What would it mean to end the centuries-long American fixation on traditional family structures? Would we be able to look at families living outside of convention without as much judgment, as much toxic condescension? Would the “smug marrieds” Helen Fielding wrote about in Bridget Jones’s Diary be less smug and just married?
If we woke up one morning and discovered that in America marriage was suddenly regarded as a choice, a way, a possibility, but not a definite and essential phase of life, think how many people would suddenly be living above board, think of the stress removed, the pressures lifted, the stigmas dissolving. Think how many people living unhappily would see their way to living less unhappily. In Edwardian England, the cultural critic Rebecca West wrote about the “dinginess that come between us and the reality of love” and the “gross, destructive mutual raids on personality that often form marriages.”
Whatever one thinks about the institution, the truth is that marriage is increasingly not the way Americans are living. If one goes strictly by the facts—that the majority of babies born to women under 30 are born to single mothers, or that about 51 percent of American adults are married—one has to admit that marriage can’t be taken for granted, assumed as a rite of passage, a towering symbol of our way of life. But somehow this hasn’t dimmed our solid sense of marriage as the American normal.