Tuesday, November 11, 2008

An essay on marriage.

I wrote this post a few months back, and recently revisited it because sometimes I need reminding. I found it badly in need of editing, but still a pretty good description of my stance. So here it is again for your reading pleasure/annoyance.

One of my favorite people (Genevieve) left a comment on the first version of this post. After describing marriage as "the daily practice of monogamy", she concluded with the following of weddings:
Imagine that your relationship with your man is a living, breathing organism. This is its bar mitzva. As Garrison Keillor once said, there is a reason why the music at the end of the wedding ceremony is a march. You're bravely marching down the aisle towards God knows what, armed to the teeth. And your loved ones are there to cheer you on.
There's an entertaining quote within a quote situation for you, ha.

Anyway, onward.

* * *

So, why the hell do you want to get married?

This is the question that I've been asking myself. For years. A decade or more, really. And it's not only me asking it; it's former boyfriends asking it, it's friends asking it. I've been asked it several times since I've gotten engaged, due to the company I keep. It's such a valid question that I've actually started polling people.

For those that know about my engagement, I ask for an honest opinion on it (and usually get one). For those that don't know, I ask for a general opinion on the entire concept and get the can of worms cracked open, and then show them the ring. Usually they backpedal, until I explain that I really am looking for genuine feedback and open discussion. It's a fun game when you hang out with a bunch of anarchists and artists and other such people engaging in non-standard lifestyles.

My answer to this question, as you may imagine, has changed fairly dramatically since I was twenty (and thank god). Back then, the reasoning was an ever so co-dependent "because that's how I'll know he'll really stay with me", or, "because that's how I'll know he really loves me" - something along those lines. As if marriage is a solution to a problem, a universal Mr. Fix-It to my severe emotional disruptions and fear of abandonment. Luckily, none of the boys that I dated were foolish enough to go for it... for very long, at least.

In my mid-twenties, for a minute or two, the answer was simply, "I don't." I'd learned enough to know that I didn't want to do it the way that a lot of other people do it, and wasn't empowered enough to realize that I might be able to do it in a different way entirely.

And now? Now that we've been living together for a year and a half? Now that I have a sparkly ring on my finger? Now that I've put a deposit down on a gorgeous venue and I'm scouting out dresses and caterers, not to mention trying to figure out how mortgages really work? Well, now it's a much bigger answer. But it needs some backstory.

As should be evident by this point, I have a lot of problems with marriage. Similar to my take on many other subjects, my contentions here range from the macro to the micro. There are the big, universal stumps like the federal regulations prohibiting gay marriage and the legal ramifications on each other's finances. And then there are the superpersonal, relationship-specific details like the way that a couple will try to use marriage to fix whatever intimacy problems exist in the relationship. And then there's this enormous gulf of gray area with any size issue you can think of. Let's examine some of these items, shall we?

The subject of the prohibition against gay marriage is one that I cannot help but consider when thinking about my own marrying possibilities. Since high school age my circle of friends and acquaintances has always contained gay people, and a few women have who moved through my life drew me strongly to them, so much so that I questioned my own sexuality for a time.

More to the point, though, is that two of my very close friends are lesbians. One, we'll call her H, is my oldest friend. She revealed her sexuality to the world in her 11th grade year (my 12th) and has never looked back. Recently she's fallen madly in love, and she and her new partner want nothing more than to marry. But of course they can't. They could maybe travel to one of the states that has made it legal for a moment - I believe California is the latest? - but of what use? It wouldn't be recognized in their home. And so they're talking about having a commitment ceremony and a big party, because isn't that what a wedding really is anyway? What is all this craziness with making it a legal contract? Ah, but we'll get to that.

The second of the two aforementioned friends, we'll call M. She has strong feelings about the concept of gay marriage, and does not want any part of it, especially not a commitment ceremony that strikes her only as a "fake wedding". To her it feels like mockery; yet it makes her sad that she will not get to experience that rite of passage, even when she is ready to commit herself to a lifelong partner. In what might be an ironic twist, I've asked M if she would like to be our officiant.

I've heard two opposing arguments on the concept of straight couples who support gay rights and what we should do with our own options. One camp declares that if we truly support them, then we should not take part in this unfair system and therefore should not become legally married until everyone has the right to do so. The other camp, upon hearing of couples who refuse to marry for the sake of gay rights, shake their heads sadly, and muse on the irony: that people who have the option would turn it down, while so many who want it so badly can't do something so basic as commit themselves to one another. At least, not in the eyes of the law.

