Monday, June 18, 2007

Why I chose marriage, and am glad I did

Jill Filipovic is not getting married. Neither is Amanda Marcotte. I admire and respect these two women. I think their reasons are sound. I made a different choice.

For a very long time, I thought I would never get married. I just didn't picture myself in that role of "wife." Some of Jill's commenters talk about that: about how the social expectations, especially those based on gender, change when moving from girlfriend to wife. Anyone who knows me knows I could never fit neatly into any such category. And my dreams as a child were always about what I would do with my life and my career: fly airplanes, write books, travel the world. I don't remember ever dressing up in a white pillowcase and pretending to be a bride. My parents emphasized my education over all else. My father, in fact, specifically advised me against marriage. He sees it as career suicide for a woman. It probably doesn't help that his own marriage failed spectacularly.

When A. and I stumbled into each other's lives (or, more accurately, beds) we were both in open relationships, mine of 4.5 years. And then we fell hard in ways that would be saccharin if I tried to explain them here. After only 2 months, A. proposed. And I reacted with panic. I didn't want to be married, didn't feel ready to make a big commitment, was too familiar with divorce statistics and the consequences of divorce, felt that if I announced an engagement people around me would ridicule me. We put off announcing it for six months, during which A. worked hard to assuage my various fears. Our relationship calmed down over that period, as we worked on our conflict resolution skills and learned to be less sensitive to one another's tendencies to wild emotion. Then we announced the engagement and spent the next year working even harder on our relationship and planning a wedding.

After reading Jill's piece, I asked A. if he had wanted to get married before meeting me. He said yes; he had pictured himself, eventually, as a husband and father. I suppose that makes the narrative clear: man with marital ambitions meets woman without, they fall in love, he convinces her to marry. While there may be some of that; I think that's missing a crucial element. I wasn't just convinced, I was converted. I was enthused and committed. He didn't have my grudging consent, I was an enthusiastic participant.

Over at Feministe, commenter Nita writes:
And finally, it has always seemed weird to me to talk of wanting to get married or not wanting to get married as a theoretical construct separate from the “getting married TO X”–the desire to get married seems so contingent on the person or people you have relationships with, that it just doesn’t even make sense to talk of my general desire for (or lack of desire for) marriage. I may want to get married if I find a particular person who is so amazingly awesom that I simply can’t imagine NOT being with them for the rest of my life, but may emphatically NOT want to get married if I had to choose between George Bush, Rick Santorum, and James Dobson.
I agree strongly with this sentiment. Marriage was not something I wanted to do until I met A., and to talk about "marriage" without talking about "marriage to X" seems very odd to me. Nonetheless, I know people do that, such as the women who did the pillowcase thing as girls, and, it turns out, A. Problematically, the point of Nita's statement is often used as a means of dismissing those who state their choice not to be married. I hope you understand that when I'm saying "I didn't want to marry until I met A., and then I changed my mind" I'm not saying "oh dearie, you're saying that now, but you'll change your tune when you meet the right man!" I'm not so self-centred or condescending as to believe that my narrative is universal. Jill may get married one day and may not. Her choices and her relationships are legitimate either way. While my narrative is not uncommon, and I don't think hypocritical, there are also many people with committed, long-term unmarried relationships, people who are happily in serial relationships (monogamous or not), and people who are happily unpartnered.

And since getting married? I have to say, I love it. It's far better than I thought it would be. We get all the social benefits of marriage, with very little of the social expectations. Only my mother-in-law is under the impression that marriage should have changed us to fit neatly into our gender roles. Everyone else knows us too well, expects strangeness of us, and leaves us alone. I have serious social anxiety issues around, for example, medical personnel. Doctors used to look at me strangely when I asked to bring my boyfriend into the exam room, and a nurse even tried to kick him out once. But no one bats an eye when I bring my husband in, although the gynecologist did say "you know, most men don't stay for this part" as she performed the Pap smear. The legal benefits are wonderful as well. I just added A. to my health insurance. I think it would have been possible if we were just living together, but it would have been a hell of a lot more paperwork. I am very comforted by the idea that if I couldn't make my own medical decisions, the first person they'd turn to is A., someone who knows me well and shares my values, instead of my parents, who don't.

