To Marry Or Not to Marry?


There’s a scene in Guy Ritchie’s film Snatch that made me laugh the first time I saw it and continues to make me laugh whenever I watch it on YouTube. The late, great Dennis Farina is returning home to the States after a less-than-successful trip to England. When the customs agent asks him, “Anything to declare?” Farina, all rough-looking and beat-up, responds, “Yeah, don’t go to England.”

Gabrielle Zevin might not put it so bluntly, but if the bestselling author were asked if she had anything to declare about marriage, she might well respond, “Yeah, don’t do it. In England or anywhere else for that matter.”

Writing for The New York Times, Ms Zevin penned an article titled “The Secret to Marriage Is Never Getting Married” that made me stop and take a long, hard look at my own experiences.

As the only person I know who has been down both roads, as a husband in a traditional marriage and a partner in a common-law relationship, I don’t have anyone else to compare notes with, so balance what I say with several grains of salt as you read on.

For me there are concrete differences in the day-to-day mechanics between the two relationships, both good and bad. The stability of marriage is a definite plus. Even after a bad fight, your first thought (hopefully) is not I can’t do this and will probably seek out a divorce lawyer tomorrow, but instead Things will be better tomorrow and this problem will work itself out.

Alternatively, every major decision made in a common-law relationship is measured, at least to some degree, as Is this what I want? or Will this make us happier/better as a couple? In that way, you feel (even if it’s not entirely true) that  you have more control over your destiny than if you were in a legally binding marriage.

However, one of the very things that makes a marriage so stable (Things will be better tomorrow) is precisely what leads to so many of their downfalls: Without the need or impetus to encourage change within yourself and your partner in times of truculent disagreements, it’s easier to do nothing, kind of like when you get a minor cut, think it’s nothing, and then watch in horror as it festers, becomes diseased, and ultimately leads to a hospital visit and major surgery.

At the same time, the lack of a “societal-based” stability in a common-law relationship can unnecessarily aggravate insecurities and everyday annoyances that some married couples can dismiss as Oh, that’s so Jim! A total Jim-ism! or Yeah, Pam does that thing with her toothbrush every night!

I suppose the easy answer to this question of which path to follow would be to talk about it openly with your equal-but-somewhat-better half and come to a decision you both agree will make the relationship flourish as you move forward. After all, flourish rhymes with happy…in some language, right?

I’ll let Ms. Zevin close this one out. Per her article:

Sometimes I think the secret to a long and happy marriage is never to get married in the first place, although there are surely married couples that are as happy as we are.

When I say I don’t believe in marriage, what I mean is this: I understand the financial and legal benefits, but I don’t believe the government or a church or a department store registry can change the way I already feel and behave.

Or maybe it would. Because when the law doesn’t bind you as a couple, you have to choose each other every day. And maybe the act of choosing changes a relationship for the better. But successfully married people must know this already.



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3 responses to “To Marry Or Not to Marry?

  1. Katherine

    I found this interesting, Richard. Like you, i have been in both a traditional marriage and a common-law arrangement, both long-term (14 years and 7 years, respectively). In my experience, though, there was, in the end, very little distinction between the two when it came down to their dissolutions. The reasons were completely different but, other than legal considerations, the process of relational breakdown was the same.

    • Fair point. At least now I have someone to compare notes with! Not sure where you live, but even the tax consequences seemed inconsequential between the two scenarios in Canada, as I was able to claim benefits from my partner even though we were “only” common-law. Thanks for the reply, Katherine!

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