That whole marriage thing: I get it now

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 There’s the big fluffy wedding, with its outdated sexist traditions, the pressure on women to make this The Best Day of Your Whole Life, the systematic exclusion of people who aren’t heterosexual and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 fianc√© 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!

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13 Comments

  1. AThoughtyThought
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    Re: second paragraph. Marriage and weddings are two separate things. You can find the idea of marriage beautiful while not caring for the sexist traditions of a wedding… or you can find weddings fun while finding the idea of marriage ridiculous. You can get married in a courthouse with no big formal celebration. Make sure to speak about them as separate entities!

  2. Comrade Kevin
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    I crave the romanticized notion of marriage as a relationship eventuality more than I do the ceremony itself. Quaker weddings are deliberately low key affairs, placing more of an emphasis on community than on the self, which makes far more sense to me. Still, I find myself daydreaming in spite of this from time to time, my fantasies focusing on the ideal. In them, quite frequently whomever I currently have a crush on ends up being married to me and I do love the feeling.
    Without seeming to burst any bubbles still lingering, I’ve engaged in lengthy cohabitation with two different people, and in many ways we might as well have been married in all but name. I tend to think that egalitarian partnerships are possible so long as both partners are willing to work on it, and make adjustments as needed. Perhaps true equality isn’t possible, but I’m being true to myself and true to my faith when I live my life in spite of that. And both of those are ways in which I draw strength and stay honest to who I am.

  3. Not Guilty
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    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 think this is the case whether we get married or not. When somebody we love disappears, be it death or a falling out, we are vulnerable until we find a way to fill that person’s position. Yes “losing” a husband, be it divorce or death, leaves a particularly big position to fill, but arguably a close parent or best friend is the same.
    As for the traditions, I see nothing wrong with changing them. I declared when I was 10-ish that nobody was going to walk me down the aisle; I was independent and I would not be “given” away. At 25 I am nowhere near marriage, even though I used to fret when I was younger about getting married before I was 30. I’m okay with being unmarried into my 30s. I guess just make sure if you change your mind, it’s because you want to change your mind. I think the big party is something to look forward to personally!
    I have a hard time reconciling my intent to get married with my feminism, but I refuse to let anybody or anything dictate what I do. So even if getting married is “anti-feminism,” I’ll do it if I please, critics be damned! But I will definitely be marrying a male feminist.

  4. Brianna G
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Marriage needs to be opened up, of course. And it’s rooted in ancient traditions, many sexist. That said, there is another way to view marriage– marriage is a way of telling the world, this is my family. This man, or woman, or people, they are my family, even though I’m not their biological relation nor are we connected by adoption.
    Why does that matter? Because regardless of the cultural instance of marriage, KIN is a biological concept fundamental to how social mammals like ourselves see the world. Marriage is a way to legally, socially, officially say “I consider this person to be my kin, and of my kin, the closest of them.” Saying someone is your spouse thus works as an easy shorthand for “If I cannot make decisions, I trust them to make them for me. If I need a caretaker, they are responsible for me. If they need a caretaker, I am responsible for them, and I have only their best interests at heart. And you, my family, should respect that and treat him as your kin too.
    The truth is, while my great-aunt’s partner of 25 years is clearly my kin despite the lack of certificate, I really didn’t know if my cousin’s cohabitating boyfriend of 7 years was until she announced her engagement. Marriage still tells me her intentions are to have him forever, to be mutually responsible in that deep, loving, significant way one only gets with good long-term relationships. Without that marriage, it would be 10 years before I would consider him kin in the way I considered my mother’s brother’s sister, my aunt, kin from the day of the wedding.

  5. e11e47
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Beautifully written! I think your points are all something that feminist women and men alike struggle with when contending with the decision to marry (or not to marry).
    I do caution you, however against this type of thinking:
    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.
    While it’s certainly a fact that marriage provides certain benefits (tax breaks, etc) that help individuals, marriage doesn’t have to equal dependency. Separate bank accounts, assigned “free time nights” and other decisions you can make allow you to keep some agency within a marriage.
    Further, chances are, and I should hope that this is the case, if you choose to marry someone, you’re dependent on them anyway to some extent. You choose to be with someone romantically (or even at a friendship level) because in some way, they make your life better. That emotional connection itself is something that can make you vulnerable were that person to ever disappear. Marriage to some extent is a commitment, but to some extent is also kind of useless (like you said, it’s not something you *need* in a relationship). But chances are, you’ll be dependent and vulnerable to a certain extent before marriage even takes place. So, marriage can’t get the entire bad wrap here.
    Like anything else, choosing to marry as a feminist is a negotiation. Deciding who will cook and clean, take out the garbage, pay bills… they’re all negotiations. As you so eloquently pointed out, there is no right or wrong answer regarding the decision to marry, only educated (or not) choices that you and a partner can make when/if the time comes.

