Marriage. We may not all want it, but let’s be honest… most of us do, right? Whether it’s just a simple courthouse ceremony or the whole Puffy White Dress package, I think it’s a pretty safe claim that for most women, once they have found a partner they want to share their lives with, making it legal and/or sealing it in the eyes of God becomes a step they find themselves wanting to take. It may not have ever even been a conscious wish or goal; you might have totally been one of those eye-rolling “I’m never getting married” people, and you might have meant it—right up until a few months, or a few years (or a few hours), after you met the person who somehow managed to change your mind. But for most of us, once we find that person, and we feel that love that just swallows us whole, and we entangle our lives so completely with somebody else’s—we find ourselves wanting to make it Official.
And I’m wondering why. Aside from the legal/financial benefits and rights, which are not negligible, have you ever really thought about why, in 2013, so many educated, independent, self-sufficient feminist women still yearn for something that is less of a cultural mandate now than it’s ever been before? I was thinking about this recently, after a dear friend mentioned that she and her girlfriend had just had their very first conversation on the topic in all of their five years of dating (which includes approximately 4.85 years of cohabitation—they are the living personification of that lesbian U-haul joke). My friend’s girlfriend, who is a child of divorce, essentially gave the whole thing a big shrug: they don’t plan to have kids, they can’t claim any tax benefits, and at the end of the day, swapping some vows and some rings is a poor guarantee that the whole thing’s going to stay in place anyway. My friend revealed that her own feeling on it was a little less resolutely practical—“I’d thought of being married as a sort of formalization,” she said. “Like, if we’re having a fight, there’s no more sneaking thought of WELL EFF YOU I COULD JUST LEAVE, and more, well, we gotta work this out.” She asked me, as someone who dated her husband for more than seven years before getting engaged, what ultimately prompted us to take that step after such a long-standing commitment.
The answer is that for whatever reasons—cultural tradition, I guess, since neither of us is religious—it was important to us to take that formal step. Legally, but also publicly, with all of our favorite people there to witness and celebrate. To formally and officially declare ourselves a unit, a team, a family. Has our relationship changed since our marriage? No. Has it made us any more in love, or any more committed to each other, than we were before we said those vows? No. But I think, even among the most modern and free-thinking and untraditional women, the social construct of marriage is appealing to most of us on a very visceral level. No matter how secure and committed you are in your relationship, there is something so satisfying about the words “wife” and (if applicable) “husband.” Not in a “look at me, I have The Ring” sort of way, but in the signals those words give. The permanence they imply. The social recognition your partnership receives. I, for one, am not too proud to admit that I enjoy the social recognition I receive as my husband’s wife far more than I did the social recognition of his girlfriend-that-he’s-been-with-forever.
And anecdotally, I have found this to be true of most people I know. I have an acquaintance from college who is one of the least traditionally feminine women I’ve ever met… the kind of woman I suspect privately thinks I am (or was in my early twenties, at least) a vapid, boy-crazy airhead. And yet she has the most endearing habit of referring to her wife as “wifey” on Facebook… constantly. They got married several years before it was legal to in New York state—they wanted it so intently that they went to Massachusetts to do it. I know that her love for her spouse, her commitment to their relationship and to their kids—those things wouldn’t be the slightest bit different if she were saying “partner.” But she wanted to be able to say “wife.” The history and the cultural weight of that word, it had meaning for her. And I think that, even though it’s no longer demanded, or quite as expected, and even though we all know that becoming a wife doesn’t mean we’ll never end up as an ex-wife, that’s why we still keep coming back. Not just, like my friend said, cause we have to work it out when it gets messy—but so the rest of the world knows we do, too.