Is Marriage Just a Piece of Paper?

It’s no secret that marriage rates are on the decline. In 1960, 72% of Americans were married. Today, 50% are. Understandably, there’s a lot of fear and trepidation about marriage. Since the divorce rate has hovered around 50% for decades, the question for many is, why marry when there’s a one in two chance that it won’t work out?

I had a conversation with a man recently who has been with his girlfriend for fourteen years and they share three children. They wear wedding bands signifying their permanent commitment to one another, but never found it necessary to obtain a marriage certificate to make it legal. For them, it’s not important, as he believes marriage is a private relationship rather than something that needs to recognized by a civil or religious body.

 “Everyone I know who has gotten married has gotten a divorce. Why would I want to put myself through that?” he asked, as if the simple act of obtaining a marriage certificate would put a jinx on his relationship. The truth is that people break up, whether they’re married or not. All relationships end, either through breakup or death. For every marriage that breaks up after ten years, there’s another one that lasts. And the same goes for a cohabitating relationship. It’s the people in a relationship that determine its fate. It’s not as if cohabitating people have more wisdom than married people, or some secret to making a relationship last that their married counterparts don’t have. 

Certainly becoming legally married doesn’t make that relationship any more “valid” than any other. But there are undeniable (albeit practical) advantages to marriage. Filing a joint tax return reduces your tax burden. It makes estate planning easier, and allows for easier access with hospital visits if your loved one falls ill or dies. If you are married for at least ten years, you can collect Social Security benefits from your spouse upon their death. And if one partner stayed home while the other worked, the SSA can increase the stay at home spouse’s benefit. Additionally, there is a huge economic impact due to divorced and unwed parenting in the United States. According a report in the Washington Post last month, U.S. tax payers paid $112 billion last year helping support children and families with unmarried parents.

One common phrase people who would rather cohabitate than marry use is, “marriage is just a piece of paper.” Well, if marriage is just a piece of paper, and doesn’t mean anything or change anything, why are people threatened by it? If it doesn’t matter, why not do it?

Tracy Clifford

Share your thoughts in the comments. Is marriage just a piece of paper?

Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”