  6. scrape-yourknee
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I really appreciate you posting this. As feminists, there is much to despise about the institution of marriage, whether it is the sexist traditions that many do not even realize are symbols of female oppression that go way back in history, the fact that not everyone can get married, or the simple idea of monogamy. But I think there is also something really wonderful about having a ceremony amongst friends and family celebrating your love for one another, your partnership and your friendship. I never wanted to get married, but as I have continued to grow closer and closer with my boyfriend (and his lovely family), I definitely see us marrying in the future. I want that day to proclaim my love for him, with all my family and friends there who love us and support us. I won’t be wearing a white gown or have my dad ‘give me away,’ but it will be a special day with everyone I love, sharing one of the most special things in my life. I’m not saying marriage is for everyone, but I think even we feminists can make a day to celebrate the love we have found, or at least throw a party for it.

  7. paperispatient
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    I was thinking that too. I am very much looking forward to being married. I’m not very interested in weddings. When my partner and I get married, our wedding is going to be small and feminist and laid-back. You can get married without a wedding, and you can have a fantastic wedding and a terrible marriage. (Ideally, both will be however the two of you want them to be.)

  8. Marj
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    “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”
    And this is why I think we need to put more focus on the difference between marriage as a legal construct and relationships as a social construct. There’s nothing about marriage that inherently makes for an unequal relationship. I didn’t lose anything when I got married–I had already committed myself to my husband. I wasn’t trapped, if anything I was more trapped before I got married because we couldn’t live in the same country at that time–marriage allowed us to live as we desired. Nothing changed between us because of one little ceremony in our living room (or the bigger church ceremony a year later). It was just a formalisation of how we already felt about each other.
    I won’t say that I haven’t felt lost at times, like I don’t have any identity aside from that of my husband’s wife, but that’s more of a practical issue than one related to our relationship status (moving half a continent away kind of does that). And my husband is very supportive of me trying to be my own person–his mother is the kind of person who defines herself by the people around her, and he doesn’t want me to end up like her. He doesn’t just let me do my own things, he encourages it.

  9. jellyleelips
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    I am currently embarking on the wedding planning process, I got officially engaged a few weeks ago. I’m 23, and two years ago I thought I’d be a perfectly happy spinster aunt for the rest of my life, and that marriage was a trap, that weddings were based primarily on capitalism and insecurity. I still believe that marriage is a trap, and that weddings are primarily based on capitalism and insecurity, BUT now I realize that this is the case only if women follow the traditional script instead of asking for what they want. My awesome fiance feels the same way I do about the whole marriage situation.
    I also realized that one of the main reasons I didn’t give two shits about weddings before I got engaged is that most of my best friends can’t get married in the state we live in. Gay marriage bans are nonsensical.
    I was really worried for a while about what it would mean to me to become these new gendered roles: the “fiance,” the “bride,” the “wife,” and one day, the “mother.” As the “fiance,” I’ve come to discover that, while this role is circumscribed by icky stereotypes, this actually makes me feel more free. The fact that women in these roles are damned if you do, damned if you don’t anyway means that you can do anything you want. I do worry what people will think that I’m not having a religious official marry me and my fiance, that I’m wearing a white minidress (traditional AND sassy!), that I’m not changing my name. But it would be absurd for me to design my wedding around other people’s judgments. My fiance is much better at remembering this than I am, and he’s constantly reminding me not to care. He gets his fair share of bullshit, too, because he didn’t propose (we mutually decided after a few months of conversations about it) and he didn’t buy my engagement ring (my mom had a spare Cubic Z ring that didn’t fit her). His family doesn’t know about the lack of name change yet, and I expect them to be rude about it. Of course, they may surprise me and not say anything. But, because we are trying our darndest not to care what others think, it’s much easier.
    Luckily, my own parents are totally awesome about all of it. They are super secular and very educated, and their worldview has been expanded way beyond what is traditional and “normal.” They know I’m going to do what I’m going to do when I’m going to do it, and all they want is for me to be happy on my wedding day (if the price is right). Actually, there’s another issue. My parents are paying for the wedding, which is about as traditional as you can get. My fiance commented that this is like a dowry, and definitely patriarchal, which did cross my mind. But, I know that my parents, who are very generous people, see this wedding as their last chance to spoil their daughter before she starts a family of her own, and I’m not going to deny them this (and it saves me money).
    Lastly, planning a wedding is fun! I’ve had a blast designing an invitation, thinking about colors and decorations, looking for a dress, choosing my hairstyle. I’m not getting a wedding planner and the fiance is planning with me, so I’m not a super stressed out bridezilla. We’re trying to save money every way we can, so I get to be crafty and creative with the decorations. And, I really want to have a big party to celebrate how I feel about my fiance. As far as I can tell, the stress of wedding planning comes from trying to follow the traditions. Since we’re getting married at the courthouse with close family present, then just having a reception, I don’t have to worry about bridesmaids or groomsmen, decorating a church, the nonsense about how the mothers are supposed to dress, all that.
    One of the nice things about being a feminist is taking shitty institutions that have traditionally given women a raw deal and making them progressive, personalized, and fun.

