State of the union

This summer, my husband and I will commemorate our 12th wedding anniversary.

The realization of such immediately brought two thoughts to mind:

1. Surprise—I actually thought we were approaching year 13. It’s funny how time smashes together like that.

2. Apparently, we are part of a dying breed—not because more marriages are ending in divorce, but because fewer people are actually tying the knot in the first place.

In 2010, smug marrieds made up 48 percent of American households, according to a report released by the Census Bureau.

That statistic is down—considerably down—from its perch at 78 percent in 1950.

It’s not particularly surprising and goes hand in hand with other notable changes in our ever-shifting notions about marriage.

Because even as studies show that getting hitched can lead to a happier, healthier life, our faith in marriage is on the decline.

I get that. I really do.

My own belief in the possibility of matrimonial harmony took years to build. Certainly, I didn’t learn it from those around me. My various parents and step-parents went through multiple marriages—I believe there were at least six sets of swapped “I dos” between them before I even turned 18. Similarly, many of my friends’ parents also went through multiple divorces and remarriages; it seemed most of my examples of stable, lasting marriages were limited to grandparents and fictional TV couples.

As a teenager, my beliefs reflected what I saw around me. I had no desire to get married.

It didn’t change anything, I said then, it didn’t guarantee happiness.

And certainly I learned that the hard way when, at age 25, I stupidly got married anyway, in an attempt to “fix” a relationship.

It should be easy to guess how that one turned out.

Yet instead of turning me off of the idea of marriage forever, that failure opened me up to the possibility of a union that could work. It taught me so much (more than any study or self-help book ever could) about what I sought in a stable, fulfilling relationship.

It taught me that when I did meet the right person that a successful, happy marriage was one that felt like a haven from the storm of life—not an endlessly brutal walk against hurricane winds.

Now, most of my friends who are the same age or older are married, too.

Many of my younger friends, however, have no desire to commit to sign a document that legally binds them to another person.

It doesn’t change anything, they say. It doesn’t guarantee happiness.

And, they add, it’s not fair when gays and lesbians can’t marry.

In defense of marriage, however, it should be pointed out that, government and so-called “moral” minority interference aside, marriage is what you make it.

No, it doesn’t change anything—at least not tangibly. No, it doesn’t guarantee happiness.

Yes, it should be open to everyone age 18 and over. Yes, it’s just a piece of paper—a signature recorded for posterity, a tax break, an easier way to get health benefits.

But it’s also so much more.

Marriage is a mental endurance test—the best kind that challenges you to grow and change with the person you love the most; it’s an exercise in learning how to navigate and negotiate conflict and compromise.

It’s a protective alliance built on trust and goofy laughs and shared experiences.

It’s a chance to be your best self—with a little help from your best friend.

You definitely don’t need a piece of paper for that.

Still, for me, that document stands as testament to our accomplishment, concrete proof that we took a chance and have, so far, beat the odds.