My grandparents are celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary this summer with a big party of family and long-time friends. I’ll be flying to St. Louis with my fiancé, my sister’s flying in from Austin, and my parents will be visiting from their home in Germany. It’ll be as much a family reunion as a celebration of my grandparents’ long marriage — a testament, really, to the bonds they’ve helped create and nurture over the last six decades. As a gift, one of my aunts wants to make a family tree, which seems like a nice enough idea. But when another family member alerted me that my fiancé won’t be included on the tree because our wedding isn’t until several weeks after my grandparents’ anniversary, it got me thinking: when does a couple become a “family”? In an era when so many couples live together before they marry — or never marry at all — is a marriage license the main indicator that a couple is fully committed? In a time when so many marriages end in divorce, why does legality play such a big role in the structure of a family? My boyfriend and I have been together for over three years and have lived together for over half that time. I’ve been in his life longer than his niece and nephew, and we’ve supported each other through at least a couple fairly serious familial hurdles. Even before we were engaged, he felt like family to me, but especially now that I’m wearing a ring and we’re planning a wedding, it already seems like a “done deal.” If we broke up at this point, I imagine it’d feel as much like a divorce as if we’d signed papers declaring it so.
For the record, I’m not that upset my fiancé won’t be included on the tree. It seems a tad insensitive, sure, but I’ve learned in my family, as I’m sure is the case for most families, that it’s important to pick one’s battles, and this one isn’t really worth fighting. But the truth is, Drew is as much family to me as the people I’ve been related to since I was born. Sure, a license and wedding will make it “official” to everyone who needs it to be official — the government, my family, etc. — but to me, in my heart, we’ve been a family since I packed up my stuff — and my two cats — in Chicago and moved across the country to be with him. To me, the license has everything to do with legal protection and benefits and nothing to do with emotion, while the wedding is a celebration of the bond we’ve already created. But I guess for some people the only bonds that matter are the legal kind.