“I will…NOT”

Marriage, or the lack thereof, is in the air at blogdom. At least at Feministe and I Blame the Patriarchy.

The two threads have different moods. At Feministe there’s a lot of young unmarried women telling why they see little need to join the marriage tradition, and if they do they won’t go along with the patriarchal symbology of the wedding. Part of possibly my favourite comment at Feministe so far, from Nita:

it has always seemed weird to me to talk of wanting to get married or not wanting to get married as a theoretical construct separate from the “getting married TO X””“the desire to get married seems so contingent on the person or people you have relationships with, that it just doesn’t even make sense to talk of my general desire for (or lack of desire for) marriage. I may want to get married if I find a particular person who is so amazingly awesom that I simply can’t imagine NOT being with them for the rest of my life, but may emphatically NOT want to get married if I had to choose between George Bush, Rick Santorum, and James Dobson.

Then at IBTP there’s women who are/have been married telling other women “don’t do it” (even when these women are married to men they love and respect, they still feel that they would have been happier unmarried but still pair-bonded, especially those who would never have got married if there was another way in the US to get partner benefits on health insurance). Many sad and eyeopening comments there, but my favourite for sheer logic and clear presentation would be from Catherine Martell, who wrote in part:

So much of the problem with marriage stems from the remarkably recent myth of marriage as an act of ultimate true love. You don’t have to look far to work out that the fairytale was created in the 1950s – probably as a response to all those wartime women who had gotten themselves “men’s jobs” and no longer really felt the need for a man to accessorise them. Prior to that, marriage was what it has always been: a useful way of determining inheritance of capital and shoring up social alliances for the upper classes, and a way of enforcing morality, compliance and cohesion on the lower classes. Love was still widely experienced, but not necessarily with one’s spouse.

I ended up marrying my husband because I couldn’t imagine not being in a pair-bond with him, but the ceremony was his idea: I would have been content with cohabitation, but the formal recognition was important to him, and I didn’t hate the idea so much that it was a deal-breaker on the pair-bonding. However, I refused the offer of a diamond engagement ring, we both wear wedding rings, I kept my birth surname, the kids have both our surnames and I refused to become the social secretary responsible for keeping up with his friends as well as mine (this doesn’t mean that I refuse to spend time with his friends, but it shouldn’t have to be my job to maintain friendships he looked after on his own for years, so if he wants to see them it’s his job to organise the gatherings).

Categories: gender & feminism, relationships


24 replies

  1. tigtog – I’m relatively new to the idea of marriage (not abusive marriage, forced marriage, oppressively traditional marriage) as antifeminist, so I’m still trying to figure this out. Frankly some of the ideas in the thread struck me as a bit odd, but I’m not sure if that’s because they *are* odd, or because I’ve been so brainwashed by the patriarchy’s “marriage is the only way to be” conditioning that I can’t conceive of any other alternatives.
    I suggested upthread that for now, maybe it would be more acceptable for couples (either opposite sex or same sex) to be “partners” instead of “husband and wife”. And as for the diamond engagement ring, yeah, I see a lot of social/ethical issues with diamonds first off; plus the whole, “ooo! look at my rock!” drooling over diamond engagement rings makes me want to vomit.
    I can understand that for most of us, the legal/financial benefits of marriage (not sure if they’re as skewed in Australia as in the US, where the government actually spends millions of dollars promoting marriage) are probably too tempting for an opposite sex cohabiting couple to pass up.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this, since a friend of mine is getting (very, very traditionally) married this summer…
    For me, at least, one of the hardest things to reconcile has been my feminism and my irrational desire for the ring, the floofy white dress, the whole patriarchal shebang. The funny thing is, even if you’re aware that the statement doesn’t create true love, I think that for our culture it does make a commitment to remaining together that is really hard to duplicate outside the married state.
    I’m not trying to say that people who don’t get married can’t be committed to remaining together. I’m trying to say that, as a culture, we don’t have a category to put that relationship in and we don’t have a way to think about it very well. So in my mind, at least, marriage is associated with making a commitment, and I think I would find it very hard to intend to spend my life with someone who refused to get married.
    This is, incidentally, why I’ve always been an activist for gay marriage, not civil unions. Civil unions are great, but one of the ways gays are vilified is for “not having long-term relationships.” Culturally, being a gay person who is married is, I think, an important statement. People won’t react to a gay person in a civil union in the same way, won’t think of them as truly committed.

