“Do you think marriage feels any different?” I was recently asked this question by a newly married friend. She assured me that, for her, marriage was the same as pre-marital cohabitation, and I nodded my head in agreement: “Sure,” I said. “Marriage isn’t all that different.” But I wasn’t telling the truth. For me, marriage feels very different, but in a way that’s hard to define in polite conversation.
I was raised by a single mother for the first ten years of my life. My mom did it all, and she did it well: she was playmate, teacher, protector and cheerleader all rolled into one. Marriage didn’t factor into my experience: the concept was uncomfortable, irrelevant at best. I didn’t dream of white dresses and Ken Doll husbands. Instead, I read books like “Nancy Drew, Girl Detective.” That seemed like the life for me: grow up, date boys, solve mysteries. Love was relegated to the periphery while brain power and adventure were slotted front and center.
As I grew older, I spouted off pragmatic sentiments like: “Isn’t it more meaningful to show up and choose to be with your partner every day than to sign a piece of paper that obligates you to do so?” I was still too naive to know that some days you wouldn’t want to show up at all…
When your concept of marriage has always been framed by divorce, the promise implicit in the institution seems like no promise at all.
And so, my aversion to marriage boiled down to this: I was terrified of committing to someone who I was dead certain would eventually leave me. I was willing to move to another country to date and live with my boyfriend. I was willing to sign a paper that made us Common Law Partners. But I was petrified of putting on a white dress and standing up in front of a bunch of people in order to say, “I do. Forever.” Because how do you erase the memory of something so hopeful gone wrong? There’s an old photo of my mom and dad standing over my stroller in a California park. I’m wearing a lacy white bonnet. My dad is handsome and young and my mom is looking down at me, watching me in that new mom way. I once used the photo for a school project– my teacher commented on how sad and hopeful the photo was, a snapshot of a union that would dissolve within the year.
But that picture doesn’t tell the whole story. And neither have I. My mom, who played all of those roles for so many years, eventually remarried. So did my dad. One failed union wasn’t enough to put them off of marriage entirely. I learned a lot about love by watching them try again. I saw my mom’s eyes light up. My dad stopped drinking. This love thing seemed pretty powerful. And now that I’m all grown up, I see that there were differences the second time around: my parents were older, they knew themselves better, they chose compatible partners, and they went in baring their flaws. When you’ve been hurt, you are more careful, and maybe more honest, the second time around. I kept these things in mind while searching for my own partner.
Needless to say, with Grant, the question of marriage was never “popped,” but discussed, debated, kneaded, baked and, finally, after a lot of wine, consumed. Marriage has had a powerful and sobering effect on me. Commitment is complicated and messy and for every blissful moment there are an equal amount of bland and uneventful ones. But there is something innately wondrous about the ongoing narration of a lifelong love story. The frustrations that are part and parcel of marriage don’t just teach me how to be a better wife, they teach me how to be a better and more compassionate human being. Rather than giving up whenever things get tough (which used to be my natural inclination), I take a deep breath, step back and find a new way to solve the puzzle. I say sorry even though I may not really mean it: I’ve found that kind words have an uncanny way of becoming true the moment they pass your lips.
Of course, wearing a white dress and signing a piece of paper aren’t necessary steps to devotion. Commitment is an internal compass—some people stay true without the official title, while others marry and stray.
For me, marriage is an emphasis shift. Where once I vacillated, I now stand resolutely vulnerable. I’ve chosen to share my story, my life, with one person. I trust him to do his very best to never leave me. And (perhaps this scares me most of all), I promise him that I’ll do the same. The truth is, marriage is just what I always thought love should be: showing up every day, for better or worse.
It turns out, I’m the marrying kind after all.
How do you feel about marriage? I’d love to hear your thoughts on why you decided to marry (or not) and what you’ve learned in the process.