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When Marriage Becomes God

This is not a take down of marriage. I am old enough to know that I know very little about almost everything. I am ill equipped to critique an institution that has sustained societies around the globe for generations. I am an expert at staying in my lane and minding my own business. Why some single women can’t envision an entire lifetime lived without a husband is not my lane. Questioning women who expend energy trying to salvage fractured marriages is not my business.

I will own up to this: I don’t get it. Marriage and why some would want it — crave it, even — yes, I completely get that. Building of wealth. Support while raising children. Commitment to more than just passionate, romantic love. Yeah, I dig why this would be a goal for folk. What confounds me are the assumptions about those of us who don’t crave the institution.

In one of the many online women’s groups I belong to, relationships were discussed. Someone commented on women who “allow” men to date them for years, never requiring — demanding — a wedding ring. The implication seemed to be these women devalued themselves. Were “allowing” men to waste their time. Most who replied to the post agreed that women (of a certain age) who did not end up with at least the possibility of a ring after a year or two of courtship were failing themselves. “Why would you continue to date with no goals for the relationship?”

I didn’t comment on the thread. It was far more informative to read all the perceptions of what made a 21st century partnership acceptable. And these perceptions seemed to have not evolved much from those born out of the 18th century. If a woman over the age of twenty-five enjoys the company of a male companion and they profess love for each other, then the escalator should arrive at marriage with expedience. The further away from thirty she was, the more it could be understood why she might be on a slow-moving escalator. However, if there were no eventual marriage and the couple did not both get off the escalator, then…this was a failure. And the bulk of the blame should be placed on the shoulders of the wasted woman who had allowed herself to be in a loving, monogamous relationship for years with no “goals.”

For a surprisingly large number of women, there is nothing else that validates a relationship more than having paperwork done on it. The assumptions about a woman who ended up unmarried after more than three years in a relationship were absurd. First, it was assumed that the ringless woman wanted to be married, but was afraid to pressure the boyfriend and chase him away. It also seemed to be understood that long term courtships not leading to marriage were just 36 months of hook ups with the same dude. “It’s like they’re just having good sex and then when that’s no longer fun, they move on.” This comment made me chuckle. As is the case in many adult relationships, unmarried couples are intimate. And just like when a married couple decide to end their union and the sex stops, the unmarried couple who dissolve their relationship also stop having sex with each other. When they meet someone else they feel connected to, they start having sex again. How is this evidence of anything other than grown ups behaving like grown ups?

What I don’t get is the deification of marriage. I am confused about how in this, the century of our lord: the 21st, matrimony is still being held up as if it is Christ on the cross offering women salvation. I will show up to anybody’s wedding with a nice gift and my hand reaching for a champagne glass. I will congratulate bride and groom and with sincerity wish them well. However, I would do that for my homegirl who decides she is quitting her job and starting her own business. I would big up a co-worker who bought a house. If my homie stayed in her job and never opened her own business, I would see no reason to be concerned about where her career was going. If my co-worker remained in his rental apartment, I’d see that as just a lifestyle choice. Why is there such a high moral value placed on the lifestyle choice of marriage? Why is the acquisition of a spouse seen as some sort of a prize and to not win one is to signify a loss?

When I chatted with Tracy Adams about her decision to divorce her husband, she spoke about how many people placed the word only in front of the words three years when they found out she and her husband were splitting up. “Y’all giving up after only three years?,” they asked incredulously. The implication being that to make such a choice required more suffering and agonizing than she had already put in through those 36 months. See, this was not the same as the homegirl who started her own business, realized she was better meant for the stability of being an employee so closed the bakery and went back to her old job. This was not the same as the man who began saving for a down payment on his house, but after doing some investigating into the housing market decided it better to continue renting. Tracy’s decision to hand back her prize after only three years represented a moral failure. She didn’t simply try to live a choice, realize it was the wrong one and then correct the error.

As Tracy said on Unchained. Unbothered., there is an expectation that women value being chosen so badly that they continue to work doggedly at a marriage, even when their gut tells them the marriage is not right. Non stop emotional labor is a fair trade off to hold on to the living, breathing proof they had won.

