Some years ago, back in Brooklyn, Mike and I were having supper at Andy and Jesse's, and as we sipped our coffees, Jesse posed to us the question of what we thought the difference was between marriage and a committed relationship. I said that I thought the difference was that by getting married publically, you call on the community to bind your relationship. Jesse said, "Well, maybe. But I'm not sure I think so highly of the community." I thought to myself, though did not say for some reason, "Well I'm not sure I think so highly of marriage." As many of you know, I was for many years determined never to get married--listen to that, I always use the passive tense. I really never thought of it as determining to marry, it always seemed like something that could happen to you if you weren't careful, kind of like getting the clap. Since I have a blog now, I might as well use it to explain my abrupt about-face.
I'm more grateful to my parents than I will ever articulate for the way they raised me and for the guidance and friendship they continue to offer me (some parents more strenuously than others). It can't help but sound thankless, but I didn't want a marriage like my parents' for myself. It always seemed to me that as much as they liked and loved each other, their daily experience of each other involved more snapping, bickering and other forms of hurt than kindness. I am absolutely unable to put up with snapping and bickering in my own home; it reduces me to tears. Indeed I'm ashamed at how much I snap and bicker with my parents, who surely deserve better treatment from me, but old habits die hard.
Anyway, I was and remain convinced that my parents' marriage was in the 99th percentile of marriages, and that led me to conclude that marriage was not for me. My mother and her friends used to tell me, "I never used to fight when I was your age, and I never would have believed I could be like this. Just wait." Some attributed the change to having children, others to a natural progress. Everywhere I looked I saw men and women making each other miserable because they couldn't get away. I could number the marriages I would ever willingly endure on one hand, and some of those were actually longstanding non-marital arrangements. In any case I thought, if all of those people couldn't stop themselves from turning into banshees and ogres, I was no stronger than they. Besides, shouldn't you be with someone because you choose it, not because you're required to?
When Michael and I officially began dating, marriage was certainly not the outcome I was expecting. I dimly surmised that if we made it through the first month or so we'd probably have to make it through all of college if only to avoid breaking up our social circle. But I didn't really think we would make it through that first month; we'd barely spoken for months before. I kept putting off consummating the relationship (sorry, parent readers) because I didn't want to do it until we'd had our first fight. But our first fight never came. We didn't have anything like a fight for almost a year. And it wasn't that we weren't talking about the tough stuff, either, we just always managed to talk about it without getting angry. What the hell was going on?
It definitely wasn't me. I fight with the people I love all the time. I fight with my friends, my family (interestingly, the only person I never fight with is my brother; our last fight was the summer of 1994), and sometimes perfect strangers. I've made a specialty out of excruciating emotional drag-outs with people who for various reasons did not end up my lovers. I still do; I like it. In fact, I'm a giant, high-maintenance, perfection-demanding, claustrophobic drama queen and utterly impossible to live with. There was only one other explanation.
I looked into this question, and Michael doesn't fight with anyone. He claims to be a miserable bastard in his professional life, and rude to strangers, but I see no evidence of it. His coworkers typically develop hero worship and start coming over for dinner so they can live vicariously through him. He never fights with his parents, and I can't really give them the credit for it because they do fight with his sister sometimes. Michael rarely fights with his friends, and when he does the friend typically ends up apologizing. He's still friends with a guy who broke into his parents' house ten years ago.
So this is the answer: I knew Michael and I were great friends, but I discovered that with him as my partner I could be better at being someone's family than I'd ever imagined. We shared the same values of loyalty, clarity and amnesty, and we had very similar notions of how to reconcile love with independence. There was peace in our home, and I realized I didn't care any more that the community might be binding me to my choice, because I knew in the deepest sense I had chosen it myself. There were so many people fighting for the right to marry in the US and being denied; who was I to turn my nose up at it? I was tired of being introduced as Mike's friend, and if I wound up in a vegetative state, I wanted him to be the one to decide what to do with my feeding tube. It might be stupid that those were the rules, but it still made me feel better.
It has come to my attention that a multitude of married and committedly relationshipped Americans are out there cheating on their spouses and partners as we speak, and that others are trying to. I cannot figure out why this depresses me so much, given my low opinion of marriage, but it really does. No one has
to get married, so why bother if you don't mean it? You can make up your own rules, thank heaven, so why take vows to obey rules you don't agree with? It's not worth the tax savings, trust me, and divorce is hella expensive. Why do so many people conceive of monogamy as meaning "forsaking all others unless I meet someone I'm really really attracted to and feel a connection with"? Do they really not see that coming? And so much of the time, that community bind keeps people from understanding that they would be stronger apart. But of course, that's another box for another brand of soap
My marriage isn't perfect, of course, and no amount of effort to unlearn my worst emotional habits will ever make me exactly the spouse I want to be, but I really think Michael and I have something hopeful, and worthy of work and sacrifice. I think I'm good at marriage because I understand its limitations. The fact that so many people out there don't know how to make peace with the partners they've chosen, or that they choose people with whom they cannot make peace, makes me very sad. It's not the same scale of problem as, say, having to pay for health care, but I hope someone's working on it.