A reporter once asked Gloria Steinem why she changed her mind about marriage and got hitched to activist David Bale at age 66.
“I didn’t change,” Steinem famously replied. “Marriage changed.”
Indeed it did. Had Steinem married in her 20s, during the 1960s, she wouldn’t have been able to get a credit card in her name, she’d have had no legal rights to her husband’s property and, depending on where she lived, she’d have had little say in her birth control options.
By 2000, Steinem and Bale’s union could be a partnership of equals, a radically new phenomenon in the long history of marriage.
Fewer institutions have changed more, in fact. We don’t need marriage for the things we used to need it for — survival, financial security, the opportunity to raise children, social currency. We don’t need it at all, really.
But it retains a gilded spot in our culture.
We celebrate its onset and mourn its dissolution. We argue — in living rooms, in houses of worship, in the highest court in the land — over who should be allowed to partake in it. We glue ourselves to reality shows that glimpse the path, however chardonnay-soaked, to wedded bliss.
We remain in its thrall, that is, even if we regard it with a bit of wide-eyed bewilderment.
And who can blame us? When a marriage is going well, there’s nothing like it in the world.
Northwestern University professor Eli Finkel has written a fantastic new book that looks at our complex history with the institution, exploring how marriage has changed and evolved, and how we can change and evolve along with it.
“The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work” (Dutton) looks at how marriages moved from pragmatic institutions to partnerships based on love and sentimentality. Our unions, Finkel argues, have the potential to make us happier than any time in history, but we have to commit significant energy to get there.