Love, I Salute You

I am one of those “late bloomers” who showed up to dating substantially tardy. In high school, a combination of about 50 extra pounds,  a jheri curl and an uncontrollable habit of waxing poetic about books in the middle of conversations about singers and TV stars forfeited my already lackluster game in the girlfriend competition. College was overwhelming on so many levels that the thought of embarking on a journey that others had begun years before me seemed both frightening and ridiculous. Post college, when I threw myself into the dating pool, I did what I had done when I was barely 10 and my father threw me into Lake Pontchartrain and TRIED to teach me how to swim. I thrashed wildly about as if the water which barely covered my head would take away my last breath before finally giving up and laying my substantial bulk on the water’s surface, content that if I were in a “drowning situation” as my father said, I could be saved by my stellar floating skills.

I supply this background into my romantic history because I have found myself in my first long term relationship. I am 38 years old. When The Yankee and I hit our 3 year mark this summer, I will be 39. 

Because I have always been a self-motivated over acheiver, I am genuinely surprised at myself for taking for granted the many life skills I could have been strengthening through a healthy, loving relationship. Somewhere in between my mid 20s to now, I became so accustomed to my life as a curious adventurer who pursued each and every arbitrary whim those gemini twins whispered into my ear that I never even thought to cultivate my other self. The self who shifts her priorities for a partner. The self who not only willingly cares for a lover, but relishes such a duty.

Today, I had a revelation that surprised me. Not only would I make a really good wife, I would probably enjoy being one.

I chuckled when this occured to me. I have never been anti-marriage; I just honestly never spent much time thinking about it. I attended numerous weddings throughout my 20s and 30s with no other thought than, “I am so happy for my friends.” I have spent time with married couples and even babysat their children feeling no other emotion than gratitude that I could hang out with happy people and their hilarious offspring. So, today as I sauteed pork chops and contemplated the two other meals I would make so the Yankee and I could have wholesome lunches at work, I was truly surprised at how happy it made me. I thought about how often I think about us – not just me – but US. At this point it comes rather naturally for me to stop in the drugstore to pick up something that I know he will need and to text him, asking him to bring me something I didn’t feel like stopping at the store to get. There is something to be said for having help. Those few times in the past I had thought about having  a husband, my mind immediately went to how much easier my life in a metropolis like New York City would likely be if there were another income I could utilize.  Now that I am in a partnership, I feel the most secure when I know someone else will bring in toilet paper because I for damn sure am not going back out to get it.  

I am grateful for THIS love in my life at THIS time. Because I have consistently developed into a more compassionate human who is able to tame her ego, I truly believe 38 year old Keturah is much better equipped to nurture a relationship of this magnitude. When I think back to the frightened, arrogant gatekeeper I was just 10 years ago, I am actually surprised that I managed to break 6 months in a relationship. This post is not so much a salute to love as it is to my decision to awaken to it. For while The Yankee is truly a wonderful boyfriend, had I not chosen to develop the skills that are crucial to love properly, this post would not exist. And neither would my first long term relationship. 

 

Narratives That Give Love a Bad Name

Ever since I was a girl, I’ve fantasized about seeing the world. Even when I was a pre-teen, I knew that by seeing the world, I did not mean vacaying in swanky resorts that felt like a night at the downtown Hilton in any nondescript American city and going on cruises, choosing the snorkeling excursion to add some adventure. As an avid reader, my imagination ran wild and when I played that “what do you want to be when you grow up” game in my head, I knew my life would involve leaving American borders for extended periods of time, if not forever. Something has happened to me these last several months. Perhaps, it is because I am looking at a solid decade at a wonderful job which I love in the best city in the country, but I am also beginning to feel the soft legs and mushy muscles of a woman too comfortable and in need of challenge. Perhaps it is because I am gleefully approaching 40 and realizing that this grand number warrants a grand life shift to accompany it. I have decided that instead of the vague “sometime in the future when the time is right” non-deadline, NOW is the ideal time to put my childhood dream into adulthood reality. Around late October, I decided to take baby steps along the way to the next phase of Keturah: global citizenship.

