matrimonialism (noun): the ideology that embraces marriage as a cultural norm.
Cultural institutions, especially ones as deeply revered as marriage, are rarely challenged. Marriage is thought of as inherently good. When someone announces that they’re getting married, we never tell them not to. But we should. We could save a lot of lives that way (and lose a lot of friends). We never ask them why in the hell they’re marrying the toothless lumberjack they met at Middleton Sports Bowl; we never let it slip that perhaps they can do better than the obese schoolteacher whose hobbies include paint-by-number and video golf. We don’t say anything because it’s not the person that they’re marrying that we’re celebrating. It’s the institution itself. And that’s the problem. Marriage is considered a social good. Even if the people getting (or staying) married don’t love each other or stopped loving each other three decades ago.
American culture is overflowing with matrimonialism in every form of media. Think of the bridal magazines, the New York Times Sunday wedding pages and that apex of matrimonialism: eHarmony, whose website touts: “On average, 542 people get married every day in the United States because of eHarmony; that accounts for nearly 5% of new U.S. marriages.” Side note: I’m guessing that eHarmony accounts for an even higher percentage of divorces.
To clarify, marriage isn’t inherently bad. It’s our uncritical celebration of marriage as a category that’s a problem. While our cultural contract allows us (and in some cases even requires us) to criticize and question the single about their lack of a partner, we can’t ask similar questions to marrieds. Turn the usual questions on their heads and you’ll see what I mean. There’s nothing unacceptable about asking a single person why she’s not in a relationship. But if a woman tells you that she’s been married for 25 years, you’re not allowed to interrogate her. You’re supposed to effusively congratulate her. You can’t ask her: “Why have you spent the last quarter-century with that man?” or “Do you ever wish that you’d never gotten married?”
We have to pretend to be thrilled about all of our married friends’ and families’ anniversaries, the longer the marriage, the better. How many times have you heard this: “I’m so proud of [my parents/my friends/those old people down the road] for staying married for forty years! Aren’t they an inspiration?” Actually, no, no they’re not. They bicker. They never have sex. Often they wish they’d married other people. Sometimes they’re enemies.
Because our social rules forbid us from questioning marital relationships, married people assume that they should feel happy. And because research tells us that marriage makes most people happy, unhappy marrieds conclude that they must be outliers. But a lot of this marital happiness stems from our matrimonialism, our setting up of a society that values marriage. Married people get social approval and all its attendant benefits, so they feel that their relationship should have value, regardless of whether or not they’re personally happy. —Hallie Lieberman