Marriage, the elusive shape-shifter

I’m getting married in a month. My partner and I have been together for 10 years. I’m still not sure what marriage means to me.

Let me preface this by saying that what prompted our decision to get married was not romance or a deep yearning to publicly declare our commitment to each other in front of family and friends. Rather, what prompted this decision was my desire to stay in the country. With a residence permit. And health insurance. And the permission to work, without needing to specify (at this moment), exactly what that work will look like. So that my partner and I can finally live together again, after five years of a long-distance relationship – first between continents, and then between countries.

Ah, “the realities of institutionalized companionship”, as writer Elizabeth Gilbert puts it.

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As our “special day” inches closer, I find myself trying wrap my head around exactly what marriage is, and more importantly, what it means to me. To be perfectly honest, I ain’t got a clue. But, dear readers, its not from lack of trying!

My desire to understand marriage started in my early teens. I was 12 and had just watched a Korean drama where a young girl was forced into an arranged marriage. It terrified me. I don’t want to get married, I thought. I’ll be stuck in the house all day cleaning and cooking! I’ll have to take care of babies! I won’t get to do anything fun. What a horrible way to go! (Note: Korean historical dramas may have led me to a slightly skewed perception…).

Later, at 14, I had my first boyfriend. If I could describe this relationship in one word, it would be “infatuation”. As Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage [yes, I love her, I’m going to reference her many times in this post], “Infatuation is not quite the same thing as love; it’s more like love’s shady second cousin who’s always borrowing money and can’t hold down a job.” Obviously, it didn’t last. At 19, I had my second boyfriend. More of a “real” relationship than my last one, though frankly, based on insecure, mutual dependency and all sorts of unhealthy, possessive behaviors.

At 23, I met my partner. He had dreamy blue eyes and a dazzling smile. I swooned when he held my hand, like a delicate damsel in a fairytale book. The world stopped when ….

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Just kidding.

Okay. So here’s what I really want to say. It’s been 10 years since our first date, and I find myself with an ever-growing love and respect for him and for our relationship. For the first time ever, I am with someone who has clear boundaries and communicates emotion in healthy ways (omg!). Someone who is so self-aware and calmly grounded in himself, that problems and disagreements actually get resolved, rather than pushed down and slowly brewed into resentment. Someone who apologizes when he messes up, and who has the generosity to forgive me when I mess up, royally – without the subtle and almost imperceptible ways that couples can punish each other in future, completely unrelated interactions. Someone who knows me to my core – my goals, hopes, fears and struggles. Someone who I can be completely vulnerable and not to mention, bratty with – in ways I would be embarrassed if even close friends and family saw me that way.

I know how precious this is.

But, what does this have to do with marriage? For some wisdom and advice, I poured over Gilbert’s book Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage, which spans centuries of history about the institution of marriage in the Western world while she tried to make her own peace with marriage (prompted by US Homeland Security). Here’s what I learned:

Gilbert writes: “Marriage, it seems, does not like to sit still long enough for anyone to capture its portrait very clearly. Marriage shifts. It changes over the centuries the way that Irish weather changes: constantly, surprisingly, swiftly. […] Marriage was not always considered ‘sacred’, not even within the Christian tradition”. In fact, “the early Christian fathers regarded the habit of marriage as a somewhat repugnant worldly affair that had everything to do with sex and females and taxes and property, and nothing whatsoever to do higher concerns of Divinity”.

Gilbert references the different types of marital unions throughout history – most commonly, between one man and several women, between one woman and several men (as in southern India), between two aristocratic males (as in ancient Rome), between two siblings (as in medieval Europe, when valuable property was at stake), between two children (as in Europe, orchestrated by inheritance-protecting parents), and even between a living woman and a dead man (as in China, called a ‘ghost marriage’). Such marriages were “pragmatic” – as “a tool for tribal clan building”, or to acquire land, wealth, inheritance and physical safety, where “the interests of the larger community were considered above the interests of the two individuals involved”.

It was only in the beginning of the 19th century that people started marrying for love. Ah, l’amour… But only love defined by certain terms. Interracial marriage was not legal in the US until 1967, where a poll reflected that “7 out of 10 Americans believed that it should be a criminal offense for people of different races to marry each other”. Moving on, a quick google search reveals that while homosexuality can be punishable by death in some countries, same-sex marriages became legal in the Netherlands in 2001, in Belgium in 2003, in Canada in 2005, in the US in 2015, and in Germany just one month ago in October 2017.

Indeed, as Gilbert so wisely states, “marriage survives, because it evolves”.

With one itty, bitty problem. Gilbert writes, “as marriage became ever less ‘institutional’ (based on the needs of the larger society) and ever more ‘expressively individualistic’ (based on the needs of …you) […] – divorce – which had once been vanishingly rare in Western society, did begin to increase by the mid-19th century”. This means that, “by unnerving definition, anything that the heart has chosen for its own mysterious reasons, it can always unchoose later – again, for its own mysterious reasons”.

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So, what neat, tidy conclusion have I come to about marriage – this elusive, institutional shape-shifter? Before we sign papers in city hall, I’d love to come to some kind of clarity on what this whole marriage business is.

But I don’t. I’m just as clueless now as I was ten years ago.

What I do know is this. I love my partner. We’ve built a strong foundation for our relationship – one that gets deeper and more wonderful over time. We’re committed to showing up for each other and to support each other in our dreams and goals. Hey, we don’t play a perfect game (who does??), but all we can do is learn and grow together.

As Rob Bell writes in The ZimZum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage,

“It is risky to give yourself to another. There are no guarantees and there are lots of ways for it to fall apart and break your heart.

But the upside is infinite”.

 

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