I set an ultimate move date: Summer of 2015. Picked an area of the globe that spoke to my heart: Africa, with specific focus on South Africa, Ghana or Ethiopia. As part of my plan, I spoke this goal into being – telling friends about my impending move and networking with colleagues who could be helpful in job searches. I have even plotted out my auditioning of countries where I’d like to live, planning a trip to Ghana in July with the possibility of exploring other countries in West Africa as well. I’ve picked the brains of numerous Africans – both living in Africa and here in New York City – and spoken with Black Americans who have travelled extensively across the continent. By speaking this almost reality into existence, I have already felt the soft gauze of lethargy and monotony float from my person. I am excited about my move even though it is almost two years away.

Out of all of the conversations I’ve had these last few months, the ones that have been the most revealing are chats I’ve had with friends about “What will you do with your man?” I’ve explained to friends that while The Yankee and I are definitely in love, neither one of us feels that this love is necessitated by marriage. Since we are staying together, we obviously are perfectly content with the status of the relationship and have talked about revisiting and reexamining it when the time comes. Like me, The Yankee is also fighting his way out of inertia right now. He, too, has just begun a new journey in his life. His journey is not necessarily tied to a move to another continent. In two years, it still may not be, either. With that said, I’ve shared with friends that my move to Africa is imminent. It is a pivotal step in the next phase of Keturah. It will happen. I would prefer it happened with The Yankee. But, it will happen regardless of him.

Saying this in the presence of women “of a certain age” has been a little unsettling. When I have calmly spoken about planning my life around my desires and those desires are not attached to what will or will not become of my romantic relationship, I have been startled by some of the love narratives on which many women base their decisions about relationships.

Love Narrative #1: The Ring Trumps EVERYthing (and I do mean every single other thing that you, as a woman of a “certain age,” should want for your life)

“What if The Yankee proposed to you in 6 months?” My friend, Theresa, asked me this bizarre question after I had spent a good 15 minutes explaining how important this move was to me and how not fulfilling it would leave me with a sense of discontent.

“Huh?” I truly was baffled by this question.

“I’m saying, what if he asked you to marry him because he wanted you to stay and create a life with him? Would you still go?”

While the sentiment in this question is one of genuine love of a man for his woman, if you truly examine it, the implication is a bit insulting. So, what if your man wanted you so badly that he had to stop you from fulfilling a significant goal in order to keep you? I mean, you do get something out of the deal; he will marry you, after all. Why not just put that global citizenship business aside for later? Take the ring, Girl. Take. The. Ring!

I asked Theresa if she had been listening to anything I had just said. Unless The Yankee proposed marriage after he had decided on his own that an international move was something he wanted to explore, why would I even consider saying Yes to his proposal? I asked her if she would have married her husband had he shown a disinterest in having children or raising them in the Christian church. Both of these are values that are supremely important to Theresa. If she found herself in a relationship with a man whose idea of family so drastically differed from her’s, no matter how much she loved him, marrying him would make absolutely no sense as his preference in lifestyle was not congruent to her’s.

“I actually would find a marriage proposal from The Yankee under the context you have set up rather manipulative,” I explained to Theresa. “Why would a man who loved me want to keep me from my heart’s desire?”

“Girl,” she sighed. “Most women would be like: ‘I got me a good man who loves me. Let me make this work.’ You are on some other level.”

Which brings us to…

Love Narrative #2: The Scarcity of the Soul Mate (in other words, romantic love is so rare and so limited, that when you have something that even slightly resembles a soul mate, you must NEVER, ever, NEVER, ever let him go!)

Although Theresa is a good ole Christian gal, many women with diverse values and points of view truly believe the narrative underlying her “you got a good man; don’t let him go” comment. Narrative #2 implies that the universe has placed a glass ceiling on love. There are finite experiences. Limited amounts of potential partners. If you have one truly amazing, fulfilling relationship that results in mutual growth and happiness, the chances of your having that again decrease with each passing moment.

Not only is this a hyperbolic fear that is often implanted solely on the psyches of women, but it is also illogical and makes little sense. Much like I am not the first woman to love The Yankee, he is not the first man to love me. It stands to reason that we are rather lovable people. No, we did not find each other easily and there were some dreary crazies in between our love just like there were some dreary crazies in between our past respective relationships. But, we have consistently sustained loving relationships that have brought us benefit and joy. If we decided to part ways, don’t our past experiences predict that there is even greater love out there for BOTH of us?

