I know. Ridiculous, right? Especially since I’m not a child of divorce. I didn’t grow up rife with daddy issues or commitment phobias. In fact, I had an exceptional marital example to emulate. My parents just celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary and they still, to this day, hold hands walking together and share a soda with two straws. It’s sickeningly solid, really.
But after reading a recent New York Times article called “Missing the Boat – A Case for Marriage,” where the author argues that she doesn’t really believe in “happily ever after” but does think there’s something to be said for the necessity of marriage, I couldn’t stop thinking about the topic.
She said marriage was necessary because having that contract made it harder for someone to walk away, and I couldn’t help but wince at that rationale. Incidentally, I think a lot of married people would wince, too. So, when I was finished ruminating on it, I arrived at the following conclusion: Sorry, Jessica Bennett, but you’ve got it all wrong.
In fairness, let me emphasize that not only was the article outstanding, but she was also unflinchingly honest – a move I respect from anyone, regardless of whether or not our ideologies align. In it, Bennett tells the story of how she turned down her boyfriend’s proposal at the age of 24 (ouch – but good for her for recognizing that she wasn’t ready), and how they somehow managed to stay together for several years afterward. Despite her publicly professing how marriage was an obsolete, broken institution. Despite her believing that it wasn’t required to have a happily ever after with someone. Despite the fact that he was devastated.
You could ride off into the sunset without the piece of paper, she swore, no one was stopping your horse to ask for documentation. It would all work out just fine in the end. She even published an anti-marriage diatribe, she was that convinced.
So it was strange that somewhere along the way, this formerly marriage-shunning female changed her mind that she did want the romance, the wedding, the big profession of love in front friends and family. Only it was too late, he never recovered from her rejection, and he left her in the end.
Sometimes we hurt people so badly that when the wound heals, they can’t allow themselves to go back there again. No matter how much we want them to, or how badly they might, too. Resentment runs deep, and if you’ve ever caused that kind of pain to someone, you know what I’m talking about. And you also know that the guilt you carry as a result of it runs even deeper.
But back to the article…Bennett’s view on marriage had somehow pivoted 180 degrees, from “it’s unnecessary” to “there’s something to be said for it” over time, which is what drove her to write the present day argument. If I’m forced to choose between the two? My opinion might not sit so well with some of you I’m afraid.
I believe her previous mindset – that you could live happily with someone for life without the marriage police hunting you down – was spot on. But this is a realization I arrived at later in life. After I’d opted off the nuptial train (or at least one that was headed down that track). After I’d seen how much harder it was than I’d anticipated to get “there” – wherever “there” was – to be in the proper mindset for marriage. After I knew in my heart that allowing someone to think that you’re ready when you’re not would’ve been much crueler and messier in the end.
If timing is working against you, however, there’s nothing more brutal than realizing you’re leaving someone you love standing at the station as you pull away. And knowing they probably won’t still be there when you return. Such is life, I suppose, but it doesn’t make it suck any less.
Which is why I believe too many people allow the momentum of their circumstances to keep them in a situation that they know isn’t right. It’s (part of the reason) why half of all marriages fail, because people don’t listen to their gut.
Dating people who’re divorced is no longer such a daunting prospect as it was when we were younger, either. Now it’s a side note in someone’s characteristics list. Like being left-handed. Or a Mets fan (*Miss Wingman note: I’d rather date someone divorced with 10 kids than someone who loves the Mets, if we’re being honest).
To that end, I can literally line up all of my married friends and speculate which couples among them will stand the test of time, and who I just bought a very expensive gift for their first wedding. And I bet for the most part I’d guess correctly. Sadly, there will be more hatch marks in the latter category to come, I doubt we’ve seen the last of it (especially with all of you people cheating these days, cut that s**t out already, for real).
Which is why I say that you can have just as healthy and functional a long-term relationship with a non-spouse as you can with someone to whom you’re legally married. The piece of paper is all well and good, but I prefer that the person I end up with sticks around because he considers me the love of his life, not out of contractual obligation.
Sure, having that contract makes it harder to walk away from someone, but shouldn’t your commitment to him or her – regardless of the formality – be what makes it so hard instead? Be there because you want to, not because your vow requires it, at least that’s what I believe. And if the person still breaks their promise and decides to walk away, then maybe it wasn’t so right in the first place.
That said, I’m from a family of hardcore Catholics, so this was not an easy mentality to settle upon. I believe that marriage is a big deal because it’s a sacrament (a what? apologies for the faith specifics), thus should never be taken lightly. If you do it, you do it once and you do it right – and you fight like hell to keep working at it every day.
But not a lot of my peers seem to feel this way anymore, so I’m not sure which is outdated, my view or the institution itself. I only know that the follow through that needs to be there is waning, and that’s a damn shame.
Also, we shouldn’t be so afraid to take each other at our word. The prospect of saying to one another, “I love you. Do you love me? Good. Are you going anywhere? Good, me neither. Now sit tight,” shouldn’t incite a panic. If you really love someone, marriage can wait. We’re lucky to find our person at all, so focus on that in the meantime.
If you do choose marriage, that’s your right (well, if you’re heterosexual or live in one of the more liberal states, but don’t even get me started on how bullsh*t marriage inequality is…). If that’s what makes you happy, then you should absolutely do it. Just please don’t even consider walking down that aisle unless you’re certain that you’re ready to be a wife, not just a bride. To be a husband every day of your life, not just to placate her and then expect marriage not to be hard work.
And if you don’t see a difference between the two, then maybe that’s your answer.
In the end it all comes down to this: a ring on your finger shouldn’t give you any more validation or reassurance than not having one would. The unknown is the unknown, none of us can anticipate what life has in store. That’s just not something for which you can control. But even though it’s OK to have doubts about what life will throw at you, I’ll be damned if I’m going to have any doubts about the person I’m standing next to on the day when I say those vows. Or don’t say them, however it ends up shaking out.
Happily ever after may be an abstract, naive expectation, but being truly happy and committed isn’t. I’m beginning to sound like a broken record I fear, but if you follow your own timeline and don’t ignore your instincts, you’ll be fine. Whether you say “I do” or just “I don’t.”