Rethinking marriage

America will become a country with more single than married people. Reno has already made the switch.

Photo By David Robert

Jackie and Jilly sitting in a tree,
First comes love, then comes marriage,
Then comes Jackie with a baby carriage.

Childhood rhyme

It’s the perfect family portrait. The dad blows bubbles on baby’s tummy while mom looks on adoringly. The baby and mom both giggle as dad playfully lifts the “little stinker” over his head and makes airplane sounds. The mom and dad watch proudly as the baby, in her pink puppy pajamas, scoots herself forward on her stomach on the cream-colored carpet of this cozy, old Southwest Reno home, making her first attempts at crawling. It’s heartwarming, lovely and unorthodox.

In this glowing depiction of domesticity, the dad, Aaron Kepler, 25, and the mom, Heather Crow, 28, are not married. Cohabitating and raising their 6-month-old daughter, Kylee, they have decided to hold off on marriage.

“I don’t believe in the institution of marriage as a means of showing love,” explains Kepler of his decision to be in a committed relationship without being married.

Crow, who disagrees with Kepler ‘s viewpoint on marriage, says, “Marriage to me ‘is I love you, and I want to be committed to you for the rest of my life.'”

Crow and Kepler’s lives didn’t take the traditional path of “marriage followed by baby” that they expected. Yet, they maintain that living together is a necessary part of a long-term relationship and that their unmarried but cohabiting status works well for them.

Crow says they’ve created the best possible environment in which to raise their daughter, “I think Aaron and I need to be happy.”

Between Kylee’s wide, toothless grins and her parents’ affectionate glances toward one another as the baby grabs for her square plastic block, it is clear that this is a happy family. This is also the family of the future. Aaron, Heather and Kylee’s lifestyle is but one facet of the developing image of the new single American household.

The Hallmark Holiday
The heavy-hearted holiday we know as Valentine’s Day is said to have originated in pagan times as the day when birds began to choose their mates at the onset of spring— that’s in addition to the folklore about St. Valentine. Like the birds, many Americans will choose their mates this Valentine’s Day, as the holiday is the most popular day of the year to get engaged and married.

That statistic isn’t likely to change anytime soon. But marriage is changing, and while the folks at Hallmark probably don’t have anything to worry about (people will fall in love as long as there are stars to fall from the sky), more and more Americans are flying solo or partnering up without marriage, and the 2002 census shows it.

According to census figures, by 2010 there will be more households in the United States headed by single people than by married couples, with married couples accounting for only 20 percent of households.

Despite this trend, it seems America has never been so in love with the idea of marriage. From Trista and Ryan’s year-long, pink-soaked marital parade to the will-they-or-won’t-they mania of Bennifer, Americans are lovesick with cultural representations of marriage. Yet this intense interest may have more to do with the allure of weddings, flamboyant celebrities and ideals of romance than with the not-so-glamorous daily realities of married life.

For example, rumor has it the tear-soaked saga of Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez came to its tragic end because she wanted to settle down, and he refused to surrender his bachelor ways. While the split is somewhat symbolic of what is happening on a grander scale in American society, peoples’ reasons for being single are not as simple as young women and men refusing to be tamed by matrimony.

The singles who are taking over aren’t Helen Gurley Brown’s representation from her 1962 book, Sex and the Single Girl (which is realized contemporarily in Sex and the City), either. They are a more ordinary, less extreme version.

Today’s single person is SATC’s Carrie Bradshaw, a woman who will marry far later in her life or may never marry at all (we’ll see how the season ends). She is also your grandmother, who will spend many years of her life as a widow. Today’s singles are the guys from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, tastefully ushering in an era of un-closeted gays and lesbians.

With the divorce rate still hovering around 50 percent, today’s single person is no longer the scandalous guest on Oprah, lamenting a marriage gone wrong, but is Oprah, who has rejected marriage altogether, deciding simply to cohabitate with her partner.

