Ken braced himself for Marian to leave in a huff. Instead, she smiled and asked, â€œCan you promise?â€
Since then, the couple has been happily together for seven years. â€œI always joke that the best way to get rid of Marian would be for me to propose marriage,â€ says Ken, a field biologist living in Boulder, CO. â€œPeople occasionally ask me why weâ€™re not married, and my answer has always been, â€˜Why would I get married? What possible reason would there be to do that?â€™ These questioning people, who usually are long-married, seem dumbfounded by my response. They usually fall back on thinking itâ€™s a societal norm â€” which these days, of course, it is not. It might be a grand statement to our friends and families of our commitment; it seems unnecessarily complicating to me.â€
Ken and Marian are both familiar with the complications that marriage can entail: Ken has been married twice; Marian only once, but for 20 years. Both are in their sixties and have grown kids and grandkids, and they both can see why marriage was important back then. â€œMarriage is a very real convention for the benefit of children or to solidify property concerns,â€ says Ken. â€œOtherwise, I think itâ€™s an antiquated institution.â€
Marian agrees wholeheartedly. â€œOur relationship is probably much better this way than if one of us complied with the otherâ€™s marriage demands,â€ she says. â€œWe love one another and we love our independence.â€
The new no-marriage pact
Ken and Marian are hardly alone in vowing theyâ€™ll never walk down the aisle. â€œThe days of desperately seeking marriage or remarriage seem to be on the downswing for all age groups,â€ observes Debra Castaldo, Ph.D., a therapist in Englewood, NJ and author of the upcoming book, Relationship Reboot. â€œMany middle-aged or older adults rushed into first marriages in their early twenties because it was the â€˜gold standardâ€™ thing to do.â€ Now, just about 50 percent of those couples are divorced â€” and theyâ€™re rarely eager to jump into a second marriage. â€œItâ€™s been said that once a cat sits on a hot stove, it never sits there again!â€ says Dr. Castaldo. â€œIn [their] forties and beyond, the â€˜been there, done thatâ€™ feeling can cause people who have been married and divorced to shy away from repeating the mistakes of their past.â€ Meanwhile, younger people whoâ€™ve never married have their own reasons for not making a relationship official. â€œMany have grown up as children of divorce and are shying away from the risk following in the footsteps of their parentsâ€™ life-changing mistakes,â€ says Dr. Castaldo.
Even celebrities have hopped on the no-marriage bandwagon. George Clooney, a man whom most women would kill to marry, has sworn he will never tie the knot again, pointing to his failed marriage to actress Talia Balsam (the couple divorced in 1993). â€œSo Iâ€™ve proven how good I was at [marriage],â€ Clooney said during an interview on CNNâ€™s Piers Morgan Tonight show in January of 2011. â€œIâ€™m allowed one.â€ For Brad Pitt, his refusal to marry Angelina Jolie is a political issue. Why should he have the right to marry when homosexuals do not in most U.S. states? â€œIâ€™ve said that we would not be getting married until everyone in this country had the right to get married,â€ Pitt told Ellen DeGeneres on her daytime talk show, Ellen. â€œWe allow this discrimination to go on every day and thatâ€™s not what weâ€™re about â€” thatâ€™s not what makes us great. Until that is reversed, I just donâ€™t get it.â€
Many agree with Pittâ€™s sentiment â€” including Naome, a 27-year-old from Wilmington, NC who told her boyfriend of five years that sheâ€™d never marry until gays and lesbians had the right to marry, too. â€œA friend of mine, she and her girlfriend have been together awhile,â€ Naome explains. While they want to get married, â€œtheyâ€™d have to move to New York City for it to be legal. Theyâ€™d be leaving their careers here behind. I just donâ€™t think itâ€™s fair,â€ she says. When Naome explained her no-marriage stance to her boyfriend of five years, he understood. â€œI asked him: â€˜Are my feelings toward marriage an issue?â€™ He didnâ€™t think so at all,â€ she recalls. â€œWhen I explain things, I usually get a positive reaction from people.â€
Marriage = a mistake?
