As a young woman I was taught a specific kind of love: the type of love that revolves around sacrifices, lifelong commitments and family. Like most kids I learned from example: my grandparents have been married since their early twenties, my parents got hitched when they got pregnant with my sister. In fact on my dad’s side of the family every single adult (with the exception of a schizophrenic uncle) was married with kids. Marriage was the only real relationship model performed by the adults that filled my life. The lesson? Marriage was the glue that held individuals and families together — and it wasn’t always fun. And so, with the matrix of marriage, I launched into a clumsy journey through the nonsensical world of heteronormative relationships. Marriage was a discourse that would stick like glue throughout the years.
First of all there was my cat, Tristan. He was the first living being that I felt was a kindred spirit — unlike my brother and sister Tristy didn’t launch into caustic battles with me over X-Men figurines. Tristy always had my back. He was there to say goodbye to me before I left for school, and he was there waiting for me when I came back from school. Tristy was also the first relationships that caused me to obsess about death — I was constantly afraid of him dying. I even went so far as to stuff him in a pillowcase on a trip to the mall, afraid that somehow the house would catch on fire and he would burn to death inside. I also had a plan for his cremation after his eventual passing: I would mix his ashes into my shampoo so he would always be with me (a very creepy thought now). And so, convinced that the only way to properly show my undying love for Tristy was to marry him, I did just that in an informal ceremony, complete with a hand-sketched wedding album and all. I remember my parents had slightly worried looks on their faces as I announced the impending nuptials, but without any knowledge of the physical expectations of marriage (um, sex!), I had no basis to understand why this marriage, in their minds, was strange in any way. And so, at the age of 8, I had my first wedding. To a cat.
As a monogamy pro in training it wasn’t long before my relationships spread to other human beings. Between Tristy and my first long-term boyfriend there was a bit of a dry spell, however I made up for this in the length of my next relationship. I started dating a real boy when I was self-conscious 15 year-old, preoccupied with notions of normalcy and “fitting in”. Casual hang outs turned into obligatory daily intense dinners and movie dates, which inevitably turned into incessant fighting about falling short of expectations of perfection. The moment the term “boyfriend” entered my vocabulary an explicit set of expectations bore down on our relationship, expectations that were equal parts fucked up and unrealistic. He was supposed to be my everything, meaning that hangouts with his friends were threatening and unnecessary. He was also supposed to provide me with all the emotional support I needed, so when my hormone-filled teenage self fell into unavoidable bouts of despair or self-loathing, he was always the one to blame – duh! And on top of needing him to be my anchoring point, I also became obsessed with love and the burning passion that you were supposed to feel with “the one”. But every step along the way I knew he was the one I would marry. Maybe.
I moved away to NYC for college, and brimming with dangerous combination of immaturity and confidence, in a drunken stupor I emerged from the relationship at 19 a slightly more fucked up human being, hell bent on finding my one and only true love. And a mere month or so post-breakup that is exactly what I found. Embodied in a too-cool-for-school NYC-raised philosophy major he was a perfect balance of smart, hip and kind. His two years seniority on me showed when he was cautious at the beginning of our courtship. But the starry-eyed die-hard romantic in me would hear none of his reservations. When he expressed a desire to have space, I would become hysterical. When I left for the summer and he suggested seeing other people I booked a one-way trip to NYC for the summer and showed up on his doorstep. Literally. Being the nurturing person that his mother raised him to be, he repeatedly took me in. He even suggested we go to therapy. He was willing to make the relationship work, but was concerned about my psychotic romantic impulses. Seething, I would label him a jaded New Yorker too willing to analyze everything. Love was supposed to be pure, unadulterated. Unanalyzed. Wasn’t it?
That’s the thing when you absorb the norms and behaviors that surround yourself as a child. You unknowingly replicate what you see, and when confronted with people who question those norms, it can seem like a slap in the face, like the crumbling of your very foundations. As a woman who has identified as staunchly feminist since before I can remember it might seem strange that marriage has been embedded into the core foundation of how I see relationships. And even now, after a graduate degree in Gender Studies, relationships with women and a critical outlook on the marriage industrial complex that permeates American society, I still have a visceral relationship to marriage. White dresses. Flowers. Vows. That’s love. Right?
Maybe “unlearning” the pleasure that marriage gives me isn’t the point. Perhaps it is, like many privileges, more about being aware. Aware of my strange attachment, aware of the patterns that I learned from my still-married parents, aware of how these sick impulses are a part of the collective conscious of the wedding-obsessed American people. And maybe that’s the point of all of this marriage equality rhetoric. It’s not that people should not be afforded rights unless they are married, or that marriage is the only way to engage in a loving relationship, but that all people should have the option to opt out. Whether I happen to be in a relationship with a man or a woman, when I am filing for employee benefits or pinning my wedding dress, I should have the option for that union, however fucked up and unrealistic, to be recognized by the state. Because no matter how shitty and normative it might be, that is the love that I learned. And an added bonus is that there some important rights that are afforded when you play by the wedding rules.