Apologies for being off my game re: posting this week. In addition to having recently moved, I’m also planning on experimenting with the timing of the Marriage Project posts, Any feedback you have on that would be welcome.
Additionally, there is even more good stuff coming up with the project. Get excited, and spread the word!
On with the show.
R lives in Boston.
Why did you decide to get married?
I got married a little more than decade ago at the age of 34. Like many people in my generation, I moved in with my partner before marriage. I wanted to get married because I wanted to perform a public speech act demonstrating that my relationship with my partner was committed. I also wanted to have children and I didn’t think I should do that with someone who wasn’t willing to dress up and dance around like an idiot to show he cared about me. When you have a child with someone, you’re stuck with him for most of your life. If he can’t deal with a little wedding theater in the service of building a family unit, he’s probably not going to be all that great about showing up for the Little League, bar mitzvah, and so on.
There were still people my age ten years ago who argued that marriage was a meaningless piece of paper, a mere social convention and so on and so forth. You know what else is really a meaningless piece of paper and a social convention? A dollar bill. Think I ought to refuse to acknowledge the validity of those, too?
Another way to ask this question is, if you assume, as I do, that marriage is a basic contract for people forming families, why did you decide, when you were ready to choose your own household, to form an exclusive sexual partnership with a man? That’s a much bigger question.
I suppose the best answer is, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” Another really flippant answer is it was a way to ensure an appreciative audience for my jokes. I think anyone who knew us would say, we were pretty crazy about each other, but that’s not a good reason. You can love someone and be in love with him and smooch him and so on, and not get married. (Or not get—shacked up and committed and everything but!)
Perhaps, if I’m honest with myself, I can admit I decided to marry him because he was cute and played hard to get.
My partner dragged his feet on all aspects of our relationship, from deciding whether he wanted to date me, to moving in together, to getting engaged. His reluctance to commit to me confirmed that I needed to be a hard-ass about formal marriage. Whenever he said anything about not wanting to be bound by social convention, I thought he was bullshitting me. I still think so!
I was ready to break up with my partner because he was not ready to make a decision, when I had a major injury and was hospitalized. He stuck with me and I could see he was committed to me. We both moved a little on our positions—I decided I could stay with him even if he didn’t want to get married, and he decided he wanted to get married. In the end he proposed and we had a huge wedding with dancing. It was all very sweet and romantic.
What did you think marriage would be like?
I’m not sure what I thought it would be like. Probably I thought it would be more like our pre-marital years together than it has been. Our division of household responsibilities and our relationship in general has become less egalitarian over time.
My partner had strong feminist beliefs about how egalitarian our marriage ceremony and contract should be. We spent a lot of our wedding-planning time on what our ceremony meant and what kind of partnership we intended to enter. These did not translate into doing an equal share of household maintenance activities or communicating about money or any of the other things I thought made people partners in marriage.
Where do you think you got your ideas/concept/narrative about marriage?
A combination of observing my parents and other married couples and my husband’s Free to Be You and Me-inspired fantasy marriage narrative. I always thought, growing up, that my parents’ marriage wasn’t very egalitarian or mutually supportive, but in many ways my parents had a more equal and companionate marriage than I do.
I do remember discussing our parents’ marriages with my best friend in high school. We saw our parents mainly socializing with other couples, and therefore not having close friends in whom to confide individually. We thought depending on one person that heavily was a doomed effort, bound to be frustrating. I still think that’s true. There’s always a tension between wanting to have intimacy and being too dependent on one person.
What are your feelings on the word “wife”?
When we first got married, we used to joke about it, saying it with a lot of relish. Saying “my wife!” or “your wife!” still sounds funny to me. It’s like saying “my WOMAN!” We have the same unequal names for husband and wife in English that they do in Hebrew. In Hebrew, a husband is a ba’al, a master of a household, and in English, it’s the same, while the woman is
just—a woman. Now that we have same-sex marriage where I live, the word “wife” seems less fraught and I am feel little more neutral about it.
It would be nice if people slipped up and instead of introducing their partners as “my husband” or “my wife,” said, “this is my good friend.” That’s what you hope—that your spouse will be such a good friend that you decide to hang out with them for years and years, including them in all the important things that happen to you.
Why did you make the decision you made about your name?
I had already published work under my name and I didn’t want to change it. I was willing to hyphenate, but my partner was not. I didn’t think there was anything particularly egalitarian about me changing my name to Smith-Smythe if he was just going to be Smythe. Our child is Smith-Smythe. (Except, neither of us has such a short, easily spelled last name, so our child is actually blessed with a really long hyphenated last name. I hope this will build character.)
Do you think your relationship with your partner has changed since you got married?
Yes, but some of that is because we’re more than ten years older than we were. If we had stayed together without getting married and having a child, we’d probably also have a different relationship than we do today.
What have you learned about yourself since you’ve been married?
Having feminist ideals is not enough to protect me from internalizing every stupid sexist idea about marriage, ever. I am the worst kind of wimp—the kind who knows better and complains. I’m kind of annoyed that I mainly seem to have been socialized to the bad parts of femininity—the parts where you feel like the man gets to make a lot of decisions—and not the good parts.
What are the good parts of femininity, my feminist friends? The good parts are all the negotiating skills, the organization for multi-tasking, the feeling of being capable, that characterized my grandmother’s generation. Yes, she had to wear stockings every day and think her husband was smarter, but in return
she got all these super-powers.
In terms of gender roles, I feel like all I get out of being married is the sexist kryptonite.
Of course, I’ve also learned, at least gradually, what my needs are and how to negotiate for them. That’s a big benefit of being in a long-term, house-sharing relationship with someone other than your parents.