The first time my best friend and her husband got into a screaming match while we were all out for dinner, I thought it was a fluke. They screamed across the bread basket and didn’t tailor their insults to the presence of mutual friends. It was tough to watch. Eventually, he got up and left, and she spent the rest of the evening frantically texting and calling him while he completely ignored her. A few days later, when she and I were talking about our plans for the upcoming weekend as though nothing had ever happened, she mentioned how she was going to see a movie because “we love that director,” I thought to myself that there was nothing “we” about them.
My parents divorced when I was 15 years old. I had watched them fight, not unlike my best friend and her husband, nearly every day of my childhood. When they announced that they were splitting up, it was difficult not to show how relieved I was. Of course, the “this isn’t your fault, we just need to be apart” speech was only the beginning of several years of intense, litigious fighting between the two of them. Everything — from the amount of time I spent at the other’s house, to the kinds of Christmas gifts each parent gave me — became a point to be tallied on an invisible chart. As much as I wanted to just let the two of them hash it out and remind myself that it wasn’t about me, I couldn’t help but wonder how ugly things had to be to turn your own child into a bartering chip for mortal superiority.
When my dad got remarried a few years ago, it broke the small lull in my parents’ fighting. My mother was back at it, enraged over all the things the New Wife was getting, bitter that he was able to find love again when she was still alone. “Never get married,” she once told me while drunk on white wine at a family function, “It’s not worth it.” Sometimes I wonder if she told me because she really believed she was helping, or because she wanted someone else to be as sad as she was. (For the record, the New Wife is perfectly lovely, and it’s nice to see my dad with someone who doesn’t make him hate his life.)
I see my friends getting engaged on Facebook almost every weekend now, and I always do the right thing. I say congratulations, I ‘like’ their pictures of the ring and their professional portraits. I never feel a sense of anger towards them, because they’re not taking anything away from me by living their own lives. But a lot of the time I get a feeling of genuine confusion, not sure why they’re getting married to people they’ve often not been with for very long, people they fight with tooth and nail over petty problems that are nowhere near as challenging as the kind of things you encounter in decades of marriage. It often seems like a race to some invisible finish line, proof that they have made a serious and important decision about life that says something about them without any real effort at all. Getting married is the easy part, being married is where you really have to work.
There are marriages that have worked, of course, and couples that stood the test of time, economics, and every other obstacle life has thrown at them. I don’t envy them, but I respect them, and I don’t think that my parents’ fighting or my best friend’s unhealthy way of showing affection towards her husband at all detract from the success of others. But I do think that it’s a very rare kind of person who can make it happen in the long term, and that it’s even more rare for two of them to find one another. I think that we treat marriage as a milestone that everyone is supposed to hit — and that you’re somehow defective if you don’t hit it, especially at the “right” time — and that seems profoundly dangerous to me. There are so many couples in all of our lives who made the choice to get married because they felt that it was the next logical step, and now have to live with the enormous consequences of a decision they never really wanted to make.
The allure of getting married is obvious. It’s a moment for everyone to celebrate you, and you get to take your relationship to another, more serious level in a beautiful ceremony attended by your closest friends and family. Sometimes I wish that I could have a reason for everyone to look at me and confirm how great my choices are, but I truly don’t believe — even when I’ve been in deeply loving relationships — that I am the kind of person who should be committing to someone for life. I have no real blueprint for success, and seeing the way things have transformed for people around me after only a few years, I cannot guarantee that the person I would be at the altar would be the person I would be when my future child was 10 years old. There are simply too many unknowns in life, and having seen first-hand how painful it can be to extricate yourself from a union made in a moment of emotion, I never want to make another person eventually pay the price for my desire to be Princess for a day.