Marriage doesn’t have to be a dirty word
Some do it for love; others do it for their mum and dad, and yet others do it for money. Some simply give in and do it for the tax benefits.
Then again, some don’t do it at all.
Marriage. It’s a loaded word. Put “second,” “broken,” or “gay” in front of it and you’ve got a story told in no time.
According to the 2001 General Social Survey, more than 16 million Canadians are married. That’s more than half the country’s population engaging in one specific activity. If that activity was reading Twilight or flushing regrettable reptilian pets down the toilet, the military would be all over it.
Simply put, marriage is an overwhelmingly socially acceptable way to live with a member of the opposite sex and reproduce/fulfill one’s sexual desires. However, alternatives are becoming increasingly common, with surprising results. Statistics Canada’s 2006 census found that out of a population of 2.5 million in the city of Toronto, around 472,000 of them were common-law couple families. That’s one fifth of the city’s population. Numbers for married-couple families are not that far ahead, at around 670,000 for the same year.
So where is human co-existence headed? Will marriage head straight out the door or through a fiery revival due to the gay rights movement? Will it die as an institution with no purpose, replaced with other legal means of establishing a long-term relationship?
Statistics show that one third of all Canadians don’t stay in their marriage till the 30th year. In fact, they divorce much earlierFrom the hippie flower-wearing days of the 1960s till the present, the ultimate point of marriage has changed from a focus on being a reproductive family unit to each individual striving for personal happiness.
Meet Joel Clark. He’s the 35-years-old general manager at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Campus Students’ Union. He lives with his common-law wife Veronica and his 6-years-old daughter Sophie in a house they rented right after he and his wife split up.
That’s right, they split up. They didn’t find each other as romantically compatible as they were 11 years ago.
“It’s a little non-standard,” he said. “It works really well for us.”
Born in Stoney Creek, Ontario, Clark aimed to get out of his hometown as fast as he could. He moved to Toronto when he was 18.
His story is astonishingly eye opening. He and his wife basically dated other people while raising a child together and living as friends instead of ex-lovers living and dealing separately with unresolved issues and custody battles.
“There’s all kinds of different ways to have a relationship and nobody gets to tell you what to have except you,” he explained.
Then there’s Anjum Chaudhry. She comes from a conservative South Asian culture but was born to a relatively liberal set of parents who insisted that she get a career as an award-winning journalist before thinking about marriage.
One day she met her husband but she didn’t even think twice about it. It was at a mutual friend’s summer barbecue, she wasn’t exactly looking, and he didn’t think she was exceptionally hot.
Less than a year later, they were happily married.
Mark Kuiack is a university student with parents who are married and literally live on opposite ends of the globe from one another.
“They’re married but they’re not really married,” he shrugged. “I don’t know if they’re really in love anymore.”
These people are not anomalies. You’ll meet them in class, at work or on the street. Maybe your story mirrors one of theirs, or maybe yours has more shock value.
Point is, we can’t lump all married couples in Toronto under one of three umbrellas: happy, working-on-it or unhappy. We can no longer lump ourselves into one of five umbrellas either: single, married, divorced, widowed or cheating.
Kelly Rankin has been with her “significant other” Kyle for around 15 years. She hesitates a bit at using the term “husband” to describe him but soon realizes that it’s silly to be afraid of a label.
Rankin works at the University of Toronto, updating its news website. She’s a little taken aback when asked to evaluate the reasons behind her decision to live common-law. She’s nervous, carefully mulling it over in her head.
“When I was younger, in my late teens and early 20s, some of my friends at the time, people were getting married and everything,” she mused. “It was one of those things I wasn’t in a hurry to do.”
Common-law unions are becoming less unusual and may even be the result of higher socioeconomic status and better education. Statistics Canada’s 2006 census shows that common-law families have on average a higher median income ($70,000) than married couple families ($66,000).
Even then, the language surrounding marriage and the proper way to live with a partner fails to catch these changes.
“A waiter at a restaurant once said ‘You’re married but not churched!’” she laughed. “I thought that was a funny way of putting it.”
Clark was never a fan of weddings. He and his partner were engaged for a while but after giving birth to Sophie, they decided that rearing her was a bigger priority than throwing a grand shebang to announce them married.
Instead, they became common-law. Veronica is the only one of them who has tasted marriage before, having moved to Toronto from Ottawa with her first husband. She is decidedly bitter about it, according to Clark. Surprisingly, the way they found each other and moved in together sounds like a Nicholas Sparks novel compared to her first marriage.
“I thought it was pretty cheesy,” he said. “I was couch surfing and my cat needed a home (I have four cats) so my cat went to stay with her and she was excited because her ex-husband was allergic. She loves cats. Then I ended up staying there more and more often and then she was like ‘You might as well move in.’”
The fairy tale stops there. Both of them were still putting themselves through school. Sophie came into their lives in 2005, brightening it.
