What’s in a marriage?
An institution so outdated, I am constantly surprised whenever I hear word of two people getting engaged. Yet, they do. Continuously, and seemingly only more so during the pandemic as wedding plans are postponed, creating a backlog of aisle-walkers-to-be. On the first day of my Intro to Sociology course, my professor Cory (it was a sociology class) handed out a multipage article detailing the high cost and level of manipulation in the wedding industry that then delved into the socioeconomic origins of marriage and ended with the conclusion that marriage was equivalent to being stuck in quicksand.
I grew up in Quebec, where divorce is just as common as marriage. Every time I clap my hands, a marriage is formed just as one dissolves like there is a finite number of them allowed within the province. My own life has been demarcated by my father’s relationships, which have reached their expiration date after a decade, at which point he has already lined up a new relationship to take the old one’s place.
But I also grew up a romantic. I had my first crush on a boy in kindergarten. My mom taught French to the older kids at the elementary school, and I was allowed to join the class. Cameron was a year older, and I told him I loved him all the time. It didn’t last. We moved provinces. I met Daniel, then Tyler, then Sam, then Daniel, then Dylan, then Matt, then Daniel again. I was a promiscuous child.
Maybe it was cultural influence that dictated that my life’s aspiration should be Romantic Object. But it didn’t feel that way. I wasn’t into these boys because I expected them to make me feel good about myself, or because I saw purpose in being their girlfriend, however that panned out at age 10. I was fascinated with love and relationships. I was fascinated with how two people grew to understand each other in such an intimate and appreciative way. I fawned not over the ring that the male protagonist inevitably offered up to his woman at the end of whatever romantic comedy — in fact, most male ideals didn’t live up to my personal ideal — but the connection, if it was there.
When I watched 10 Things I Hate About You for the first time at age 12 (and then again for two weeks straight), I found Heath Ledger impossibly charming and his smile heart-melting. But what gave him unparalleled appeal was that he simply wanted to know things about Kat — and remember them! — in exchange for money at first, no doubt, but then he began noticing things for himself as he fell in love with her.
I didn’t care about marriage. I didn’t even think about it. I saw plenty of married couples around me, none of them remotely aspirational. To me, marriage and love became very distinct from one another. And my time at school, immersed in feminist and sociological literature, emphasizing the fact that marriage gave financial and administrative benefits not emotional ones, had only convinced me that everyone else felt the same way. Today, I am 24-adjacent, and I know that’s not true.
Marriage is a legitimizer. And it might always be.
Marriage is a firm commitment. A legal contract, the most binding agreement in our capitalistic society. If anything, our millennial leaning towards progression has only solidified that idea in our minds. It’s widened the berth between standard relationship and marriage. You don’t fall into a marriage. You actively choose it.
I’m always curious to know the reasons behind couples’ matrimony. Sometimes it’s tradition. Others do it to blend their families together, in the age when blended families are the norm anyway.
A few months ago, my boyfriend’s brother proposed to his girlfriend of three or so years. Not completely unsurprising, considering she had told me the previous week that they were definitely going to spend the rest of their lives together. Marriage was clearly their plan all along, a conversation they had likely broached early on to affirm that they would not be wasting their time.
Flowers were sent. Alcohol was poured. Zoom and FaceTime calls were made. My boyfriend and his family eagerly welcomed her as one of them, cheering on the decision because they saw it affecting not just him but them as well.
Now, before I continue, let me make it abundantly clear that I am not jealous. I don’t want to get married. I can buy my own alcohol, and videoconferencing apps give me anxiety.
But, in my best Carrie Bradshaw voice, I couldn’t help but think that should my own partner and I stay together I would never experience any of that.
The decision to commit would probably form gradually, over years and a growing sense of comfort in the relationship. There would be no moment, no celebratory this is it, no feeling of permanence. There would be no welcoming me into the family because families are formed through blood and law, even today with terms like found family growing in popularity but really only among those who… had to find a family. I would just continue to show up as an appendage to, the girlfriend of so-and-so. I wouldn’t get to call people by the “in-law” designation — a strange term, granted, but one that also gives you a mother, a father, and perhaps a sibling to speak of. My boyfriend will likely take his place next to his brother at the altar, their sister poised at the other end facing them. I have already been assigned to floral arranging the day-of, while they are busy with grooming and pre-drinking.
Please don’t take my statement for bitterness; I completely understand why these roles are designated as they are, and I am an especially eager helper in situations where I know nobody, but a nametag also doesn’t go well with an evening dress, and you need one when everyone knows you as Plus One.
When talk of the future comes, it’s very different when you have an assumed place within it versus someone pencilling you in, just in case you need to be erased from it at some point.
There would never be a grand declaration of love (my personal favourite part of a wedding — and despite everything, I am indeed a sucker for a good wedding). No public description of that fundamentally indescribable bond. No swearing support and kindness. It would just be assumed that you would do these things anyway. But there is something in a name.
At some point, I guess a boyfriend and girlfriend become lumped together as a unit. In the same way that Alice trips and falls down the rabbit hole. Accidental and haphazard. But if we were to weigh a relationship against marriage, that wedding band would tip the scales.
And it’s not about the formalities, for me, but the intent. This is the person you choose, the one you want to show up for. And while talk of forever is cheap, setting a goal is sometimes enough for you to reach it.
Comedian John Mulaney has this great joke about the rhetoric of relationships with which he opens his special New in Town:
“It’s been a while since I’ve been home to Chicago. I got married since then. Thank you. I married my wife. I love saying “my wife.” It sounds so adult. “That’s my wife.” It’s great, you sound like a person. I said it even before we were married. We were just dating, and we were once getting on an airplane, and Anna’s ticket didn’t say anything and my ticket said “priority access.” It doesn’t matter why. But we were getting on and I said, “Uh, can my wife board with me?” And they were like, “Yes, of course. Right this way.” And I was like, “Oh, that is so much better than all those times I was like, ‘Can my girlfriend come?’” And, yeah, I shouldn’t have said it that way, but still. “My wife” just has some kick-ass to it, you know? “Get away from my wife! No one talk to my wife!” Marriage is gonna be very magical. “I didn’t kill my wife!” That’s like, “Ooh, who’s that fella? I bet he did kill his wife.” Being married is so nice.”
The Quebecois ‘blonde’ is also so much worse, at the very least because I am a brunette and at the very most because it characterizes an entire relationship with a vague physical quality.
I know that ultimately there is no guarantee that a marriage will endure longer than a relationship. I have seen my fair share of miserable marriages. And many more miserable divorces. And I know that it shouldn’t matter what others perceive in your relationship if it feels like a serious commitment to you.
But I am also a word person, constantly thinking about their meanings and how simple vocabulary changes dramatically affect what we communicate to each other. And I know that no matter what happens, my relationship with whoever (plans are sketches in this context, remember) will always communicate less solidity if it’s surrounded by marriages.