  3. littoral mermaid, I was surprised by the depth of the feeling on the IBTP thread that no matter what, marriage was, perhaps not antifeminist as such, but still destructive of a sense of self-sovereignty for feminists in a way that they hadn’t expected it would be.
    I find I can’t add much to the debate on losing self-sovereignty through marriage, because my history of several bouts of clinical depression on top of a cyclic mood disorder means that I have a pretty shaky grip on self-sovereignty at the best of times.
    My partner met and married me in the middle of a few years of being (in retrosepct) mostly mildly manic and thus very confident and “together”. After my first bout of post-natal depression that woman whom he met and married virtually disappeared for years, until I finally found someone who diagnosed the mood disorder underlying my all too obvious clinical depression and got me on the right meds. Now he’s got “me” back again, without the swings into occasional grandiose ideation.
    The one thing, I believe, that kept him from leaving me in despair and taking the kids (could I have stood by him so staunchly if the situation was reversed – I like to think so but I really don’t know) was that we never lost our geeky intellectual rapport. That and I never lost joy in raising the kids, who are fabulous. They were almost my only joy for years, and how hard must it have been for him to know that he was my refuge but not my joy?
    Now he knows he gives me joy again. I’m still struggling through the aftermath and detritus of my worst years of illness, but I’m not lost in the maelstrom any more.
    Fuck, that’s a big derail, isn’t it. I think I needed to write it though.

  4. Back on topic for your other points, littoralmermaid.
    A lot of commentors did, as Nita noted, seem to not distinguish between getting married and being married.
    Getting married: for me, the one ritual aspect of the wedding ceremony I do like and believe has real social and personally transformative power is standing before kith and kin and announcing “I choose to be a family with this person”. Both partners wearing rings seems important as part of that ritual family tie acknowledgement, to me. The rest of the Western wedding traditions are so rife with paternalism and classism that they should be closely examined as to what you really want.
    For instance, the floofy white dress should go. (Sorry Madeline!) I much prefer this friend of a friend’s bridal dress from last year. [link] She looks comfortable and elegant and will be able to wear that lovely dress again. Remember that “the white dress” is a recent consumerist invention: a bride used to order a new set of “Sunday best” clothes that she wore for the first time to their wedding, and then she wore that dress on every Church occasion until she could afford a new set of Sunday best clothes. If she couldn’t afford a new set of “best”, then she wore the best clothes she already owned.
    Society weddings replete with conspicuous consumption drove the idea of the expensive wear-once wedding dress, and the posse of matching bridesmaids and pre-wedding social functions, and the expensive sit-down dinner reception and fashionable honeymoon: the concept trickled down as the wedding-industrial complex realised it could exploit the yearnings of the lower classes for a day of pretending to higher financial status than they really own. They sell “be a princess on your wedding day! (or else your parents and your husband don’t really really love you)” as hard as they damn well can.
    Which brings me to Being Married and the reason I chose to highlight Catherine Martell’s quote about the pernicious blight of the myth of of marriage as the ultimate expression of “true love”. Of course you should have respect and trust and deep, abiding affection for the person with whom you make a family, and that sort of love is the foundation of lasting pair-bonds. Abiding love has nothing to do with the rush of infatuated blissbombing that is sold as “true love” – infatuation is nearly all pheromones and mood-elevating neurochemical overdose bringing a rush of total irrationality to our evaluation of the other person, and it’s biology’s way of turning men and women into babymaking machines. Of course infatuation feels wonderful, but it’s no basis for judging whether someone will be a reliable partner with whom you can be content.
    Infatuation also never lasts: it is a temporary neurological condition. Which leads to big problems when our societal myth of “true love” is all about the bliss of infatuation lasting forever, instead of recognising that infatuation is a transition period, a period which builds up a bank of affection that can only be kept full if people build a foundation of abiding trust and respect which replenishes the bank of affection.
    Without the foundation of trust and respect the bank of affection will eventually drain away to empty, and then people are just miserable with each other. They search around for someone to blame for the loss of abiding affection and don’t realise it’s because they didn’t build a solid foundation to bridge the transition from infatuation. Then you start getting the kiss of death whine “if you really loved me, then you would want to do X to make me happy” – which is a unisex whine.
    Fuck that. Love is about wanting to spend more time with that person than anybody else, and the way to make that last is through being reliable and predictable on all the trust, respect and honesty issues. All that adds up to contentment, not happiness, which is the other crock of societal myth. We all find happiness for ourselves – my hypothesis is that we can build contentment for others in some ways, but no-one truly makes another person happy, because joy is experienced, not given.
    Blaming another person for “not making me happy” is an unjust imposition, even if they might be blameable for not pulling their weight in building contentment. Yet this is the current foundation myth of marriage: that two people can “make each other happy”. No wonder so many people, even feminists planning egalitarian marriages, find that they are let down by the reality of living in marriage.