But in 2009, Joel and Veronica ceased to exist as a romantically-involved couple. Instead, they decided to remain co-parents living in the same house. He has his room, she has her room. They see other people. They are not political about it, and few friends know until they ask.
“As far as [my parents] are concerned, if we’re acting like a family, we’re a family,” he explained. “As far as her parents are concerned, if we’re acting like a family, we’re a family and we should just suck up our differences and get married. Church or not, legally get married.”
That feeling is in no small part due to Veronica’s mother being a lawyer. Both families are concerned about the legal ramifications of remaining common-law. If something were to happen to one partner, the other would not receive the same benefits or legal rights unless they were married.
Clark is open about why his relationship changed shape.
“Everybody’s post-adolescence is extended,” he said. “In terms of background and culture, that didn’t mesh very well. And that’s a gross simplification.”
He recalls being in his mid-twenties, stressed out over graduate school and wanting to just study, play videogames, and then go back to studying.
“Guys of my generation are still in that extended man-child kind of world and it takes a while to sort of settle down and decide what you want to do as a job,” the Rotman School of Management graduate said.
The couple frequently took last-minute weekend vacations with other friends to ease the constant pressure that built up over time. Now that Sophie is 6 and college will be a reality within the next ten years, Clark isn’t sure about where his family is headed.
“We may go our separate ways, she may move back to Ottawa to take care of her parents, and I may stay here or go wherever my job happens to be,” he said, half-thinking out loud. “And then we’ll just be sort of a remote family.”
Kuiack’s parents are the definition of a remote family. With his mother in British Columbia, his father in Australia and he himself in Toronto, he finds that his family is more or less together in name.
“Two people agreeing to stay together isn’t necessarily natural,” he explained. “I think it’s absurd to think that two people for 50-60 years are going to be the same as when they were in their twenties.”
He has set views on marriage: it doesn’t have much importance for him.
“I kind of see it related to the decline of the importance of religion.”
Television shows with the marriage theme have also numbed an entire generation of young adults to the fact that marriage was once sacred.
“You have TV shows like ‘Marry a millionaire’ and it cheapens the concept of marriage, the value of it,” he continued.
Kuiack also asks the question about why monogamous heterosexual unions carry more legal weight in terms of tax benefits than polygamous heterosexual unions.
“If you have tax breaks for married people, does that apply to polygamous marriages?” he asked. “If that’s the case, why can’t you have ten people all marry each other?”
He also finds it ridiculous that in order to visit your significant other in a hospital, being a well known loved one or a common-law partner may not be enough.
“Is it a huge problem that strangers are going in to visit people in the hospital that they need to have laws against that?” he joked.
Anjum Chaudhry sees things heading in a positive direction. Marriages and the obligations and social norms that come with them change over time as a society changes. Things that were once abnormal are now ordinary, even expected. However, some things never change, such as the importance of having a traditional wedding.
“It’s your marriage but your parents wedding,” she said. “You marry a family and vice versa.”
Coming from a culture that is often stereotyped worldwide for having arranged marriages, she finds that her experience was wholly different.
“In this day and age, really?” she said. “I think families are just happy that you have someone as a partner in your life.”
She also finds that having options open to couples has made it easier to make tough decisions.
“Maybe if you’re common-law, those obligations aren’t that strong or you don’t feel that strong affinity to him, because I’m not married to him, I can leave any time I want,” she wondered, concluding that whether one is “churched” or declared common-law, a commitment is a commitment.
Clark knows of couples who openly live in polyamorous relationships and are ardent advocates of opening people’s minds to different ways of living.
“But they were the same way about being vegetarians, they were just a political group of people,” he chuckled. “And they give the rest of us a bad name.”
The most important question on anyone’s mind will obviously be: what about the children? And he has an answer.
“Her perspective on it is that the way we act as a family is not unusual,” he explained. “We all work together, we all keep the house together, we all do family things together, and we do things separately.”
He admits that occasionally, his “painfully cute” 6-year-old will ask her parents to get married but he attributes that casual request to getting caught up in the elaborate drama of family friends’ weddings.
“She’s a career flower girl,” he added, rolling his eyes over the memory.
Like Chaudhry, he finds that things are changing for the better. Living with a partner outside of marriage was frowned upon to some extent even ten years ago. Nowadays, it’s becoming normal to live common-law with your spouse before deciding to marry. The GSS shows that almost 15% of respondents lived common-law with their first spouse before marrying.
However, he has a problem with people trying to fit themselves into pre-defined categories they can’t possibly hold true to.
“If you’re not good at monogamy, don’t make monogamous commitments,” he said firmly. “Make serial commitments or find somebody else who has parallel commitments and that’s okay.”
The day a government form has checkboxes for every type of relationship human beings can have with one another is the day we will have acknowledged that everyone has an equal right to the pursuit of happiness.
By Maryam Musharaf Shah