Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why Get Married? (part 1)

I recently read Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage at the suggestion of a single friend of mine who has been pondering the question "Why get married?"
Committed is a sort of follow-up to NYT bestseller Eat, Pray, Love. I never actually read that one, but apparently, at the end of her trek across Italy, India, and Indonesia, Elizabeth Gilbert met a Brazilian man of Australian citizenship and fell in love. Both divorced, the pair agreed they never wanted to get legally married again. But, when U.S. Immigration catches onto his frequent, long-term visits to the U.S., they are told that they better get married if her man wishes to live in America. So, knowing they must tie the knot, Gilbert spends the nine months or so of their exile (while hiring immigration lawyers, etc.) studying the institution of marriage from a historical and cultural perspective, trying to come to terms with matrimony.

Gilbert, in the end, was convinced because she wanted to be. She had to be. My friend, with no legal pressure to wed, was not convinced. And me? Married for 3 1/2 years as I had always wished to be? I read the book with great curiosity and deep self-analysis.

Years ago, another confirmed-bachelorette friend asked me a similar question: "Why do you want to get married so badly?" I answered her, "because I want to have children, and marriage is a precursor to that." (The countless single parents out there could prove otherwise, but I was raised pretty traditionally, and never questioned the notion that marriage should precede childbearing.) I have ALWAYS wanted children. Lots of them. In elementary school (back when I still thought they had to cut you open to get babies out) I wanted twelve. I think there was a set of twins and a set of triplets in there. By high school, it was down to six, then four, and now three... or four, but only if we win the lottery or something.

I have always wanted to get married and have children. And I always assumed I would get married straight out of college, like my parents did. I was that super-annoying girlfriend who assumed every boyfriend was The One. And I know I put Matt through hell with my frustration over being 24 with a bare left hand. He still teases me over my most desperate lament: "You're trying to destroy all my dreams!" (Yes, I just admitted that in front of the whole Internet.)

It's embarrassing to admit that now, but I was extremely hung up on getting married. One of the single friends Gilbert interviewed in her study of marriage actually articulated my feelings quite well. Marriage would be validation, she said. A man's proposal would prove she was worthy of love. She was good enough. Good enough to be chosen. I recall wailing to Matt (in the same "dream-destroying" conversation, as I recall) "Why is [so-and-so] married? Is she prettier than me or better than me?"

(Ugh. This is why Kate will be raised with an anti-princess mentality.)

It's less embarrassing to go with the marriage=babies train of thought. And that actually is pretty wise, I think. There is an article from The Atlantic that I love and that I have sent at least three single friends the link to. It's called "Marry Him! The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough." I read and fell in love with this article years after marrying Matt, so I am in no way saying I "settled" for the world's greatest husband and daddy. But Lori Gottleib--the writer of that article--makes a great point in saying that when deciding whether or not to marry--or who to marry--one should consider not physical passion or even emotional chemistry, but rather the lifestyle one wants.

Ok, I wanted kids, and I married a man who also wanted kids. Great! But Gottleib's point about practicality goes beyond that.

I certainly wasn't thinking of this back in 2005, but the really cool thing--even "God thing"--that I honestly never anticipated, is that the details of our "lifestyle" have worked out perfectly, even without my planning. When Matt and I married, I wanted to quit working when I had kids. If I were marrying for "lifestyle" at that point, I should have chosen someone with a salary that could support a stay-at-home-mom and three kids. Instead, I married a pastor. For love. We couldn't live on just his salary (not if we still want CNN and Comedy Central, that is) but it turns out I love my job and want to keep working. As it turns out, the "practical" benefit to my choice of husband is his flexible career that allows for two Daddy-Daughter-Days a week.

The practical side of marriage is a good thing. Elizabeth Gilbert interviewed indigenous South Asian women about their marriages, and they had no romantic notions about chemistry or their own "worthiness." Gilbert asked them, "Is your husband a good husband?" and they laughed at her. He is what he is. Marriage is what it is. It is part of their lifestyle, and--since we do have so much freedom of choice these says--it is a choice of lifestyle for us today.

..... I don't like long blog posts, so I'm going to break this into two since I haven't really even gotten to the argument that finally convinced Gilbert in the end of her book. In the meantime, though, tell me (and my friend): why did you choose to get married? If you're not married, why do you want (or not want) to be?


Cara said...

Jessica, I love this post and admire your honesty.

