28 Jul 2019

Mandy Len Catron: What you lose when you gain a spouse

From Sunday Morning, 9:38 am on 28 July 2019

Marriage is an enduring institution in our culture but is it a force for social good?

Not necessarily so, says Mandy Len Catron, a writer based in Vancouver.

Mandy Len Catron

Mandy Len Catron Photo: Jennilee Marigomen

Len Catron has looked at marriage in an essay What You Lose When You Gain a Spouse published in Atlantic Monthly online.

She told Jim Mora that research indicates single people are more engaged with their communities and families than their married counterparts.

“These sociologists, Sarkisian and Gerstel, basically looked at the relationships between people who were married, people who were never married and people who were divorced.

So they looked at how those individuals connected to their families, their communities, their neighbors and what they found was basically people who were married were less likely to care for aging parents, they were less likely to offer help to their neighbors or ask for help in return and they were less likely to call their siblings.”

Len Catron says married people also tended to have fewer friends.   

“Single people by contrast just we're much more engaged within this larger community within not just their neighbors but their extended family members and they just were more connected.”

If you’re white and educated you are more likely to marry than other social groups she says, and marriage continues to carry with it social status.

“I think marriage is one way of feeling connected to this other person in a way that feels reliable and powerful and long term. Marriage signals commitment and I think that signal has a lot of social value and is important to people’” she says.

People who are married are seen as socially superior, she says.

“I think we think about people who get and stay married as basically like morally or socially superior, people they've done a good job living the kind of life that our culture has said is the best kind of life to live.”

Our modern view of a what a married partner should be is, she says “deeply self-sufficient.”

“They should be the best sex partner you've ever had, a perfect parent, an intellectual equal, somebody who has similar values to you. And we really expect so much from one person - and we haven't always thought about marriage that way.”

She believes that somewhat stifling arrangement can be isolating.

“It can make us less likely to reach out and connect with other people and maintaining relationships outside our marriages.”

Although in a long-term monogamous relationship herself, Len Catron believes it does have limitations.

“Prior to starting my relationship with Mark I'd been in a long-term relationship for basically my whole 20s, and then I got out of that relationship and worked really hard to create this vibrant single life.

“I had a lot of close friends, I was out often, I just felt integrated into my community and I felt like part of a bunch of different subcultures in my city - and all of those things are really meaningful to me.”

But when Mark and she decided to cohabit, things gradually changed, she says.

“I noticed that friends would stop inviting me to go places alone. They wouldn't invite me over for dinner, they would invite both of us. I noticed my parents called less often and I don't think anybody meant anything negative by that, but I could just feel my world getting smaller.”

Len Catron says there is a model of what a world in which traditional marriage isn’t dominant would like in the LGBTQI+ community.

Before the legalisation of same-sex marriage here was a community of people who weren't able to legally marry and created their own chosen families, or communities, based on a sense of intimacy, of camaraderie, of need, of care.”

This was especially apparent during the AIDS crisis, she says.  

“It's a great example of people coming together to create relationships that weren't necessarily blood relationships and weren't necessarily sanctioned by marriage, but were shaped by deep, deep care.”

So is marriage on the way out given the trend do so is in decline?

“It's true that fewer people are getting married and we are more open to other ways of structuring a life than we were even 20 years ago. “