  5. tigtog – Sorry to hear about your post-natal depression and lots of good wishes for the future.
    On a lighter note, I agree that the “wedding-industrial complex” is vomit-inducing.
    And seriously, wow, amazing deep thoughts on infatuation vs. love! (Are you a psychologist or in a related field?) I think that pop culture has really distorted our idea of love and made it seem more glamorous and easy than it really is. (Heh, not like I’d know a hell of a lot, I’m 20.) It’s presented infatuation as “love” at first sight as though it’s something magical; it packages infatuation and sexual attraction as romance and true love.

  6. Thanks, LM. My problem with PND is that I didn’t expect it even though I should have – I had a major episode of clinical depression in my early 20s and that’s a major indicator of PND, and I should have been prepared to get help right away. Also, it wasn’t until well after my two bouts of PND and my later living in the well of chronic depression that my dad’s family opened up about the family disposition to depressive illnesses. I could really have done with knowing the family was prone to depression before I had to deal with having a case, you know?
    As to the infatuation vs love stuff, I’m not a psychologist but I’ve read basic stuff about the neuropsychology of attraction and emotional bonding. It’s out there for those who want to learn. And I’m not dissing infatuation: infatuation is great while it lasts! I’m happy to say my honey and I still get frissons of our original infatuation lighting us up every now and then, and it’s glorious.
    The problem comes with thinking infatuation is the be-all and end-all. One particular problem with infatuation is the 6-month hump that so many relationships never get over. For that first six months, all you want to do is rip each other’s clothes off. After that, sexual desire still exists, but that overwhelming rush of desire every single day tapers off. THIS IS NATURAL, AND NOT A DELIBERATE POLICY DECISION.
    There’s a strong misogynist myth that women are “pretending” to be sexually keen in the first 6 months, and then they deliberately turn it off. If people understood infatuation better, they’d realise that both sexes hit 6 months and start seeing their partner more realistically. Without the haze of pheromones, serotonin and oxytocin, people simply don’t fantasise constantly about sex to the point of permanent vaginal lubrication/semi-erection that happens in those first few months.
    Without the constant background of explicit erotic daydreams about your crush, you begin to notice flaws you previously hadn’t noticed. The other person wasn’t hiding their flaws or pretending not to have them before – both of you were in a neurological state of mind that meant those flaws simply didn’t register and didn’t matter. If you don’t understand the infatuation process and prepare for it then it’s hard not to take it personally (s/he used to be so hot for me, what have I done wrong? why has s/he changed? why did s/he pretend to love me just as I was and now is finding fault?)
    I guess I would recommend enjoying infatuation for its impermanency, and build a foundation for something longer-lasting while you’re still enjoying having the crush on each other.

