Sex & Relationships

Feminism Keeps My Marriage Together

Feminism helps us face the challenge of being complex people in a society that reduces us to pink and blue.
When it comes to heterosexual marriage, feminism gets blamed for everything from the divorce rate to declining birth rates, or even in the case of Ted Haggard, meth addiction and secret gay affairs. Feminism is, after all, the movement that teaches women to leave husbands, kill children, and become capitalist-destroyin', witchcraft lovin' lesbians (thanks Pat Robertson!). But on the eve of our second anniversary, my husband and I credit feminism with keeping our marriage together.

Many second-wave feminists argue that no matter how many gains feminism makes, it should never cease to be taught, because the younger generations will be stunned powerless in the face of unexpected sexism without having feminist education to help put that sexism into context. Thanks to my marriage, I know this to be true. Patrick and I considered ourselves equal partners, but not necessarily feminists. One night while folding laundry, we, two equal partners decided to get married.

We got engaged for all the reasons that very young 20-somethings do -- we wanted a public declaration of commitment, we hoped we would be together forever, we were straight and it never occurred to us to do anything else, and we were a little bit crazy. From that moment on, sexism smacked us in the face at every turn.

We didn't want an engagement ring, as we felt it was a one-sided gesture based on a tradition involving the man proving his financial worth to the woman he would take care of. We did, however, buy each other some badass high-top sneakers. At first were thrilled. We were counterculture. But I became less thrilled when the same script played out with nearly every person I knew.

"You're engaged? Congratulations! Where's the ring?"

"Oh, we didn't want one."

"You poor thing. He'll buy you one soon."

"No, I didn't want one. We bought each other these rad sneakers, though. We thought it would be more equal. I wanted him to have something too."

"Well, he'll come around. How did he propose?"

"He didn't. We just had a discussion. That's really our style."

"He didn't get on one knee or plan a big surprise?"

"Nope. Hey, don't you know us? I hate surprises and he sucks at keeping secrets. And I've never really appreciated the knee thing."

"Oh, honey. You really shouldn't settle for this. I'm sure he'll buy you a nice diamond if you just drop some hints. You deserve better that this."

This what? This equality?

The overwhelming majority of romantic traditions are deeply rooted in sexism and any deviation from those traditions left me pitied and questioning my own value. Sure Patrick and I thought that sexist traditions were stupid, but if he didn't offer me sexist traditions, how else could he show me that he really did love me? What else was there? I had always known that I wanted to keep my name if I got married, but suddenly I was pretty pissed that Patrick was OK with this. "Why aren't you upset that I won't share your name? Why doesn't this bother you like everyone keeps telling me it will? Oh my god, you don't want to marry me, do you? If you wanted to marry me, you'd be insisting that I keep your name! Everyone told me so!"

We had a lot of confusing, bitter arguments. Patrick couldn't understand why we couldn't just make decisions in a vacuum. Surely if he and I wanted things one way, then all the other ways shouldn't matter. I couldn't understand why there was so much dissonance between what we wanted and what family, friends, magazines, and seemingly the rest of the country told me to expect -- and why it all made me feel awful. I felt guilty for letting Patrick do most of the wedding planning, even though he loved designing invitations, buying decorations and all the other artsy aspects that bored me silly. I felt guilty for not having an aisle.

I felt guilty for not stressing out enough over the wedding itself; I simply didn't do anything that I didn't want to, and it seemed to close me off to bonding with other women who were always asking if I was "going crazy yet" (I was, but it had nothing to do with reception menus). I felt guilty for making decisions, because someone was bound to say, "Hey, look out for Bridezilla!" I felt guilty just for buying a wedding band after the jeweler saw us walk into the shop and said to Patrick, "Poor guy. I know this is the last place you want to be right now. Well, let's make her happy and then you can leave."

Looking back, it's a wonder we even got married. I wish that I had the language of feminism back then, to understand how we are all socialized to see marriage as a woman's prize for being appropriately attractive and wily, and how men are offered no part in it except as reluctant, defeated lumps following behind. But the wedding was just the beginning.