This fallacy that we will only find meaningful love with “The One” perplexes me. While I am not a cynic, neither am I a woman who believes that love is anything more than a choice to grow with someone. That choice requires you to make a host of other choices as you create a partnership with someone who shares your values and worldview. If I am being love at every single moment of my life, why would I not attract it more than once in a lifetime?

Love Narrative #3: In Matters of the Heart, Women can not Engage the Mind

This last narrative insults me more than #1, actually. It has been a subtle assertion by more than a few who truly find it surprising that I could walk away from a man I loved when there was no “real” problem with the relationship.

“I hope he comes to his senses when it’s time for you to move,” a friend commented after I explained that The Yankee was not hearing the call of the Motherland like I was.

“We shall see,” I responded. “There is still time so things could change. If they don’t, then I’ll have to make a difficult decision.”

When I have spoken about this inevitable decision, I have presented it as one that is not terribly complicated. Either he will want to come or he won’t. If he doesn’t, then I will have to end our relationship. I will eat a cheese cake. I will shed some tears. The sun will rise in the east; it will set in the west.

I have been told I am strong and evolved for being able to even think about this possible dilemma so calmly. While I will never dismiss any compliment, I am disturbed by the notion that ending a romantic relationship is fraught with purely heart-wrenching emotion. A near-crazed woman who can not face the reality of her relationship because of intense emotions taking over her still seems to be the dominant image of a “woman in love” that plays on the subconscious of even the most progressive men and women.

Yes, if I have to end my relationship, there will be sadness. It is not a decision I will come to lightly or joyfully. But, if the reality of my life and its circumstances means ending it, I am more than comfortable allowing my brain to take over when my heart is ill-equipped to do so. I fully endorse raw, messy emotions being underneath decisions in love, but I refuse to believe I am the only woman who’s more than capable of using her head even while her heart hurts.

I am sure many women proudly live by at least one of these narratives. And some would even say it is BECAUSE of these narratives that they have found themselves in loving relationships that have enhanced their lives. However, it should be noted that at the root of each of these beliefs is fear. Is it just me who finds it problematic that something we all agree is deeply important to the human experience should be rooted in a belief structure that appeals to our lesser selves? Shouldn’t we cultivate love narratives that perpetuate the belief that romantic love comes from a place of power? A place within our greatest selves that has not given in to the fallacy that we are fearful, weak creatures. The best romantic love is empowering. Our belief system about it should mirror this power.

Sustainable Joy

A friend asked me MONTHS ago for my opinion of Steve Harvey’s Act Like A Lady; Think Like A Man.  This friend had taken her husband to see the movie version on one of their date nights and for some reason couldn’t wait “to ask you what you thought about it because I knew you would have a strong opinion.”

I had to disappoint my friend.  For 37 years, I have managed to never seek the advice of any of the litany of self-help dating books that make up what has to be a trillion dollar arm of the publishing industry. And when Mr. Harvey’s highly successful book turned into a highly successful movie, my desire to see it – for its sage guidance or light entertainment – never arrived. I held no strong opposition to neither the book and subsequent movie nor Steve Harvey’s bizarre promotion from a moderately funny comic to the single woman’s yoda. When Harvey was doing his rounds on Oprah, however, I do distinctly recall being irritated by him.  I could not explain why, but I was certain that my irritation cut much deeper than Steve’s seemingly sincere attempt to let women into the inner workings of the male mind, particularly the mind of the “marriage-ready” male.  

I never read the book; I never saw the movie.  I never could explain why I was irritated by both, though, until last week.

I read an article in the August issue of Vogue that dug into a much-neglected angle of what should be a moot issue at this point in our species’ evolution: a woman’s right to choose.  What made Pamela Paul’s angle unique was that she did not write an article about abortion.  It was not even an article about birth control options. It was an article about women in the prime of their child bearing years CHOOSING to get tubal ligations because they had known since they were adolescents that they did not want children and preferred the guarantee of a child-free life that tied tubes promised.

The women’s doctors soothingly suggested they just stay on the pill since they would probably change their minds later in life.  Some physicians even said they would “consider” performing the procedure if the women’s husbands would come in to verify they both had agreed on what she would and would not do with her uterus. Several doctors spoke wistfully of the joy they found in their own children, ending with the caveat: “What if you meet someone you REALLY love and then you can’t have his child?” Doctors even offered this cautionary tale to married women who could not find the words to counter this unintended accusation that they did not really love their husbands if they were unwilling to have children.