And there it is: in the eyes of the law. What is that? "We love each other - legally! And our sex is legal too!" How perverse is that? Of course the thing is that it isn't actually like that at all. In reality, the legal aspect of marriage has nothing to do with the relationship itself. It has to do with agreeing to let your partner all up in your junk... in a paperwork kind of sense. Marrying legally intertwines your finances, lets you get on each other's insurance, allows you to file taxes or apply for a mortgage jointly, and can smooth the way in crisis situations.

That last one is a big part of why the legal aspect becomes important for gay couples - how terrible, how ridiculously unfair, to be kept out of the ICU because "you're not family". Also a big contender are the problems that arise in apportioning an estate when no will has been left - there have been instances where the family didn't approve of the relationship, and so a lifelong partner has been left totally s.o.l. in the wake of loss. You want to believe that people wouldn't act this way. But then, you want to believe a lot of things.

So when you consider it rationally, a legal marriage is two adults agreeing to open their files to each other, give each other all-access passes, and make decisions for each other in times of dire need. A scary proposition, no doubt - if things go awry, you can end up liable for debt that you didn't even know your partner was accruing. And in some situations it's absolutely necessary because of the way our society is structured. But it has nothing to do with romantic love; it has to do with trust and fiscal responsibility - an important but quite different part of the whole. Oddly, this is the part that many couples seem to gloss over entirely, focusing instead on some ludicrous notion that "love is all you need". Oh, if only.

So, under all of these dark and foreboding clouds, why the hell do I want to get married? As I said, that answer is complex, but it's all rooted in one very simple fact: I have found my partner, and he his, and we want to celebrate our partnership and make our commitment formal. We also plan on staying in this country pretty much indefinitely, and the plain fact is that legal marriage makes it far easier for two adults to live together in this system - or maybe, more accurately, the system makes life difficult for adult couples who aren't legally married.

Do I want everyone to have the same rights? Of course. But giving up our opportunity will not create one for anyone else. I can do exactly two things about that problem: create awareness and vote.

Can I abide the dogma of the wedding ceremony as it is commonly carried out here and now in this country? No, and I don't have to, and I won't. Do I think that a legal marriage makes us legally bound to love each other? No, I think it makes us legally able to file joint tax returns, and will make things easier in times of crisis. Am I wandering into marriage with naive notions that getting married will be the ultimate solution to all of the problems in our relationship, and indeed in my life? To the contrary, I'm making every effort to walk into it in full consciousness of the potential pitfalls and failures, willing to take the risks, confident that we will keep loving each other and acting as equal parts of a whole as much as we are able.

Sound scary as shit? Well yeah, it is. So was moving to New York, and so was starting college, so is showing my art or publishing my writing, and so was everything else worthwhile that I've ever done.

When you understand that a marriage is not a "marriage", something that fits in a box that someone else put a label on, but simply a partnership between yourself and the person that you know and love, and it is nothing less or more than what you decide it will be, then all of those dark clouds part. And nothing that society says about what a "wife" is or what a "husband" is matters anymore. The things that your parents did to each other within their own marriage melt away. Because none of that has anything to do with you and your partner.

The day after you say "I do" (or "I will" or "Yes!" or "Hell yeah!" or "Totally"), you will still be the same two people that you are today, and you will still have the same relationship that you do now. That moment is not the one at which you devote yourselves to each other forever; that devotion should have long been in place.

And as for that, why the hell do I want to have a wedding?

Well, lest we confuse getting married with having a wedding, that's a different discussion entirely.


Genevieve said...

I think it would be neat to look at this again, like, a week after the wedding, or on the year anniversary of when you got engaged. Look at how much more you've thought about since the first time you wrote this.

Good thoughts, by the way. I don't understand the ban of gay marriages for many, many reasons, one of them being this - they want people to stop being promiscuous, right? But they don't want some of them to get married either? I don't get it. Stop sleeping with people, gay people, and whatever you do don't have sex with the same person for life in a loving, monogamous relationship! Anything but that!

And thank you for quoting me. That was rad.

melissa bastian. said...

yeah, I've totally wondered how I'll feel about my current thoughts once I've been married for a while. will I be all, wow, I was so wise? Or like, damn, was I a moron? Probably some combo of the two.

as far as the gay people thing - they're supposed to stop being who they are and marry straight people, duh.