  7. You’ll have to forgive me for this, but I devoured so many feminist books before discovering the blogosphere that nearly every discussion reminds me of a book or three or five. And for some great feminist analysis of marriage I recommend:
    The Meaning of Wife by Anne Kingston – ALL about the insanity of the Wedding Industrial Complex and a little bit of depressing info about the history and origins of marriage
    I Do, But I Don’t by Kamy Wicoff – an almost memior-style book by a feminist women who is struggling to understand and reconcile the entire process of her wedding, from courtship to engagement to wedding planning to the actual big day. I have to warn you that it comes of as rather classist at times, since the author obviously comes from a family with means (she ends up going for the Vera Wang gown, after all), but her tone is genuine and her struggle makes for a really good read.
    The Bitch in the House: 26 women tell the truth about sex, solitude, work, motherhood, and marriage ed. Cathi Hanauer – a collection of essays that seem to echo the exact same sentiment of the commenters at IBTP. Tons of women who married their partners with visions of completely egalitarian marriages and were then in for rather rude awakenings. But I love personal stories, and I loved the book. I swear, the personal couldn’t be any more political than when it comes to marriage and motherhood.

  8. Now that nearly everyone in the West has succumbed to the Big Consumerist Sell of a faux society-wedding as required to show everyone that you’re Really Grown Up Now, it seems that the Wedding Industrial Complex is moving in on other cultures, too. What used to be a tradition of the whole village pitching in for a bridal feast has been transformed into having caterers provide gourmet food for hundreds of people more than the ancestral village ever contained, and simple local flower arrangements now have to be professional “statement” arrangements.
    Consumerism ruins genuine celebration.

  9. Getting married: for me, the one ritual aspect of the wedding ceremony I do like and believe has real social and personally transformative power is standing before kith and kin and announcing “I choose to be a family with this person”

    Mm. I wonder why this is (part of) why I’m not feeling any urge for a wedding ceremony? My partner and I stood up before family and friends celebrating our commitment to family at the naming of our son six weeks after his birth.
    We’ll probably have another party when we tie into a joint mortgage – with any luck, sometime in the next 12 months. Both these bonds seem to me to be at least as – if not more! – binding than a wedding ceremony.
    I think the last big rite of passage before our son’s naming, for him, was his PhD submission party; for me, perhaps my divorce party.
    Lots of different rituals, lots of different passages to have rites for. I’d love to hear those of other people.

  10. Lauredhel, that totally makes sense to me. You’ve already done the community commitment ceremony – you don’t need another one (unless you just want an excuse for a party and presents). The commitment to being a family is the Big Thing, no matter how it’s otherwise structured.

  11. My partner and I have been together for ten years now. We’re not married, we’re not planning to get married, and quite honestly, I wouldn’t want to marry him if I had the choice – mainly because we both have prejudices about what appropriate behaviour in a marriage should be. I don’t want to share a house with his father, and I’m damn certain he wouldn’t want to share a house with my mother. As it stands, we’ve purchased a house together, and both of our families accept us as being a permanent couple. Our friends do as well.
    I should note that we don’t have children, and we don’t plan on having any. If we *did* have children, I think we would have got married, simply because it’s a way of making the relationship between us legally recognised. I doubt I’d be having the froofawraw involved with a traditional wedding, if only because I made a decision many years ago that I wasn’t Christian.

  12. I’m not married, but we do have a baby and live together. In Australia the legal status between people like us and officially married people is pretty negligible, so we could still end up in the Family Court going halves on all our things and dividing our son should everything go pear-shaped (which doesn’t seem very likely at the moment).
    While I do see that there is a difference between ‘coupled’ and ‘married’ for some people, there isn’t for us. We do operate as individuals, but also as a team. When I’ve felt my sense of self being lost, it was more about the tiny baby latched onto my breasts, and stopping me from reading a good book. He’s currently getting upset that he still can’t crawl, this upsets him every day, he seems to think it will happen magically one morning. I’d better help him get unstuck.

