W is 52 and has been married almost 9 years.
Why did you decide to get married?
For years I didn’t believe in marriage (see third question), although I very much believed in monogamous, live-in relationships. I thought the commitment is either there or it isn’t, and who needs an old fashioned institution telling us how to live? I also felt it vital as a woman to maintain my autonomy (and also felt strongly that my partner should retain his autonomy).
Then, when I was 28, my live-in boyfriend, to whom I considered myself common-law married, walked out. There was no struggle period, no divorce process, and no closure. He just left clean and clear and I felt absolutely bereft. I realized that formal commitments meant something! And that the fact that neither of us had wanted to get married was a sign not of liberation but of ambivalence.
So I decided I believed in marriage after all, as long as it wasn’t super conventional. And as time wore on and I remained a “starving writer,” it became clearer to me that there were tremendous economic and other practical advantages to it. I really wanted to form some kind of family unit with someone, with or without children; it was hard to conceive of growing old alone, much less wondering how to afford health insurance.
I didn’t meet my now-spouse until I was 39 1/2, at which point I had become one of those pathetic, desperate lovelorn women you see in the movies. Despite my feminism, I felt incomplete. There, I said it. Really embarrassing. But, as I explained to a friend who couldn’t understand espousing feminist independence and yearning to get married at the same time, it’s not like I thought I was nobody without a man. It was that who I am as an individual is someone who needs intimacy and partnership…without having intimacy and partnership, an important part of who “I” am wasn’t being expressed.
Anyway, long story longer, I eventually met L (recently divorced) and we moved in together after a year of dating. After another year of cohabitation I was ready to marry, but he wasn’t. Finally we both were, and it felt incredibly natural and second-nature. We signed a Quaker license in front of two witnesses, then went out to dinner…no ring, no honeymoon. Later we did a write-your-own-vows hippie ceremony with family and friends in the country followed by a barbecue. Many told me it was the best wedding they’d ever been to….which I tend to agree it was. It was marriage, our way, not tradition’s way, and fun.
What did you think marriage would be like?
By the time getting married was becoming a reality for me, I thought it would be like living together, only with more security psychologically and materially. I actually didn’t have a picture in my mind, and still don’t! I just wanted to share my life and be mutually committed with L, and to create a life that would be unpredictable in the best sense of the word — except that we could always count on each other’s mutual support.
This is what I always wanted, but didn’t think marriage could be. For years I thought marriage was where women checked their identities and dreams at the door and put husband and children first.
Where do you think you got your ideas/concept/narrative about marriage?
Pop culture (esp. TV shows), my parents’ and friends’ parents’ marriages and, in young adulthood, my friends’ marriages. And I did not like what I saw; it seemed oppressive and sexist to me, far from a fairy tale. Understand that, despite that my own parents have now been married over 50 years, they often acted as if they hated each other’s guts, and I suspected they were “staying together for the children.” Our family and my parents’ friends had had many divorces, so marriage and family per se were never something I aspired to because it was clear to me they didn’t bring happiness. In fact, for some time I actively avoided and spoke out against the institution of marriage.
Mind you, I believed in love and soul mates and long-term commitment and had all sorts of overly romantic fantasies of what love was, and somehow believed that my Soulmate Prince would find me and we’d live happily ever after. (I guess popular culture infiltrated my bones, despite my conscious beliefs to the contrary.) I just didn’t believe in “the piece of paper” part of it, much less being sanctified by a church, even less in the traditional roles and routines of marriage-babies-move to the suburbs etc.
How do you feel about the word “wife”?
For a long time it had retro connotations to me, sort of Donna Reed-ish or slavish. But now that lesbians can marry in some states and call each other “wife,” and now that I know you can be married and not totally lose yourself, it seems fairly neutral and generic to me.
Why did you make the decision you made about your name?
When I was nine years old (1968) I declared that I would never change my name. Even before I knew the word ‘sexist,’ the idea that you gave up your name (ergo previous identity) for your husband’s seemed weird and unfair to me. On top of that, my father had no sons and no brothers, so I knew there would be no one from our line if I didn’t keep it. So when it finally came time to get married, it was a given that I would keep my name. (I was willing to hyphenate, but only if we both did it.) My only concern was that people might give us grief, or I might get questioned at the hospital or something. But it hasn’t been as issue and I love when my now-husband introduces me by my first and last names, with pride.
Do you think your relationship with your partner has changed since you got married?
Yes, and for the better, but it took work and maturity. Somehow, despite my feminist beliefs, I let myself be dominated by and/or cared for by him in a sometimes unhealthy and conventional manner, and would do anything to avoid conflict — which of course isn’t healthy. At one point, he said, “In ten years you’ve never really gotten angry with me,” to which I replied, “Yes I have, but didn’t show it.” Once we mutually realized the imbalance, we worked on creating the emotional openness and reciprocity we both believe in but weren’t really living. Now, was it being married that spurred that change? Would we have realized and addressed that if we’d just been living together or just dating? I don’t know, but the fact that we were committed for the long haul and our lives entwined certainly motivated us, if we wanted to make it.
What have you learned about yourself since you’ve been married?
See above! But that was more about us as a unit; as far as self-insight, I don’t really feel I’ve learned anything I didn’t already know. Let’s say my pre-existing understanding of myself (both virtues and faults) has been validated.
I have to say that some of my fears of marriage — that my identity and freedom and dreams would be quashed — are realistic. I find you both have to actively fight for the “me” inside the “we” and always ask yourself “am I compromising, or being compromised?” Every day I thank my lucky stars I’m married and that I found L, and every day I wish I were still single and free. It never stops being a mixed bag; I wish people understood that going into it. It’s not a fairy tale, and it’s not this horrible drag, it’s just two people trying to make a life together and forever a work in progress.