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 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.")