With fewer couples than ever getting married, women are realising marriage is not all it’s cracked up to be. Emily Writes asks herself why, despite this, she’s so enamoured with her own.
Last year, New Zealand recorded a record low of marriages and civil unions, with just 19,071 – less than half the rate of 30 years ago, and it’s been declining slowly since since the peak in 1971. So why is it that people don’t want to get married any more?
My husband and I had been together for almost a decade when we married. We’d watched friends marry and divorce and then remarry, all before we’d even become engaged. Seeing one friend marry the woman he’d cheated on his wife with was so galling to my husband that he didn’t even attend their wedding. So obviously, we were very cautious of marriage as an institution. We’d not been around any successful versions of it. But we were sure of each other.
When we got engaged it was exciting and we were hopeful. But if I’m honest, we really just wanted a party and to take our minds off the fact that getting pregnant was not the easy task we’d thought it would be. We focused on how the wedding would be “different”. No love, honour and obey. No “you may kiss the bride” (we thought we were quite untraditional by saying “you may now kiss”). It all seems rather silly to me now, a decade on. I don’t know why we thought any of that mattered.
We didn’t exchange rings as neither of us liked the symbolism, but a few years later I dropped the pounamu he’d given me at our wedding. It shattered and I was heartbroken. A few months later he gave me a ring he’d designed, and inside was a shard of the pounamu, rescued from the floor. I adored it. And then lost it. I ended up buying a three-ring special at The Warehouse. A garish and blingy gold number that reminded me of something a footballer’s wife might wear. Clocking in at just under $1,000, it took us forever to pay it off. It’s my favourite thing. I’m not sure what that says about me – except that it turns out I do like sparkly things.
Our first son was born in the September of the year following our November wedding. We had a second son two years later. Our first boy was fragile and we lived in and out of hospital, and we found having a second child beyond exhausting. It was harder than anything we’d ever faced. Or so we thought. But somehow we muddled through. For a year in the middle, it was hell. I’d never felt so tired in my whole life, but I also never felt like I wanted to leave. I felt we could be fixed with sleep. And it turns out, we could.
Our son was diagnosed with another illness last year. Many people had suggested to us that life-threatening illnesses or going through almost losing a child often led to the death of relationships. We found one study that contrasted married parents caring for a child with a chronic illness or disability with married parents of so-called “well” children. Neither marital quality nor perceived marital stability differed between the two groups. “These results call into question assumptions that children with special needs irreparably harm marriages,” the study’s authors said.
We found this reassuring, but only because it mirrored our relationship. We had turned towards each other rather than away from each other in the hard times. Over the years our marriage had become my home, and our relationship was stronger than ever. But ours was a relationship of equals before we married, and that became only more important when we had kids.
I won’t pretend I know what happens behind closed doors, but marriage these days is looking bad. I often find myself telling mothers “you should get a divorce”. When I say this publicly, it is always met with more horror than the stories of husbands who have never changed a child’s nappy, husbands who have children who are seven or eight but won’t look after them if Mum isn’t home. I’m always told, “You can’t tell people to split over a nappy!” But it’s not a nappy. It’s that they’re actively choosing not to parent despite having a child.
I will never forget the story of a mum who went out to see my play. She had two children aged two and four, and this was her first time out in four years. Her husband called her dozens of times after she left the house. When he got hold of her, he said there was an emergency. When she got home she found him on the couch – he told her the baby woke every time he tried to put her down and he wanted to go have a smoke. Her mother-in-law suggested she shouldn’t have left the babies at home. She was told by others she had created this situation for herself by not encouraging him to parent more. But there’s happy news – she divorced him. And now every time her smiling face pops up on my feed, I’m thrilled. She’s met a lovely man who loves the kids and seems happier than she has ever been.
I’ve seen many, many women divorce over the last few years and they’re all happier for it. That’s not to say the divorce itself isn’t often brutal and painful and horrific – but the aftermath? They have no regrets in leaving.
Author and feminist commentator Clementine Ford describes marriage as a trap, and she says “women are rising up”. They know this to be true and that’s why they’re not marrying. When I asked women what they thought of marriage for this story, many agreed.
Heterosexual marriage is often a cover for brutal physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse. Studies have shown marriage economically benefits men more than women. The divorce rate is 7.7%. It’s little wonder women are choosing to reject marriage and the patriarchal system it upholds. Many women told me they don’t need a piece of paper or a ceremony or some kind of public declaration to commit. Many thought it foolish to marry. Especially in this day and age.
As Ford said to me, “Women are beginning to realise the romance of marriage that’s been sold to them is largely a cover for a far less appealing outcome in which they become a man’s maid, mother and caregiver for little to no reward. And for many of them, they’re stuck in it before they even know what’s happened.”
And to be honest, I don’t at all disagree. I’ve seen this with my own eyes in the marriages of others, for years and years. Even before I married.
So why, then, did I renew my vows a few months ago? I don’t know, to be honest. Last year was one of the hardest years of our lives, coming on top of what had already been a brutal few years. We have now been together as a couple longer than we have been individuals. We didn’t need to prove anything. So why did we stand with our two little boys as our witnesses and laugh our way through a silly ceremony? I don’t know. I just know that when I look at him, everything works. Everything is achievable. Everything is OK. I just know he’s my past, my present, and my future. We didn’t need proof, no relationship does. But we did it anyway and it was wonderful.
But love is a bit like that, isn’t it? It makes no sense at all.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.