  10. Jennifer
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for posting this. Too many times on this website I’ve been treated in the comments as if I am not a feminist just because I am married and I was a “sell out”. I do not think feminism and marriage are incompatible and I’m glad to see someone else here feels the same way. I had almost decided to stop reading this site because it was starting to see like the main bloggers had this that their feminism was THE ONLY feminism, and there wasn’t much room for other opinions, especially since making it so comments could only be posted of approved (which usually ended up meaning only comments that agreed with the poster’s opinions got approved). There’s still hope! Thank you again. :)

  11. Tabitha
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Just throwing in my 2 cents:
    I agree with all who emphasized the difference between a wedding and a marriage. But if there are big disagreements between the couple during the wedding planning, then that’s a big warning sign about the problems yet to come!
    Also, I absolutely agree that gay people should have the right to marry. But the right won’t be achieved by straight people not marrying in protest. I mean, who will know that they’re protesting or simply cohabitating? Being vocal and being aware of who you vote for will help. Also, we vote with our dollars. Don’t frequent businesses that are not gay-friendly.
    The reason why gay people want the right to marry is because it is the surest and easiest way to ensure that you are your spouse’s next of kin. This makes a huge difference when medical decisions need to be made or in the case of death and inheritance.
    I’ve been married over 20 years (also had a very brief first marriage) and being a married feminist is difficult Marriage is a flawed institution but it does have benefits–as stated above.

  12. https://me.yahoo.com/a/NjctTMt1go6tzFnnuX_n3SwJzxsESw--#a80ff
    Posted July 12, 2010 at 11:55 pm | Permalink

    If you think getting married would change you into someone you don’t want to be, I think you aren’t giving yourself enough credit. You can CHOOSE who you want to be. Of course, you can also choose whether to get married or not.
    Also, as Tabitha said above, abstaining from marriage won’t give the LGBT community the right to marry. Marriage isn’t a business; you can’t “boycott” it to achieve anything.
    That said, when I eventually get married, I’ll make sure my husband is someone who wants to advocate for LGBT rights, like me. :)

  13. joji
    Posted July 13, 2010 at 4:29 am | Permalink

    Yeah, I agree. At the same time, I’m afraid that someday I may struggle a lot over the decision whether to get married to my boyfriend (not a big issue at this point, since we’ve only been together for a year, but I really do hope and believe this relationship will last) because in my previous long-term relationship, marriage was not an option and this caused us enormous problems with immigration. That things should be so easy with one person and so difficult with another based on nothing but their sex is hard for me to “accept” when the injustice is deeply embedded in my life story this way; I know it’s not a logical attitude, nothing will change the past and I’m very glad now that we DIDN’T get married. But I would feel like a huge turd telling my ex (we’re good friends) about marriage plans and I know it would be painful for her, about a thousand times more painful than it is for a straight ex who gets that news.
    I’m not saying I would never do it. My first priority is the person I’m with now, and if I discovered it were truly important to him–or truly important to our life as a couple, if my residency permit got taken away or something–than that would take precedence over any kind of internal conflict. Still, it would be hard.

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