The divorce rate of people post 50 years old has doubled between 1990 and 2010. In 1990, only 1 in 10 divorces were people 50 and older. Now it’s 1 in 4. Meanwhile, the overall divorce rate is trending downward. The stat that 50% of all marriages end in divorce is now incorrect, it’s more like 40%. Still, that’s quite a few break ups for something that requires you to take a vow of “till death to us part in sickness and in health.” My aunt, newly almost-divorced at 49, states that if half of marriages end in divorce, at least half the other half are unhappy. I think that’s probably true.
My parents are what you would call lifers. They are not happy together by any means, my dad is a wreck and both verbally and emotionally abusive, and he will both talk to me openly about how hot some woman is and whether he should ask her out while also how much of an idiot my mother is, meanwhile, my mother has never been able to actually grow up in the relationship, she’s like a 12 year old who can’t handle the stresses of everyday life and is treated like such shit, but the two of them would never get a divorce. I haven’t exactly grown up with the best example of a good marriage to inspire me to walk down the aisle. Yet I still fancy myself in a white dress, signing my life away to one person, I’m just not sure why.
Financially, marriage is sometimes a liability. According to The Tax Policy Center, “Marriage penalties and bonuses result from the combination of progressive tax rates and taxation of a married couple as a single tax unit. With progressive taxes (which impose higher rates on higher incomes), combining spouses’ incomes can result in some income being taxed at higher rates than if spouses’ incomes were taxed separately. That can occur only if joint tax brackets are less than twice as wide as individual brackets. (A couple does not have to file a joint tax return but their alternative-filing separately as a married couple-almost always results in greater tax liability.)”
On this historic week when the right for gay marriage is front-and-center in the Supreme Court, I ask, why is marriage still such a desirable objective for life in the first place? Marriage was designed at a time when men basically owed their wives. Men also had mistresses and this was and still is socially acceptable in many situations (just not in the puritan US, but we still forgive.) Still, if a woman plans to be a stay-at-home mother, the tax savings for the couple are in their favor. “Couples in which spouses have similar incomes are more likely to incur marriage penalties than couples where one spouse earns most of the income, because combining incomes in joint filing can push both spouses into higher tax brackets.”
Meanwhile, I wonder if long-term love and commitment is for everyone. As my aunt puts it, these days you wouldn’t stay in one job for the rest of your life, why should you commit to one person? She believes, outside of the tax issues, marriages should be contracts for 10-15 years that can be renewed if all parties agree. I think that might not be a bad idea, but more so because when something is forever people become complacent, and relationships take work. If you knew in 10 years you had to renew your vows for your marriage to continue, maybe there’d be more focus on ongoing courtship. And if you happen to grow apart, then you can both move on without going through a nasty divorce that destroys your financial future.
From a sociological perspective, is committing to one person still relevant? I’ve recently had a few unrelated conversations, mostly with men, who discuss the idea of polyamory as this dream life that’s impossible with our current social constructs and state of jealousy. There are two issues at hand: one of the financial benefits or penalties of marriage, and then one debating the entire foundation of lifetime monogamy. One can not be married and still be monogamous and vice versa. Yet at the age of almost 30, in a seven year relationship, with everyone in my family breathing down my back about when I’m going to get married, it’s hard to just ignore them and do what’s right.
My boyfriend Derek* really wants to get married. I threw out the concept of a pre-nup the other day, which just felt like dirty conversation. I have $200k in savings, he has nothing, so my aunt thinks I’d be stupid not to protect myself should we one day get divorced. But if you think in your heart that there’s even the slightest change that marriage isn’t forever, why get married in the first place? What would be so wrong with just committing to someone, having children with them, and in all purposes living life like a married couple, just not being married. If for some reason 10 years go by and it just isn’t working out you can part ways, if not, you can stay together. Do we really need marriage to force maturity on us to get through some hard times together in order to see the light again?
I might get married. I’m not sure yet. My grandmother keeps saying my boyfriend needs to “shit or get off the pot.” And maybe she’s right. Maybe marriage isn’t so bad after all, if you ignore the tax penalties for a married dual-income couple. But I don’t want to turn out to be like my aunt, divorced at 49 after many, many years of an unhappy, unfaithful marriage, and I see others who are in similar situations around the same age.
I think these days people get to be 50 and once the kids are grown up, there’s no reason to stay in these types of marriages anymore. Even if these people would never be happy with one person forever because they’re addicted to the passion inspired only by novelty in a romance, they may be happier alone and always hunting than committed and never fulfilled. Usually, from my observations, these types of people also come from instable families, so they seek out such instability, it’s what’s comforting to them, whereas people who grew up in more stable households are more likely to have happier marriages. But even they may grow bored after a while. I find it odd that we expect people to go from dating many others in their teens and young adult years to dedicated to one person for the rest of their days. Other than for the benefits of raising children with two parents (which one can argue is not a full benefit if the parents are constantly fighting and unhappy) how can we in a modern society see marriage as anything more than a religious tradition?
Unfortunately in my case, the financial benefits of my relationship would be available now, in the past seven years, as my boyfriend hasn’t broken higher than $30k in income, while I’ve worked my way up to $110k. If we had been married for half of our relationship I’m sure we would have saved on taxes. Once we get married, hopefully he’ll have a career and make a reasonable income, which will just put us into marriage tax penalty land. So people say buy a house and have a tax write-off, but you’re still writing off taxes on your interest only, which is above and beyond the cost of the house. Something just doesn’t add up. If marriage isn’t for financial benefit, why should we aspire to get married?