I once knew a girl in college who started a binder of fantasy wedding clippings when she was 8 years old. This perplexed me.
I grew up in a household with happily married parents who never pushed romantic ideals upon their three girls. In fact, it was a bit of the opposite. Ever since we were young, our dad made sure we knew we had options — as in, rather than pay for a wedding we might want to look into a down payment on a home, a trip around the world, or strategic investments.
Suffice to say I never dreamed of my wedding day, and spent the better part of my twenties comfortably ambivalent. But people get funny about women and marriage. As I got older, I realized that my stance made others uneasy. Now 32, I’ve considered (and discussed) marriage more than my childhood self ever would have guessed.
It should be noted that I’ve been in a steady, fulfilling relationship for seven years with a guy I don’t want to live without. In recent years, people — mostly women, old and young — have brazenly questioned my choices, projected their values onto me, and put me in a place where I’ve had to defend a relationship that shouldn’t demand justification.
People’s reactions range from presumptuous (“Are you afraid of committing?”) to sweetly intentioned (“But you guys are so great together!”) to my personal favorite: “One day you’ll understand.” Understand what? What it means to be happy? What trust means? What stability feels like? The nature of tax incentives?
For years, when the topic arose, I boldly stood my “I don’t believe in marriage” ground with friends, relatives, and, of course, my boyfriend. He never ceased to respond kindly and openly, accepting rather than challenging me.
We spent years not really talking about it, both feeling comfortable where we were and not in any hurry to disrupt that. When we finally did discuss it, I was fervent in my opinions. After a while, though, I began to worry whether my reticence and dismissiveness were keeping him from communicating openly with me. One day we went deep: We talked about why I was so fiercely opposed and what marriage symbolizes as an institution.
My short list of answers included the following: I don’t believe in engagement rings, wedding planning is the worst (not to mention expensive), I hate dressing up, dressing up in front of a crowd makes me want to puke, relationships are private, and so on. Also, we couldn’t be more committed, and that’s enough for me.
But maybe not for him.
He responded, “I think you’re confusing weddings and marriage.” The guy had a point (I knew I was with him for a reason).
My first reaction was to berate myself: How did I confuse these things?! My second was softer: Maybe it wasn’t my fault. The seemingly inextricable link between the conventions stems from somewhere — that seed is planted early. (Exhibit A: wedding binder girl.)
After my brain spasm subsided, I asked my boyfriend, like any normal 5-year-old would, what marriage meant. His short list: Making the relationship official was about us, not other people; it was important to him and would mean a great deal; and he didn’t give a damn about a party — it’s the oath he cares about. He made good points. He didn’t push or prod. He just laid it out, plain as day.
That kind of candor can be contagious. I wanted to be candid too! This required some deep thinking. I knew that marriage wasn’t a requirement for me as an individual. But once I was fully aware of his feelings, things changed. There were two people involved, not one. Ultimately, in order to maintain strength and longevity in a relationship, both people’s desires and needs must be met. And that requires compromise.
I asked myself whether I would I make a fuss if he proposed marriage (not proposal in the get-on-one-knee sense — let’s not get crazy). Was I opposed to the institution or to something entirely different? Would I fight it — and risk hurting someone I love madly?
So in my heart of hearts, am I dying to get hitched? Not especially; I‘d be fine without it, as long as I have him. But knowing that marriage is as important as it is to my boyfriend — and, more specifically, why — helped me reached a point where I can say, “Yes, I will marry you … in a courthouse! And I don’t want to be engaged, ever.”
As for him, he’s content with my qualifiers. Yes, I’m ambivalent, but I don’t feel like I’d be sacrificing an elemental part of myself by signing that paper. I’d just be making him happy — and likely myself, too, in ways I hadn't contemplated. In my mind, that’s reason enough. Now when people ask if I want to get married, I tell them the truth: “I don’t really care. He does, though, and that matters to me.” I guess that’s what love is.
[Editor's note: This was originally published February 15, 2015.]