Mawwiage. And wuv. Twue wuv.

So, a few months ago, I got engaged.

Those people who have known me for a while were, shall we say, surprised. It's not that the commitment caught them off guard. I've been living with The One And Only for about two years now, and they know how I feel about him. It's the whole notion that I would get married at all that surprised my friends.

Still photo from The Princess Bride. Link to Princess Bride site. Bound eyes, bound hands, knife to the throat - a suitable metaphor for marriage's origins, chattel slavery.

Let me 'splain. For years, I've firmly held the belief that marriage is not for me. (I used to think marriage was just plain wrong, but I did, after some years, come around to the notion that it's right for some people, just not for me.) Some of this comes out of taking some classes in college that delved into the history of marriage - particularly its origins as chattel slavery, whereby through marriage a woman passed from being the property of her father to being the property of her husband. And while marriage has evolved from that original notion, the promise to obey her husband is still part of some wedding ceremonies (I saw one such wedding some years back), and as recently as twenty years ago, U.S. husbands were legally exempt from all prosecution for raping their wives. Marriage, in its origins, was all about securing property, and had nothing to do with love.

Still photo from The Princess Bride. Link to Princess Bride site. Don't be confused by the robes and the rings. This ain't true love; it's all about power, baby.

OK, so some of that, of course, has changed. Marriage these days usually has a lot to do with love. But even today, it still has a lot to do with property. Once you marry, you own your property jointly - though now, at least, both parties have more or less equal rights to the property. You can file your taxes jointly, and generally end up paying less. My friend the minister tells me there are 1,400 separate rights and responsibilities that go along with being married, and that is an awful lot. My friend the minister knows this because she's going to sign a pledge not to conduct the legal aspect of any wedding ceremony until gay marriage is legalized, and so she's done some research into what, exactly, the legal aspects of being married are.

Still photo from The Princess Bride. Link to Princess Bride site. Ah, the pageantry. A key element, to be sure, but how much of it is about love, and how much is about possessions and the legal bonds of matrimony?

And it's those legal reasons that cause my gut reaction against marriage kicks in. Sure, go ahead and tell me it's all about love, but it's not. It's about legalities, about tax breaks and job benefits and all that jazz. Yeah, no doubt love plays a part, but would people get married in the numbers they do now if there weren't also those very mundane, financial and legal benefits? I've come to understand the importance of standing up in front of your community and declaring your love, asking your friends and family to support your relationship. That part's great. Of course your family and friends should be part of something like this. What I don't get is why the government needs to be involved.

I get that the government should be issuing drivers' licenses, hunting licenses, and fishing licenses. On occasion, I've thought that there should be some sort of licensing process for having kids, because you can ruin lives with that just as much as you can by driving without a license. But wedding licenses? Why does the government need to give out licenses for two consenting adults to - what? Love each other? They already do. Live together? OK, fifty years ago, yes, but most people I know live together long before they get married, if they ever do. So what, exactly, does a marriage license do?

Still photo from The Princess Bride. Link to Princess Bride site. The Impressive Clergyman presides over the questionable wedding in question. And if these pictures aren't familiar by now, go watch The Princess Bride as soon as possible.

Well, in my opinion, a marriage license tries to put a particular, one-size-fits-all definition on a relationship that might previously have been more fluidly defined. Anyone who reads advice columns knows that there are wildly different definitions of what a relationship is. But we all think we know what marriage means. A committed, monogamous, primary and public relationship between a husband and a wife; marriage has a certain pattern, and while it's no longer about ownership, it is still about acknowledging and accepting a certain type of relationship. This is what the big debate about gay marriage centers on. Marriage regulates behavior, and validates certain behaviors (committed, monogamous, heterosexual) above others. Do the powers that be allow same-sex couples into that arena, provided they fulfill the other requirements?

Still photo from The Princess Bride. Link to Princess Bride site.

Falling in love sure does hurt.

Sorry. I couldn't resist.

