In a discussion of the meanings of weddings in the Community of Single People, Kristin Noreen (a popular guest blogger here, and now with a wonderful new blog of her own) said:

“We make much of the wedding as the passage to adulthood, but that to me was an extension of childhood–receiving all these gifts that other people picked out for us.”

Are you thinking, “oh, but newlyweds use gift registries now”? It is true that wedding guests select gifts from registries more often than they used to, but the latest survey suggests that only 37 percent of gifts are selected from registries.

The bigger point that Kristin raised is about the supposed greater maturity of people who marry, as compared to people who are single. I discussed this at length in my first book about single people, Singled Out, and ended up with the admittedly provocative conclusion that I considered using as the title of this blog post: “Married people are on training wheels. Singles are riding the bikes for grown-ups.”

Here’s some background.

In Singled Out, I discussed a 2004 segment on Hardball with Chris Matthews in which Matthews was discussing President George W. Bush with Ralph Nader, a man who has been single his whole life. Chris Matthews said to Nader, “He’s had a happy marriage. Isn’t that a sign of maturity that you haven’t demonstrated?”

That, and other examples I had been discussing in that chapter, got me wondering why people are always so sure that married people are more mature than single people, a stereotype that has been documented repeatedly since Singled Out was first published in 2006.

Here’s what I said about that, on pages 128-131 of Singled Out:

There are people who have read everything I’ve said so far in this chapter, got the point of all of the examples, laughed at all of the jokes, yet still ended up uncomfortably unconvinced. It still seemed to them, in ways they could not articulate, that married people really are more mature, more responsible, and more selfless than people who are single.

            I’ve puzzled over this for a long time, wondering whether there actually might be some logic to it that I simply had not yet discerned. I now think that there is, and it goes something like this. Married people are obligated to be there for each other. Regardless of their own personal whims and wishes, if a time comes when their spouse really does need them, they really need to be there. Jonathan Rauch, in arguing for the importance and meaning of marriage, put it this way. Imagine, he suggested, that

“Mrs. Smith is diagnosed with a brain tumor. She will need treatment and care. Mr. Smith, an able-bodied adult with no history of mental illness, responds by leaving town. Now and then he calls her, chats for a few minutes as a friend might do, and then goes about his business. He leaves Mrs. Smith in the hands of her sister, who has to fly in from Spokane. When the doctors call, he lets the answering machine take a message. ‘She can sign on our bank account,’ he says. ‘Let her hire help.’”

            Rauch declares that no person would behave like Mr. Smith and still call himself married. A spouse can get away with lots of bad behaviors, but abandonment is not among them.

            So that’s the difference and that’s why married people are deemed ultimately more mature and responsible and less selfish than single people. If a married couple splurges on a Sandals vacation and one of them gets seriously ill, they both throw in the beach towel. In contrast, Ralph Nader really could spend every evening at the movies if he so desired. Single women may well help each other (in the ways Hetherington described), but then again, they can just as easily decide not to.

            I don’t buy it. I think that the generosity that married couples show to each other is less impressive exactly because it is obligatory and reciprocal. Suppose Mr. Smith acted in a manner more appropriate to a husband and cared for his wife throughout her illness. Suppose further that Mrs. Smith fully recovered. She would then be available to care for Mr. Smith, should he fall seriously ill.

            Now suppose that Mrs. Smith’s sister is single, and spends years of her life caring for her ailing elderly parents. All three peers in this picture (Mr. And Mrs. Smith, and Mrs. Smith’s sister) are doing caring and loving work. All deserve moral accolades. But it is the single person’s work that is the most selfless. The care she gives to her parents is not likely ever to be reciprocated, at least not in kind.

            In the same way, Ralph Nader’s devotion of so many days of his life to the good of his fellow citizens and of the nation is all the more impressive because he did not need to be so selfless. If he had gone to the movies every night instead, all it would have cost him is the charge of being immature and irresponsible – which Chris Matthews laid on him anyway. Nader’s counterpart, George W. Bush, did shape up eventually, but it took him until he was 40 years old, and he did so not from a wellspring of maturity and selflessness but because his wife was on his case.

            The example Rauch described is important for another reason. Rauch needlessly embellished the caring that married couples give to each other by demeaning the caring that comes from friends and relatives. A close friend would not, as Rauch suggests, “chat for a few minutes” with Mrs. Smith, then go on about her business. She would talk for as long as Mrs. Smith wanted to talk, quite possibly listening more empathically than Mr. Smith. She would not hang up and return to her routine with the same emotional vapidity as if she had just had a conversation about a bad hair day instead of a brain tumor. Same for Mrs. Smith’s sister. If she and Mrs. Smith were close, she would not “have to” fly in from Spokane; she would insist on it. She would want to be there for Mrs. Smith even if Mr. Smith had not become an absentee spouse.

            It is true, and it is significant, that Mrs. Smith should feel more secure in her expectation that Mr. Smith will be there for her than that her close friends or her sister will. She and Mr. Smith have a pact called marriage, which at its best functions like an insurance policy against catastrophic events. But contemporary marriage is akin to the contemporary insurance policies that turn out to have staggering gaps in coverage. A spouse really can walk out at a partner’s time of greatest need. Former Congressman Newt Gingrich, for example, did it twice. 46 Gingrich was the Republican who in 1994 led his party to sweeping mid-term victories in Congress, on the promise and allure of his “Contract with America.” But he did not bother to honor his own personal contracts. He divorced his first wife while she was hospitalized with cancer. His second wife was diagnosed with a neurological condition that could be a forerunner to multiple sclerosis. She was visiting her mother on her birthday when Newt gave her the news that he was leaving.

            Gingrich, reassuringly, is the exception. Not in divorcing – that’s commonplace. Not in divorcing in a mean-spirited way, either; that’s also all too common, too. He did, though, seem to take heartlessness and cruelty to a new level. He took the Rauch hypothetical example of the most unthinkable thing a spouse could do and then did it. Twice.

            Again, though, most married people do not have a Newt-like figure as a spouse. They can expect a specific other person to be there for them in a way that a single person typically cannot. Does that make married people more mature than single people? Or, in terms of pure, raw maturity, don’t you have to hand it to the people who can live their lives fully, joyfully, and fearlessly without the crutch of a signed and sworn statement of support to have and to hold?

            Married people are on training wheels. Singles are riding the bikes for grown-ups.