On Not Actually Being Married

January 2nd is Mi.Vida and my anniversary.

Monday we had hoped to celebrate. Mi.Vida’s parents were going to take Isa in the morning and we were going to hang out. Unfortunately they fell sick on Sunday night and called to cancel. So Mi.Vida went to work and I stayed home and got some stuff done, hung out with Isa. We hoped to celebrate this Friday.

And we did. We lounged in bed all morning. Enjoyed some uninterrupted adult time. We were silly, we made each other laugh. We did, well, nothing until 10:30am and it was glorious. Finally we made it out of the house for lunch at one of our favorite spots and even had time to hit up Costco before our daughter was returned home. Who can argue with that?

While at lunch Mi.Vida told me the story of his friend and how her now fiance proposed to her. Evidently he had asked her parents, secretly, while they were all wrapping presents before Christmas. He presented her with the ring (and then dropped it, picked it up and represented it) on New Years Eve. It was a sweet story and I am happy to hear of their engagement. I also felt a little wistful about the lack of a similar story in my own life.

You see Mi.Vida never proposed to me. He never bought me a ring or got down on one knee. In fact, we never actually got married.

January 2nd is our anniversary, but it’s not our wedding anniversary. Mi.Vida and I never had a wedding. Our anniversary marks the day we became domestic partners in the city of San Francisco. It was really just a symbolic act – it doesn’t provide either of us with any rights as the parter of the other. If one of us were a employed by the city of San Francisco our domestic partnership would afford the other health benefits but as a teacher in another county and a non-profit attorney, our partnership is given meaning by us, and really nothing else.

We were going to get married. The type A planner in me probably never would have allowed for a surprise proposal but we did plan to tie the knot. We weren’t sure if we could afford a wedding but we definitely wanted to do something to mark the occasion. We hoped to get married before we started trying, to make our family building a legitimate undertaking.

In November of 2008 Mi.Vida and I celebrated the election of Barrak Obama as the president of the United States. Unfortunately, in California, something else passed that day – Proposition 8. Proposition 8 rewrote the California constitution to define marriage as an institution shared between a man and a woman. Prop 8 made it illegal for gay couples to get married in one of the more progressive states in the union.

When Prop 8 passed, Mi.Vida and I decided that we didn’t want to enter into what had become, in our minds, the discriminatory institution of marriage. At first we hoped to become domestic partners but evidently, in California, only same sex couples can become domestic partners. (Yep, you heard that right, in California only hetero couples can get married and only same sex couples can become domestic partners. If that is not a version of “separate but equal” I don’t know what is.)

Left with no options, we became domestic partners in the city of San Francisco. On January 2nd we had a small ceremony at the court house, attended by only our immediate families. Two weeks later we had a party at my parent’s house.

In the past 3 years Prop 8 has been tried several times in the California courts. It was eventually declared unconstitutional but the state is not issuing marriage certificates to same sex couples until the appeals process is over. The last I heard the courts had decided that the appelants had standing to bring their appeal. It could be years before the process is over.

So where does that leave us? We always told each other that if presented with a pressing legal reason to get married that we would do so. So far, no such reason has materialized. So we wait. Sometimes I want very much to get married; I feel like something is missing from our commitment to each other. Other times the whole thing feels unnecessary; I see no reason to “legitimatize” our relationship in the eyes of the state of California. Sometimes I’m not sure how I feel and I just wish the whole ordeal didn’t require so much soul searching, such an exhaustive consideration of so many distinctive yet intertwining beliefs, expectations and traditions. I definitely wish marriage here didn’t discriminate, that I could make my decision without factoring in that very upsetting detail.

Today I clicked on a link to a BlogHer article entitled Is Marriage Obsolete. Really, the article does no more than pose the question and honestly I haven’t had the time to read through the many, and lengthy, responses. Of course the question strikes my interest and really the only answer that should matter to me is my own. The truth is I don’t know. Having never been married I can’t say what the institution would add to our union, at least not in a personal or intimate way. Obviously marriage does provide people with legal protections and makes it harder for two people to walk away form their commitment to each other. Of course, common progeny makes it even harder for two people to part ways and we already have ourselves some of that.

