No Marriage: I Don't
Last month, I got a phone message from my baby sister. "I just wanted you to know," she started, tone hesitating, "that Gene asked me to marry him." Click. That was it.I knew she'd said yes, though that wasn't part of the message. Still, I couldn't resist the temptation of the sarcasm that rules my life. I called back. "Okay," I asked, "What did you tell him?"My sister, no stranger to sarcasm herself, shot back, "I told him I had to ask you, first."Okay, okay, I got the point and boy did it sting. If there are two things everyone I know knows about me, they are these: a) I put ketchup on everything and b) the word "marriage" -- unless in the context of "I'm ending my marriage" -- almost always makes me break out in hives.I gave my sister my blessing. Not because I wanted to. But because, buried in her tone was the half-truth of her acknowledging my stance. She wanted me to say I was okay with the idea. So I said it. We both knew though, that really I wasn't okay with it. Still, I have no intention of fruitlessly trying to talk her out of it. That would just push her further into marriage and away from me. And when the day comes where she is feeling stressed out in marriage (it WILL come. It comes to the strongest marriages...) I don't want her to be afraid to consult me for fear I'll say I told her so. Let me clear something up here: If marriage is REALLY what she wants, then I am REALLY going to be sincerely supportive. I am, most certainly, from the school of, "Do your own thing." But is it her own thing? Here, I have to wonder. In New Jersey, South Jersey to be specific, the place on the map I originally hail from, there seems to be this rush to the altar. (And I hereby suggest spelling it A-L-T-E-R.) Like it's a goal. Like a thousand dollar dress is at least as important as wondering if the man you've chosen is really a guy you could get along with for potentially ever. My brother-in-law-to-be is a swell guy. And he's got a good job. And he loves my sister -- I'm sure. But, ach, they are so young. As far as I'm concerned, the proper marrying age, if there is one, is like, 65 or 70. You know, after you've had a little time to breathe, to travel, to explore, to know that a guy isn't in it for your looks or your childbearing ability -- that he's in it for the long haul, the love haul. And if you wait until you're in your sixth or seventh decade, I'm thinking, "Til Death Do Y'all Part," is a lot more realistic.Or maybe I'm just jealous. I have admitted -- in public, in private, in print even -- that a GOOD spouse would be a swell thing. At this point, the possibility of semi-regular sex and someone to help me take care of my kid is not something I quickly dismiss as a bad idea. And, like every girl who came up since who-knows-when, I had it pounded in my head that a husband is a very important acquisition -- a sign of desirability, a sign of success. I can't completely escape that. Though it shames me sometimes, I admit that somewhere in the back of my head even I -- Ms. Never Say I Do -- entertains the thought of taking that big trot down the aisle. Not necessarily to be with someone I'd die without but because, frankly, there is an immense pressure from a lot of people that I do so and, besides, I throw swell parties and adore being the center of attention. But ANY thought of marrying is always, at the very least, balanced by thoughts of what I would have to give up. And further thoughts of how many marriages end up in the hellhole of divorce and agony. So far, I've avoided the gamble. So far, I'm glad for it.Why? Well, oddly enough, it's not because I watched my parents go through the torment of breaking up, using the kids as pawns, resenting each others' very existence. In fact, my folks are going strong on their 41st year together. You'd think that would inspire me. It doesn't.My perspective -- and most in my family agree I'm the totally warped one -- is that my mother gave up far too much to be a wife. I know, I know -- she was raised in a time when women grew up, married, stayed home, popped out kids, and acted like they enjoyed it. No wonder Valium was so popular. Because, in my view, my mother (who, pity, never took even one well-deserved Valium) has spent much of her life deferring to my father.Mom made a decent argument recently. She pointed out that she knew she was strong, knew she could handle life alone better than he could. She has this knowledge that she runs the house. And she does. But it's all a big secret. As far as my dad is concerned, HE's the king. She lays his clothes out for him, she cooks his meals for him, she dials the dang phone for him. They see it as an equal swap: he brought in the family's Gross National Product for thirty years and provided the seed for nine kids. She organized.That's a good marriage, by many peoples' standards. But to me it reeks of compromise, the likes of which I never want to make in my own life. I admit it: I loathe ANY compromise. I'm a single mother and am grateful daily at the one voice of authority in our house. I totally dig that I can date 'em and ditch 'em as I see fit. (Well, okay, some of them ditch me.) I'm afraid, and call me Freudian, that I fear getting sucked into a situation where, like my mother, all my knowledge of strength must be my little secret. And I'll be damned if I'm gonna coordinate some guy's boxer short/undershirt combo.Wait, I better toss in here that I have several friends who are so happily married it would make you too envious to know the details. The workload is shared, the decisions are shared, the cooking is shared, the life is shared. I love these couples, often ask if I can move in with them. But they are exceptions. They are people who went into marriage apparently absolutely certain of what they wanted and expected from the other