In fact, in the 2002 Census, today’s single adult represents 86 million Americans. That’s out of 293 million total—almost 30 percent.

Government discrimination against unmarrieds
Amid the toasters, waffle irons and spatulas, marrying couples also receive more than 1,000 federal benefits and protections to be married. Perks varying from automatic inheritance to immunity from testifying against a spouse to hospital visitation rights are just some of the wedding gifts sent along from Uncle Sam when couples say, “I do.” Yet because so many people say “I don’t” to marriage, singles are demanding reform of laws and social policies that were designed to favor and promote marriage when it was the norm.

“We deserve equal rights, equal pay and fair treatment by society,” asserts Thomas Coleman, the president of Unmarried America, an equal rights organization founded to advocate single and unmarried Americans. “When will elected officials and corporate executives realize that when it comes to marital status, there is no ‘them versus us’ anymore? We are your relatives, friends, neighbors and coworkers. And since most Americans will be unmarried for most of our adult lives, ‘we are you.'”

Heather Crow and Aaron Kepler are cohabitating and raising a child together. This couple has conflicting opinions about the value of a marriage certificate.

Photo By David Robert

What do unmarrieds look like?
Nevada is already one of the 13 states in the country where the scales have tipped in favor of a single majority. The 2002 Census showed 51.5 percent of Nevada households are headed by unmarried people, compared to the U.S. average of 49.5 percent. The 2000 Census revealed that Reno is a city of singletons with 59.5 percent of households headed by an unmarried adult. Las Vegas has a more demure 51.7 percent of households headed by singles.

One reason for the growing number of singles is longer life spans, which means more widows and widowers. Statistically, if you live to be 70, you will spend more of your life single than married, reported BusinessWeek in October. A recent study from the University of Chicago showed that urban-dwellers in particular will spend more of their adult lives dating and being single than they will being married.

The growing numbers of openly gay and lesbian couples (who are legally forbidden to marry), accounts for some of the shift. There is also evidence that Americans are approaching a walk down the aisle more cautiously. Forty years ago, the average ages men and women married were 22 and 20, respectively. In 2003, the average age for first marriages for men was 26.9 years, while women married at around 25, and these ages keep steadily increasing.

Cohabitation with a partner before marriage and in lieu of marriage is also on the rise. In 2000, there were more than 51 million households being shared by unmarried men and women.

Some argue that this prudence about marriage is a result of a generation of children who watched divorce wreak havoc in their families. The rampant divorce rate has certainly affected American marriages, leading some couple to add the vow, “I will never divorce you,” to their wedding ceremonies. Yet it seems divorce is just one reason the significance and meaning of marriage is changing and leaving so many single.

Getting married for the children’s sake. NOT!
Michelle Bumgarner and her partner of six years, Aaron Bufner, live together and raise their 4-year-old son in Sparks. The couple consciously decided early in their relationship not to marry. While Bumgarner’s parents were married 16 years before her father’s death, and Bufner’s parents have been married for more than 30 years, neither is interested in making their commitment to one another legal.

“We’re not against marriage; it just doesn’t make sense for us,” says Bumgarner, citing her and Bufner’s status as college students and future law school students, as well as their rejection of religion, as factors that have contributed to their decision not to marry.

“If I’m with someone, I’m with them because I want to be,” she says unapologetically. “We choose not to marry, but it doesn’t mean we don’t want to be together. We just don’t put a lot of value on a piece of paper, and we don’t think that marriage means what it used to.”

Bumgarner is not far off in her assessment. Marriage doesn’t mean what it used to, according to Barbara Defoe Whitehead and David Popenoe, co-directors of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University. They argue in their latest report that the purpose and meaning of American marriage has shifted to be centered around the needs of adults, rather than being focused on the needs of children.

Supporting the age-old idea that the institution of marriage functions to create an environment for the shared task of child rearing, they assert that Uncle Sam’s gift basket of legal goodies for married couples is advantageous to the children born to them, and that children fare better economically and socially if born to and raised by married parents.

