Two years ago, when I was engaged to be married, I wrote a series for my blog on the art of planning a feminist wedding. It covered everything from avoiding the wedding industrial complex (and keeping costs down), to the bridal beauty myth (or why you’ll still look like you, even in a white dress), to bypassing the long series of unnecessary tasks that keep your typical rom-com bride tied to her to-do list for the six months leading up to wedding day.
In the end, I concluded, creating a “feminist” wedding wasn’t about the sexist and irritating traditions you avoided, but about the awesome and joyous ones you created in their place. As they say in Rent, “The opposite of war isn’t peace; it’s creation.”
But if creating a feminist wedding was an exercise in fun and cross-spouse collaboration, creating a feminist marriage has been more challenging. Which makes sense, because for all the symbolism and emotional attached to it, a wedding is just a party. It’s when you move on to real life that the difficult part begins.
Unlike some of my fellow feminists, I’ve never thought marriage was an inherently sexist institution. When it comes to gender equality, the question of whether or not to have children has always seemed more fraught; liable to leave you locked into a role that it is difficult to extract yourself from, and transforming biology into destiny. (I have since moderated my stance.) Marriage, on the other hand, was about love and commitment, and having someone to walk beside you through life – things I have always known I wanted.
That said, I do think the realities of that lifelong commitment are often masked beneath a veneer of – very gendered – romance culture: the thrill of “being chosen” by another person, of shiny rings and baubles, of happily ever after, and of being the star of one’s very own big white (or blue and indie) wedding.
But as everyone tells newly engaged couples, marriage isn’t really about the wedding. It’s not even about having someone to wake up next to every morning, or to snuggle with at night – although those things are nice. Marriage is less about love as a feeling than it is about love as an act. It means honouring another person as the most important in your life with your actions as well as your words. It means taking their wants and needs into consideration alongside and equal with your own. It means showing up as your best self – or at least, trying to – every single day.
All of which sounds romantic on the page, but can be a pain in the arse in practice. It is easy for me to feel love towards my husband. It is less easy for me to act in a loving way, to not give into petulance, or selfishness, or petty remarks. More than almost any other relationship in our lives (with the exception of parenting, I’ll hazard a guess), marriage brings all of your most awkward, unpleasant qualities to the surface. Compared to the hazy glow of new infatuation, it can be a shock to see yourself in such harsh light.
I can talk about these things with my married friends, because they “get it”: how you can be critical of an institution, but still love your partner. How you can find marriage challenging, and not want. But with my single friends, such admissions often fall like a lead balloon – like I am saying things that shouldn’t be thought, much less said out loud. Saying them out loud risks identifying yourself as A) a terrible human being, B) someone in a relationship they should extract themselves from stat.
In a world where women have been (rightly) taught to value their independence and avoid dependence, learning to interlace my life, fate and finances with another person has been hard to do.
Probably the biggest personal challenge I’ve experienced since I got married two years ago is my transition out of the life I led as a single person: the bustle of constant social engagements, the intensity of friendship, the sense of serendipity – of not knowing what will happen next.
It’s not a matter of no longer valuing the things I did when I was single. Nor is it a matter of being married to someone who won’t “let” me do them, or even of feeling they are not “befitting of a married woman” – I don’t want to spend the rest of my life on a carousel of couples-only dinners and camping trips.
Instead, it is the realisation that I want two irreconcilable things: to drink and chat until 3am in the morning, and to lie in bed next to my party-shy husband. To discover and invest in a variety of platonic relationships, while not letting my primary relationship wither by the wayside. It is not that I can’t have a bit of both – I do, most of the time – but maintaining a balance between them is a constant struggle. I want to be in all places at the same time.
For me, the most potentially troubling aspect of marriage isn’t the vows, the white dresses, or the women taking their husbands’ names. It’s my fear that marriage, even as it commands us to be less petty and selfish in our relationships with our spouses, ultimately turns our focus inwards towards the pair (and later, the family unit) and away from the broader community. A turning that, however seductive, no amount of romance can make up for.
I still don’t think marriage is inherently anti-feminist. But being married has made me more cynical of the way that marriage is presented as the only acceptable happy ending to any love story, and the way the integrated pair unit is elevated over the autonomous single. Marriage can be intimate and warm, a harbour in an uncertain sea, but merging your life with another person’s is not something to be undertaken by default, or for the thrill of being chosen. You can lead just as a fulfilling, meaningful, brilliant life outside of marriage as you can within it.
As for my own challenges, I’m learning to deal with some of my “irreconcilable desires” by being more honest about what they really entail. Being part of a community, and maintaining a variety of intellectual and emotional connections is important to me, so I pursue that wholeheartedly. But when the clock strikes eleven, I’m happy to head home so that I can slide into bed with my husband and we can unload our days before we go to sleep.
Because at that time of the day, that is truly where I would rather be. And that’s okay. It’s even kind of, dare I say it, “romantic.”