Hitched: On The Privilege Of Marriage

I wish people would talk more about the actual reasons they get married, when and why they do. The reasons beyond “I’m in love.”

Because of course I’m getting married because I love Patrick. But I’ve loved a few people in my life, and I didn’t want to marry all of them. And the one or two that I did want to marry, I obviously didn’t end up sealing the deal with.

I hope that people say to themselves and their partners, when they are deciding to get married, Why are we doing this now? What will our lives be like after we get married? Are there advantages to this besides new flatware?

But on the outside, all we ever seem to say is, “We’re in love.” Or “She’s the one, I just knew it.” Yes, you’re in love. Yes, your partner is the one. But what about all the other reasons under the sun?

I don’t think it’s at all unromantic to talk about marrying someone, in part, because your biological clock is running out or because you’d like the health insurance or because your partner is a wonderful parent to your kids or because two incomes are better than one or because one or both of you finally finished that big thing — a degree, a project? — that was taking up a bunch of time.

Maybe you get married because this person seems reliable, they seem like they can help you build a household, they don’t have an addiction or a fear of commitment and when you think about the future, you realize that love is acknowledging that of all the people on earth, this person is the one whose colostomy bag you’ll be least grossed out by when you’re old together.

I think it’s honest and practical and refreshing to talk about these things, and it’s a wonderful way to diffuse the many pressures of a Wedding Industrial Complex that glamorizes the “bride and groom” yet ignores the “wife and husband” as some kind of unsexy afterthought.

Because I don’t care who you are: being engaged and getting married does not turn you into a magical princess of romance. It didn’t even turn Kate Middleton into a magical princess of romance and now she is an actual royal person. What it did turn her into was someone who has to go on a lot of family hunting trips on Boxing Day from now on.

Is it so hard to believe that people get married for complex reasons? Does that take away our inability to celebrate marriage? Or does it lend credence to an important and serious life decision that is about much, much more than fancy outfits and ice sculptures?

I’ve been thinking a lot over the past week about why Patrick and I are getting married now, largely because of some intersecting conversations about contraception, class and unwed motherhood. In this New York Times piece, columnists Gail Collins and David Brooks discuss the book Promises I Can Keep, which is about low-income women seeing marriage “not as the beginning of their lives, but as the payoff,” something to be done when”“they had put together enough resources to have a nice wedding,” and, of course, found a “man who was settled and stable enough to be a good husband.”

Which is interesting if you consider the rocket-like rise of the Wedding Industrial Complex over the past 30 years or so, wherein a capital-W Wedding — white dress, tuxedo, open bar, multi-member wedding party, thousands of dollars in fresh flowers or else — is sold to people in relationships as the end-all, be-all goal of life, as the thing that makes your relationship, and therefore your marriage, legitimate.

Of course, the thing that makes a marriage legitimate is the familial, communal, societal and institutional recognition of the union on the first day and every day after that — not the one-time party that kicks it off. But the Wedding Industrial Complex deftly obscures that.

As a middle-class person, I had not thought seriously about my situation and its relationship to marriage and privilege. I have, over the last several months, thought extensively about gender and its relationship to marriage as anyone who’s been reading my Hitched columns can tell. But class? Race? I have not seriously and thoughtfully been considering about how privileged I am in those ways and what that means for one of the most important life decisions I’ll ever make.

I never expected to get married, but I also didn’t not expect it. Many of my friends are married. My parents are married. Many people I know who aren’t married are nevertheless happily partnered in stable, loving relationships. I don’t have any close friends who are single parents, either by choice or circumstance. What does it mean to see marriage as I do — as a viable, reasonable option, neither a requirement, nor a reward? It means I’m a tremendously privileged person and I think I’ve been blind to that for some time.
I was the woman who thought I was mainly getting married because I was in love. But the more thought I put into it, I realize I’m getting married for many, many more reasons. I have the time to help my husband plan our wedding because neither of us have to work overtime to make ends meet. I am not physically exhausted at the end of my workday from being on my feet. I have a car and can drive myself to appointments. I have always had access to reliable contraception, practically and financially, so I don’t have children to care for that take priority over my own needs. No family members rely on me for financial support. I have finished graduate school. I am white. I am heterosexual.

So I’m thinking along two lines here, when I talk about “why” people get married. There are the reasons people get married, the practical ones, that go beyond “love.” And there are also the things that enable them to do so, i.e.  their points of privilege.

That is why think there’s a need to disentangle “marriage” from “wedding,” when we talk about these things. The reality is it doesn’t take much money or time, comparatively, to head down to the courthouse and get married. Common law marriage takes even less work. “Marriage” and “weddings” are not the same thing. That seems obvious, but I often find people mistake one for the other.

So, what if a multi-thousand-dollar wedding wasn’t the norm for people of privilege and something to be aspired to by other folks? Would more people across all classes get married more often? What if more Americans aren’t opting out of or delaying marriage because of contraception or the gays, as Rick Santorum and his conservative ilk seem to believe, but because of a Wedding Industrial Complex that tells us we’re not really married unless we spend thousands of dollars proving it to other people?

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