J lives in New York City.
Why did you decide to get married?
You’d think this would be a no-brainer for me. My partner is the finest man alive. I’m deeply in love with him. I made a commitment to him many, many years ago, and we’ve built a beautiful life together. He’s wanted to get married for almost a decade. So why did it take me fourteen years to reconcile myself to marrying him?
Me, I never wanted to get married. I was the girl who announced to her entire extended family, at sixteen, that she’d never do it. When I was young, marriage seemed like one extended chore. As I grew older, I gained a historical and political awareness of what marriage really meant. Yes, I’m a remarkably monogamous person. I’ve never been interested in dating around, and I really enjoy being part of a couple. But marriage? No way.
When my partner first started talking marriage, it created a huge conflict for me. I love him, and even at the time, I knew I wanted to spend my life with him! But I couldn’t reconcile myself to the idea of being his wife. I said, “You are asking me to do something I have a big problem with. I understand why you want to do this, but I won’t just marry you because it’s what you want. I value the integrity of our relationship. I won’t make any commitments to you unless I can make them whole-heartedly.”
This kicked off a conversation that continued for many years. We talked about the problematic history of marriage, and the wedding-industrial complex, and caring work, and gender roles, and institutional benefits, and the struggles of our LGBT friends for equal treatment. We agreed that our society’s take on marriage raises some serious ethical concerns, and that participating in the institution reinforces its power. He thought we could nonetheless reclaim it. I didn’t.
So what changed? It was a long process and it’s a longer story, but the short answer is family. After a series of family deaths and illnesses, I realized that getting married wasn’t just about the two of us. It was about our family and community, who were deeply tied to our lives. At around the same time we started talking about kids, and the legal implications of marriage started to overshadow my moral qualms.
I’m at peace with my decision to get married. My relationship with my partner hasn’t suffered, and we now have the double protection of legal and social recognition for it. And we’ve come to agree that while we can’t reclaim what marriage is to the world, maybe we can reclaim it in our own community.
What did you think marriage would be like?
I thought marriage would be the end of my life as a fully adult, autonomous human being.
Where do you think you got your ideas/concept/narrative about marriage?
First and foremost, my parents. They had a magnificent marriage of thirty-five years, which ended only when my father died. They truly enjoyed and appreciated each other, they had a remarkably effective partnership, and they shared the same values. In many ways, I’ve modeled my own relationship on theirs, from appreciating the little things, to valuing my partner for who he is, to putting family first. However, they also had quite rigid and conventional gender roles. My father worked long hours, leaving my mother to manage the house and raise the children more or less on her own. I knew that kind of life was not for me – and to me that’s what marriage looked like.
My religious community only reinforced this idea. I grew up in a religious Jewish community where women were explicitly treated as second-class citizens – at prayers, in the classroom, and beyond. A woman’s role in life, I was taught, was to get married, raise children, and “keep a Jewish home.” Anything else she did was ultimately secondary. We were expected to go to college, for example, and even to a good one – but any school without enough marriageable Jewish men got an automatic veto. Even that was too liberal for some of the guys I met. I vividly remember the day I was told that girls from my school were considered “undateable” because we were encouraged to have academic and professional aspirations.
I remember reading The Feminine Mystique as a teenager and saying to myself, “Yes, my god, there is a problem here that has no name.” So I went about trying to name it. That took me a long time.
How do you feel about the word “wife”?
I hate it, hate it, hate it. To me it says that I exist as an adjunct to a man’s life – that my job is to be a helpmate, not a human being. A wife doesn’t get to take center stage. She’s too busy taking care of her husband’s needs to pay any attention to her own.
The idea of being a “wife” is a major reason why I resisted getting married for so long. I had no problem with making a lifelong commitment to my partner, but marriage meant becoming something I hated. It meant participating in this enormously problematic institution with a long history of gendered oppression, not to mention moving from a starring to a supporting role in my own life. There was no way that was going to happen.
When we decided to get married, we agreed we wouldn’t use the word “wife.” In retrospect, that was pretty unrealistic. I get described as a “wife” all the time by other people, so I had to learn to come to terms with it. Plus, I sometimes call my partner my “husband,” which carries “wife” within it! Our solution was to use “wife” to describe a set of caretaking behaviors instead of a social identity. When I curl up on the couch with a book while he makes dinner, I tell him he’s being a fantastic wife. When I pay the bills, he says the same to me.
The best book I’ve ever read on this topic, by the way, is Maushart’s Wifework. It exposes just how much better marriage is for men than for women, and illuminates the invisible work (physical, emotional, sexual) that wives are expected to do. The book helped us understand that we do want a wife in our marriage – we just don’t want it to be me. We want to share wifework between us, so that we both get nurtured and cared for when we need it. It’s also an ethical stance: neither of us wants to benefit from this relationship at the expense of the other. The book helped us identify some areas where we weren’t living up to our relationship goals, and we’ve already made changes to our lives because of it. We have a fabulous partnership, despite the fact that we’re married.
Why did you make the decision you made about your name?
We never even considered that I might change my name. The only question was whether my partner would change his! He liked the idea because he was sentimentally attached to the idea of us sharing a name as a family unit, and I was okay with it because it challenged social norms around name-changing. He eventually decided against, but that’s more than fine with me. We’ve been together so long I think of him as [HisFirstName] [HisLastName], and it would be weird to call him something different.
The real decision to be made is what we’ll name our kids. We both have relatively few blood relatives who share our last names, and we both feel powerfully connected to our families of origin. Unfortunately our names sound pretty stupid when hyphenated, and in any case how do we decide whose name goes first? I suspect we’ll end up polling our siblings to find out what they’re planning to do when they have kids, and use that to make our own choice. Maybe we’ll end up hyphenated after all.
Do you think your relationship with your partner has changed since you got married?
Yes, in that our relationship is always changing as we change and grow! But I suspect what you mean is, “Has marriage been the cause of any of these changes?” As I noted above, marriage has made us confront some issues around the division of labor in our relationship. We realized that there are some ways in which we’re being unfair to each other, and we’re working to correct that. Currently, we’re working on the issue of “mental labor” – noticing, list-keeping, managing. So far, we’ve had great success.
The other way in which marriage has changed our relationship isn’t about how we relate to each other, but rather how others treat our relationship. Acquaintances assume I’m older and more mature when they see my wedding ring. We have much more power to prioritize each other’s needs in our families of origin. It’s subtle but pervasive; we’re getting a lot more social recognition for our partnership now.
Finally, people are terribly surprised when I refer to my husband as my boyfriend. But I don’t see why I should be short a boyfriend just because we’re also married to each other!
What have you learned about yourself since you’ve been married?
The biggest surprise for me was how much I love wearing my wedding ring. We hand-made each other’s rings. Every time I look at mine, I think about his competence, his integrity, his kindness and his wisdom. I know it’s only an object, but it feels like I have a piece of his soul on my finger. Plus I enjoy that others can see a physical marker of our lifelong commitment and love.
The most unpleasant thing I’ve learned is that I am willing to ruthlessly exploit heteronormativity and gender expectations when it benefits me. For example, if I need to cancel a social commitment on short notice, I explain that it’s because of my “husband” and his needs. People get much less upset when I’m displeasing them for his sake rather than for my own, especially when I use the marital term. After all, I’m being a good wife in doing so.
Most of all, I’ve learned that I still want to spend my life with my partner, even if he’s my husband now. Given my fears about the institution, that’s pretty cool.