I had never considered how marriage would change my place in the world. Before we even tied the proverbial knot, I became swiftly aware of discrimination against wives. A job in journalism I was up for suddenly became unavailable: a female manager called to say that now I was married she presumed that it would be difficult for me to be a foreign correspondent.
This was shocking, but the point I wish to make here concerns the privileges accorded to the wedded heterosexual couple. When you marry, you gain a certain unspoken gravitas, as though society heaves a collective sigh of relief: “Thank God they’ve grown up.” Several husbands and wives actually said to me, albeit with a weary smile, “Join the club”. Clink clink. And I soon discovered that marriage really is a club.
Being married pulls you into a new elite. It lends you an air of stability and reliability that singles and divorcees are denied. We assume that those who are unmarried probably have something just a teeny bit wrong with them because they have never managed to persuade another to settle down into that cosy unit of coupledom. This is the smug tyranny of husbands and wives.
What is it about marriage that makes people so smug? It’s as if there’s a relationship status caste system: Married heteros, engaged heteros (yes, somehow the mere promise to the world that you plan to marry results in a collective sigh of relief, perhaps that you’re finally, almost, beginning to take life seriously) coupled heteros, single heteros, and then everyone else.
People talk in terms of ‘my husband/wife,’ ‘my girlfriend/boyfriend/significant other,’ and this to people who know the person by name and his or her relationship to the speaker. Such behavior seems a subconscious prioritizing of the speaker’s possessiveness of the person in some way over that person’s individuality and ownership over their own persons. Or perhaps it’s more to depersonalize the individual of whom is spoken.
Such possessive language has always felt remarkably uncomfortable falling from my own tongue. I tend to avoid it to the point of allowing acquaintances unfamiliar with my relationship status to infer on their own my relationship with whomever it is I am speaking about, or force them to ask for clarification. I don’t define myself by my relationships in that way, and would rather not be judged a part of some mythical hierarchy based on my luck in the romantic relationship world.
This article briefly captures a few of the reasons I find myself ambivalent about my impending legal knot-tying: it’s not that I fear committing my life publicly to the co-conspirator, but that I am uncomfortable with all the assumptions and judgments society will next pass on me based solely on the “married” box having an X inside. A married woman is presumed to have certain priorities that have nothing to do with who she is outside of being married and regardless of being a woman. I will become, first and foremost, a married woman, a Mrs. (actually, I will continue to shun that salutation), and presumed to be interested in supporting my husband’s wants and needs before my own. Let’s face it, even in 2010 wives’ wants and desires are presumed to be greatly superseded by those of their husbands. I will also be assumed to want to get right down to baby-making and family-raising, that those will be my only priorities, all the rest life has to offer be damned. After all, whatever else would be the point of becoming a smug-married?
Despite the ambivalence, why would I exercise a privilege denied to millions of people based on purely discriminatory reasons? I assume it will make things easier for us to navigate having children and owning things, as well as protect our rights and means should something happen to either of us, if we were a unified legal entity, but besides custody of our own children and ability to get onto each others’ insurance plans, and, of course, making break-ups much more costly, why is marriage necessary?
I propose a new kind of personal union, one that retains the positive connotations of the term ‘marriage,’ as well as the legal, public commitment, but that sheds the negative baggage the term drags with it. Though, what to call it…