The reality is I presently consider myself to be married. We wear rings that we exchanged during our ceremony. I call Mi.Vida my husband, as well as my partner. I tell my students that I’m married, so as to avoid any difficult conversations or parental judgement. I feel as if I’ve committed myself as fully to Mi.Vida now as I would if we were married. And yet sometimes I wonder if that is really the case. I don’t know if marriage would strengthen our love for each other in any tangible way, or if we’ve already made that commitment fully to ourselves in our hearts, where it matters most.

What are you thoughts on marriage? Do you feel it’s becoming obsolete? What does it mean for you to be married? Do you think you could achieve that without the actual certificate? Is marriage more about the legal protections, the personal commitment or a complicated combination of both?

25 responses

  1. I really admire your principles about Prop 8.

    Marriage is something I wanted to rush into with Darcy. I’m big on fulfilling the big milestones, and had planned my wedding: it’s maybe not too hard to picture, but I was prissiest girly girl in the world. Much to my mother’s chagrin.

    Darcy dragged his heals for years. During those years we went on incredible adventures and lived abroad and honestly, I don’t think we would have done those things had we been married young. I would have had us relentlessly pursuing the next milestone (buying a house). I am really thankful to him for that.

    Our engagement story (in Paris on the Pont Neuf, with him proposing with the ring hidden in my favorite Jane Austen book) was pure Hollywood. Our wedding was not too unlike the one in “My Best Friend’s Wedding”. Bah, this sounds like humble bragging. But it was a silly, ridiculous high that left me totally unprepared for the crappy, terrible lows that were to come (serious illness, infertility, loss).

    I put so much time and energy into wanting to be married and planning to be married and I put none at all into considering what marriage actually was. Whereas I put a lot of time thinking about what parenting would be like.

    I know you’re not a fan of hers but Elizabeth Gilbert recently published a book about marriage that was well-received. It apparently debates the pros and cons quite honestly.

    At the end of the day, I’m glad to be married. I’m not enough of an iconoclast to flout society’s conventions and I like the security it provides me. And I love my husband a lot and enjoy looking at our ketubah (our wedding contract) each night and marveling that we’re still working at those very particular vows we chose not so carefully but ended up being more crucial than we could have ever imagined.

    But tha doesn’t mean I think everyone needs to do it. I do think everyone deserves the right to chose it for themselves though.

    • I’ve heard a few people talk about focusing on the wedding part and the “getting married” part and not enough on the “being married part”. I think marriage counseling should be required for every couple before the state will give you a license. Even if it doesn’t make sure you’re ready it might get people thinking about some of the hard issues before they tie the knot.

      I think I will be glad to be married when I am too someday. I just wonder when that day might be…

  2. I, too, admire your willingness to make the political, personal.

    My situation was to totally different, and I guess it was veyr much about the legal rights as well as the legitimacy in the eyes of others. I met my husband while serving in Peace Corps. He’s from West Africa. When I completed my 2 years, I was pretty sure I wanted to marry him eventually but felt too young to really make that commitment (24). K couldn’t even get a tourist visa to come visit me in the US, though (single males are a high flight risk). So unless I wanted to live in Africa permanently, the only way we could stay together was to get married.

    It was important in the legal sense, then, but also because so many people did not want us to get married. Namely, all my family and probably even some of my friends. People who’d never met K said he was using me for a visa, my family told me I didn’t really know him (we’d been together 2 years), my parents said we would never make couple-friends and would end up isolated. Making it legal, and having a diamond and a party, was very much about showing all of these people that I was serious. In its own way, I guess it was a political statement. About international marriage, interracial marriage, cross-class marriage.

    It’s hard for me to imagine being casual about “making it legal”, or voluntarily choosing not to. For me, making it legal meant giving the US government a signed affidavit saying I’d support him for the next 10 years (and here he is now, supporting me! ha!). But as I said, my situation is so completely different. I didn’t have the luxury of making the statement you’ve made, and I had a different political statement to make. In its own way, my situation brings up the same issues you’ve brought up – that same-sex couples should have the same rights K and I do.

    I think you’re going to get a lot of really interesting responses to this (and I totally want to be one of your top 5 commenters in 2012!).

