I was at a bar with some friends. Side note: You know this is going to be an interesting article, because, well, all good stories start with some version of the phrase “we were having some drinks.” So I was sitting with my friend Ginny, or if you have read my vacation article, you know we all call her Gin. We were also with my friend Sam. Sam was on my left, Gin was on my right, and my head was going back and forth following the conversation between the two like I was at a tennis match. Now, if you have regular drinking buddies, you know that there are certain topics that come up again and again. In the case of Sam, Gin and I, one of those topics is our relationships. As I’ve oft cited, I’m married. So is Sam. Gin is not. We were fulfilling our role as friends by listening to Sam vent about his relationship. He’s married to a very high maintenance woman and he’s not completely happy with his home life. As he was going on and on, something set Gin off. I don’t remember exactly what it was but I do remember her going on a rant. She basically told Sam he needed to leave his wife and go live his best life and she said she couldn’t understand why anyone would stay in a marriage like that if he was so unhappy. She went on to say that she was perfectly happy never having been married and remaining single. That’s when It hit me. I thought, no, that’s not true, you are married, you just don’t know it.
So I’ve talked about this before but Gin is very close with her parents. I think this is mostly the case because she’s an only child. She has lived with them on and off during the various undulations in her personal life. They have bankrolled many of her educational and even some social endeavors, both when she was a child and then when she was an adult. When they plan their life events they plan them together. So when Gin wants some adult time with her friends and without her kid, the parents always step up and watch the child. For family vacations, she almost always vacations with them. When Gin needs or wants something for her kid of any real consequence, she plans how and what to get with her parents. One descriptor of Marriage is that it is the status where two people’s lives are intertwined in many deep and multifaceted ways. That definitely describes Gin and her parents.
The financial structure of marriage is all over the place in our modern era. In the very old school traditional single earner family, there was only a single source of income and usually there is one spouse who ‘manages the money’. That may or may not be the spouse who was the primary breadwinner. I find that situation is very rare today as family structures have gone through drastic changes. Divorce and remarriages means that it’s become commonplace for spouses to keep separate accounts and maybe one joint account that they both contribute to for the household bills. In other instances, such as my own, there are two working adults and all monies are shared. Sometimes that sharing is in separate accounts, and sometimes couples keep the household financial resources in
joint accounts. Getting into the details, when there is a legal contract between two people known as a marriage, there definitely are some unique benefits that span areas including, taxes, retirement, insurance, and credit. That being said, the benefits aren’t really all that substantial except for one. The biggest financial impact of marriage really has to do with shared risk. If the income of one member of a dual income household is lost, then the continued cash flow of the employed spouse can help keep the household afloat. In effect it turns an immediate and all consuming financial crisis into a manageable disaster. Looking at Gin and her family, I know them and if she lost her income, her parents would step up and keep her household afloat until she was back on her feet.
The one area that is truly unique in a marriage is the prioritization, legally speaking, of a spouse when it comes to life or death decisions. Even then, if there are no spouses the rest of the family can step up. I looked it up, after the court system, the spouse is top of the list for making decisions for an incapacitated person who needs a medical decision. The list in order is as follows.
- A health care agent appointed pursuant to a valid health care power of attorney. (unless the court has appointed a guardian and suspended the health care agent’s power);
- A court-appointed guardian;
- An attorney-in-fact, with powers to make healthcare decisions for the patient;
- The patient’s spouse;
- A majority of the patient’s reasonably available parents and children who are at least 18 years of age;
- A majority of the patient’s reasonably available siblings who are at least 18 years of age; or
- An individual who has an established relationship with the patient, who is acting in good faith on behalf of the patient, and who can reliably convey the patient’s wishes.
- The patient’s attending physician.
Looking at this list, since Gin only has one child, her parents still meet the criteria of “A majority of the patient’s reasonably available parents and children.” In effect, the parents still fill the role of a spouse.
Moving on from the life and death decisions, there are the practical elements of life with kids. Life is complicated and rare is the well paid job where you can always keep your kids around and still work. Beyond the job, often there are social engagements and other times where it’s just not ideal to bring a child with you. In these situations a co-parent can assist by watching the kids. Yes, this can happen in a divorce or separation situation where the parents are on good terms, but that reality isn’t as common as it should be. It’s actually quite rare. In other situations, ones where it’s typically expected to engage as part of a couple, the office christmas party comes to mind, then there is the casual friend, or the short term friend with benefits who can very briefly fill the role of the spouse.
