In America today, it’s easy to believe that marriage is a social good—that our lives and our communities are better when more people get and stay married. There have, of course, been massive changes to the institution over the past few generations, leading the occasional cultural critic to ask: Is marriage becoming obsolete? But few of these people seem genuinely interested in the answer.
More often the question functions as a kind of rhetorical sleight of hand, a way of stirring up moral panic about changing family values or speculating about whether society has become too cynical for love. In popular culture, the sentiment still prevails that marriage makes us happy and divorce leaves us lonely, and that never getting married at all is a fundamental failure of belonging.
But speculation about whether or not marriage is obsolete overlooks a more important question: What is lost by making marriage the most central relationship in a culture?
For me, this is a personal question as much as it is a social and political one. When my partner, Mark, and I talk about whether or not we want to get married, friends tend to assume that we are trying to decide whether or not we are “serious” about our relationship. But I’m not expressing doubts about my relationship; I’m doubting the institution itself.