In retrospect, many people who admit that their first marriage was a mistake say they felt pressure from external sources â€” i.e., to please their families or adhere to religious practices â€” instead of a genuine desire to tie the knot. After Christie married at 24 and divorced eight years later, â€œI did a lot of soul-searching and realized the only reason I really wanted to get married was because of my fundamental Christian upbringing which told me it was mandatory, especially if you ever wanted guilt-free sex,â€ she says. Now, as a 46-year-old life coach in Edmonton, Canada, â€œIâ€™ve come to the realization that marriage was an outmoded convention that doesnâ€™t really work in todayâ€™s society. It was created when people lived shorter lives and needed a partner to create babies, till the land and stay warm. This led me to decide that I didnâ€™t want to be married again,â€ Christie explains. â€œIâ€™m living with my current beau and neither of us is in any rush to put a formal label on things now â€” and maybe not ever.â€
Another reason some people are reluctant to marry is that itâ€™s no longer a hard-and-fast prerequisite for living together â€” or even having kids. When Walt from Mariden, CT was 23, his girlfriend became pregnant. Feeling too young to leap into matrimony, he moved in with his girlfriend to help raise their child and to test the waters for a long-term commitment. But while his girlfriend was gung-ho to get hitched, Walt soon had second thoughts. â€œIâ€™m glad sheâ€™s my sonâ€™s mother, but I didnâ€™t know if this was someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with,â€ he recalls. When his girlfriend finally said â€œMarry me â€” or else,â€ he made the painful decision to end their relationship. â€œI kept going back in my head, [thinking]: Would we even be living together if we didnâ€™t have a son together?â€ Walt says. â€œThe answer is no. And I need to be true to myself.â€
Today, Walt â€” a 43-year-old car salesman â€” is good friends with his ex (he ended up DJing at her wedding), sees his son often, and envisions himself dying a happy bachelor. Not surprisingly, his no-marriage stance causes some women to run for the hills. â€œOnce I was dating this woman who said: â€˜Letâ€™s talk about the future. Do you see yourself getting married? Having kids?â€™ I said, â€˜No, I already have kids.â€™ Iâ€™m not opposed to long-term relationships, but if you want to call them â€˜permanentâ€™ and make it official? No.â€
The woman Walt had been seeing grew silent, and then she broke up with him. The split pained him, because he did really love herâ€¦ but after doing the math, marriage still seemed like a really bad deal. â€œIf I marry somebody and it doesnâ€™t work out, Iâ€™ve got to give her alimony. Iâ€™ve got to give her my house,â€ Walt explains. â€œThatâ€™s the risk. So whatâ€™s the reward? If you love me, youâ€™re always going to be with me. If you donâ€™t love me anymore, youâ€™ll leave. Think about it. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce. If 50 percent of parachutes didnâ€™t open, would you be inclined to go skydiving?â€
The surprising upsides of refusing to marry
Not all singles whoâ€™ve sworn off marriage, however, are hurting for dates. When Laura, 42, from Austin, TX tells men that she never wants to get married, they often light up like theyâ€™ve hit the jackpot. â€œGuys tell me how they go out with girls who say, â€˜I want to get pregnant, I want to get married,â€™ which makes them want to run away,â€ says Laura. Since she doesnâ€™t want to have kids, â€œI donâ€™t have the pressure on myself to marry someone.â€ Instead, she focuses on just having a good time â€” a lesson she learned after terminating a prolonged engagement to a man who was perpetually unemployed and siphoned off Lauraâ€™s savings. As their engagement dragged on, â€œI became frumpy,â€ she admits. â€œI was wearing sweatpants, glasses, and no makeup at parties. Iâ€™d stopped caring about myself.â€ Laura eventually called off the wedding. A soon as she did, â€œI started doing my hair again and wearing flattering clothing. Now, my dating life is exciting!â€
Many couples fear that swapping marriage vows will cause the sparks in their relationship to fade â€” and that their partner will stop trying to make things work, since they know their spouse is locked in and canâ€™t leave easily once theyâ€™ve made things official. â€œMy opinion is very simple: when you get into a marriage, people start to take things for granted. They just become lazy,â€ says Jay, 49, an entrepreneur in Houston, TX whoâ€™d love to find a lifelong partner, but does not wish to be married. â€œIâ€™d much rather have the door [left] open,â€ he says. â€œIf I donâ€™t tend the garden, leave. For it to be successful, youâ€™ve got to take care of it.â€
So when you meet someone who says â€œI donâ€™t want to get married,â€ should you take that claim at face value? Or is it possible he or she hasnâ€™t met the right person that would inspire taking that leap of faith just yet? â€œIf someone says [he or she is] not into marriage and will never marry, believe it,â€ urges Dr. Castaldo. â€œDonâ€™t get trapped in the fantasy of trying to change [someone]! Women especially get sucked into trying desperately to get the guy to commit, believing they can if they are good, sweet and pretty enough. If you know marriage is a must for you, run to someone who has the same desire and value about marriage as you do.â€ Or, if youâ€™re ambivalent about marriage yourself, consider weighing whether itâ€™s really something you want for yourself.