My objections are probably somewhat difficult to understand if you don't know that I don't think monogamy is necessarily the way to go for everyone. Some people definitely are monogamous types; others are not. I've played around with both ways of living, and I think I'm a bit of both. And I don't think either way of living is better or worse than the other. It all depends on what the various partners want and need, and as long as those desires and needs are respected, I don't think that a three-way partnership, or a two-person relationship that doesn't expect monogamy and is honest about it, or someone who dates many people and doesn't ever commit to any one, two, or three of them, should be any less socially recognized than a monogamous, committed two-person relationship. Why valorize this one particular kind of relationship? I mean, other than because "that's the way it's always been done"? Sure, people will say it's "because of the kids," but I don't buy that for a number of reasons. I don't doubt that a child having two parents is a great thing - it worked well for me - but I'd be willing to bet that having one, or three, or four caring parents is a good thing as well. Besides, what about those people who get married and don't have kids - either because they always planned it that way, or because they wanted kids but couldn't have them. Are their relationships not really marriages, then, if marriage is all about the kids?

Still photo from The Princess Bride. Link to Princess Bride site. The sort of relationship and behavior not sanctioned by marriage.

So, what it looks like to me is that marriage is about social control. It's about solidifying property relations and inheritance, it's about creating a society where families and allegiances are easily defined, and where important relationships are registered with the appropriate civil agencies. It's about creating a model for couples to follow, so that they don't start engaging in behavior that undercuts the way things are always done, behavior that might muddle up the clear lines that exist between lovers and friends, couples and singles, and friends and family.

Still photo from The Princess Bride. Link to Princess Bride site. Friends? Family? Or perhaps an army of lovers? Who really knows?

And yet here I sit writing this with an engagement ring on my finger. An engagement ring. Me, the person who said "Why spend money on a ring if you could buy yourself a computer instead?" Why in the world did I say yes when The One And Only proposed - and why in the world was I happy about it?

Well, in the past few years, I've had a number of friends get married who really don't fit into that one-size-fits-all marriage mode. Some of them are same-sex couples, some of them are male-female couples, but they're changing marriage, instead of marriage changing them. They've made marriage bend to their definition, rather than bending themselves to the definition they're given. It's shown me that there is potential for making marriage a personal journey rather than a means of social control.

Still photo from The Princess Bride. Link to Princess Bride site.

Old, crotchety, and bitter, but at least they believe in true love. Or was it revenge?

It also helps that The One And Only shares a lot of my concerns about the institution of marriage. We've talked about this quite a bit, and it's not as if he's a traditionalist in any sense of the word. His views on the subject are as critical and questioning as mine are. And while I do think both of us would be happy without this step, I think we're discovering that we're both happier with it - with a ceremony in front of our community to celebrate our love.

Because the one thing I really do appreciate about marriage is the importance of declaring your love for each other in front of your community, and asking the community to support that love however they can. I enjoy a good wedding ceremony as much as anyone (I've even been known to cry at some…), and I love the idea of celebrating our relationship in front of my friends and family. And the idea that The One And Only wanted to do that too, with me, in front of everyone, was what made me burst into tears from all the emotion and elation when he proposed, and it's what still makes me happy about it when I look at the ring on my finger, and the ring on his.

Still photo from The Princess Bride. Link to Princess Bride site. Now that? Wuv. Twue wuv.

I'm still torn, I must admit, on the legal aspects of the ceremony. My friend the minister, who will be performing the ceremony, probably won't do the legal part of the ceremony (unless gay marriage is legal by then - which would be nice, but ain't exactly likely). This leaves it up to us whether we follow up on it and do that, or whether we leave it be. Most everyone has said, "Hey - you can get benefits, so why not go for it!?," and that's probably what we'll do. But it leaves me with a strange feeling in my gut, because it means I'm participating in the governmental regulation of relationships, one that privileges some of us but leaves others, equally deserving, in the dust.

 

20. September 2003

 

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