As a wife, thanks to popular culture, well-meaning friends and family, and generations of sexist baggage, I was convinced that I had to be constantly capable. Growing up in my family, the women handled all the cooking, cleaning, event planning and what we call "friend maintenance" (making plans, returning calls, sending cards, etc.). The men didn't dare handle any of that because everyone knew they would fuck it up.

If television has taught us anything, it's that men in the kitchen produce inedible meals and explosions. Men with mops will ignore piles of visible dirt. Best to leave the details to women, who are innately suited to the more mind-numbing elements of daily life. I tried to do it all, plus pet care, paying the bills on schedule, and keeping track of birthdays and big events in both our families.

The more I controlled Patrick's life as well as mine, the better I convinced myself I was at marriage -- and the culture at large reinforced that. Sometimes I told myself that it was better this way, because if we tried to split chores 50-50, then Patrick wouldn't do things as well as I did. But I was kidding myself. Patrick was a great cook and an OK housekeeper. If we would abandon the idea that men don't or can't clean, he would learn to do things well, just as I had learned them.

Marilyn French once said that with feminism, "it always comes down to the damn dishes." In my house, it came down to sex. I wanted it constantly. He didn't. When the tables are turned and a woman has a lower drive, it's natural. It's expected. When a woman wants more sex and isn't getting it, then something is badly wrong. She must be gaining weight. She must be ugly. Because as we all know, men are simply walking penises who want sex all the time. A woman who can't convince him to have it with her must be doing something wrong. Or there's a deeper issue at heart, as a friend said when I complained to her that our drives just weren't synching up. "Do you think he could be gay?" she asked, quite seriously. At this time, we were having sex about twice a week. "Still," my friend said. "What kind of a man turns down sex?"

For me, that's when things began to change. What kind of a man was Patrick, to be an independent, thinking, feeling, capable person, when everything in the world was giving him marching orders to be something completely different? What kind of woman was I to do the same? We always had been individuals who valued equality, but we were gradually beginning to see the impact and influence of sexism on our lives. We didn't live in a vacuum, and we never could. The day we began to acknowledge sexism, instead of pretending that it didn't exist, was the day we started to treat each other like adults.

Patrick has taught me a lot about feminism by being my husband. I've learned that patriarchy hurts men, too. While I was feeling guilty for anything and everything I did, he was beating himself up over his salary and benefits, his lower sex drive, and his own struggles with anxiety and lack of confidence -- emotions that men aren't supposed to have, much less express to their partners. He was chafing under the idea that he wasn't smart enough to manage his own daily life, and he was insulted by the implication that he was so governed by his penis that he would cede all control to it at the prospect of sex.

Just as sexism tells women that they must fit a very narrow mold, it tells men the same thing. Any attempt to simply be yourself is met with derision and disapproval, even from supposedly equal partners who expect you to act as they've been told "all" men do. Intimacy just isn't possible under patriarchy. You don't see your partner or even yourself as a real person, but instead you see through the lens of gender expectations, through which deviation is confusing at best and threatening at worst. You suppress every scary impulse -- whether nonmonogamy, demanding equal effort on chores or relationship issues, or simply slumming it all weekend -- lest you upset the security of living under those expectations. Maybe that works for some people. But at 23 and 25, we hope to have a lot of years of marriage ahead, and we'd rather just relax and be real. There is enormous security that comes from knowing that your partner respects you enough to handle what you dish out, and vice versa.

These days, we're both feminists. In feminism, we've found a language to describe the challenges inherent to being multifaceted, complex people in a society that reduces us to pink and blue, and we've found alternatives to buying into that society. Being heterosexual has afforded us many privileges, but it also has allowed us plenty of opportunities to challenge assumptions about what heterosexual marriage should be. This summer, I'll be enrolling in full-time law school while Patrick takes over all of the household responsibilities. Eventually, Patrick would like to take some time off work to focus on writing. We've even discussed living apart for travel and internship opportunities.

Whatever we do, I'm confident that it won't be motivated by the guilt that drove the early part of our relationship. While our marriage may not look like the ones we knew growing up, it works for us. We married a friend, but we got an ally.
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