.”

    Amber Lapp, I don’t know if I’m in the majority in how I approached cohabiting. I think that’s something to study. :-)

    What troubles me over and over again, is that having children is in fact a lifetime commitment. It ties the parents to each other more strongly than a wedding does.

    I am concerned by the idea that couples who have children and live together and don’t marry either don’t see what parenthood means or aren’t really committed to it. In your interviews, this sounds like it applies more to the men.

    I’ve heard women saying similar things, though, and perhaps they aren’t committed to the idea that their children need or will benefit from fathers/a second parent/parents who stay together.

  16. La Lubu says:

    David, I wasn’t implying that financial risk was the only consideration, just that it tends to have the most long-lasting impact and so tends to be the “front-burner” issue. The immediate pain of heartache is usually resolved in less than a year, with a year-or-two before one has dumped the baggage (IMO). It takes longer than that to recover from serious financial setbacks (say, five or six years; ten years for bankruptcy). In my SES, the heart recovers faster than the wallet (to be blunt about it).

  17. mythago says:

    @David Lapp, I would have told you the same thing as now – that at the time, having been through an ill-advised marriage and subsequent divorce, that I didn’t want the stigma of being married. I know that sounds odd, but my experience with having been married was one of being stuffed into a very small box. Not that I was afraid of the commitment; to me, having a child with someone is a much greater commitment than marrying. But there were not enough financial benefits to offset the fear of once again being slapped with the ‘ball-and-chain’ label.

  18. annajcook says:

    Amber, I don’t think we disagree that relationships that are materially entangled are more difficult (emotionally, financially, etc.) to dissolve. There’s a reason why breakups are major life transitions and emotionally traumatic at times, even when they are the best decision for everyone. Abusive relationships are often particularly difficult to end for just this reason — that physical space, material possessions, and financial security are things for the abuser to hold over their partner and help maintain control.

    And, as you say, dependents complicate this picture as well.

    But my point still stands that Greg was painting a X vs. Y picture when the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. I would also point out that, although gradual, “sliding” into marriage is not necessarily an un-intentional process. A lot of the emotional work of trust-building and commitment that my wife and I have done over the five years we have known one another happened BEFORE we decided to get married. It wasn’t accidental, and it wasn’t easy. It was a lot of effort, both pleasurable and painful.

    So my point is that co-habiting couples who then choose to marry are not inherently unstable — they may just have done things in a slightly different order than we think of people doing in the model where courtship leads to engagement leads to marriage leads to co-habitation and all that comes with it.

    Obviously, if a couple is self-narrating their decision not to marry as one that signifies that they’re not ready to make that commitment with one another, that’s another story. But actually, if they’re describing the situation that way it indicates a certain level of mature self-knowledge about what their joint capacities are. Better to do some spade work first and get married when you feel ready than to get married due to social pressure and later need to seek a divorce.