“The possibility or presence of children,” Whitehead and Popenoe write, “is the key reason why the state and society treat marriage differently from other intimate partnerships.”

But for a growing number of American parents like Bumgarner and Bufner, the old axiom of “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage” is out of order and out of date.

A record 33 percent of children are being born to single parents. Since 1960, there has been an 850 percent increase in the number of children living with an unmarried couple. The 2002 Census documented that 41 percent of different-sex couples who are unmarried and living together have children at home.

More than 1 million children are being raised by same-sex couples. A recent survey commissioned by the National Marriage Project showed that fewer than half of young men and women surveyed agreed that having a child outside of marriage was wrong.

Equality is Job 1
The number of children being born and living outside of married households is one of many concerns that modern singles have about traditional governmental and societal perks rained upon married couples.

Discrimination against unmarrieds—with or without children—hits the wallet. While many of the protections and privileges automatically awarded to married couples can be obtained by singles through legal action and careful planning, many single people with non-traditional family forms are questioning why they should be treated differently.

Groups like The American Association of Single People (AASP) and the Alternatives to Marriage Project (ATMP) are pursuing legal and social reform on the basis of equal rights for singles.

“The promise of equality applies to all people—as workers, taxpayers, consumers, and citizens—whether married or not,” maintains Unmarried America, the membership division of the AASP.

Most companies provide greater benefit compensation to married employees by financing benefits to spouses. Unmarried America estimates that this discrepancy and the lack of alternative compensation for the unmarried results in 25 percent less pay for those employees without a ring on their left hand.

While a growing number of companies extend benefits to both same-sex and different-sex domestic partners, these benefits are taxed, while those given to the legally bound are not.

“Unlike married couples, the time and expense to get these benefits can sometimes be prohibitive,” says Mike, a gay man in Reno who lives in a committed relationship. “Straight couples can simply go to Las Vegas and tie the knot. They can tell their Human Resources Department that they are married, and their spouse is insured the following day. Today, as a gay couple, we have to fill out many statements and have a several page document notarized. Though it provides benefits, the process is not equitable.”

Other inequities include a spouse’s privilege of leaving a tax-free inheritance, no matter how large, to their married partner. Married couples can also transfer property to one another without taxation, when a similar transfer between domestic partners would be taxable.

Nicole Suda and her partner, Dean McBeth, plan to marry someday, but for now are happy to be “living in sin.”

Photo By David Robert

Some couples find their inability to file taxes jointly with a partner or a relative unfair. While the marriage-penalty tax has garnered attention as of late, many married couples are rewarded rather than penalized when they get married and are able to file taxes jointly. Singles, especially lower-income singles, have also been overlooked by President Bush’s latest rounds of tax cuts.

Another battleground for financial fairness for unmarrieds is over Social Security and pensions. Only spouses currently can collect Social Security benefits, while domestic partners can’t. Most pension plans operate on a similar design.

With the expected shortfall of Social Security, pensions are becoming even more important to the financial security of many widows and widowers and affect a growing number of seniors’ decisions not to remarry, so as not to lose their deceased spouse’s pension.

From the “high-risk” status assigned to singles by automobile insurance companies to the often less favorable terms offered by credit and mortgage institutions, there is a lot at stake for the swelling numbers of Americans who check the “single” box on their applications.

In addition, singles are concerned about the lack of laws in many states that forbid discrimination against unmarrieds when it comes to housing. Unmarried partners also have no victims’ rights protection. Only blood relatives and spouses are allowed to sue, for example, if a family member is killed by a drunk driver.

“I’d like to be considered less of a risk,” Mike says.

Loving in sin
Like Mike, it seems that most singles would like to be seen as “less of a risk” to society. While in 2004 phrases like “living in sin” and “illegitimate children” seem archaic, there is still a societal sense that choosing anything but marriage is a substandard choice.

