Today, I read a sad Insider essay by Danielle Campoamor. She titled it “My partner and I have been together for 4 years — here’s why we will never get married.”
I felt awful for Danielle. She’d been raised with two parents, a violently abusive father and a mother who put up with the abuse for twenty years before she divorced him. Not a great way to learn about love.
But now she’s aiming to teach other Millennials about love and marriage, and she’s got it all mixed up.
Her picture of marriage seems to be mostly about weddings. Weddings as white-dress, pricey events to fantasize about through ones teens and twenties. Weddings as gatherings to validate a relationship that needs no validating. Weddings as benchmarks of adulthood. Weddings as a chance for her father to expect to give her away “as if she’s a piece of property.” Weddings as a “signed piece of government paper.”
Four years into her relationship with the father of her three-year-old child, she says, “without marriage we have the freedom to define our relationship on our own terms, free from the social expectations that have attached themselves to even the most well-intentioned nuptials.”
I don’t know anyone who is married who doesn’t have the freedom to define their relationship on their own terms. In fact, I think most married couples spend their first year or two discovering they must define their relationship on their own terms or melt down from the heat of their differing expectations and the demands of their relationships with other family members and their closest friends and the requirements of their careers.
Even by the time I first married, fourteen years before Danielle was born, it was no longer a given that I would take my husband’s family name (I didn’t) or stay home to care for our children (good thing, as I was just months from getting my MIT degree). It wasn’t even a given we’d have children. We were married for four years (as long as Danielle and her guy have been a couple) before we became parents.
She really got me with this one: “We don’t rely on the memory of ‘one perfect day’ or hold a string of promises made in front of family and friends as a reason to prioritize our relationship.”
I should hope not. Wedding days are not about the two of you prioritizing your relationship. You will need to keep doing this over and over. Weddings are about everyone else prioritizing it.
And somehow a lot of people seem to have lost sight of this. Here’s what happens on your wedding day (unless you run off to Vegas and share it only with an Elvis impersonator and his organist):
- Your friends and community get put on notice that your relationship is your priority. You already knew that. But they did not. It can take a very, very long time for friends, especially, to catch on. You still need them. They still need you. And while you were falling in love, you probably ignored them a lot, taking advantage of your relationship. Until they know you’re back because you’re now clear on your priority, who can blame them for hoping it’s because they are your priority again?
- Your family gets a new family member, someone they they should be able to count on as kin and expect them to treat them as kin. Some families do kin better than others, but this is no longer a temporary relationship subject to the whims of your heart or libido. It may end, but they’ll get ample notice, because divorce takes time.
- You become part of another family.
- Your spouse becomes part of your family.
- If you marry with clergy presiding, you acquire whatever benefits and obligations your religion bestows on married people, which probably include the right to have sex and create babies without their approbation.
- You acquire whatever benefits and obligations your state and nation bestow on married people, most of these being financial and legal benefits in exchange for the decreased statistical likelihood that the two of you and your children will draw upon the public coffers or disrupt public order. These include taxing your income at a lower rate if the two of you are working together to earn it and giving you both access to each other’s FICA and pension contributions.
- Your state and nation automatically takes care of some things you might not think about in time, including the one Danielle mentions as one of the hassles of being an unmarried couple: designating someone to handle life-and-death medical decisions for you when you cannot, before it’s too late for you to do this yourself. They also take care of others, like making sure your loving generosity to your partner doesn’t come back to bite you in the butt if your relationship sours and protecting your private conversations with your spouse from any criminal prosecution against you. And some really unexpected ones, like how you’re handled if you run into problems out of the country. At the same time, they place some corresponding obligations on you, like a definition of the minimum fair share dissolution of your financial relationship if you divorce and a joint obligation to pay some debts.
Danielle ends with this: “We choose one another, every day, all on our own.” So do married couples, Danielle. And when the going gets rough (which quite often happens well past those first four years), they have a social institution to help them keep making this choice, not because it locks them into anything but because this institution influences the behavior of other people and other institutions.
There’s nothing irrelevant or outdated about that.