Speaking of “friends with benefits”, I would be remiss if I ignored the physical needs that are, hopefully, met in a marriage. Ironically this element of marriage which to some is still a sacred tradition reserved for a committed relationship, is almost a non-issue for the single. For Gin, she lives in a world where she has a network of “boy toys” who are more than willing to maintain a convenient and morally casual relationship with her. Even if she didn’t have that, a single swipe to the right on certain dating apps can help her build a never ending network of ad-hoc lovers to satiate any physical need.
So why go through all this. The big point is that marriage, or a marriage like coupling, is a fundamental part of all the cultures of the world for a reason. Life is complicated and difficult. Two people in partnership taking on the world makes things much easier and safer. But you can be married and not be married. In Gin’s case, her spouse, or the entity which fulfills the role of her spouse is her parents and some casual friends. She doesn’t see that. When we revisit sam, he doesn’t have any of the marital safety net that Gin has. I should say he doesn’t have any of it except through his wife. When you look at it from that perspective it’s very easy to see why he sticks around even if parts of his relationship require a semi-monthly venting session.
There are alternatives to parents allowing for a single person to remain single yet enjoy the benefits of being married. The first one that comes to mind is the government, although it’s not quite what it used to be. Before Clinton era reform, welfare was regularly blamed for destroying the communities where low income and families of color resided. The argument was that it removed the practical needs, and thus the cultural drive for people to get and stay married when there were children involved. On the whole this made sense. If a single person, usually a woman, could have children and live a modest life underpinned by government funded support, why would you choose to go through the challenges associated with developing a strong marriage? This isn’t the case as much since that early 90’s welfare reform. And no matter if it was pre or post welfare reform the population for this option only included those who were very low on the income scale.
The other alternative that comes to mind is those on the high end, i.e those who are independently wealthy. You see this a great deal with A list athletes and entertainment professionals but I’m sure it exists for those who are not in the limelight. I’ve always felt this is why many celebrities have a list of former spouses. If your a big budget movie star, money is usually not a problem. Also, it’s easy to see where a few nanny’s and other personal assistants can help with all the non-financial needs a spouse would traditionally handle. In effect your staff becomes your spouse.
In the end, life is hard. If you happen to be at the very high end or the very low end of the income scale you may not need a traditional spouse because you already have one that just looks very different from what people expect. If you are in the middle, unless you have some unique family situation like Ginny, it’s best to have an old school life partner / spouse to functionally get through life. That’s why all the Sam’s of the world stick with their spouses even if they happen to be in rocky relationships. The alternative of trying to do it all on their own ultimately means they are in a much worse situation. I’ve known quite a few truly single people, who don’t have the spousal replacement and all of them will tell you that it’s a very tough life.
I can’t decide if I feel bad for Ginny or not. She really believes she’s independent and is clueless as to how much her parents fill the role of the spouse she doesn’t have. I think she’s blind to it because it’s always been her reality. In some ways it’s similar to the criticism that was levied on the old welfare system. Often pundits would complain that the participants were dependent on the system and raised their children to follow in their footsteps. Ginny has a child, a young boy, and, like her parents before her, I wonder how much she’s going to continue in the tradition of being the spouse as he grows up. I can see the telltale signs of codependency even now between the two of them. The cycle may just repeat itself just like the old welfare days.
I don’t feel bad for Sam, in fact I respect him. He’s sticking it out and is able to maintain all the benefits both he and his wife enjoy by remaining married. When the tough days come he’s not jumping ship, he’s just leveraging his friends to get through the emotionally challenging periods. I feel like his strategy is better insomuch as he’s aware of his situation where Ginny is blind to hers. There is power in understanding exactly what your situation is because it allows you to make the best of it.
This is one of the few times I can say that the person in this story who is in the best possible situation is me. Every few weeks I get to be entertained by a furious debate between my friends all the while enjoying a good craft beer. It’s one of my favorite ways to enjoy a Friday night. I say that, but their is one caveat. In the future I’ll have to remember to position my seat so I’m facing both of them simultaneously. That way I don’t get a crick in my neck trying to follow their banter the next time they decide to get into a heated discussion about marriage.