    • It’s interesting, I don’t really think of it as me making a political statement, I just didn’t feel comfortable entering into an institution that had changed, in my eyes, to become discriminatory. We’re not doing it as a protest or anything, we’re just doing what feels right for us. I guess that is making the political personal, I don’t know.

      Your situation really couldn’t be much more different from my own. While I see the legal implication as being incredibly important, more so in your case than in most, I was most struck by how you felt getting married was a statement to your family and friends, showing them the level of your commitment to your husband. I guess that is what marriage is, in many ways, a public declaration of your commitment. Maybe that is why I keep coming back to it over and over again.

  3. I don’t live somewhere with domestic partnerships, but if I did and there was no gay marriage, I would totally do what y’all did. That’s awesome.

    I’ve been married for 5 years and it does seem to provide additional incentive to work things out, though now that we’ve had a child, SHE is way more incentive than just the concept or legality of marriage. we don’t all share a last name and that doesn’t make me feel disconnected… I think if we weren’t married, it probably wouldn’t really be any- or at least very different at this point.

    my secretary is living with her ex-husband and the children they raised together (hers). they separated for awhile then got back together but never got remarried. They wear rings and basically act like they ARE remarried. strange, but it seems to give them something they feel would be lacking if they admitted to just cohabitating.

    • I have heard people say that marriage provides more incentive to work things out, but that children do so even more. In the end, you can walk away from a marriage with no lingering obligation to the other person (though sometimes alimony is involved) but with a child that is NEVER the case. Even if one person chooses not to be in the other’s life they are always financially responsible for their child. And of course most parents do want to remain in their child’s life so custody is shared and that requires constant contact with the other person. I do believe that having a child with someone is an even greater commitment to be with them but I understand that not all people feel that way.

      That was actually the one thing we researched the most, the legal implication of not being married on our daughter. From what we understand there were very few. My FIL talks a lot about Ben’s Social Security benefits not going to me (or Isa) if we’re not married but I haven’t looked into it enough yet. We’re going to get life insurance soon and write a will and I wonder how not being married will affect those things too.

  4. I think a wedding is SUPER important because if you survive it together, you’ve made it halfway through a marriage!

    Kidding. Kind of.

    You’ve brought up a host of questions that I’ll have to think about. Mostly, what role should the government play in any relationship between two people? It made more sense when women held less economic power, so maybe there is some merit to the obsolete argument.

    Being married means we are committed to each other and to the life we’ve built. Of course, people can have the same without having had a wedding.

    Ok. I know what I’ll be thinking about as I go to sleep tonight.

    Happy anniversary to you and Su Vida.

    • Haha! That is what I’ve heard. While I’m sad we never had a wedding I’m very glad I missed out on planning a wedding. That is not the kind of thing I’d enjoy.

      Marriage really has changed in so many ways as women have gained more economic power. Mi.Vida and I were talking about how antiquated it felt to us that his friend’s fiance had asked her parents for “permission” to marry her. Back in the day a man had to show he was financially capable of supporting a woman and the family had to thank the man for caring for her with a dowry. It was all about the changing of hands and the possession was the woman herself. That is why the father “gives away” the bride at the ceremony (or some ceremonies). It just doesn’t make a lot of sense in this day and age.

      • I love why you chose not to get married. It’s a beautiful statement.

        Rob asked for my dad’s permission to propose (both parents actually) & my dad “gave me away.” It certainly seems silly, but it’s a sign of respect (in the South for sure!) for the family that existed before and the family the couple will become.

        My dad said yes, but had a list of requirements that Rob had to agree to– the first being pre-marital counseling.

        We planned a big lavish wedding… it was the most amazing day. But like other posters have mentioned, I wish I would have spent half as much time preparing for being married as I did for getting married.


