Chase the Exception or Defy the Expectation?

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.

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8 Comments

Filed under bloggy, sentimental

8 responses to “Chase the Exception or Defy the Expectation?

  1. Reese

    Well, as someone who’s engaged, about to be married, I’m obviously coming at this from a different view. But I agree that marriage is something people except to happen for them, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a good thing for everyone. People who feel they “should” get married probably shouldn’t be getting married at all. And it’s those people who look for it, search for it, who often end up marrying someone just so they can be married–without thought of why they did it in the first place. I truly don’t believe being unmarried is bad, and I wish the stigma wasn’t there so people didn’t feel pressured into a life that might not be right for them.

    • True, Reese – I feel like I could name at least 10 girls I went to college with who married with no specific reason other than just to *be* married. But I only know one who would have admitted back then that that was her goal. And, as far as I can tell, she isn’t all that happy now, and that’s too bad, both for her *and* her husband.

  2. Two thoughts (also from an unmarried 26-year-old):

    1) Tis a far, far better thing to be the last friend married than the first one divorced.

    and 2) I blame the prevalence of romantic comedies during our generation’s formative years. The movies end with the kiss, or the wedding… and that just ain’t the end! It’s a beginning of a life that isn’t going to be all rainbows and moonbeams. Sh*t happens in life, and you just have to hope that you have a partner that’s willing to put on the heavy duty boots and wade through it with you. If you’re both wearing rings, great. You might not be, though, and it could be just as (if not more) beautiful than if you were.

    • Bronwen, I feel the same way regarding your second point. Stay tuned – I think I’m gonna have to do a follow-up post that discusses the institution of marriage as a whole.

  3. JJC

    Alright – here we go:

    1. Bronwen nailed it (so did you) I have gone on many a rant about rom-com’s – since high school they have made me actually ANGRY. I hate them. Hate – them. yes. exactly. RRRAAAHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

    2. your paragraph about having not realized the seriousness of marriage – and now being happy that you’re not married yet – yes. yes. yes. You’re right on. NPR did some story about marriage survival rates… I don’t remember the exact percentage but it’s something like marriages that occur when people are OLDER than 25 are enormously more likely to succeed than marriages of people who were under 25. Add some graduate degrees in there and you’re even better off. Unless it’s a law degree! eek! (don’t worry – I don’t want to actually be a lawyer). I think there are good reasons why this is the case:
    1. when you’re still in college – you’re still being molded – you’re still a child – especially at a place like SNU. You’ve been coddled in a dorm – force fed chapel – indoctrinated in class …. you are learning a bit more about who you are – but by no means are you a fully developed adult that really knows what he/she likes. The longer you’re out of college, the more experiences you have, the longer you live by yourself – you learn who you are.
    People who get married in college or straight out of college hardly even know who they are…. of course 2-5-7 years later they are looking around after some development in the ‘real world’ thinking, “what the f?” Now – of course this is not everyone – some people are more mature – have had lots of experiences – some people it’s even worse and they’re blind to their own ambitious – so pre-programmed – they can’t even acknowledge they are looking to get married (which is why only 1 out of your 10 friends could pinpoint her desire.)
    2. Graduate degrees generally force a level of thinking that college does not. most graduate degrees have a large emphasis on analytical thinking – not something taught to early – ed majors………. If it hasn’t come naturally – that analytical training will enter the rest of the areas of that person’s life. Analysis leads to better decision making – and helps you explore the reasons WHY you want to do something like … get married. This is (part of) why a lot of people break up with significant others during grad school – they look at that person and go – ‘what was I thinking? oh right – I wasn’t.’ We’re a bit like cogs – we have been programmed and we live out our programming – we date people b/c it seems like that’s what we should to – we’re ‘going through the motions.’ Grad school helps break some of that. Also – because of moves and busyness – people don’t have time to do frivolous dating and have more in their life at stake and so take entering a serious relationship more seriously. — this is so long….. maybe I should just write my own post in response… hmmm…. nah – I’ll just post this then continue.

    • I agree with everything you’ve said here except the graduate degree thing. Not that I DON’T agree with that. I’ve just never thought about it before.

      But yes – I think living on my own for a few years after college definitely helped me figure out exactly who I am. I relied only on myself, and I think that helped shape me a lot.

      As for the graduate degree thing – that’s really interesting. I’ve been thinking about going to grad school lately; this is just more motivation to do so!

  4. JJC

    So I hope I’ve illuminated why so many of your friends are having issues. Given their circumstances, it’s natural. And yes – some will make it – and some won’t – and honestly – those that don’t are probably going to enjoy their lives just as much if not more than those that have hobbled through. I’m not advocating divorce – but sometimes it is better for the people than staying together.

