Tracey Barnett

Tracey Barnett is a Herald columnist

Tracey Barnett: Marriage becoming the icing on the cake

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

A test: What makes men happier, live longer, become wealthier, excel more at their careers, suffer less from depression/alcoholism/drug addiction and make men far less likely to die violently?

A hint: this is the same answer that makes women have a shorter lifespan, become poorer, not thrive as well in their careers, become less healthy, be more likely to suffer from depression and more likely to die violently - usually at the hands of a husband.

Take a deep breath, Nuptialists. The answer is marriage. This nasty little grouping of studies is often loosely referred to as "the Marriage Benefit Imbalance".

That age-old institution that seems - on the face of it - fabulously good for men doesn't end up quite so swimmingly for women when death do you part.

Maybe that's why women ask for divorce two-thirds more often than men, according to University of Virginia's National Marriage Project.

I admit, somewhere in the Paleolithic era when my partner asked me to legally enter into this institution in a freezing Pup tent at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, I failed the swelling movie soundtrack test, big time.

The truth is, as I lay cocooned in my sleeping bag like a giant overstuffed ravioli, I felt, first and foremost, fear. Honestly, I didn't need to get married.

Though we had been together for four years, I didn't see any need for change. Marriage meant a no-escape clause, one that I respected. Both of us had a set of happily-ever-after parents who cemented that concept.

There were no marital pay-offs I felt I needed from a man or didn't already have with my partner: permanence, respectability, the legal ability to build assets together, even the possibility to have children.

In Maslow's hierarchy of needs, this one was so far up the ladder it ranked somewhere between snow tyres and personalised stationery.

Why then did this one measly question mean swan diving off the edge of the deepest hole in the world, the one I had just literally walked into that day?

Even then, two decades ago, prophetically, my hesitations wouldn't sound too foreign to the bare ring fingers of the entire generation that came after me.

The reality is, we just aren't choosing the institution of marriage as much. If the last four decades are anything to go by, the number of marriages in New Zealand has fallen a whopping 20 per cent since a peak in 1971. Undoubtedly we're still falling in love, reproducing, taking on mortgages, fighting over the remote. We're just not putting a ring on it, Beyonce.

What gives? At first glance, you might guess that successive generations of increasingly educated, better-employed women are the ones eschewing matrimony. Greater economic freedom means they needn't depend as strongly on a spouse.

In fact, it's the opposite. Both female and male university graduates are actually more likely to be married.

It is among the non-university educated that marriage rates have dropped most, from 78 per cent in 1970 to 43 per cent in 2007, according to a United States Pew Research poll.

There's nothing educationally liberating at work here. What keeps couples together is money, according to Professor Jeffrey Dew of Utah State University. Couples with no assets were 70 per cent more likely to divorce than couples with even $10,000 in assets.

Marriage as a binding economic entity is certainly ancient. What we forget to notice is that marriage as an institution continues to evolve each century, sometimes each decade.

Marriage didn't always look like it does now, with fetishised, hugely expensive weddings [thanks, Queen Victoria, who first popularised the big doily white dress] under a religious tent.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Committed, points out that for most of human history marriage has usually been a union between one man and several women.

Indeed, Western coupling and uncoupling was surprisingly loose until 1215. It was Pope Innocent III who decided the nuptial contract had to be sanctified by a priest, unbreakable and lifelong, planting the seeds of the modern church-dominated contract.

Gilbert argues that the institution has always been about outside control of the individual couple. Thus, American slaves weren't allowed to marry, Nazi Germans couldn't marry Jews, or interracial couples were forbidden until recently.

Worldwide, governments still bend to control the institution - scrambling to legislate over the growing number of de facto couples by offering them the same legal rights as married spouses. Today same-sex couples are redefining new marital boundaries, forcing the institution to reinvent itself socially with the times.

Modern-day expectations of romance, coupling and family building haven't changed. But it will be my daughter's generation that no longer just assumes marriage will give her a societal contract she needs.

Think of what a huge evolutionary leap in thinking that represents just two short jumps from your grandmother's generation. Marriage may not be dying - it just may be becoming the icing on the cake.

* Follow Tracey Barnett on Twitter.

- NZ Herald

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