Sunday, February 3, 2013

Will You Marry Me?

I've had three marriage proposals that I can remember. The first two proposals went like this:

1.  "I want to marry you.  I know you don't like me very much right now, but maybe you'll marry me sometime in the future, when you like me better."

2.  "I don't know if you're going to be in the apartment when I get home.  I don't know whether you are coming or going.  So either marry me or move out."  I didn't want to move out so I married him.

"I want to see you, even if it has to be through bullet-proof glass."

That was not a proposal, but it was said to me.  I eventually learned how to screen for psychopaths.

When my current husband and I agreed to the marriage thing (in 1998), I was feeling vaguely guilty, so I published an article about marriage in the local newspaper.  I was a member of the "community editorial board" so I could write 700 words on any topic every five weeks.  This was my first column.  I've edited and updated it for this blog.

                                                I'M SORRY

            I am getting married soon and feeling vaguely apologetic.  Why does getting married in the final years of the millennium seem so problematic?  My 14-year-old daughter is looking forward to the event enthusiastically; and my spouse-to-be doesn't seem to be in any distress.
            On hearing about my impending wedding, some friends sputter with laughter.  Others reply, "Why?  I thought you had gone beyond marriage."  I start to explain why, but I find myself thinking more quickly of reasons to apologize.   My problems are not with my relationship, but with the "institution" of marriage.
            I believe that any pair of humans, including same-sex couples, can feel the same commitment, compassion, and romance that my partner and I feel for one another; yet the legal bond of marriage excludes all but male-female pairs.  Marriage is discriminatory.  [Update:  July 20, 2005 - Gay marriage became legal in Canada.  We wait for the world to catch up.]
            While our marriage celebrates our good fortune in finding one another, it also points to those who haven't had the interest or luck to make a match or formalize the ones they have.  Society approves of marriage.  Demographers smile upon me as though I am now more valuable, productive, and creative than the unwed.  I'm not.  Marriage is élitist.
            The heterosexual marriage is historically a relationship in which women had few rights.  Many couples treat each other fairly, but others find that compassion and delight are replaced by control and brutality.  To many, the institution of marriage has come to imply anything but a safe haven.  Marriage is potentially a hierarchical power relationship.
            And so why get married?  It's not necessary for citizenship or tax benefits.  We do not plan to have children; and no matter how married we get, my daughter insists she will never address the spouse-to-be as her father or step-father.
            When bewildered friends ask why marry, what can I say?  I admit that initially my only reason was that he wanted it.  He felt that it was important to "take the next step."  It was a preference, not a demand.  And the romantic proposal in New York City atop the Empire State Building, a private moment -- with 200 other tourists -- in no way influenced my decision.  I agreed because making him happy makes me happy.
            That was my starting point.  Along the way I discovered that getting married is sending a message to my daughter that this man was going to be around for a long time; and I noticed that after the engagement was announced, she seemed to become more secure, more settled.  Perhaps she begins to understand "family" in a new way.  [Update:  In retrospect, I'd say she felt pissed off, betrayed, and disenfranchised - but that's another story.]
            I could have chosen to send her a different message:  that two people can be in love and committed to one another and never marry.  But marry is what many people still do.  We publicly affirm and celebrate our private commitments with ritual and ceremony.  Ceremonies strengthen our sense that we belong to something greater than ourselves.  In our ceremonies we connect to one another, to our guests, to previous generations, and to the Universal Force that surrounds us.
            So how can we reposition this historic patriarchal structure as a modern egalitarian one?
            We can recognize gay partnerships as equal in value to non-gay ones, especially by encouraging governments to provide legal recognition and protection to those partnerships.   We can stop treating single people like mutants and see them as WHOLE people.  We can stop matchmaking, unless requested.

            Finally, for the heterosexual marriage to ever overcome its historic reputation as a relationship based on power and control -- a reality which continues in many parts of the world -- we must model equality.  We can base family decisions on mutual respect, consultation, and collaboration.  Whatever "deal" couples make regarding housework, childcare, income, emotional support, and sexuality, the deal must feel fair to both parties.  Since women still earn 73% of men's earnings, creating a fair deal must include changing our world.
            It is unlikely that I'll ever feel gooey and sentimental about marriage, but it could be a good thing, and almost 15 years later, I'm still married [and still ambivalent].  (My husband just told me, "That's OK dear, you can be as ambivalent as you want.  I feel secure in my position as your current husband.")


