April 1, 2001
Why ruin a great relationship by marrying?
by Sean Townsend
his year will mark the twelfth anniversary of my relationship with a beautiful, vibrant woman. That would be just under halfway to our silver anniversary - if we were married. Fortunately, we aren't. Neither of us is over thirty, which is still much too young to be thinking about silver anniversaries. Besides, we don't want to ruin a perfectly good union by getting married.
After all, what is a marriage, really? In almost every society throughout history, it's been a ritualized way of joining two people into one symbolic entity, with kids to follow. The rituals have usually involved some sort of binding together of wrists (from which the expression 'tying the knot' arises, not to mention referring to one's wife as 'the old ball and chain.') Nowadays, of course, the preferred method is an exchange of rings, which are easily removable at nightclubs, as opposed to handcuffs, which are not.
Ambrose Bierce, author of The Devil's Dictionary, defined love as 'a temporary insanity curable by marriage.' Judging by the example of our recently married friends, these are words to live by. In only a few months, their formerly affectionate relationship has degenerated into a mutual animosity they have no qualms about displaying in public. Lately, we've been avoiding them altogether, but the question remains - what could have caused such a drastic change?
We think the wedding had something to do with it. Our friends thought that planning their wedding would bring them closer together. Instead, it brought out their least desirable characteristics. He made it clear early on that he wasn't interested in the specifics, yet he was quick to object whenever she made a decision. This naturally led to tension, recrimination, and anger between them - none of which have apparently diminished since the wedding. Problems that existed in their relationship have been magnified to the point that they can't even be civil to each other in a restaurant. Luckily, my girlfriend and I have been together long enough to know that getting married doesn't solve relationship problems, and that the wedding itself is a good way to create them. These are the main reasons we've chosen not to get married.
If it were just a matter of swapping gold bands and saying 'I do,' we might have done it long ago (actually, I did buy her an engagement ring for our 10th anniversary; she admits a fondness for the trappings of marriage, if not the trap.) But as marriage has grown into an institution, weddings have grown into an industry - an economic juggernaut of flowers, catering, and overpriced wear-once gowns. From the ridiculous 'two months salary' guideline to the legalized extortion that is wedding photography, the entire process of getting hitched is more like getting taken. Fueled by lavish movie-star spectacles and a constant barrage of soap-opera nuptials, this matrimony-industrial complex causes normally sensible couples (like our once-happy friends) to engage in Pavlovian drooling at the sound of a fork clinking a wine glass. In their craving for a ceremony of unattainable grandeur, they pile up debt and guilt-trip their parents into raiding the retirement fund. These anxious twosomes would do well to consider how long the average celebrity marriage lasts. No wonder some people are arguing for the abolition of marriage altogether. They're probably the fathers of engaged women.
I've been suspicious of weddings for as long as I can remember. I think it's because I was raised as a Catholic (a euphemistic way of saying that my mother dragged me to church every Sunday until I was old enough to refuse): I could never get past the idea that getting laid would require the sanction of a priest who wasn't allowed to get laid.
Still, the combined forces of pop culture and religious tradition are not always easy to ignore. Even with our friends as a cautionary reminder, our resistance occasionally weakens. When this happens, we enjoy going to wedding fairs, those crass trade shows of the marriage market. Unfettered by the pressures of a looming deadline, we can relax and savor the atmosphere of faint desperation and happily-ever-after hucksterism. All along the cramped aisles, grim-faced grooms-to-be stand aloof, clutching their bagfuls of pamphlets and brochures, while name-tagged future brides of all shapes and sizes elbow and jostle to hear the canned presentations at each little booth. Some of them are veterans, coming back year after year in hopes of winning the coveted $50,000 DREAM WEDDING. So much for marriage making people unselfish.
For those couples who don't score the $50,000 DREAM WEDDING, the result of all the stress and expense is a brief, modest ceremony in which two families, who otherwise try to avoid each other, gather to watch a pair of uncomfortably-dressed people take vows that will be broken two-thirds of the time. This is often followed by a reception. Receptions exist so that guests can consume an amount of free booze equivalent to three times the price of their wedding gifts. Childhood nicknames that are best left forgotten are trotted out, to the embarrassment of the newlyweds. As the evening wears on, somebody's relative will drink too much, to the embarrassment of everyone. A year later, the only thing anyone will remember about the wedding is Uncle Larry's false teeth popping out when he threw up all over the head table.
Like much of modern life, the reality of the wedding seldom lives up to the media-created hype. Nor does marriage prove to be the magical relationship booster it was supposed to be. Founded on such unrealistic expectations and mistaken assumptions, the entire flimsy edifice falls apart faster than you can say 'no-fault divorce.'
When I offer these reasons to my own family and friends (who never seem to tire of bugging me about getting married), they smile and say things like 'Ain't that the truth,' but I can almost hear them thinking he's just afraid of commitment. As though eleven years spent with the same woman means nothing without some piece of paper. As though that woman's life is about little more than waiting for me to 'get over it' and take the plunge.
We see no reason to stage a wedding just to prove to others what we already know: that we share a more genuine bond - the willingness to simply be together. It's not a bond that marriage necessarily provides, or one that comes from a ceremony; it's one we've forged through a decade of shared experiences as lovers, partners, and friends. We're both free to leave, but we prefer not to. The marriage abolitionists like to call it 'consent without compulsion.' We'll settle for temporary insanity.
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