Respect for a range of arrangements

Staying single seems to be the preferred choice of many Millennials. But that doesn't mean marriage is a thing of the past.

Mike Segar/Reuters
A Navy petty officer and his new bride celebrated after a civil ceremony at New York's Office of the City Clerk in 2012.

Single or married; with a lot of children, a few children, or none at all – the options for how to live have always been as diverse as humans are. After World War II, people rushed to the altar. In the Victorian Era, people waited. Today, staying single is the trend.

Stephanie Hanes’s Monitor cover story (click here to read it) examines why that is and what the consequences might be. Maybe marriage has become obsolete for Millennials. The idea of marriage as a security blanket, after all, is less compelling if women and men feel emotionally and financially complete on their own and if childbearing outside of marriage is not the taboo it once was.

Twenty-first century single-hood, however, might just be a snapshot in time, a neo-Victorian quirk that a post-Millennial generation will find quaint or puzzling. Trends often reverse themselves. New ones emerge. Not everyone who is currently single will stay that way. Some might feel that friendship is just as good as a lifetime of devotion. Others might simply be pre- or post-marriage.

 A single person doesn’t need the following endorsement, so apologies in advance. Let me just say that people I’ve known who have stayed single have seemed content that way. An aunt of mine never married; a great-aunt was widowed early and never remarried. Aunt Ann was a bit of a loner. She liked to read and shop and fuss about her small house in Connecticut. She was bright and alive, but while she welcomed a visit she always seemed glad when it was over. Great-Aunt Alma enjoyed her antiques-filled Texas home and was an active part of the lives of nieces, nephews, and their children. She was memorably funny and famed for her three-bean salad.

People who never married in Ann’s and Alma’s day were called “eccentric.” That may sound like a put-down, but it just means not being in the central trend of things. Artists and inventors are eccentric. Nobody has to do what everybody else does. Thank goodness.

Marriage is perhaps eccentric in today’s Singles Nation. That doesn’t make it obsolete. For one thing, young people are less likely to enter into it automatically, romantically, or thoughtlessly. If and when love between two people blooms into something deep and life affirming, marriage might still make sense.

A few weeks ago, I attended my niece’s wedding in a magnificent California redwood grove. The couple had dated for a decade, and their friends and families knew each other well. One especially moving moment during the ceremony was the “warming of the rings,” when the wedding bands were passed from hand to hand among those in attendance. The point seemed beautifully clear: When two people join as one, they join their circles of family and friends. A new community forms around their union.

Social networks can be useful. Friends can be fun and supportive. Marriage is not for everyone. But when love matures into commitment, something profound occurs for all of us – whether we are single or married, with a large family, small family, or none at all.

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