Machu Picchu — mystical epicenter of the Incan civilization. I couldn't imagine a better place in which to commit ourselves to marriage. I had spent months before our trip to Peru fantasizing the moment when my boyfriend Dale and I — touching the sacred stone Intihuatana and embraced by the universe in spiritual harmony — would become engaged. Auspicious to the tenth power. Wow!
It was twilight. The tourists were gone. As guests of the only small hotel at the ruins, we had the place to ourselves. Holding hands, we wandered to Intihuatana. I held my breath. My heart beat faster. I closed my eyes and waited for Dale to drop on one knee and make my fantasy come true.
That's when the sand fleas attacked. In minutes, I had more than 50 painful bites on calves that quickly swelled to twice their size. Dale was bitten, too, but only I had the severe allergic reaction. Back in our room, I wallowed in the self-pity of a shot-to-hell fantasy instead of floating on a post-great-sex diaphanous cloud of we’re-getting-married bliss. This, I thought, sucks.
Later, as I listened to Dale snore, I had a disturbing thought. Maybe the fleas were a message from the Incan gods to rethink marriage. I always assumed we would get married but, for the first time, I wondered why. After all, I had no doubt that Dale was the right guy, we were already living together, and we were 100% committed. It wasn’t broken so was it really necessary to fix it?
Back home, I did what any savvy 21st century woman would do. I drew a line down the middle of a blank piece of paper, and labeled one side “Marriage” and one side "Cohabitation." Then, I Googled "reasons for marriage." Here's what I found:
1. Marriage Has Financial Benefits
Couples accumulate more wealth by combining households and reducing living expenses. Dale and I, however, had already combined our households. We didn't need marriage to get this benefit. On the other hand:
-Marriage makes it easier to get family health, dental and other insurance benefits and more difficult to get insurance through the other's employer.
-Marriage conveys benefits to survivors from retirement plans and Social Security that we wouldn't otherwise have.
-Marriage makes it easier to inherit from each other. Most states give preferential treatment to surviving spouses in probating an estate.
-Marriage bestows tax benefits from the IRS, including gift and estate tax free transfers, bigger charitable deductions, and greater ability to fund IRAs.
One checkmark for Marriage.
2. Marriage Makes You Healthier And Improves Longevity
Married people live longer, and are physically and mentally healthier than single people. Although a 2012 study suggests that those who cohabit get the same benefits, are happier AND have greater self-esteem than their married counterparts, a more recent study concluded that cohabitation does not provide the same benefits as marriage.
I was confused. I wanted to live healthier and longer so, to be safe, I put a check in the Marriage column. I also wanted to be happier and have more self-esteem so I also put a check in the Cohabitation column.
3. Marriage Is Good For Children
Children born outside marriage face higher risk of falling into poverty, failing in school, and suffering emotional and behavioral problems. Traditional thinking has been that children do best when raised by married parents. But new research suggests it's not a marriage certificate that matters. What's important is the quality of parenting provided by parents who are both present and involved. In fact, the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families concluded that children of same-sex parents were the healthiest of all. Since Dale and I weren't planning to have children, I was relieved that I didn't need to resolve conflicting studies and opinions. I made no checkmark in either column.
4. Marriage Means Better Sex
Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, the authors of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially, claim that married people have more and better sex than couples who cohabitate.
I had my doubts. Dale and I had a robust and satisfying sex life. But, to be on the safe side, I put a check in the Marriage column.
5. Cohabitation Increases The Chance Of Divorce After Marriage
According to University of Virginia Clinical Psychologist Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now, people who cohabitate "slide" into rather than affirmatively "decide" on marriage and, therefore, are more likely to regret saying, "I do." Another checkmark for Marriage.
Based on checkmarks, marriage was the hands-down winner. And, yet, I wasn't convinced that marriage was right for me. I realized that I needed to ask (and answer) a different question. This one: what, to me, is the point of marriage to Dale?
Of all the studies I read, the one that resonated the most was the Jim Coan study in which he found that the brain links "just living together" with a lack of commitment. That was certainly true for my brain. I thought about the "just living together" words I used to describe Dale. Boyfriend, partner, significant other, and spousal equivalent all felt inadequate to convey the depth and breadth of my love for and commitment to him. "Husband," however, felt just right and only marriage would permit that.
I didn't want to get married to live longer, save money on insurance premiums, or even to have better sex. I wanted marriage to Dale because, to me, it was the embodiment of our commitment. I felt a greater emotional investment, more security, and more permanence when I thought about marriage. I knew that when the going got tough, as it surely would, I would be less likely to give up if we were married.
And, finally, I wanted our relationship to be happy and emotionally intimate. That desire, coupled with the commitment that came with marriage, would inspire me to become a better person and that was the ultimate point of marriage to Dale for me.
In the end, what I learned from a shattered fantasy and dozens of fleas bites is this: there is no universal point to marriage. There is only the point of your marriage. If you decide marriage is the best environment in which to raise children, then that's a perfectly valid point to your marriage. And even if financial considerations tilt the scale in favor of marriage, that’s okay, too.
The decision to get married is huge and there are many reasons to choose marriage — or not. You don't need a Google search to make that decision. You just need to ask and answer the right question.
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