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.

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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