The legal benefits for A. are even more important. He doesn't get paid directly for any work he does; not the housework, not the sortof-secretarial work he does for me, not the academic job-seeking, not the hand-holding through the hard parts of my job. When this kid comes out, he'll be doing childcare without payment, while I benefit, earning experience, credentials, and pay. If, FSM-forbid, the marriage were to end, he deserves every legal right he has to our assets and my future earnings. And I benefit from this security. If he couldn't count on my perpetual financial support, he would most likely be much less willing to follow me from city to city, doing my laundry.

This last part may be part of the reason women have often been more eager for marriage than men. A. is playing the stereotypically female role in our division of labour. The unpaid, not-publicly-acknowledged role. Marriage provides important legal protection to the person playing that role. In relationships without children, in which both partners work and make near-equivalent contributions to the running of the household, marriage is not as important. I imagine Jill and Amanda picture themselves in those kinds of relationships. (I know Amanda is sure she doesn't want kids, I don't remember if Jill's ever said anything either way). But I'm an academic, and I plan on being peripatetic, and A. and I have decided my career always comes first. It only makes sense for A. to protect himself legally and financially.

All this, and I've said very little about the emotional benefits of marriage. Those are much harder to enumerate or quantify. Most of these benefits are benefits of any relationship. Would A. be any worse at holding me and reassuring me when the world is a scary place, if we didn't have a legal contract? Probably not. But marriage has an important symbolic value, at least to us. I know he's committed to me, and vice versa. We were able to live in different cities for three years while still being sure of our commitment. I see our marriage as permanent, and I'm willing to work hard to make it fulfilling for both of us. In previous relationships, and even earlier in this one, I was timid, and didn't always make my needs clear. But now, I know that I can't live my whole life with these needs unmet, and so I'm more willing to speak up. I'm willing to invest time and effort into my marriage, because I know it will pay off over the long run. I'm less scared of an argument, because I know it will always end, and that neither of us is going to walk away.

I imagine there are many people who have this sense of permanence in non-married relationships. But for me and for A., the marriage is a good way of cementing it, reminding us of the commitments we've made.

So yes, for me, and I'm sure for many others, marriage is the right choice. It hurts me that this institution, which has done so much for us, isn't available to everyone. While I will note that I married in a jurisdiction that allows same-sex-marriage, and live in another, I still know that my marriage benefits from extreme heterosexual privilege. My marriage is valid no matter where I live and under all legal definitions; Pam (of Pam's house blend) and Kate's is not recognized in their own state. The unvailability of SSM is one of the best arguments I've heard against marriage; it's unfair to take advantage of a system that is inherently unequal. To this I can only say, yes, and I'm sorry. I will work hard for my gay and lesbian friends to be able to have all the advantages I have. But I don't think giving up my own legal, social, and emotional benefits will be of any help to them.


emjaybee said...

(came over from feministe, I think)...

We did pretty much the same, and it is nice. If our society were radically different (as in, no patriarchal nonsense) it's possible my husband might just be "regular lover" and "father of our child" but he would still be "best friend" regardless, and I'd probably be with him most if not all of the time. Marriage is the best way we have right now of having a relationship like that without a lot of hassle.

Dr. Confused said...

And it's just good shorthand as well. My father was with a woman for about 15 years, together but unmarried. Sometimes they just introduced one another as spouses, especially to foreign government officials and people they would only interact with briefly. Sure "regular lover" and "father of our child" and "person I spend a lot of time with" and "person who you should consult if I can't communicate my needs" is a fine set of characteristics, and don't need to be "husband," but "husband" is definitely a good shorthand in our society for getting all that across.

It's just too bad that the same word also means "master" or "identity" or "person who financially supports me" to a broad swath of the population.

AG said...

My S.O. and I share a lot of the views you've expressed in this post. BTW, excepting times when using the word wife (or husband) helps we tend to use the words S.O. or partner in social situations. Oh well, that's just part of the rebel in me and her, I guess, that's trying to give the finger to society that lays out roles for her as "da wife" and me as "the husband". BTW, good luck with the pregnancy!

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