  13. Take two: baby in bed now.
    I wonder if people focussed on the princess wedding ideal believe that ‘marriage’ and ‘happily ever after’ will happen magically the way my son seems to think he will learn to crawl.
    I have no idea how to change the Western cultural idea of magical relationships (rather than pro-actively building them) but it’s gotta happen soon, or the other half of the marriages are going to fall apart too.
    Thanks for talking about your mental health tigtog, and the impact of your health on your relationship and your partner, it’s a big issue for me and some other people I know too. Un-diagnosed mental health problems caused major problems for my friends for many years, they’re both getting treatment and counselling now, re-building their relationship, and finding new ways to operate in the world. But it’s really hard work, and it’s too early to tell if they got help soon enough to save the relationship.
    My friend burst into tears describing their relationship a couple of months ago. The exhaustion of every day things, of caring for her husband when he’s ill, of being responsible for everything, because he can’t be, while coping with her own illness and stressors. This is why they have vows. It’s what she couldn’t possibly comprehend when she took those vows. That’s what people need to hear about before they promise to love forever – about the ‘worse’ and ‘in sickness’, and how bad they can be.
    I think weddings need to be preceeded by some real pre-marriage counselling, getting people to think properly about how they deal with conflict, how they communicate, and how they anticipate life changing over time. My friends were sent to ‘counselling’ by the church who married them. The ‘counsellors’ were a married couple who told them to pray together. That advice has been completely useless.

  14. I married for tax reasons (we were about to move to the UK, and at the time, a man got about 1,000 pounds extra tax back for being married, which seemed a lot of money at the time).
    But I think we probably would have ended up married anyway. I did refuse an engagement ring, also – I don’t know many other people who have done that. We bought a painting together, instead (roughly spending that 1,000 pounds, strangely enough).
    But marriage (in the big white wedding sense) seems to be becoming more, not less, fashionable – the feminist corner of the blogosphere seems to be swimming against the tide, if anything.

  15. Kate, I found your comments regarding mental health issues a good example of the whole situation with a partnership working or not working. My partner and I have gone through some problems of our own (I have chronic depression, and have had it since I was about fourteen… I’ve been under treatment for it now for about six years) due to my mental health issues. In a lot of ways, he’s been a great deal of help for me, partially because he’s been there when I’ve been at my worst, giving me another reason to resist the pitch of the salesdemon for suicide I had living in my head. The other way he’s helped me is by being something of a reality check for me. He was the one who first got me speaking to a doctor about my mental health issues (about four months into the relationship), which resulted in the diagnosis of an ongoing problem with hypothyroidism. He’s the one who’s pointed out to me when I was going off the rails, and who’s held me and showed me that I’m not totally worthless.
    He’s shown this commitment, stuck by me for ten years through the worst I could be. He’s lived with me when I’ve been furious with the rest of the universe, including him. He’s loved me all that time, and he didn’t have to. At that point, what do we need a ceremony for?
    In the words of one of my favourite characters (Kerr Avon, from Blake’s 7) “I have never understood why it was necessary to become irrational in order to prove that you care, or indeed, why it should be necessary to prove it at all.” My partner has proved he cares, in countless ways over the last ten years – I don’t need a ceremony as “proof”.

  16. I am really enjoying the discussion here. I have to admit I felt curiously alienated by (although also very stimulated) the discussions on “i blame the patriarchy” and “feministe” on this topic. The first I found a bit tight and the second I found a bit loose in viewpoints.
    I’m in a long-term relationship, one that I hope will last forever (so much so that we have a child together) but we are unlikely to ever marry and we don’t even have any joint bank accounts. I relate to Lauredhel’s experience of a naming ceremony for your baby replacing much of what you might be looking for in a wedding -that notion of a public declaration of your future together. It certainly did for us.
    I wrote about our decision not to marry here, at the end I list 10 reasons why we never got married so I won’t reiterate it all here but it is satisfying to read other feminists discuss their experiences and choices on this issue in this post.

