Why I Sucked It Up and Tied the Knot
Several of my friends recently tied the knot. They registered for linens, bought the white dress and updated their Facebook profiles. On the Big Day, they walked down the aisle and kissed the love of their lives in front of cheering friends and family members. They also signed documents that granted them access to all of the legal rights and economic benefits that come with holy matrimony.
The last wedding that I attended was last year, and I remember standing there after the ceremony with pangs of jealously and confusion as I thought about my own long-term relationship. At that point, I had been living with my partner for two years and we were getting ready to move out to Ithaca, NY so that he could start work on a PhD at Cornell University. I considered myself to be in the same ranks as my wedded friends because I too was part of a stable, long-term partnership. Even so, my diamond-free left hand still left friends, colleagues and family members scratching their heads, questioning why I hadn’t (or when I planned to!) shimmy down the aisle.
Now don’t get me wrong, I wanted to partake in all of the tangential benefits of marriage. When my sister got married, her apartment was literally overflowing with gifts: New china, linens from Macy’s, and a few thousand dollars in gift certificates. When my partner and I moved across the country together from California to Ithaca, New York, we got a $150 gift certificate to Bed Bath & Beyond and a set of pots and pans from a sympathetic relative. Other than that, we were on our own with my savings while I looked for a job, and my partner’s graduate-student salary. We bought an air mattress for our unfurnished apartment and stocked our kitchen with garage sale dishware.
No, we didn’t have access to the hundreds of state and federal rights guaranteed to married couples and we certainly didn’t have access to a gift registry at Williams-Sonoma, but “legitimate" or not, we had a marriage, as far as we were concerned. We didn’t need a legally-binding document to prove our love or commitment to our partnership. We were setting out in the world together, building a home and a life together on our own terms. Yes, new kitchen utensils would have been nice, but the promise of material goods wasn’t quite bribe enough for us to participate in a sexist institution that held little religious or cultural significance for us. A marriage certificate is no guarantee of a successful, happy, or even long-term bond anyway -- so why did it matter that a priest/judge/rabbi/ pastor hadn’t presided over our union?
The prospect of marriage seemed especially unpleasant given the omnipresence of social conservatives like Dr. Dobson, Phyllis Schlafley and others, who have successfully made their careers by demonizing gay couples as hedonists, single moms as irresponsible, and cohabitating couples as selfish. Not getting married seemed to be a viable way of fighting these fierce social stigmas because, through our relationship, we could show our friends and family that marriage doesn’t have to be a component of a happy, successful partnership.
I was proud of our relationship sans marriage certificate. My partner and I both wore aprons in the kitchen and supported each other’s ambitions. He started work on his Ph.D while I wrote in my free time. We had a deal: I’d stay in Ithaca for three years if he’d move for me when it was my turn to start a graduate program. Of course, we accepted the fact that our relationship, our deal, like any marriage, could fall apart -- but we vowed to be honest and open with each other, and to commit ourselves to each other for as long as we could.
Opting out of marriage hardly seemed subversive -- at least while we were in the cozy bubble of our private home. Outsiders, however, weren’t quite as thrilled with our make-shift union. While my friends’ and cousins’ engagements were praised with unquestioning “CONGRATULATIONS!!!" on fancy cards and Facebook wall posts, my relationship was rather unremarkable, if not cause for concern. Many seemed to think that my partner just needed a little encouragement in the marriage department, as though I were a damsel in distress, just dying for the day that I too could dress up in white and say “I do!" in front of smiling loved ones. Even my progressive friends imagined narratives that strongly resembled the storylines of B-rated romantic comedies: “Perhaps," they thought, “I’m not ‘The One’ for him." Or maybe he’s not “The One" for me. Because when you fall in love, you’re supposed to merge assets. Right?
I wanted to blame films like “Twenty-Seven Dresses" and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding" for brainwashing my friends and family into believing that a wedding is (of course!) the climax of a sexual relationship. But I knew that my aversion to marriage was uncomfortable for everyone else because it blurred the lines between “legitimate" and “illegitimate." As a couple, we acted in ways that typical marrieds acted. We cooked together, lived together, slept together. And yet our relationship just didn’t measure up. We were partners, yes, but lacked the language to express our relationship in terms other than “boyfriend" and “girlfriend." We were still identified as “dating," i.e. “not serious" by the outside world.
The fact is that marriage is still held up as the gold standard in the US; “[it] remains the highest form of commitment in our culture and comes packaged with exacting expectations about responsibility, fidelity, and intimacy," family historian Stephanie Coontz explains in Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. While marriage is associated with a positive vocabulary and public image, other familial arrangements remain undefined, if not ignored. “Arrangements other than marriage are still treated as makeshift or temporary, however long they last," Coontz writes. “There is no consensus on what rules apply to these relationships. We don’t even know what to call them."
