My grandmother was in many ways an unconventional woman, but having been at different times a doctor, a farmer, and a single mother, she was never less than pragmatic. On one of my regular visits to her care home, in my mid-twenties, she said to me out of the blue: “Mary, I think you should probably grow your hair out and get married.” 

Back in my arty, transient, queerish flatshare, leading a hand-to-mouth existence curating experimental art events and working unpaid in Web 2.0 startups, I laughed with my housemates at her quaint views. At the time I was enjoying my freedom, the fungibility of my existence, the sense that I could change everything at the drop of a hat.

Something must have stuck though, because a couple of years I realised I did want to get married. I very intentionally sacked off the polyamory, the friends with benefits and the complicated entanglements and started dating with a view to finding a life partner.

We’ve bought into the idea that marriage is an end state, something to be added to the pinnacle of a list of achievements. But the truth is the opposite: for adult life, marriage isn’t an end state so much as an enabling condition.

Reader, I did marry him. And once I did make that commitment to life in common, all the things that were missing from my life suddenly became possible, as if by magic. A permanent home; more stable employment; children; even, imperceptibly, something I thought I was psychologically incapable of: a sense of belonging to a place. I wish I’d been ready for it all sooner; these days I heartily recommend to twentysomething friends pursuing marriage as a deliberate life goal sooner rather than later.

Because if you’re dating or cohabiting, there’s always a nagging ‘what if we split up?’ at the back of every long-term couple decision you might take. Should we buy that sofa? Take out that mortgage? Have that child? Plenty do; but there’s always the temptation to hedge. But even though some marriages of course split up, when you’ve formally promised one another forever, it’s easier to take the plunge and go all in.

Seen at scale, the hedging that results from encouraging young people to see marriage as the icing on the cake, rather than its raw ingredients, may benefit the economy in some respects. It creates a hyper-individualistic, hyper-mobile, hyper-liquid workforce willing to spend 12 hours a day in the office and spend disposable income on individually tailored lifestyles. But it’s also contributing to less desirable phenomena, including our crashing birth rate, housing crisis, and epidemic loneliness.

The deferral of marriage also contributes to the soaring number of young people who will never have children – many with a profound sense of grief. Though I met my now-husband not long after deciding I wanted to get married, for complicated reasons I was 38 by the time we had our daughter. We’ll be unlikely to have a second, a fact that saddens me – but I feel fortunate to have the one; rising numbers of women today will remain unwillingly childless.

It’s easy to blame this, as conservative tabloids often do, on ‘selfish career women’ – but the reality is more complex and more endemic. Gestation is something like a state of symbiosis, and the way it concretises the limits to individual human freedom so radically contradicts the liberal narrative that motherhood as such has to be swept under the carpet, or treated at best as a punishment, or a problem to be solved. We can only be good mothers by failing as atomised subjects. So inasmuch as the wider culture encourages us to be atomised subjects, it can’t help but discourage us from being mothers.

Inasmuch as marriage extends the state of interdependence beyond the literal, physical one of reproduction to a more metaphorical level, it’s also only sustainable to the extent that we fail as atomised individuals. Embracing life in common means giving up a measure of individual freedom. Thus the subtle and pervasive pressure to ‘retain your freedom’ by resisting marriage replicates the subtle pressure to resist that sacrifice of autonomy that’s inevitable when you commit to the care of a dependent baby. We can only be absolutely free to the extent that we reject belonging to one another.

Nowhere do we make it clearer what we believe than in what we tell our children, and the ubiquity of children’s movies whose central message is the importance of rejecting conformity and community cohesion in the interests of heroic self-realisation suggests we are still committed to the pursuit of individual autonomy above all else. But as the first generation to be raised wholly on those messages of freedom begins sliding into unhappy, lonely and childless middle age, it’s time to rethink this belief. Much of the freedom we’ve gained has been bought at the cost of meaning. Interdependence ties us down; but even in America, today’s wellspring of radical individualism, 69% of respondents to a Pew poll indicated that family is their primary source of meaning in life.

But at present, even the engines of state collude with social norms that serve to strip meaning from citizens’ lives in the name of a freedom that’s now delivering both diminishing returns and a growing tsunami of negative externalities. If we’re to stand up for those aspects of human life – our social bonds – that create rather than consume meaning, we need to support life in common at policy as well as private level.

Whether that’s better recognition in the tax code (and pension law) for the contribution of stay at home parents, policy oriented at incentivising early-adulthood marriages, or all these, or something else, is up for discussion. But unless we can shift from treating all citizens first and foremost as separate individuals, toward a willingness to take a policy stand explicitly for life in common, the trend away from shared life toward bitter atomisation will continue, and the deferred costs of that atomisation will increasingly come due. 

Mary Harrington is a columnist at UnHerd