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.