Nicole Suda, a 25-year-old schoolteacher who lives with her boyfriend in Spanish Springs, knows well the stigma attached to her decision to cohabitate before marriage. Although she eventually wants to wed her partner, Suda is happy with their decision to cohabitate first. The decision is not without its detractors or insecurities, though.

“Family, friends, acquaintances, people in department stores are always asking when I will become an honest woman,” she says of her living situation. “I am constantly asked if he wants to get married and if we have talked about marriage. Then the advice comes that I shouldn’t hold out too long, that I don’t want to be taken advantage of, that he might be using me. But then this is followed by ‘be careful not to pressure him,’ ‘you might scare him away,’ ‘maybe he’s not ready yet,’ and ‘give him some more time.'”

“I am very confused about my role in society as a single woman wanting to eventually be un-single.”

When lifestyles collide
Suda isn’t alone in her confusion. As singles usurp the majority in the coming years, demanding changes in the value assigned to marriage, a number of questions are raised that don’t have simple answers. Why do we value marriage? What does it mean to be single in America? What does it mean to be married in America in the 21st Century? What is a family?

The most profound battle to be waged over marriage in the next year will be over who is allowed to marry. With the monumental decision from the Massachusetts’ Supreme Court, which ruled that the state’s ban on same-sex marriage is unconstitutional, gays are at least temporarily making strides to be able to determine their own single status.

Other promising advances include the United States Supreme Court repealing laws against sodomy, and Canadian courts in two provinces removing barriers to marriage for same-sex couples.

But as seen with Question 2 in the 2000 Nevada election, the movement to “protect marriage” and define it as being between a man and a woman is still strong and is bound to become an even bigger issue for all Americans—single or married.

In last month’s State of the Union address, President Bush warned of “activist judges … redefining marriage by court order.” While not explicitly saying he would support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage as being strictly between a man and a woman, he did say the issue is of “great consequence,” and “Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage.”

His comments on marriage prompted this response from the Human Rights Campaign’s president, Cheryl Jacques: “In the more than 200 hundred years of American history, the Constitution has never been amended to deny basic rights and responsibilities. The Constitution should never be used to deny fundamental rights like the ability to visit a partner in the hospital, or the protection of Social Security Survivor benefits.”

For 86 million singles, gay or straight, what is of “great consequence” is their ability to live and create families without being penalized for being single by choice, or because they are divorced, widowed or gay. Just as Cheryl Jacques argues for gay marriage, advocates of the newly emerging single majority believe they should not be denied “fundamental rights” on the grounds of their marital status.

Last summer, Gov. Kenny Guinn quietly signed a bill into law that gives Nevada’s domestic partners (both same-sex and different-sex) the limited rights of hospital visitation and the ability to make decisions on behalf of their partner on issues of organ donation, funerals and burial.

Many singles would like to see farther-reaching provisions enacted. California recently passed the Domestic Rights and Responsibilities Act, which guarantees some domestic partnerships legal protections in various areas, including family leave, child custody and gift and estate tax exemptions.

In the face of our changing national profile, President Bush has proposed a counter-initiative to help promote marriage over the next five years. At the cost of $1.5 billion, the plan seeks to assist couples in developing interpersonal skills that will help sustain healthy marriages among lower-income groups of people. Critics of this plan argue that it is an invasion of privacy by the government, likely to increase domestic violence rates, and not an effective solution to help poor children and adults out of poverty. President Bush’s plan also begs the question, if marriage is so great, why does it need to be promoted?

Amid the overwhelming numbers that suggest we are straying from marriage, the fact remains that 85 percent of Americans will still marry once in their lifetime.

“This country still believes in marriage,” says Joyce Odessky, a wife of 49 years and a recent widow.

Nearly 6,400 marriage knots are tied daily in this country. Americans aren’t exactly leaving marriage at the altar, yet we are living and setting up our households differently than June and Ward Cleaver did.

If the census numbers are right, unmarrieds in America have set the date of 2010 to dominate as a majority. America seems destined to become a nation of singletons, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until a change in demographic do us part.