Over the long weekend, I went upstate to go to my cousin’s wedding. I got on the train a cynic, someone who couldn’t really ever imagine herself getting married. I walked away with one very unexpected thought in my mind: I get it now.
For many years (well, not that many, as I’m only 22), I’ve been telling my friends that marriage just isn’t something I’m interested in, for so many reasons. There’s the big fluffy wedding, with its outdated sexist traditions, the pressure on women to make this The Best Day of Your Whole Life, the systematic exclusion of people who aren’t heterosexual and monogamous from the social, economic and political benefits bestowed by marriage (although thanks to last week’s US District Court Decision in Massachusetts, we could be seeing some positive movement on that very soon). There’s the unnatural emphasis our culture puts on monogamy, something that some would argue we, as mammals who evolved to survive, really aren’t built for. The institution of marriage seems endlessly problematic. And all those reasons are good reasons not to want to participate in it, or to abstain from it until the right to marry is granted to all who deserve it. All those reasons are reasons why I haven’t had, and still don’t have, any particular interest in ever getting married.
But this weekend, I finally got it. I finally understood why, despite its terrible past and its less than fantastic present, marriage still makes sense to so many people. I sat in the warm evening sunlight on a grassy green hill in rural New York, and saw the unmistakable, almost palpable glow of love that radiated from every inch of the groom’s face. I saw the way my cousin trembled and nearly cried as she and her new husband read together from the Ketubah (the proclamation a Jewish couple reads aloud at their wedding), which they’d written together. It spoke of acceptance and love, of growth, service and humor. I watched from across the room as my parents held hands and shared a tissue. And I saw the sheer, pure joy the groom felt when he slipped a ring onto his new wife’s finger, a feeling that can only come from being granted the one thing that you long for with every fiber of your being.
This all sounds sentimental and sappy, I know. I’m speaking the language of One True Love, a language and a worldview that little girls are taught to believe in from a young age and that most of us come to realize is a fantasy. I don’t believe in One True Love. I don’t believe in The One, or in soul mates, or in destiny. I believe that who we marry, if we marry, is a complex combination of circumstance, necessity, coincidence, choice and dumb luck. And I don’t know if getting married is ever something I’ll want, or have the occasion, to do. I tend to hope that if I find someone I want to spend the rest of my life with, we won’t need rings or legal documents or a big party to make that commitment “official.” If we want to be with each other, we’ll be with each other, and we won’t need anything to tie us together. Of course, I’m still speaking the language of One True Love here, and ignoring the reality that being legally tied together comes with a lot of rights and privileges that shouldn’t be taken for granted, especially when they’re so often used to exclude and discriminate.
And try as I might, I can’t help thinking of marriage as something that traps women, something that, despite my best efforts, will take away some of my freedoms. Perhaps it’s my personal fear of morphing into a woman I don’t want to be, a woman who doesn’t have the time or energy to prioritize the things that matter most to her, but like some fellow young feminists, I worry about how hypothetical marriage might change me. I worry about how marriage might render me dependent on another person in a way that would make me vulnerable were that person ever to disappear.
I don’t really have any reason to fear these things. It’s not as though my close-up experiences of marriage have led me to expect marriage to be anything other than functional and reasonably happy. My parents have been married for thirty-four years, and have an egalitarian partnership that makes me proud, not to mention incredibly lucky, to be their daughter. Nor do I have any reason to think that I couldn’t be resilient and resourceful if my hypothetical marriage were to end. My grandmother was widowed when her daughters were very young, but managed to support her family and raise her children, got married again, was widowed again, entered into a twenty-five year de facto relationship with a man when she was seventy-five years old, and was widowed for a third time. She is indomitable, unstoppable, and she danced this weekend at my cousin’s wedding. Not only is my best model for marriage a strong, egalitarian one, but the woman I admire most in the world found herself emotionally and economically vulnerable at the end of a marriage, and she survived. I know it can be done should the need arise, though no one would ever wish it to.
Still, I’ve always reasoned that perhaps it’s simply better not to take the risk. And I’ve always suspected that no matter how feminist the participants – no matter how committed and determined – totally, completely egalitarian relationships simply can’t exist. That’s just not how our economic, social and emotional power structures are set up. As for a completely egalitarian or feminist wedding, well, I’m certainly not the only one around here who wonders if such a thing is even possible.
But as I sat watching this ceremony, an abbreviated, modernized Jewish service that included readings from Walt Whitman and John Steinbeck, it occurred to me that my cousin and her fiancé know all the same things about marriage and weddings that I know. They’re realists, feminist realists, who know that One True Love probably doesn’t exist, and that perfect equality is a terribly difficult balance to strike, on your wedding day and on any day. But here they were on a warm July evening, under the chuppah, getting married all the same. Here they were, making this choice together, bringing two families together not for the traditional purposes of sharing wealth and power, but to add new members to each family – a daughter-in-law whom the best man called his “new big sister” and a son-in-law who had already lived for a year under his in-laws’ roof, just like a son.
It was unexpectedly beautiful to be in the presence of so much love, all radiating from people I admire and respect. And it made me think that perhaps one day, under very specific circumstances, this could be something I might want to do.
Of course, there’s a good chance that this revelation was caused mostly by champagne and lack of sleep, and that I’ll change my mind next time a friend announces that her parents’ decades-long marriage is ending. After all, I’m only 22, so there’s plenty of time to change my young, inexperienced mind back, and back again. But I will say that if you’re lucky enough to find yourself that kind of love, the kind that lights you up from the inside out and that makes all the people who care about you smile when they see it, congratulations. Whether you’ve “made it official” or not, that kind of love is something to be treasured. And if you’ve got it, I say to you the same thing the wedding guests shouted on Sunday evening as we smiled and crumpled up our soggy tissues: Mazel tov!