Opinion

What Does Marriage Ask Us to Give Up?

I spent most of my 20s and 30s single, only to marry and then come to the conclusion that my marriage should end. Now I am single again. But I am not alone. My marriage ended during the pandemic, while I was at home with family. Since the pandemic began, my daughter and I have been living in what my family jokingly calls “the compound” — a house my mother and I bought together before I was married. She and my siblings and their families live there, in an attempt to withstand the waves of gentrification that have displaced everyone in my family every four to five years, as the sketchy neighborhoods we can afford get “discovered” by rich young people.

The compound is a noisy place. Sometimes, when everyone is talking and laughing and joking at once, my daughter, who is young enough that language is still new to her, will raise her voice in a keening screech to try to join in the cacophony. Living with all this noise has stirred up many emotions: gratitude to my family for their support, the irritation of adolescence as we sometimes catch ourselves in the dances of our older selves; a longing for sleep that can only be felt in a household full of children who are all awake and ready to play by 6:30 a.m. on a Saturday.

What has not materialized is the intense loneliness that people warned me would come with divorce. It was always interesting, telling people about the divorce. Some friends with small children almost panicked about what would come, about how the separation was too rash. But I am lucky in that most of my friends have lived lives falling in and out of partnerships. “You can go it alone, you know” was the much more common response.

We are living through a time when all the stories the larger culture tells us about ourselves are being rewritten: the story of what the United States is; what it means to be a man or a woman; what it means to be a child; what it means to love oneself or other people. We are imagining all of this again so that these stories can guide and comfort us rather than control us.

It’s a different world from the one my parents inhabited when they divorced, one in which many people treated their separation as if it were an infectious disease and shunned us for a number of years. There was the way people spoke to me when they thought my parents were married and the way the tone shifted when they figured out my mother was now alone. A distinct refrain, when growing up: “It’s really just your mother and you all?”

Even as a child, I bristled at the assumptions behind that question. It seemed obvious to me then, having lived in a two-parent home that was deeply unhappy and dysfunctional, that the number of parents around to make a working family was arbitrary, that people beholden to the rigid mathematics of mother and father and children equals stability were shortsighted, ignoring all we know of human interactions and ways we make family throughout human history. To believe that one equation would work for us all seemed so simplistic and childish that for much of my young adulthood, I simply disregarded it.

But the cultural myths around coupledom are hard to resist. It was easy, in childhood, to simply decide there must be another way. It was harder, in adulthood, after years spent marinating in so many cultural stories about what marriage could promise — legitimacy, maturity, stability, strength — to resist that programming. Marriage, of course, can be all those things to many people, but my own brought something different, which has led to this desire to be alone again.

There is a lot of hand wringing currently about the decline of marriage in America. No matter that divorce rates have also gone down, and that when people are marrying, it is at later ages. Our culture may have changed to allow other ways for people to chart their lives, but whole industries and institutions — banking, real estate, health care, insurance, advertising and most important, taxation — revolve around assumptions of marriage as the norm. Without that base assumption, the logic of many of those transactions is thrown out.

It can feel daunting to come up with new narratives about what it means to mature — to be worthy of housing and financial stability and health care, to find companionship or emotional support — when these industries have so much invested, both financially and ideologically, in a particular way of measuring life and community.

In search of new narratives, I have found myself drawn to Diane di Prima’s 2001 memoir, “Recollections of My Life as a Woman.” It focuses on her childhood and life in New York — a portrait of the artist as a young woman, in all her romantic and intuitive glory. Ms. di Prima is remarkable because as a poet in her early 20s in 1950s New York, she decided she wanted to be a mother, and a single mother at that.

“I was a poet,” she wrote, continuing, “There was nothing that I could possibly experience, as a human in a female body, that I would not experience …. There should, it seemed to me, be no quarrel between these two aims: to have a baby and to be a poet.” Nevertheless, she continued, “A conflict held me fast.”

Her memoir revolves around this conflict between motherhood and the demands of an artist. At a certain point, overwhelmed by the demands of parenting children alone while running a press, founding an avant-garde theater, protecting her left-wing friends from raids by the F.B.I. and the grinding poverty of an artist’s life in New York City, Ms. di Prima entered into a marriage of convenience with a man she distrusted. He was the ex-boyfriend of her male best friend. Besides its messy origins, this relationship resembles the dream I’ve heard so many straight women describe, in a joking, not joking way — wishing to start a family with a friend, to avoid the complications of romantic love.

But Ms. di Prima is honest about the limitations of the arrangement. She wrote that she avoided the pains of romance, but the man she married is still a domineering, abusive mess, in her recounting. Furthermore, in marriage, she has lost something integral to herself. “One of my most precious and valued possessions was my independence: my struggle for control over my own life,” she wrote, continuing, “I didn’t see that it had no intrinsic value for anyone but myself, that it was a coin that was precious only within the realm, a currency that could not cross borders.”

These words, when I read them, sounded in me like the chime of a tuning fork. I had never before read such a precise description of what marriage asks some people to give up. Those who panic over the rise in the number of single Americans do not see that this statistic includes lives of hard-won independence — lives that still intersect with a community, with a home, with a belief in something wider than oneself. The people clinging to old narratives around singledom and marriage can’t yet see these lives for what they are because, as Ms. di Prima puts it, they are not “an objectively valuable commodity.” Their meaning is “a currency that cannot cross borders.”

These lives threaten the communal narratives currently in place. But what is a threat to some can be to others a glimmer of a new world coming.

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