This may or may not be a cliche topic. And I may or may not (definitely leaning toward may not) be qualified to write on it. But, as with most big-name issues, I do have opinions.
The topic? Marriage.
I am 26 years old. I am not married. I have never been married. I have never been engaged.
Here is a short summary of the most defining romantic experiences of my life:
I was “promised” once . . . in high school . . . which I imagine to be a little like pre-engaged on Arrested Development – mostly a joke, that is.
I was in a relationship in college (and for about a year after) that lasted three years total, and everyone assumed we would be getting married (including the two of us – until the end, obviously).
I was in a post-college, real-world relationship for one year that involved preventive-maintenance couples’ counseling (which the male counterpart of this relationship embarrassingly kept referring to as “pre-pre-marital” counseling).
Now? I am 26 and unattached. And apparently it is about that time for my generation’s marriages to start getting rocky. I have witnessed some marital discord; some serious life struggles that have affected marriages; and some actual split-ups.
And it has all left me a little shaken up and feeling like maybe marriage is a bigger deal than I have ever thought before. Recognizing that I haven’t properly thought through its seriousness makes me grateful that I remain unmarried right now because I definitely want to have a grasp of the significance of my decision if I do decide to go through with it one day.
Growing up, I thought of marriage as just a stage of life that everyone eventually gets to, like certain ages. Inevitable. You turn 10, 16, 18, 21, 25. You go to elementary school, middle school, high school, college. Somewhere in there you get married too. Right? It’s just “supposed” to happen. Not much thought went into whom I might marry or how exactly it might work out. Whenever I pictured my wedding day, I just imagined standing up at the front of a church with a guy whose features and personality traits are a blur, the only definites being that he’s taller than me and nice enough that people like him and cute enough that I can stand to look at him. And after that? Well, a crazy honeymoon, of course. My fantasies have changed as I’ve gotten older, from beach paradise getaway, to snow skiing at a mountain resort, to an amusement park tour of the United States, to my current fantasy: a month-long international trip of some kind.
And then what happens after the honeymoon? Well, happily ever after. Right? And by “happily ever after,” I mean sharing a home, cooking together, sharing chores and defying traditional gender roles, being “that cute couple” that everyone smiles about when they come up in conversation, you know – all that growing-old stuff that everybody always talks about.
But what happens when you come home from a paradisaical honeymoon and can hardly keep your head above water for all the financial burdens you now face? What happens when you have double the bills and costs but still only the one income? What happens when the stresses of life bear down on one spouse so hard that he or she snaps at the other one at any given time for no obvious reason? What happens when one spouse develops a life-threatening or life-limiting illness that was unforeseen? What happens when both spouses grow but not together? What happens when one spouse’s dream and/or calling lies in Libya, Syria, Haiti, Sri Lanka, Iran – and the other spouse’s dream lies in white, middle- or upper-class Suburbia? What happens when tragedy hits and one spouse spirals into a depression that the other spouse cannot understand or support? What happens when one spouse just won’t talk to the other one? What happens when you wake up one day and realize that the person lying in bed next to you isn’t the person you married? What happens when you realize you don’t even like your spouse anymore?
Over the past few months, I have witnessed or heard stories of marriages that have gone through hell. And some crashed successfully through to the other side. Some barely made it and seem to have a noticeable limp now. And others didn’t make it at all.
Yet this is something I’m allowed – nay, expected – to try? Something I’m judged for not doing? Something that qualifies me as “succeeding” or “failing” at life, depending on whether I go through with it? Dang, that’s a lot of pressure. And it makes me feel like the rebellious teenager or obstinate child who immediately decides she wants to do the exact opposite of what she is “supposed” to do.
Especially after attempting to get there through various dating relationships and failing, why in the world would I want to continue to chase after this ridiculous, elusive goal? I have loved. I have been loved. So that’s not a reason to do it. Considering I’ve never been to marriage counseling, I can’t say I know what it’s like. But I hear that the wrong answer to the question Why do you want to get married? is to say, Because we love each other.
Which leaves me wondering, What is the right answer?
At one of the few couples’ counseling sessions I have been to, we were asked the question, What is your idea of marriage? And we gave very different answers (which was probably one of the root reasons behind why that relationship ended).
And I am left thinking, What is the point? And what is the key to making it work? I for sure don’t believe there is one person for everyone. I think that’s preposterous. But I also look at my parents – married 34 years this summer – and my grandparents – married 50-some (56? 54? not sure) years before my grandma died – and I see that it is possible. I look at my brother and sister-in-law – married for only one year so far but in a relationship for ten years before they took that step.
So how do you know? And why are some people so “sure,” so willing to take such a big step without thinking it through? And why do some people quit? And why do others keep making the effort even when it gets hard or seems hopeless?
I wanted to marry my last boyfriend. But now I’m not sure why. Was it because I loved him? Because I believed in our relationship? Because I thought we wanted the same things out of life and could chase them together? Or was it merely because I suffered from Exception Syndrome?
Exception Syndrome is wanting to be the exception to somebody’s rule. So, a bad boy who runs around town and never settles down? Someone wants to be that one girl who can tame him. A shy girl who never says a word to someone of the opposite sex, never even looks at them? Someone wants to be the guy who can get her attention.
Don’t we all want to be somebody’s exception? Isn’t that the one element that makes us feel special, chosen? Like we’ve “found” someone unique in a world full of lookalikes? Or maybe it makes us feel the opposite – in a world full of chaos and diversity and differences, we somehow found the one person who thinks, acts, and lives like we do.
I admit, sometimes I wonder who could be my exception. The problem is, like I said, I don’t believe in a “one and only.” Like my native language, I am comprised of many rules, all of which have their own potential and unpredictable and illogical exceptions. So when it comes to choosing, how am I supposed to know which exception is the exception?
A friend of mine said a couple of years ago that he had no particular desire to live to see his old age. I asked him why, imagining myself in my old age surrounded by children, grandchildren, and a rambunctious, still-willing-to-be-sexually-active geriatric husband. But my friend is gay, and this is not the same picture he has of his old age. So he said he’d like to see the world, have one great, passionate, fiery romance – one for the books, he says – and then die by the time he’s 40.
Such a life would be void of rules and exceptions and talk of soul mates and forever. It would be a life that doesn’t make promises of “in sickness and in health” that will later be broken and/or forgotten.
Maybe he’s got it figured out.
Then again, maybe he doesn’t.