spouse. And they have maintained that. When a spouse in one of these marriages compromises, rarely is it in the vain of "Okay, all right, I'll do it if you shut up." No, no, it's "I'm going to do this so you can have that and it's clear as a pre-pubescent's skin that this is in both of our best interests."Now, if I could have this, I wouldn't just get married, I'd toss on a silly-frilly stuffy-fluffy white dress to boot. But I refuse to flail around for a partner, ANY partner, just because I'm in my thirties, just because I'm supposed to, just because Cathy the Cartoon babe is telling me it's time for a nervous breakdown due to the lack of sparkly accessory on my left hand ring finger. Perhaps I'm even further frightened of marriage because one of my very best friends is a divorce lawyer (Ironically, the official title is: FAMILY LAWYER.) Though he can't tell me the specifics of any single case, trust me -- the composites alone make me still more wary of tying the knot. The same people who swore, often to GOD no less, to love each other for all eternity, are beating the psychological crap out of each other in attorneys' offices and courtrooms everywhere. Worse, they aren't fighting over the fact they don't love each other. They're fighting over the silverware.Recently, in the Times, two articles caught my attention. The first was regarding the vote in Ireland over whether or not to legalize divorce. The second was an op-ed piece suggesting that laws should be passed that make divorce much harder to get.In the Irish situation, the pro-divorce folks won -- by about three votes. This in a country where, to cope with no-divorce, folks separate and move in with lovers and have whole second families. So why the fuss over the legal stuff?The Catholic church wants to take credit for the strong vote in favor of no-divorce. Ah, the Catholic church. Don't get me started, okay? Here's the truth, sprung from the mouth of a recently emigrated Irish friend: It ain't about God, y'all, it's about property. See, if a Dublin (Read: city) girl marries a country boy and they split up two years down the road, the girl can sue for part of the boy's property which may well've been in his family for generations. This possibility is, to say the very least, incredibly undesirable to the boy's family who probably never liked the hussy in the first place.On the flip side, as pointed out to me by a third generation Irish-American woman in her sixties, if divorce is legal, then the first wives men leave behind with the first batches of children (and I'm Irish, so believe me when I say the big-family joke is no joke) can be totally screwed when the new wives inherit all the property and pension when the men finally kick over. So a lot of women, even if they've been abused and abandoned by their husbands, don't want to let them off easy in the form of a divorce. They'd rather suffer the legal privilege of MRS. for awhile and wait for posthumous benefits. The thrust of the op-ed piece arguing in favor of making it harder to get divorced was some babble about the nuclear family and preserving it -- for the sake of the kids -- so long as dad isn't actually punching mom (or vice versa) in the face on a regular basis. I'll save most of the nuclear-family-thing for another column. But I will say this: the guy who wrote that forcing spouses to stay together because it benefits the kids is an idiot. Take it from me: the self-esteem (if in fact you have any) crashes to the lowest of lows if you stay with a man who causes you deep emotional anguish. And the esteem dips lower and the pain deeper when you stay specifically, "for the sake of the kids." (This is an open invitation to the author of that piece to interview me and everyone I know regarding my life pre and post father-of-my-child.)My lawyer friend got it right when he said, "They shouldn't make it harder to divorce, they should make it harder to marry." I'll see him and raise him one. I say, to get married, you should have to make a long presentation in court, with lawyers, outlining why you should be allowed to attempt to spend forever (which is often far longer than anyone envisions) with some one other person. Conversely, divorces should be, by legal mandate, held in huge halls with no less than three hundred invited guests in attendance to listen to a couple declare eternal hate (which, if you ask me, seems to be a much more sincere, easy to adhere-to commitment than eternal love). Maybe, to avoid divorce ceremonies, people wouldn't get married. (But sadly, I doubt it.)If I could paint my sister's destiny, I'd steal her away for a few years, send her to Europe, force her to date at least ten more men, make her search until she finds a job she loves. But experience has taught me even suggesting such things is majorly offensive to the recipient. I have six sisters beside her, all married (quite young) and only one divorced. As far as I'm concerned, more than a couple have settled: for mortgages, stretch marks, life in the suburbs, a combination of security/dullness. But that's just my opinion. For, given the chance, given my suggestion that they each take a week off, leave their hubbies and kids, and visit me for a week of single-chick fun, they all defend their alleged happiness. And then they switch the topic quickly. Usually, it goes like this: "So, are you dating anyone? Does he like your kid? Is it serious?" As in: when will I join the ranks of the married?Quite possibly never. Because I'm afraid if I do, I'll do it more for my beloved sarcasm than some beloved man. See, there IS that part of me that wants to be just like them. Yes, it's true, I hope one day to force them to squeeze into some ill-fitting, poly-blend bridesmaid dress and drop a fortune to attend "the happiest day of my life." Just like I did for them.