Oprah’s decision not to marry her long-term partner Stedman Graham (which caused a stir when she told Access Hollywood recently) is one of the most admirable decisions and powerful statements she’s ever made. And also the smartest, as far as her relationship is concerned.
Simply put, Oprah says she has no intention of getting married—to Stedman or anyone. Not because she’s anti-marriage, noncommittal, or doesn’t love the guy. But because she and Stedman have something very special, and getting married would screw it all up.
Why? Because marriage changes everything. For better or for worse.
In fact, Oprah said that if she and Stedman had married, they would not be together today. Why? Because he is a very traditional man, and “this is a very untraditional relationship.” “If I had the title ‘wife,’” she said, “I think there would be other expectations for what a wife is and what a wife does. First of all, you’ve got to come home sometimes.”
She’s right: Marriage sets certain expectations that don’t exist in quite the same way when you’re single or dating—and those expectations can kill the very thing marriage seeks (but often fails) to preserve. No matter how you cut it, being a wife means something, as Oprah herself says, and it’s not for her.
And those who think Oprah, or anyone, “should” get married (I’m looking at you, Tina Turner), and/or believe she’s a horrible role model for not getting married, are dooming her to a life of unhappiness. If someone decides to get married because they feel they “should,” or because someone else tells them to, and not because they love the institution of marriage, they will live to regret it, and possibly lose their relationship altogether.
Marriage as life’s ultimate goal or the only measure of a successful personal life has been beaten into our brains since before we could form complete sentences (thanks, Hollywood). Marriage is depicted as a veritable Land of Oz where dreary single life is replaced with a Technicolor version: more vivid, more real, more brunches!
Ask anyone who’s divorced (or wishes they were) if that’s true. Ask Oprah. Better yet, ask Bella DePaulo, PhD, singles advocate and author of Singled Out, who says that despite the fact that less than half of singles want to get married, our culture remains caught in the grip of what she calls “matrimania”—the glorification of marriage as the be-all, end-all of adult life. She says studies about marriage often aren’t even true, “when results [of marriage studies] are described by presumably nonpartisan statisticians, people who are currently married are made to appear better than they really are, and people who have always been single are made to appear worse.”
Just look at the divorce statistics and it’s clear that marriage isn’t working for a lot of people. While anyone can get married, staying married is the hard part—especially if you did it because of the promise of blessings, rewards, security, or eternal bliss. Look no further than the hubbub and endless, pricey sprawl of the wedding industry for evidence that more people want to get married than be married.
Oprah is the very definition of a role model in this regard. She’s a shining example of what people could have if they were honest about what they wanted and didn’t want, and if they valued relationships over institutions. I applaud her honest, unapologetic response to the question of whether she will or won’t. She doesn’t feel one bit bad about it, and if you don’t want to get married, you shouldn’t either.
As for the Post reporter’s fear mongering that Oprah’s unmarried state will cause other women not to marry, and then, based on the one study she cited, not seek out cancer treatment as a result? If Oprah’s decision not to marry leaves millions of undiagnosed cancer victims in her wake, I’ll give everyone in the audience a car. Even if that is true (which, come on), this is Oprah. All she has to do is produce a special about cancer and millions would watch it. It’s a zero sum game.
Say what you want about Oprah, but if she’s taught us anything, it’s that we have the power to think, act, and choose for ourselves what we want our lives to be. More than likely, she’ll inspire many singles to commit to relationships that work for them and people they love, not simply support outmoded ideas about how they “should” be. Maybe, just maybe, Oprah could some day be credited with singlehandedly lowering the divorce rate—by encouraging those who might marry and later divorce from marrying to begin with. If anyone could do it, it’s Oprah.