To answer your question, before getting married I was a nice mix of traditional upbringing that thought partnership was the best way to go through life and wildly independant who was very comfortable imagining an unpartnered life. So it made marrying my husband very easy, because being with him enhanced my life in a way that was so compelling that I knew it would only grow deeper with commitment and age. I was always raised to see marriage as both a covenant of love, but also of a partnership between two people through which you could accomplish goals and aspirations. Two are better than one, etc, etc. And now that I am married I totally agree. But I am not called to marriage, I am called to marriage with my husband. God forbid if something were to happen to him, I am not sure I would actively seek partnership. Does that make sense? Its the partnership with him that makes marriage so deep and meaningful.

Also, I am not a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert. I would recoment Stephanie Koontz's Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, as she is a sociologist and covers many of the topics you have addressed (plus is a Kathleen Flake recomendation--who doesn't love her!)

mmr said...


Thanks for your honesty and candor in this post, and for opening the question. I promised you I would comment, and this is a question I definitely have an answer to.

A couple of weeks ago, I went out for ice cream on a Saturday evening. On the way, I drove by no less than three churches where big, fancy weddings were finishing up and the exuberant couples were pouring out the front door. As I passed, I thought two things: 1. I am glad that I got to have a beautiful, small wedding and a lovely white dress and a day that was sacred and joyful for me and my husband and my family and our friends. 2. No thanks, marriage!

I was married for five years. We got engaged after a week, we got married six months later, and then we got to know each other. It was like being married to a sibling. We did not get along. We worked with five different marriage counselors, and we really tried. But in the end, it seemed we had married ideas of each other, and the reality wasn't going to work. We had a very peaceful and dignified divorce, complete with a service in the Episcopal church to recognize the end of the marriage. The service was as lovely and emotional as the wedding had been, and it was in the same sanctuary, only without people or flowers or organ music. Our divorce was final on our fifth wedding anniversary. We stood before the judge and held hands and then we were divorce and it was over.

That was my marriage.

In the years since, I have thought about my reasons for getting married in the first place. As the victim of a recent unsolved violent crime, I desperately wanted to change my name. I also wanted to be out of the world of dating. I was twenty-seven, and it seemed like time. The crime and the injuries had so disrupted my life; getting married and "settling down" seemed like a way to balance the scales. Of course I wasn't consciously thinking any of this at the time, but in hindsight it seems clear. And of course I loved my husband and was passionate about him. At first. By the time of the wedding, we were already having problems. The first few months were awful. We did not like each other. We had signed on for life. We did not like each other. We would not quit.

We did not like each other.

We did, however, love each other. This is why the best way to describe our relationship was to compare it to siblings. He was the same age as my younger brother, and while I love my brother, we are so different and often I wonder whether I like him. We fought all through our childhoods. We couldn't get along. And that was my marriage: children fighting, with intermittent spurts of getting along and playing together harmoniously.

(continued in the following comment)

mmr said...

Of course there was a lot more to my marriage and its decline, but that's enough. Since the divorce, I have learned that I am not called to marriage. I am called to live alone. I am also called to love, but not in any conventional sense. I am currently involved in an arrangement with a man I adore, with whom I hope to get pregnant in the fall, and who will not be involved with the child as a live-in or even official parent. This is absolutely ideal for me, and also for him. I do not want to be married, and I do not what to live with anyone. I want to be a mother, and there is no reason why I should not be able to do that alone. The idea of marriage is barely a speck in my most peripheral vision.

And I am very happy. I am happier than I ever have been in my life, enjoying my unusual relationship with my peculiar lover, hopeful that my body will be able to grow a child, and looking forward to navigating all of that with my friends and my family and this man that I care for and most of all, my strong, independent self.

Where Jessica saw marriage as the gateway to having children, I see it as the greatest obstacle. It is not fair to bring a child into a marriage that is broken or suffering, and it's hard to have a marriage that isn't that way on some level. I am not even sure that human beings are called to monogamy, and possibly that's why the rate of divorce is so high, because the institution of marriage forces people into something that is ultimately not natural or adaptive.

Except for penguins. Did you see "March of the Penguins"? A few days before we separated, my husband and I went to see it together. We both cried. On the way home we were silent. Then I said, "We are not those penguins." He said, "No, we are not." We cried together.

Turns out that I am not those penguins. My husband got married again within a year of the divorce, and he and his new wife had a baby last year. Sometimes I look them up on Facebook, and everything looks sparklingly perfect. Of course it is, because I know that's the kind of life and the kind of wife he wanted. I am not that wife. I am not those penguins.

But I am happy.



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