Marriage without Vowing to Obey

I received some amusing reactions last month when I told my friends and family I’d gotten engaged:

  • My mom, pawing madly at my left hand: “Where is your RING??”
  • My best friend, wearing a puzzled frown: “I thought you said you weren’t going to do that. Aren’t you a feminist?”
  • A coworker, jumping up and down: “Oh my god! How did he propose? You must be so excited!”
  • Another friend, glancing up from his game: “Getting married in your 20s is like leaving a party at 9 p.m.”

If these reactions seem strange, it’s because for most of my adult life I’ve opposed marrying. I’d regarded marriage as outdated, irrational, and impractical. It’s not that I don’t think love is significant. It’s just that I’m the kind of person who can’t even walk into a grocery store without obsessively questioning why the commercial world seems to have unflinchingly adopted fluorescent lighting, and, carrying that analytical mindset into every aspect of my life, I couldn’t come up with a satisfactory explanation of what this whole marriage thing is even about, anyway. It’s easy to slap a word on a concept and never question it again. We know what highways are; we use them regularly; there’s no need to decipher exactly what they are and why they exist every time you need to go for a drive. And it’s easy to fall into that same trap for more complex social institutions, like marriage. Judging by their varied reactions to my engagement, my friends and family harbor different ideas about the meaning of marriage: my mom regarding it as a status symbol, my best friend as a meaningless encumbrance, my coworker as the pinnacle of romance, and the last friend as a shackle. Maybe it’s time we looked at what this is all about.

I wavered back and forth for a long time, weighing the pros and cons before deciding to marry, wondering whether marriage was necessary or whether it was anti-feminist. While the critique that marriage was a “horrible exercise in restriction, a transaction that disenfranchised women to an astonishing degree” is no longer as relevant as it once was, relatively modern pushes for family values as a means of fostering a stable society have kept that spirit alive. We still tend to think of women as possessing an intrinsic “commitment to nurturing, caregiving, and altruism” which offsets men’s “ambitious, warlike, possessive, protective characters” (a mindset not only offensive to men, painting them in one broad, shallow stroke as aggression-fueled barbarians, but also horrifying to women, imprisoning them within the domestic sphere). When I moved in with my fiancé, his mother passed along his favorite recipes and bought me cookware, while his ex-girlfriend told me I’d need to “keep a tight leash on that one,” as though the act of a woman living with a man signified a promise to “domesticate” him (as though men need to be domesticated), as though my duty was now to maintain a household. While I know many people who lead fulfilling lives devoted to family and domesticity, I’d much rather pursue my career and continue failing at cooking. Haven’t we accepted that being a wife no longer equates to being a maid? Then why the foisting of the cookware?

Furthermore, why would I need to seek out an official seal of approval? I already had a happy, permanent relationship. Maybe it would be easier to just forgo the whole marriage thing and bypass the whole “happy housewife” expectation. Marriage is not an important aspect of an adult life any longer. We tend to spend our 20s accumulating personal accomplishments, ensuring financial stability, seeking autonomy, and pursuing dreams; looking for a partner just seems unnecessary. The National Marriage Project points out that “Young adults have increasingly come to see marriage as a ‘capstone’ rather than a ‘cornerstone’— that is, something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.” While my party-hard-til-the-wee-hours friend embodies the “capstone” mindset, the “cornerstone” mentality is tenacious, as demonstrated by my mother and her frantic search of my left hand for that ring which would symbolize that I, at 28, had finally, finally adopted an adult identity and taken up my place in the world as a moral citizen, legitimizing my entire life. By choosing to marry, I get to claim that status. I no longer have to defend my choices and the entire course of my life every time I want to talk about the most significant person in it. I can just slap that label on it—marriage—and immediately be understood. No questions asked.

And that’s just the social side of things. Marriage is, after all, a legal institution, defined and controlled by the state. The fact is that while that structure exists, it comes with a host of social, legal, and financial benefits: the right to file joint taxes, the right to inheritance, the right to obtain healthcare through a spouse’s workplace, the right to take bereavement, the right to child custody, the right to immigration, the right to take leave to care for a spouse, the right to hospital visitation, the right to adopt together, the right for military couples to be stationed together, the right to tuition discounts: the list goes on, but I’ll stop here out of respect for your time. Historically, “using the marriage license as a shorthand way to distribute benefits and legal privileges made some sense because almost all adults were married.” Today, however, the fact that these civil rights come bundled together with one’s interpersonal relationship status just seems absurd and impractical. How does it make sense to distribute benefits only to heterosexual, monogamous, cisgender people simply for pledging to have sex with one and only one person for the rest of their lives?

Maybe the most obvious of these benefits is the tax break that comes with marriage. But it’s not just any tax break: it heavily favors upper-income married provider-dependent households. And that’s exactly what my fiancé and I found. He, a software developer, makes five times more than I do as a student teacher, meaning our financial relationship mimics that of a picture-perfect one-breadwinner household, entitling us to a hefty monetary reward. And this makes me deeply uncomfortable. Not even touching on those obviously left out of these benefits— lgbt families, single parents, cohabiters— even if there was another couple, identical to us in every way except that their income was earned equally by both parties (that is, with the same gross income but without the gap), they would not be entitled to the benefits we receive, based solely on the fact that their lifestyle does not meet the state’s expectations— expectations of a sole male breadwinner and a dependent homemaker housewife, expectations based on outdated notions about the way family ought to work. We claim to champion equality, to reject any kind of discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.— and yet here we are discriminating on the basis of class and relationship status. Was all the rest of that just lip service? Married, heterosexual, single race, monogamous couples in traditional sex roles are accepted unquestioningly, and all others are under pressure to legitimize themselves, constantly on the defensive. Does this seem exclusionary? Wrong? Just weird?

Despite this, my fiancé and I rescinded our previous stances against marriage for one reason: it saves us a heck of a headache. No more long, confusing visits to the bank to apply for loans together. No more time-consuming email chains to administrators’ offices to see whether we can possibly be housed together when studying abroad. No more disapproving looks. We can share health insurance and a savings account. In short, no more fighting to legitimize our relationship. So I’m going to leap into marriage, eyes open, despite my misgivings, simply because it seems to be the lesser of two evils. Does this make me a traitor? I can only hope that my nontraditional, self-aware, middle-finger-to-the-establishment marriage might guide others to question it themselves.

I’ll celebrate it without a white dress, without vowing to obey, and without my father walking me down the aisle like some property being gifted from one family to another, but with my friends, with my family, and with plenty of music and drinks and maybe even a bouncy castle, because I do believe in celebrating the finer things in life, and some of those fine things include love and bouncy castles. And even though I look forward to commemorating lifelong love and commitment, I still feel like my hand was forced into slapping a legal term onto my relationship. With the wealth of benefits, both financial and social, I receive by marrying, it seemed to only be the logical choice.

I’ll be wishing there was another option.