    You’ve got lots of big and good questions rummaging around in your head – it’s a really good and healthy process to go through – and you’ll probably have a more successful marriage (if/when that happens) because of this process.

    How do you know? For me it is that I can’t imagine my life without Nick. I WANT to retire with HIM. I fast forward through my life and see it with him – I know I want to live with him. Sometimes that’s harder to know – b/c after being with someone for over 3 years – it’s not all sunshine and roses and sometimes they break your shit and it makes you want to scream – or sometimes they are depressed or lame and you’re like “what a downer – I don’t want to live with this.” But you love that person and the desire to be there to help them be not depressed and not lame overrides your desire to have the easiest life. How you know is really different for everyone. Some people say ‘don’t live together before marriage.’ = living in sin etc. Bollocks. I think that’s how you know if you can live with that person. Can you make the household work? He can say “oh yeah we’ll share chores” allllllll day long – but not until you live with that person do you really know. And if you’re married and you find out he’s a slob and lazy and you’ll be doing 95% of the work and he feel indignant about his 5% – well – how are you going to fix that? Changing him will be next to impossible – …. better to know ahead of time and weed out the losers.

    Should you chase marriage? Fuck no. No fucking way – nuh uh. But don’t be scared of it either. Now that your eyes are open – the next time you date someone you’ll think about marriage in a whole new way. It may not even be on your mind – or it might be…who knows. But it’s not the end goal. The goal is for you to live your life well – to be fulfilled – to give back to the world – to make the world a better place. If at some point you realize that this Guy you’re dating brings out the best in you – and your relationship brings love into the world and you make the world a better place together – then you should think about being with him for the rest of your life.

    Take the word “marriage” out of your thought process. Think “do I want to be with this person forever?” Ask yourself, “do we make the world a better place? Could I live with this person?” IF yes – then cool. (obv. that’s very surface) Marriage is just a word… a wedding is just a ceremony to commemorate what should already be there. The end goal is not marriage.

    I was seriously committed to NOT getting married for about 6 years. I thought I would just jump from lover to lover as I lived throughout the world. Yes – I wanted someone to share life with – but not at the expense to my life. But that’s because I had dated someone that wanted to live in whitey-upper-class suburbs while I wanted to live in a variety of cities all over the world. We were supposed to get married – had dated for over 2 years – he was ready to get married…. it took every ounce of strength in me to break it off – but it had to happen. Now I’m about to marry a divorcee who married someone he should not have. We’re getting married almost just as a formality. Our decision to live together forever came a long time ago. Geez- there is just so much to say about all this. A few last things:

    1. Be comfortable being alone and you’ll be more likely to find someone youre ACTUALLY compatible with – not just someone who fills the space.

    2. (some) People who make people feel like shit for being married are just trying to make themselves feel better about their own decisions. They are trying to reinforce the crazy ass decision they made at 22. Most of the amazing people I know now are single – and if they aren’t single – they totally understand and would never make someone feel like shit for not being married. In fact they fully recognize that getting married is the most crazy decision you can make – it’s insanity. that’s why it’s so good that you recognize how serious it is and how fucking nuts it is.

    3. Just because others suck at being married doesn’t mean you will. Hold on to your vision of marriage – it’s good – you can do it – and it will help you not choose someone lame-o.

    Oh my gosh – so much written – so little said. Ultimately – don’t be scared of marriage – but don’t chase after it. The healthiest relationships and marriage are when things happen organically. Tell people who put pressure on you to ‘fuck off’ – (except your mom – she’s too sweet to hear the f-bomb.” But still – tell her to get off your back – it hasn’t happened for you yet – you just haven’t found your person.) You haven’t found your person. Not “your” as in the ONE – but your person – the random person out there that will become your man. He’ll be your person – your main squeeze – and you just haven’t hooked it up yet. And if / when you do – you’ll rock it – and you’ll be sassy together and he’ll call you out on your shit and frustrate the hell out of you and you’ll love and hate him and you’ll have a house of books and cuddle on the couch NOT watching rom-coms.

    • I totally agree about marriage not being the end goal. I used to think it was. I’m glad I’ve changed my mind. At the age of 23, I was pretty ready to commit to not getting married. Now, I am content either way. If it comes along, cool. If not, still cool.

      “Just because others suck at being married doesn’t mean you will.” Haha. Thanks. That is actually a very encouraging thought!

      And I love your conclusion about the person I will end up with. Sounds like the perfect relationship to me. :)

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