  1. Great post Lil. I would've loved to open a newspaper and read that for my morning info-boost. Sometimes it just feels good when my ideas a re articulated so well by someone else.

    I probably would add something else though: marriage seems like a good time to party! Legalities, religion aside - the opportunity create an event of my own, to celebrate so much of my life melding with another's, ah! It seems like it could just be so fun. Getting dressed up, crafting activities, rituals, FOOD and yea...spending some money on it (still open to one's discretion!) - all seem like benefits to a marriage. At least for me : )

  2. posted by b_b at
    Lil wrote, "for the heterosexual marriage to ever overcome its historic reputation as a relationship based on power and control -- a reality which continues in many parts of the world -- we must model equality."

    This is one reason that I reject marriage out of hand. It is historically about transfer of ownership from the father to the husband, and I, for one, don't want the responsibility of owning another human. Slavery has ended, but marriage survives. In the US, spousal rape wasn't even a crime until, what, the mid-70s in a lot of states? It's stupid and outdated. Marriage should be abolished in the eyes of the law. Leave it as a religious practice. We can already co-own a house with whomever we want. We can designate power of attorney to whomever we want. These are civil functions that fall under contract law, and man, woman, gay, straight, are all the same. Why should you get a tax break for being married? So throw that out the window. In the end, the two benefits that marriage affords that are not open to the rest of us sinners are a) being able to designate a singular person who can inherit your estate tax free (but let's be honest, in the US the estate has to be worth way more money than most of us have to even make that an issue), and b) we can't impart legal residency to an alien of our choosing. If those few things were rectified though legislation, then all of the arguments about marriage become null and void. Princess fantasies and dreams of the big, fancy wedding keep women as willing conspirators in their own enslavement. I see no place for it in modern society.

  3. posted by IntimidatingScones @ hubski There are a lot of legal rights you're forgetting that help marriage along. Mostly about the time of dying but not yet dead.
    Also, these 'parties' and 'Princess Fantasies' are for the most part becoming cheaper and more moderate. They are often done for the benefit and appeasing of close family, particularly parents. And if you don't want to attend and show support to two people starting out, don't RSVP. It's rather simple.
    Moreover, women aren't the only ones with a lot of fantasies about their 'big day.' I was surprised to learn this too, but really, what's wrong with wanting to celebrate committing yourself to another person for life? I know a lot of cynicism comes from high divorce rates, but give humanity a chance. Seriously, we hear about the people who get married 5 times and the people who have been married for 50 years, and we don't hear about those who have been faithful for 8. Why? Because it's not a juicy story. But if you don't take them into account, then things get very skewed.
    I'm curious to know, if marriage wasn't a legal thing and weddings were a thing of the past, and two close friends of yours told you they had decided to commit themselves to one another forever, and you remember that when you and your SO did that, that the money you got from so-and-so made all the difference, would you feel more like helping them out? Partially because you're not obligated to?

  4. by neversparks @ hubski in response to b_b above
    Because marriage was historically the transfer of ownership doesn't mean it's true today. That definition simply doesn't hold in the modern world.
    I don't see what's wrong with marriage. I want to get married. I don't see it so much as enslaving my SO but rather a promise to commit to each other, even through shitty times. And hey, what's wrong with a celebrating that?
    Sure, marriage isn't necessary. Two people can be together without being married. But it isn't slavery. Not today. I don't think your arguments against marriage really hold, and I don't think we need to demonize it.

  5. from thenewgreen @ hubski
    "And so why get married?"
    -Many people will cite tax advantages etc or rights like power of attorney. But for us, the tax thing almost caused us to get divorced. My wife has an enormous amount of student loans. It's such a large number that I try not to even think of it. Because they take a look at our combined income to determine what she's capable of paying each month, we considered a divorce. Then we decided to just file separately. The penalties we receive for doing this are in the tens of thousands, but it's still better than paying the monthly amount. To solve for this, we've literally considered getting a divorce "on paper" until she's out of residency. Why don't we? Because we don't want a "divorce" on the books. There's really no good reason not to do it other than "it would freak our families out".
    Beyond that, how do I feel about marriage? Meh.
    I don't think you get anything out of it that you couldn't by being in a committed relationship. It's just a "promise", and promises don't require a formal ceremony or official documents. There are plenty of people in monogamous, healthy relationships for long periods of time that never marry.

  6. I liked the speeches at your wedding. If it weren't for marriage, when would we get the chance to hear not-famous-people give speeches? -John Kennedy