Paul was fair and diplomatic.  She wrote about a doctor’s responsibility to withhold a medical procedure if she felt it were not in the best interest of a patient.  And what ethical gynecologist would dole out a tubal ligation with the same indifferent ease as she would scribble out a prescription for the pill? However, there was something about the somewhat extreme “convincing” that these women had to do in order to get their doctors to perform this procedure that irritated me as much as Steve Harvey’s segments on Oprah.  

What if you really DO want children?

What if you regret this decision you’ve been asked to justify since as long as you can remember?

What if you act your ass off like a lady and think constantly like a man, but…no man ever puts a ring on it?

What if you sleep with that nice, cute guy before the three month grace period and all he’s willing to give you is a courtship of kindness, warmth and some pleasant memories?  What if you give him SIX of your best childbearing months and he STILL wants to offer you only this?

While these questions appear benign on the surface, at a deeper level they reveal a potentially harmful narrative that is subtlety sold to women.  This narrative reads: in order for a person (particularly, a person who possesses a uterus) to be authentically happy, several external factors have to occur.  The narrative suggests that while child-free women can enjoy their current life, they will experience a deep unhappiness later in life because of the absence of this child that would have absolutely brought them joy.  See, it is not the woman herself who determines her happiness; it is this action.  It is the act of giving birth and raising a child from which true joy comes.  This is why the doctors in the Vogue article were reticent to play a role in permanently blocking this source of ultimate female joy.  What if their patients did regret their decision?  How could these women possibly experience sincere, deep-from-the-belly joy while living with the absence of this child that never was?    

As part of the external-factor-determining-happiness narrative is the thesis that asserts: happiness will likely bestow itself on you once you have mastered the maintenance of a loving relationship with the right partner.  Beneath those doctors’ requests that their married patients bring in their husbands to sign off on the tubal ligation was the notion that if he does agree with this NOW but changes his mind LATER, he might be forced to leave you.  And much like the absence of the child that never was, how could these women truly claim deep-from-the-belly joy when having to say goodbye to wonderful husbands with whom they had cultivated healthy relationships?   This narrative is most implicit in Steve Harvey’s well meaning campaign catering to the fear planted in women that to never be invited into the exclusive club of wifehood is to be sentenced to a life of disgrace, forced to roam the earth with a gigantic red “S” emblazoned across your chest.  Harvey merely repackages what society has sold to his readers for generations. When dealing with the requisite sufferings and pleasures of adult life, happiness is expedited if someone provides you with a road map pointed concisely in the direction of acquiring the ideal romantic partner.  Because once you have the ideal romantic partner, you will be in the ideal position to birth the ultimate female joy. 

Again, I hold no ill will against Steve Harvey.  And I understand why a reputable doctor would be apprehensive about performing such a permanent procedure on a woman who she feels has not lived long enough to fully grasp the finality of her decision.  My only question is: What if we sold women a new narrative?  One which claimed they, and they alone, were the source of their happiness.  That through consistent effort, they could cultivate a happiness that was not as transient as we now have them believe.  That such deep-from-the-belly joy could be sustained through the entrance of a bad lover and the exit of a good one.  Since they are the ones who already possess it, this joy could even survive the realization that they had made the wrong choice years earlier in their doctor’s office.  

This is the power of joy that is internal; it is ever-present and can even co-exist with sadness, regret and disappointment.  If women believed this new narrative, they just might begin to evaluate the success of a romantic relationship on how much it contributed to or detracted from their pre-existing happiness as opposed to whether it was progressing fast enough to marriage. This new narrative can even incorporate vestiges of the old.  Maybe women would respond better to the notion that happiness has to be attached to SOMETHING external.  After all, strictly self-focused happiness can easily give birth to selfishness and isolation.  Instead of the time-sensitive and often anxiety-ridden quest to pregnancy, what if we actually told women that their happiness is based significantly on identifying and working toward their true purpose in life?  The reason for which they chose to be born into this world, at this time, under their particular circumstances? What if we led them to believe this purpose does not necessarily begin or end with motherhood?  

What if someone convinced women we are infinitely powerful beings who are worthy and capable of sustainable joy?  What if THIS was where the new narrative began and ended?

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