Unmarried and Okay With It in Boston

Mayor-elect Marty Walsh is in a long-term relationship, but unmarried, and Boston voters didn't seem to mind.

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Boston Mayor-elect Martin Walsh, right, embraces his girlfriend Lorrie Higgins, center, as Higgins' daughter Lauren, left, looks on after Walsh addressed the crowd at a watch party Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013, in Boston. Walsh defeated Boston City Councilor John Connolly in the mayoral race.

It was bound to happen. The world is changing. Our views of what constitute "traditional" relationships are changing. So it was inevitable that someone would win an election this week even while being in a personal relationship that still shocks some people.

Yes, Boston's mayor-elect, Marty Walsh, is a heterosexual, single man. He's been dating the same woman for eight years. And they have not announced any plans to marry.

This is a social breakthrough that nowadays eclipses those made by gay and lesbian candidates for office. People are growing increasingly accepting of homosexual relationships, with the pressure to make it "official" pretty low – partly because just 14 states (soon to be 15, with Illinois) allow gay marriage, and partly because some people who are OK with same-sex relationships still find it hard to see a gay or lesbian couple exchange rings. But when a man and a woman are romantically involved but decline to marry, people can't help but ask the judgmental question: What is wrong with you two? WHEN ARE YOU GOING TO GET MARRIED?

[See a collection of political cartoons on gay marriage.]

Any single person who has gone home for Thanksgiving or Christmas or attended someone else's wedding is familiar with this line of interrogation. Is it because you're "too picky?" Are you just trying to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood? Are the questioners perhaps not always so happy in the married lives they have chosen, and therefore want to convince other people (and more likely, themselves) that it's still the better way to live one's life?

Now, newly married couples will remind us that they have it much worse – that as soon as the rings go on fingers, people start asking them when they are going to have children. This is just as presumptuous and judgmental, and can even be cruel, since some people desperately want to have children and are unable to conceive.

To the rude question, "why aren't you married?" there are really only a couple of acceptable responses. One is to say, "I really don't want to have to stop sleeping around" (this is better said by unmarried women than single men, as people unfairly think the man is a sleazebag, but are so shocked a woman would be so unabashed about her sexuality they are struck dumb). The other is to ask the married people when they plan to get divorced, which is nearly have as common an occurrence as getting married.

I love that Walsh has a longtime girlfriend and that both appear perfectly happy with their relationship just as it is, thank you very much. If they want to get married, good for them. But if they don't think they need to marry to prove their bond with each other, that's just as good. The personal lives of public officials are no one's business, unless there's criminality or gross displays of poor judgment involved. If Walsh and his partner indeed married, what would change for them, except that she would be expected to make public appearances she might not enjoy?

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Democratic Party.]

And candidates might take a close look at the exit polls in the Virginia governor's race. Winner Terry McAuliffe did substantially better among women and in certain age groups. But where he really hit the jackpot was among unmarried people. Republican Ken Cuccinelli may have won over married people (by six points for the officially coupled men, and nine points among married women). But unmarried women voted for McAuliffe by a stunning 42-point margin, while unmarried men favored the Democrat by a 25-point margin.

This is significant, since marital status enters into the political dialogue all the time. How often do single people have to hear some candidate prattle on and on about policies that are "family friendly," or extoll the struggles of "working families?" Single people not only work, but subsidize family health insurance plans (which are more expensive that individual plans, but not four to five times as much, when the family is that size). And people without kids still pay for other people's children's education. That one is fair; we all have a public interest in taking care of children and educating the populace. But we need to get away from the idea that single voters are really just married voters-in-waiting. Walsh, meanwhile, has helped redefine what we see as "traditional."

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