A Case for Marriage in an Age that Celebrates Being Single

Love and Sex

A Case for Marriage in an Age that Celebrates Being Single

Illustration: Siddhakanksha Mishra

Ihave a theory. If you’re a reasonably intelligent, mildly attractive, and acceptably pleasant single woman in your early 30s, there will come a day that curdles the concept of marriage for you, perhaps irrevocably. It could happen the day you’re sitting opposite a man your married cousin claimed was an “absolute catch” and realise that the only reason he earned that gushing recommendation was because he was once seen entering the kitchen at a dinner party carrying back empty dishes. Or it could be the day you overhear a much-married colleague – closer to your parents’ age than your own – making an icky joke about wanting to “do” a younger woman colleague. It could be the day you’ve had enough of the passive-aggressive wife jokes that invariably paints the woman of the house as a shrill, unreasonable, nagging shrew; or the day your best friend admits that even though there’s nothing wrong with him or the marriage, they’re only ever happy roughly six per cent of the time. 

The point is, somewhere in your 30s, you find yourself seriously wondering why, when so many inmates of the institution are so desperately miserable, the institution of marriage continues to be the gold standard for romantic relationships. 

It’s an excellent time to be asking yourself this. You’re (hopefully) financially independent and don’t need a man or his money to put a roof over your head or food on your table. You’re grown up enough to enjoy your own company and you have enough meaningful relationships in your life for the idea of quiet evenings alone to feel like a welcome prospect, not a punishment. Science itself is making a compelling argument for women to stay single, with research suggesting that unmarried and childfree women live longer and report being more happy than their married counterparts, and that divorce improves the health of postmenopausal women. You watch your married women friends juggle careers, households and children practically single-handedly, while their husbands lose themselves in their fancy-ass startups, chasing unicorns, and later in Kapil Sharma’s sophisticated humour. All of it obviously makes you wonder what the fuss is all about. I’ll bet good money you have, at least once, thought to yourself that you’re better off with a dog, really. 

You’re (hopefully) financially independent and don’t need a man or his money to put a roof over your head or food on your table.

I was hovering very close to writing off the institution for good – being in long-ish relationships was tough enough without entering an arrangement that makes leaving financially ruinous and painfully tedious. I know couples who have stayed married because they simply didn’t have the time or energy to deal with the mountain of paperwork that divorce entailed. But every time I think the institution is not for me, I see my parents, and the weirdly hypnotic co-dependence that I would have undoubtedly sneered at a decade ago, but have come to appreciate in the last few years. 

When you grow up in a two-parent household, you have an inside view of the jerky, primitive dance that is marriage. You watch your parents pretend not to notice the monotony of hearing the same five not-even-that-funny jokes and regurgitated thoughts repeated at every party; and do awkward things to deny the contempt one can’t help but feel for one another’s inadequacies, sounds and smells – thrown in a sharper focus and becoming increasingly insufferable as the years wear on – and the general sense of unenthusiastic complacency that comes with growing old next to a person.

But in the last couple of years, I’ve seen a facet to the infuriating, irrational togetherness that is marriage that escaped me while I was revelling in the invincibility of my youth. In the last couple of years, I’ve watched – on more than one occasion – my father fight for his life, and my mother marching right alongside him in that battle, unwilling to concede defeat and never allowing him to, either. If my father is alive today, it’s as much because of my mother’s refusal to let him go as it is because of the miracles of modern medicine. When you spend months upon months in hospitals, you realise how oddly reassuring it is to have someone to call your own when the body breaks down and life starts to dwindle. 

The more I observe married couples – both the mostly happy and the wretchedly miserable ones – I am convinced that to be married is to be a parent; just that marriage itself is the baby.

You certainly don’t get married to secure yourself an unpaid caretaker in the twilight years, but there is a soul-searing warmth to knowing that as irritating and cranky as each one of us has the potential for being, there exists at least one person in the universe who, by a weird stroke of luck, adores you enough to commit to tolerating your particular brand of obnoxiousness, hopefully until the end. Someone who will remember to make you an omelette because you’re diabetic and the blood sugar mustn’t be allowed to dip too much, even when they’d rather just clobber you with a skillet. Someone who stays, even when you know you’ve given them a million and one reasons to walk and take their love with them. 

The more I observe married couples – both the mostly happy and the wretchedly miserable ones – I am convinced that to be married is to be a parent; just that marriage itself is the baby. Like a wailing, annoying, filled with chaotic energy toddler that must be fed every few hours just to keep it alive, marriage requires regular feeding of emotional sustenance. My parents have been married for almost 40 years now, and come rain or sunshine, at exactly 3 pm in the afternoon, my father will call my mother and they’ll gossip and complain about their children for exactly three minutes before going about their individual day. It still makes my mum hum and smile to herself. That’s doing something 14,600 times – give or take a few hundred – and still finding beauty and joy in it. It’s not just this one thing. One of the most frustrating things about my mum is her absolute inability to handle even the most basic forms of technology. Without my father, her phone would never be charged, and she still wouldn’t know how to send an email. In the three weeks – yes three weeks! – it took her to learn how to navigate the mouse pointer on the computer, there was a lot of frustrated banging of tables and raised voices, but he never let her concede defeat. 

Without my mother, it is likely that my father would show up at family dos wearing bermuda shorts and worn out T-shirts – seriously, the man seems to be on a mission to own the world’s largest collection of the offending, hideous garment – but it is a testament to her commitment that despite threatening to burn them all some day, she’ll still go and enthusiastically help him pick the next one out, on their next shopping trip. Maybe that’s what marriage is: the ability to put your patience to test every day, and coming out on the other side, mostly intact. 

Every argument against marriage is rock-solid. We’d all probably live a whole lot longer and more peacefully if we didn’t have someone breathing down our backs, feeling entitled to our time, attention, and energy. But perhaps the utter impracticality of the idea that we’re meant to spend our whole lives with one person is what makes it appealing. I now think of marriage as a great, big, creative undertaking. Its adventure lies not in its beginning (although I certainly wouldn’t be averse to being gifted wonderfully useless baubles by way of wedding presents), but in its ability to look at all of each other’s ugly in the eye without turning away. And in having enough love left over to stay, in the bleakest of moments, despite knowing that everything that is bad has the potential to get exponentially worse.