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When Is Legal Marriage Appropriate?

As I have just outlined, I now wholeheartedly agree that legal marriage is a good thing. But, it is a good thing for all couples? There are both pros and cons to legal marriage. Every couple needs to look at the negative and positive aspects of getting married and decide whether it best suits their needs. This sounds simple enough, but in reality, couples oftentimes do a lot of agonizing about whether or not to marry. This is particularly true when a couple does not intend to parent together, and in situations where people are contemplating a second marriage.

I have interviewed many, many couples grappling with the dilemma of whether or not to get married. Let me put forth some information that I think can help couples figure out whether marriage is the best option for their unique situation. Let me start by discussing situations for which marriage is not the appropriate option.

The most obvious situation when marriage does not make sense is for young adults. Human beings reach sexual maturity physiologically between the ages of thirteen and sixteen. However, most young people are not ready for the financial responsibilities of marriage until their mid-twenties. There is therefore a gap of about ten years when human beings have a strong desire for romantic/sexual relationships but are not ready for marriage. In decades past, people did not need years of education and training before entering the workforce, and it was therefore not uncommon for people to marry at eighteen. Today there is a need to postpone marriage and childbearing. Since we have reliable birth control, young adults can safely participate in romantic / sexual relationships during early adulthood and postpone marriage until they are financially ready for it.¹

Postponing marriage until the age of twenty-five also enables people to attain a reasonable amount of emotional maturity before taking on all the psychological complexities of marriage. I conclude that marriage is not an appropriate choice for people under the age of twenty-five, as a general rule.

There are a number of other situations when non-marital relationships are often more appropriate. Many people in this day and age are not choosing to have children. Such people may decide that marriage, with all its legal merging of finances and formal structure, is not necessary or desirable. I’m not saying that couples who are not planning to parent have no need for marriage. For some childless couples, marriage is still the best option. I will discuss this in a moment. But in situations where both people have their own careers and similar earning power, and neither will be taking time out from their careers to parent, the legal complexities of marriage may serve no purpose, and in fact be downright obtrusive. Though you can use prenuptial agreements to delineate the ways you want to keep your finances separate, the easiest way to maintain financial separateness and independence is to not get legally married.

Likewise, as a result of birth control, the decreased birthrate, and increased life span, even the majority of people who do parent usually spend less than half of their adult lives raising children. “Post child-rearing” divorces are fairly common. People sometimes discover that, once the kids are gone; they grow apart, because they want to do very different things with the later decades of their lives. Such people may conclude that marriage was an appropriate choice for the first part of their lives, but not something they would do a second time. This is not to say they will not desire to have another (or several) deep, meaningful relationships in the latter years of their lives; they just may decide that these relationships do not need the formal structure of marriage. Let me now discuss situations for which marriage seems to be the best option.

The first and most obvious situation for which marriage seems to be the best option is when there will be a significant blending of economic resources. The most common time this happens is when people parent together. Sometimes women make career accommodations in order to serve as the primary caretaker of the children. Even if the woman is working full time, she may pursue a different career track in order to remain flexible enough and available enough to parent. Women who parent are sometimes less likely to accept promotions and less likely to accept high powered jobs that require a lot of time and energy investment during the years they are parenting. There are of course exceptions to this. There are house husbands and brain surgeon mothers. Overall, the earning power of young women has continued to increase with each passing decade and some women do not interrupt their careers when they parent. In some couples, the women earns as much or more than their male counterparts, and often these couples will hire professional childcare and therefore neither the man or woman’s earning power will be diminished by parenthood. However, there are still many instances where the woman’s career and earning power are negatively affected by parenthood.

As a result of these sex role differences, if/when a man and woman divorce after parenting together, the man's earning power, education level, etc. is sometimes substantially greater than the woman’s. A legal, formal marriage is a way of protecting the woman’s “interest” in the husband’s earning power, retirement plan, etc. The marriage has to be dissolved in a court of law, and the court will attempt to equitably distribute all the financial resources of the marriage, and often awards the woman alimony to take into account the woman’s career sacrifices for parenthood.

However, this kind of “merging of lives” can happen even if there is no parenthood involved. Childless couples often still make decisions to pool their financial resources either directly or indirectly. One person in a couple may geographically move to enhance the other’s career; couples may pay for one another’s education, support one another’s endeavors, etc. A couple may also buy property together, having one person contributing the tangible money and the other contributing sweat equity. Whenever there is a significant merging of financial resources, I think marriage is appropriate.

¹I believe in exploring sexuality despite the HIV/AIDS situation.

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