Saturday was my first wedding anniversary. People have been saying “Congratulations!” a lot, and it kind of makes me uncomfortable. I never know what to say back, “Thanks?” “You too?” “The success of any given marriage in the 21st century is basically a crapshoot, but I appreciate your sentiment?”
This is how I have felt since pretty much the day we got engaged. In my experience, as soon as there’s a ring on your finger, it’s like you get indoctrinated into this secret club. People talk in shorthand to you about things they expect you to understand and ask you intensely personal questions about sex and babies and deeply held beliefs all coded as small talk. On the plus side, you are virtually guaranteed a spot at the “grown-ups’ table” at Thanksgiving and Christmas—but even that, as it turns out, is far less fun than I imagined.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being in a committed partnership, and I love my husband. I was always very monogamist and didn’t date around a lot, and have always loved living with people and sharing space with others. “Married life,” whatever that means, seems to suit me. My quality of life has vastly improved since forming this partnership with someone who is very good at most of the things I am not and complements me so well. I’m in love with him to boot. Overall, as we jokingly like to say to each other when one of us passes gas in the same room without apologizing—“Well, it was a good year.”
But getting married made me extremely angry in a lot of ways.
Actually, the whole dating-engagement-marriage process was one long series of maddening, infuriating experiences.
Not because they weren’t good experiences. But because they were.
I don’t have an exact statistic, but I would wager to say that 90-95% of the marriage and dating advice I was given growing up directly or absorbed indirectly through example and culture was a heaping, steaming pile of shameless and unadulterated lies. Almost nothing was like “they” said it would be.
I’ve struggled with who exactly “they” are. Parents? Teachers? Pastors? Friends? Authors? Bloggers? Probably all of them with some degree of culpability or another. But it’s not even solely the fault of specific people or institutions. There’s also a culture at large that prizes—worships, maybe—marriage and being in a state of “partnered relationship,” to the point that it seems like being attached to another person in some official capacity is the end-all, be-all of the human experience, and those that fail to form such an attachment are sub-humans, missing out on the best that life has to offer.
One way or another, I received these messages. Whether they were intended the way I received them or whether they, as Derrida says, “got lost in the mail,” is hard to say. But at the end of the day; I went into dating, relationships, sex, engagement, and marriage with a whole host of unspoken assumptions about the way things would be. And the more they turned out to not be that way, the angrier I got.
Virginity, as Leslie Knope so adeptly describes men’s rights, “is nothing.” Sex in any of its forms did not fundamentally alter who I was. I fully expected it to. I fully expected to roll over and feel like a different being, for someone to pop out from behind a door and hand me a membership card to the Club of People Who Have Had Sex. I expected others to be able to know I had, just by looking at me (as one male friend in college swore to me he could). I expected to feel like a non-virgin. I did not. I just felt like myself, only less sexually frustrated.
Marriage, too, did not alter who I was. I am not sure what “two becoming one” means or even if it’s something worth striving for, but it certainly is not the fusing of two personhoods into a single, undifferentiated life as it was explained to me for so many years. Nor did “marriage” magically occur when we walked down an aisle, said some nice words, and kissed in front of our parents. Marriage, or partnership, begins long before that, in so many smaller and less ostentatious ways. When we had a wedding ceremony, we were not creating a marriage but rather recognizing and celebrating that one had already occurred, naturally, slowly and progressively, and that it is, indeed, a beautiful thing.
And so, a year after that ceremony, I am simultaneous both supremely happy and deeply angered. I am also exquisitely aware that, all things considered, my happiness is the exception, rather than the rule—in large part because it is difficult to succeed at something that you have been lied to about for 20+ years. If that sounds harsh, it might be. Maybe “deceived by well-intentioned people and institutions for reasons I cannot now decipher” is closer to the truth.
If we told the truth about sex and love and marriage—if we set realistic expectations and valued all forms of relationship the way we value monogamous sexual ones—if we didn’t try to make everybody’s stories look exactly like ours—how many fewer people would get divorced? How many fewer people would get married in the first place? How much healthier would our relationships, sexual and non-sexual, be?
These are questions worth exploring. I don’t know the answers, and I object to people that have been married for a year trying to give marriage advice. Maybe I’ll come back in 20 years and share a few things. Until then, I’ll just be trying to speak honestly about my experiences to anyone that will listen. Maybe speaking honestly about our experiences is the first step to changing the tide.