April 1, 2001
The last thing he wants to do is marry just because
o you need a reason to get married? I'd like to know because right now I don't have one - at least not one that feels good. Having a reason, a sensible reason, seems important to me, though not because I'm straddling the marriage fence, trying to decide if I should make the jump. No, I'm nowhere near that fence. Some of my friends could persuade you I don't even know where the fence is.
I do know, however, that I want to marry, and sooner would be better. Before I turned twenty-eight I was scared of marriage and suspicious of any woman who looked like she might have wanted to get married.
Then my thirties began inching up on me and now I'm scared I'll never make it to the altar. Almost overnight I slipped from arrogant detractor to anxious disciple.
Shocking as it was, I didn't bother trying understand this transformation until last year, when I attended a string of five weddings in six months. What had started a few years earlier as a trickle of friends marrying suddenly burst into a mad nuptial stampede, and I increasingly felt like the odd man out on a juicy secret. With each new wedding my ambition to get married intensified - but so did my confusion: I simply could not explain my preoccupation with an experience that remained as remote and intangible to me as marriage. I decided that if I could indeed find a good reason to get married, it would help provide a reasonable explanation to this otherwise uncanny obsession.
The first of the five weddings was in early spring, at a winery in Napa Valley where I failed to drink in moderation. After dinner I crashed into the groom's table and, by way of apology, asked him why he decided to marry. I hadn't planned to ask, but in my enlightened state the question seemed perfectly appropriate. Chris laughed. His parents and in-laws laughed. 'Are you kidding me?' he said, taking his wife's hand. 'She sat me down one day and gave me the ultimatum.'
Even after I sobered up I couldn't decide what to do with his answer. Chris likes to joke, so I was tempted to dismiss it. Conversely, if marrying was the only way for Chris to continue to live with the woman he loved, his reasoning made sense. Either way, I had my first data point and I was ready for more.
Two months later I flew into sultry Miami for a Catholic wedding complete with a ten-hour sermon, hefty Cuban matrons perspiring in pink and lavender dresses, and a glittering bride in a frilly, off-white gown. Her family came from Havana, his from San Juan, and everyone agreed that Mario and Diane were 'perfect for each other' - including my date to the wedding, who hadn't ever met them before. 'You have to find someone like that,' she confided in me, 'a companion for life. Then you marry them.'
But why? What was it about marrying that would make their perfectness for each other even more perfect? That's what I asked God, and myself, as the priest droned on. Thinking about marriage is hard work. I sat there trying to focus, fanning myself with a hymnal and imagining God's face laughing at me. The problem is so much has been said and written about marriage that it is pointless attempting to form your own opinions. Marriage has always been a cliché. Then you marry and you also become a cliché. Personally, I can't wait to turn into a sports-watching, housework-avoiding, Buddha-bellied couch-potato. I'll purchase the family truckster and trundle out to the suburbs with my whiny wife and her frilly wedding gown in tow. I'll do anything, I think, as long as I don't become the forty-year-old single guy. My search for a good reason to marry doesn't mean that I won't marry until I have one.
Adrian got married in central Mexico, on a muddy garden perched on top of a gray cliff that overlooked an arid, toasted-yellow valley. Of all my friends, he was the best candidate to marry for politics; he is crafty and opportunistic. If he had lived in the nineteenth century and been royalty, his marriage would have cemented some great alliance and brought peace to the realm. Instead, deprived of blue blood and mired in the era of pedestrian democracy, he married for love - mad, senseless love, as he confessed to me.
I recall a time when I looked forward to marrying for love. The notion felt so romantic, though I could never figure out how marriage changed love, or enhanced it. Did it sustain it? Speaking from lack of experience, I don't think you can marry for love. Love is, ideally, a pre-condition to marriage, but marriage is not a pre-condition to love. I almost hesitate to write this, it seems so obvious in retrospect.
Obvious or not, when I dissect marriage, I feel like the man from Supertramp's Logical Song, who gets sent away an innocent and comes back too clinical, intellectual, and cynical. When I was young, marriage was a supreme mystery. Now it has shrunk to a life-size foible, an absurdity. It's no longer awe-inspiring. And this only makes my marriage mania harder to understand.
From Mexico I flew back to San Francisco for John's wedding. John was getting married 'to have kids,' a practical notion even if not romantic. How do you explain to your children why their classmates call them illegitimate bastards?
Still, kids were only half the story with John. He's not quite Mr. Self-confident, and I think he sought the sense of security marriage confers. He believes marriage carries a weight of its own which compels a relationship to stay in place. Maybe his wife believes this too.
The last wedding took me east, to Cape Cod. Gina also believes in marriage, though her faith is grounded in tradition. Marriage for her is a way of life that involves financial security and freedom - freedom from the liberated woman's life, the nine-to-five job, and the dual, homemaker-breadwinner role. She's not wasting her fancy education, only acquiring the option to choose when to use it. Though I couldn't identify with her specific reasoning, I admired the layered complexity behind her deliberate choice to marry.
When I emerged from the church, bells clanging, September sun in my eyes and ocean salt on my tongue, I realized that after five weddings, fifteen thousand miles of travel and countless hours of acute self-interrogation, I still didn't have a good reason to marry. Part of me wanted to abandon my search as pointless, since I was committed to marrying anyway. But I already do too many things, important things, without thinking - just because. I don't want to marry just because.
At the same time, another part of me knew that I was on the verge of coming to a rather unpalatable conclusion. I'd explored the gamut of possible reasons to get married and discarded most every one as senseless or not applicable: love, companionship, freedom, security, finances, boredom... In the end, there were no juicy secrets, and the only thing I had left was the same realization that woke me up one day, twenty-eight years old: that I didn't want to be unmarried.
Somebody asked me recently, after suffering through my entire marriage analysis, if I was trying to be different. And I finally got it. I'm not trying to be different. That's it, that's my unpalatable conclusion, the reason that doesn't make me feel good: I just want to be the same.
I dislike this reason because the idea of being part of a herd grates; it is brainless, Disneyfied, impersonal. Sure, it can be practical, in the way that 'marrying for the kids' is practical, yet how will it sound when I explain it to my future lifelong companion? Darling, you are the woman for me, I want to spend the next sixty years with you and have kids and file taxes jointly and put the down-payment on the family truckster - but, I don't want to marry you because of all those things. No. I simply want to fit in.
I dislike this reason, but I have also come to accept it. Sometimes we do things because everyone else does them too. My uncanny nuptial obsession has evolved into a rationalized aspiration, an unromantic and unglamorous ambition; and my dread of remaining unmarried has simmered down to a nervous expectation. Still, despite this more clinical outlook, I want to get married as badly as before.
Now, if only I could find that damned fence, I could jump in and join the stampede.
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