Gay marriage is working to shake-up archaic perceptions of marriage and family, but it’s no secret that a palpable dichotomy still exists between married (moral, stable) and unmarried (immoral, unstable) couples in the US. On the job front, this notion became painstakingly clear. When I gave an honest response to the inevitable question: “Why Ithaca?" some potential employers wondered aloud if I’d really be in Ithaca for several years. Or would it be six months? I felt humiliated, naïve and exposed as I made futile attempts to ward off borderline-illegal questions about my relationship.
I knew from the get-go that I couldn’t flat-out reject a social norm without some reproach, but the fight was becoming overwhelming. I didn’t like having to defend myself and my decision to move to Ithaca. I grew sensitive to the condescending and intrusive inquiries. I didn’t want friends and family to gush over my personal love story -- but I did want in on the community respect that my friends enjoyed with their “I dos."
I was elated when I happened upon American Prospect author and Feministing editor Courtney Martin’s June 2008 article about her opposite-sex, unmarried partnership. It struck a chord with me because her story sounded like mine -- and, I’m guessing, like the stories of thousands of other women who have waffled over the decision to say “I do."
Martin hit the nail on the head with her observation that for many, the desire for marriage is about a desire for inclusion.
“I can see why my gay friends -- whose relationships have long been belittled and discriminated against -- are especially invested in having a community of people recognize their union in a public, official way," Martin says. “Weddings, after all, are often about the community that surrounds the couple and their opportunity to witness and honor their love, and sometimes even pledge to support it for the long haul."
Martin concludes the article on an ambiguous note, still uncertain about her feelings about marriage. “I'm still not sure that I'll ever get married, but I'll never look at the white dress again without seeing all the shades of gray," she says. My feelings about marriage, however, were becoming a bit more clear-cut: I wanted my relationship to be acknowledged and respected; I wanted to be left alone. My “single" status wasn’t serving me, and I wasn’t convinced that it was working to change the world.
The fact that I, a heterosexual woman who could legally wed, had the ability to agonize over the theoretical meaning of “marriage" was a privilege in itself -- and one that was beginning to feel shallow. As an under-employed (and uninsured) woman living in a new town, I was standing face-to-face with the messier logistics of cohabitation. I was beginning to drool over those tax breaks, partner benefits and family sick leave (not to mention hospital visitation rights, automatic inheritance, and a slew of other incentives that tie a very neat bow on the institution of marriage).
With an Economics degree and work experience under my belt, I had the potential for mobility -- but I wanted to continue living in the same city as my partner, and I knew that those benefits would make it easier for us to survive as a unit in the years to come.
My partner and I discussed the pros and cons of matrimony, and ultimately decided that we wanted to tie the knot. “We’re planning on staying together, so why not enjoy the rights that come with marriage?" He “proposed" on our anniversary, not with a diamond ring, but with a watch -- something he knew that I’d actually wear. For the ceremony, we settled on a woman judge, two witnesses, and said “I do" in a courthouse that strongly resembled a DMV, complete with beige walls, cheap blinds, and metal detectors. (A marriage certificate is, after all, a means of telling the state that you care about someone, so why shouldn’t couples wed in the same building in which the accused are judged?). We spent less than $100 on our jeans-optional extravaganza.
Thanks to feminist leaders who fought for access to contraception, domestic violence protections, inheritance rights, marriage no longer means a loss of identity or a loss of freedom, at least in theory. “If I had got married when I was supposed to have in my 20s, I would have lost almost all my civil rights," Gloria Steinem told Milwaukee Journalist Dave Tianen. “I wouldn't have had my own name, my own legal residence, my own credit rating. I would have had to get a husband to sign off on a bank loan, or starting a business."
Women no longer forfeit their individuality when they say “I do." Even so, marriage is still problematic because the decision to marry isn’t necessarily made on an individual level -- like the decision to major in Anthropology instead of Sociology. The decision is motivated, at least in part, by a desire for social approval and acceptance.
And truth be told, I like that I’m congratulated when people find out that I’m a new wife. I like the immediate respect and understanding that comes with the golden-ticket word “husband." It informs colleagues, friends and family that I’m in a committed relationship -- and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Even so, I’m troubled by the fact that when I introduce my partner as something other than “partner," I’m consciously acknowledging the exclusivity of my relationship status. I’m linguistically detaching myself from the some 5.5 million cohabitating couples in the U.S. whose relationships are, in the eyes of the law, and in the eyes of many Americans, less valuable than mine. And I’m lauded for it.