I just read yet another article describing those who choose not to marry as selfish and it made me mad.
For generations, the word on the street has been that those who marry are interested in giving to others (i.e. to their children and spouse) and those who remain single are self-absorbed -- to a fault.
The author of the just-released, Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Eric Klinenberg, found that this assumption simply isn't true.
In fact, singles do more volunteer work and give back to the community far more than marrieds do. In a radio interview this week, Klinenberg reported, "It turns out, people who live alone are actually more likely to volunteer in civic organizations than people who are married," he says. "They're also more likely to spend time with friends and with neighbors. And of course they're a big reason that there's so much activity and vitality in the public areas of cities today -- they're not people who are self-involved, sitting on the couch just buying things on eBay. They're really a crucial part of modern social life."
What is "selfish" anyhow?
We can probably all agree that a person who only thinks about himself, only cares how she is impacted by an event, or who is constantly self-seeking, is selfish. And people like this are less likely to be successful in intimate, give-and-take relationships.
Yet, even the experts agree that there is healthy narcissism.
A friend shared a quote with me years ago, "It's important to be 'centered in self,' rather than self-centered." Assuming that someone is selfless simply because they are married or that someone is selfish because they are not, is wrong.
I was unmarried for much of my adult life. When I was not in a committed relationship it was not because I wanted to focus on only myself. Still, I was judged and people surmised that something must be wrong with me (I didn't marry until I was in my 40's). It was assumed I was unlucky or immature. In turn, I wondered if there was in fact something wrong with me; I denigrated myself for not being willing or able to commit my life to someone "because that's what you're 'supposed' to do." It never occurred to me -- until I started working with couples finding alternative lifestyles -- that there were other viable options.
A few years ago, I wrote an article titled: What We Really Need is to Get Marriage Whys which called on readers to stop assuming that there's one right way to do anything and start going below the surface to find out why people are doing what they are doing. Based on the comments I received in response, I know the topic struck a nerve.
One of the biggest reasons people remain single, focus on career-building, and wait to tie the knot is because they understand that, "until death do us part," is a tremendous commitment. They are not pretending to be ready for it. Far from being selfish, that's smart.
Putting the task of finding yourself before finding a mate generally makes you a happier and more balanced person. When you are happier and more balanced, you make a better partner. That's healthy.
Another reason is that they can't afford it, as one young woman told me in response to my article entitled, Millennials are Changing the Rules on Marriage, "We are all just poor. The truth is that most Millennials are paying off thousands of dollars of student loan debt and don't actually have the money for a car, house let alone a wedding and honeymoon." Also far from being selfish, in my view, that's responsible.
We don't need marriage anymore. Most of the reasons marriage was designed (for survival, to "legally" procreate, and to keep property in blood-lines) are taken care of by other means such as changes in laws and social norms. Yet, we perpetuate outdated customs that no longer have appeal.
If the only choices out there are to marry the same old way, or to not marry, we will undoubtedly continue to see the numbers of unmarrieds grow. We have evolved too much to be confined by such a narrow paradigm.
Believe it or not, it's good news that the culture is trending toward questioning whether marriage is worth it and trying other lifestyle options on for size. That means there's a new consciousness about marriage that has been sorely lacking for several generations now.
The potential bad news is that those who reject marriage may be missing out on important benefits such as the right of survivorship, healthcare coverage (although many insurance companies recognize domestic partnerships these days), protections in the event of a break-up, as well as tax advantages for some.
In, The New I Do, Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press, September, 2014), my co-author, journalist, Vicki Larson, and I explored the idea of giving people options within marriage.
To our surprise, we found that many couples that felt "traditional" marriage wasn't right for them -- but that wanted to marry -- were already tapering the institution of marriage to fit their needs. In fact, we uncovered seven alternatives to traditional marriage currently being practiced.
Singles and cohabiters are on the right track, but throwing the concept of marriage out completely isn't the answer. Changing marriage is. Matrimony has to change if it is to survive and thrive. That's why we are calling for an "Occupy Marriage Movement." We hope you will join us for this "keeping marriage alive" cause.
A similar version of this article was previously published on PsychologyToday.com