Gabrielle Zevin has been in a relationship for over 20 years, and she does not believe in marriage. She elaborates upon this concept in her essay published on Oct. 6 as a part of the New York Times Modern Love series. The title is fitting: “The Secret to Marriage is Never Getting Married.” Heartfelt, insightful, the essay is a love letter, a record of a lasting relationship and — in my opinion — an exposé on an understated problem in contemporary American society.

The United States, more so than other countries, seems confused about marriage on a conceptual level. Despite the government’s purported separation of church and state, marriage is rewarded with the bureaucratic benefits of tax deductions and implicit visitation rights. The sanctity of marriage is something to be protected within a society in which television programs such as “The Bachelor” and “Married at First Sight” thrive. Over the years, both the meaning and the societal role of marriage in America have become inscrutable. 

Although same-sex marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court on June 26, 2015, existing arguments against the ruling expose several conflicted views on what marriage means to a society. One argument on cites a California Supreme Court ruling from 1859, which states that “the first purpose of matrimony, by the laws of nature and society, is procreation,” and it further supports this point with quotes asserting that children are the sole purpose for the legalization of marriage.

Is marriage in modern America, then, a means of securing the future generation? If so, the tax deductions and legal benefits certainly make sense, so as to incentivize this institution. However, not every recognized union results in children, sometimes for medical reasons, sometimes by choice. The U.S. government does not require the birth of children for a marriage to be recognized. Further, according to a report by the U.S. Children’s Bureau, over 400,000 children were in foster care, with 100,000 waiting to be adopted in 2014. There is no shortage of children in the United States.

Additionally, platonic parenting is on the rise in recent years. More commonly known as “co-parenting,” a Feb. 21 Washington Post article explains that it is an arrangement in which two or more individuals “join forces for the sole reason of having and raising a child,” which opens up endless possibilities. Such an arrangement, though unconventional, is one established as a result of a mutual interest in having children and allows for just as loving an environment as a more traditional union. A platonic parenting arrangement is not recognized as a marriage, and due to the strong romantic connotations that tie into the American concept of marriage, co-parents may not even desire a marriage.

According to a Sept. 26, 2014 Forbes article, the current American system of marriage is such that a couple that marries on a whim upon meeting is able to receive marital tax deductions, Social Security benefits and various other spousal package deals — commercial, capitalistic and otherwise. According to the Department of Labor, this couple would be able to share employment, insurance and retirement plans, and according to the Human Rights Campaign this couple would have implicit visitation rights should their partner be incapacitated in a hospital and have a say in any medical decisions that happen henceforth.

However, lifelong friends who choose platonic cohabitation over romance may not. Co-parents invested in raising a child together may not. Zevin and “the man [she] is not married to,” partners of 20 years, may not. In her essay, Zevin shares an anecdote in which she and her partner were berated by a customs agent for sharing a suitcase. Because they were not legally recognized as a family, they were meant to go through customs separately, and the shared suitcase was an anomaly in a system designed in another era.

Now, it is true that there exists a potential workaround. The United States does possess the concept of a domestic partnership, in which two cohabiting individuals can register to be considered a unit and receive all the benefits of a married partnership. However, domestic partnerships are not recognized in every state, and according to a June 3, 2016 Bustle article, can even vary from city to city. For example, California and New Jersey only allow domestic partnerships if one of the parties is over the age of 62, and private companies often do not offer benefits for these partnerships. So, for all it was posited as an equivalent alternative to marriage, it isn’t equivalent at all.

Ultimately, the question I pose is one that we, as a society, have long forgotten to ask: What is marriage? Parts of it seem to be remnants of the past, from a time when children were scarce and mortality rates higher. Some of it seems to be a romantic achievement, a higher echelon on a scoreboard of passion for heterosexual, same-sex and polygamous relationships alike. The rest of it seems to be a way for the government to categorize units within the American populace, a structure upon which modern bureaucracy and economy is founded. It seems to me, from America’s confusion, that marriage cannot be all three at once. 

Marriage cannot be a matter of tradition, passion and governmental organization simultaneously. More importantly, it does not need to be. Zevin’s essay is an explanation of why romance does not need marriage. At one point in her essay she explains, “I understand the financial and legal benefits [of marriage], but I don’t believe the government or a church or a department store registry can change the way I already feel and behave.” Her viewpoint is not a difficult one to understand, nor is it a new one by any measure.

Following two marriages, Audrey Hepburn spent nine years of her life, from 1980 to death, in a relationship with actor Robert Wolders. In the biography, “How to Be Lovely: The Audrey Hepburn Way of Life” by Melissa Hellstern, the actress is quoted to have said that she considered Wolders and herself married and that, in not marrying, they were choosing to stay together every day. Zevin reflects this sentiment in her essay: “I choose you above any other person. I chose you 21 years ago and I choose you today.”   

Co-parents and domestic partners remain examples of those who embody why a legally binding partnership, with all the benefits and long-term commitments that come with it, should not be bound to tradition and romantic feelings. A relationship does not need to be romantic to be lifelong and valued, but domestic partnerships are lacking, and marriage is too much a hallmark of romance to be a comfortable option for platonic partnerships. If the U.S. government continues to use marriage as a system to categorize life partners and domestic units, it must offer these benefits to non-romantic relationships as well.