Marriage: Because we need you all figured out
Courtney Martin has a moving piece up at the Prospect about how the legalization of gay marriage is making her rethink her own resistance to entering into straight marriage. She concludes what I have in my life, which is that even though it’s important to cheer on gay marriage, for straight people, there’s still a major danger that the historical patriarchal institution will suck you in and destroy brain like a brain slug. She says it nicer than me, though. Jesse Singal tries to argue her into getting married, thereby neatly proving the point that good, old-fashioned heterosexual marriage still functions largely as a way to pressure women into getting in line. There are just some things that a man can’t argue a woman into doing by saying it’s not sexist, and marriage is up there, along with boob jobs. By exerting the pressure, you’re disproving your argument, really.
The objections we spinsters have against marriage are hazily explained, but deeply felt. Courtney describes it as such:
But I also respect the power of historical precedent and dominant culture — all of which perpetuate rigid ideas of gender roles within marriage. Even my most radical friends — even my very own radical parents (who, by the way, have been married since ’69) — seem to gravitate toward the black hole of traditional gender roles, and I can’t help but blame the institution at least a little. Why not avoid the temptation to fall into a his-and-hers routine by never adopting the marriage label? I have a fantasy that, without the dominant culture’s definitions of husband and wife as default, my partner and I will be constantly pushed to reinvent our relationship, question our assumptions about who should do what, and stay honest and authentic.
Jesse’s objections fell right into the “who says that it has to be that way?” vein, and in theory, it doesn’t. That’s why this conversation is so difficult. In theory, it doesn’t. It practice, if often does. And to say that is to hang a big “EPIC FAIL” sign on your head because you personally can’t muster the stamina, brilliance, inventiveness, and energy to just reinvent the institution for yourself. Perhaps the way to reply to that, if just in your head, is to say that you could, but why bother when you could put your sparklingly near-perfect personality into other avenues.
The way that marriage is used to marshal couples into more traditional gender roles is through the death by a 1,000 papercuts. It’s not like anyone wakes up one day and decides to get married and just changes everything. It’s little things adding up. Courtney alludes to one way that has always stuck out for me (and I’ve written about it before)—the assumption about who wants the marriage more than who.
I get little more than skeptical silence; people always suspect that the political argument is just a big cover up for my boyfriend’s frozen feet.
Personally speaking, this assumption—marriage is something women want, and men have to be persuaded into—makes me run in the other direction. Once you wake up in the morning as the Girl Who Wants To Get Married Someday, you’re at the mercy of some brutal pressures. If your boyfriend’s not asking, you begin to wonder if he really loves you. If you find yourself having to ask, you confirm that you’re unwanted. If he does actually ask you, you wonder if you guilted him into it. Even if you escape that feeling, you’re still performing a patriarchal ritual where women wait and men act. And that’s all long before you get into the wedding, with all its gendered pressures that put the housework wars to shame. Age starts to weigh in, like if you aren’t married by the “sell-by date” prescribed by society, then you’re somehow less worthy. The whole thing is structured in a way to put men in charge of determining whether or not any woman is valuable by whether or not she gets selected.
Having a husband (if you’re straight) means you’re a wife, and the world treats you like a wife, with all the attendant social pressures and baggage. If your special someone gets labeled alternately “boyfriend” or “partner”, people tiptoe around you, because they don’t what kind of crazy shit you’re up to, with your bohemian ways. I personally like that. People need to be guessing. We are far too complacent about the belief that we’ve got someone figured out just because they’re married. You hear so many stories from married couples trying to form non-traditional roles inside their marriage have other people just mow them down with their assumptions, like, to quote one I heard recently, that husbands automatically don’t know where their wives keep the diapers. At my age, I run into a lot of people who think I’m married and relate to me in that way, but whose tone completely changes when they find out that I’m not. As long as marriage has that special status, I’m wary of it. I don’t want to in the tribe of married people, even though I like many of them and will be the first to say they’re a diverse group. I know many awesome married people who express concerns that can only be described as resentment that their identity as an individual has been subsumed by the institution they entered into, even if the private meaning of getting married—the deepening of intimacy, the commitment—makes them happy.
We like to think we’ve come so far as a society, but we really haven’t in so many ways. Like the tradition of wedding presents. Why is that still around? Most couples who are marrying have lived on their own for years and have set up a household already, and probably together. They don’t need you to buy them dishes. Details like that make me suspicious that all the pressure to get married is about shoving square pegs into the round holes. I think in no small part, that’s why I tend to soften up on the idea of marrying in middle age, because by then you’re past the point where you still have a chance to fit into a role where people get to feel they’ve got you all figured out. That, and they won’t immediately start into the next line of inquiry about when you’re going to have kids.