  17. While I’m not fussed about marriage one way or the other (and spent my childhood dreaming of owning heaps and heaps of horses, rather than getting married in a fluffy white dress), there were two things here I had to comment on.
    One was this:
    “plus the whole, “ooo! look at my rock!” drooling over diamond engagement rings makes me want to vomit.”
    But diamonds are pretty! I don’t want or need one from my partner, as I have a gorgeous one my aunt gave me that I wear every day, but they’re about the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen. They sparkle and make rainbows in the light! I can’t see why people admiring a diamond would make someone want to vomit, any more than admiring a pretty butterfly, or a flower, or the moon or a beautiful child would make someone want to vomit.
    Oh, and mine’s very much antique, has been in my family for several generations, so not worried about the whole diamond mining thing.
    The other was this:
    “but we are unlikely to ever marry and we don’t even have any joint bank accounts”
    Getting married doesn’t mean you have to have joint bank accounts! My parents have been married 33 years and still have separate finances.

  18. We have a joint bank account. Primarily because we have joint expenses – our son. At the moment the Bloke is going out to work, and I’m mostly at home with the baby. Because of the work/home situation, I’m primarily the shopper, and he’s the earner. So the idea is that a joint account is the easiest way for him to transfer ‘his’ earnings to ‘our’ expenses.
    Without leaving a cash allowance on the fridge, which would make me cry.
    My parents have always had ‘theirs’ and ‘hers’ accounts. I suppose my Dad’s TAB account counts as ‘his’.

  19. With internet banking so easy, my partner and I just transfer money back and forth as needed. We’ve both had our bank accounts/credit cards set up for ages, and have heaps of automatic payments and direct debits set up. Dismantling those systems would be a PITA, so we’d need a very good practical reason to do so, and we just don’t have one, so why bother?

  20. We’re too forgetful to transfer the money, and we were setting up new bill payments anyway when we moved house. Of course, the nab, in all their wisdom, only sent me a card, so the joint account thing hasn’t been tested. He wont put money in until he has the wherewithall to get it out again. Which is perfectly ok with me.

  21. Sorry, I wanted to weigh in on this issue too, and I’m going to do it here!
    I have to say I am a bit surprised at the idea of marriage (in and of itself, not talking about unhealthy relationships) being a feminist issue. To me of course you can be married and be a feminist. In fact the suggestion that you can’t seems that the pressure is coming from a quarter outside of the marriage, is coming from feminism itself. I’ve never been very comfortable with the idea of ‘feminism’ telling me what to do, think or say. What’s the good of it, if it’s just another set of conditions?
    In the house from which I write, love isn’t a feminist issue. (It is one in mass culture and popular media, but it isn’t one in the space between my partner and I). Marriage, although admittedly also a public state, usually begins in the emotional and private realm: love, sharing, usually co-habiting, sometimes parenting, it’s about entanglement. Marriage (the way we do it, which is sharing our finances, since they’ve never been very equal and neither of us wanted to live with this inequity) gives me a financial support structure – it also gives my husband one. He is able to study full time and share the care of our two daughters (his choice) because of my writing, I was able to write novels and care for our first daughter (my choice) when he worked. We’ve each made a space for the other to explore themselves.
    We have a piece of paper (granted it’s in Greek and could say anything, since neither of us read Greek, but it looks like a marriage certificate), and memories of a day we pledged to respect and love each other, to remain free-spirits but entangled together. That may or may not be what we actually said (neither of us can remember and there were no guests to tell us, though the words ‘free spirit’ were in there somewhere). But that was the heart of it.
    There are as many marriages as there are feminisms. To reduce either to a singularity is to deny the complexities of human experience, of the heart, of love. It’s to do the work for ‘them’, projecting the cold currency of romantic love as portrayed via Meg Ryan and perfume commercials onto real life, lived experience.
    I find myself wanting to apologise, explain, show how my marriage is different…meaning not threatening to feminists who disapprove of it. Isn’t it the same as trying to show how my feminism is different and therefore not threatening to men?

  22. Excellent comment, Penni.
    You touch on something important: the defensive response from us married feminists is wanting to say “but mine is different!”, because hey, if we weren’t finding something satisfying in our marriages, we presumably wouldn’t still be married.
    There is definitely a tension, a balance, between marriage traditions which subjugate women’s autonomy and between what marriage can be recreated to mean by egalitarian partners. We all have to find the point of balance for ourselves that meshes our discontented skepticism with patriarchal symbols and our hopes for a contented and satisfying partnership with a person we love spending time around.


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