  5. Really interesting issues you’re raising here. Love the principled prop 8 stand. I remember the day Gavin Newsom started allowing ceremonies at City Hall. We rushed down from our office to celebrate and witness our colleague marry her longtime partner. It was such a beautiful moment, to share in the joy of a new family being formed, finally afforded the rights and protection as any other…

    For a while as a teen, I never thought I’d get married. Didn’t see the

  6. …oooops! cont’d…
    Didn’t see the point, child of divorce, etc. But then I met the right guy and it made more sense, the commitment seemed more solid, sacred, harder to walk away. Plus it was a public declaration and celebration. You have much of that commitment with a child and ceremony and personal reasons for not marrying, which also make a lot of sense. Mostly I’d want the legal protections without the hassle, especially with a child. But I would respect anyone’s reasons for choosing marriage or not. As others have said, the harder part is being or staying married, not getting married.

    • The public declaration and celebration does seem to be a big part of it and I think that is a part of it that I felt we missed out on. We did have our ceremony and we did have lots of friends around us to celebrate that, but it felt different, like it wasn’t as much as if we had gotten married. I think if it had been a domestic partnership recognized by the state it would have been different. Frankly I wish domestic partnership was offered to straight couples, I would definitely do that if I could.

      But you’re right – in the end it’s staying together that is hard and with all the work we’ve put into our relationship I really feel like we’re committed to each other in the same way a married couple is. We’re not about to walk away from each other, or our family, without a lot of hard, hard work. We’ve shown that in the past year and I feel that means more than any certificate. But maybe I’m being naive.

  7. This is so similar to the way I think about marriage. For years we were partners. We’d both spent enough time in Australia and NZ where it is very common for people (regardless of the genders of the people involved) to go by partner. I really liked that. I liked being able to introduce my guy as my partner or to refer to him in the third person (e.g., ‘ Can I bring my partner?’). Coming back to the states though, that just confused everyone.

    But we had all these mixed feelings about getting married. My parents and their friends mostly had done quick court house things for legal reasons. Most kept their maiden names. On more than one occasion, I had been asked if my parents were actually married. To me, they had worked hard to be able to be treated as equals in society (i.e., have equal access to their joint bank account etc.)

    Then we saw gay marriage become a reality where we were living (Cambridge, MA). It was one of the most happy historic moments I’ve seen in my life — seriously, how many pivotal moments in history occur with dancing in the street instead of bloodshed — and we decided to have a wedding for ourselves.

    I must say, marriage paves a lot of roads. Immigration has been easier for us (though our immigration to NZ would have been fine as just partners). Car rental agencies, banks, etc allow more flexibility for each of us doing different parts of a transaction. I was SHOCKED by how suddenly my husband was part of the public conversation at the various schools where I worked, whereas before the teachers politely pretended he didn’t exist in front of the kids. Suddenly our more religious friends would let us spend the night in the same room when we would be visiting. With each of these accommodations, I am a bit ticked off — why is it okay now, but after 6 years of partnership these same things didn’t matter. But I must say, when one of us gets sick, it is so nice not to have to sneak into the hospital to see the other person. And it is much easier to introduce T as my husband here in Italy — my Italian is NOT up to the tasks of describing a committed partnership!

    We did have a wedding. It was wonderful. It was fun and light hearted and a great excuse to bring many wonderful people together to celebrate together. But I still count my anniversaries back to when we decided to be together — the wedding was just a fun party and an excuse to let the large community in more formally on the truth we already knew — that we had been lucky and found love in each other.

    So in short — I appreciate how our legal status has made many things easier (while it pisses me off to no end that this is the case… and that someone married after 2 weeks together is often given this status while others who’ve been family together for years, have it denied). Our commitment is completely separate from it. I could divorce my husband tomorrow for legal or financial reasons, and it would change nothing between us. And I don’t think marriage is becoming obsolete — rather it is being redefined. Marriage to me has historically about marking for the larger community the changing boundaries and lines of family. As in, you were so-and-so’s son, but now you are also linked to this other adult, not previously related to you, in marriage. At its core, that is all it is. Just like adoption. A point in time where the relationships lines are added. Over the years so so many things have been tacked on that I really hope get stripped back off (the stuff about women being property or not being about to do X Y or Z once married) and the idea that sex should only occur within the confines of marriage.

    Dang sorry for the long winded response… I have spent a long time thinking about this over the years. And still can’t say 100% why I choose to get married. Just happy that my partner and I found each other.

    Happy Anniversary!!!

    • I use the word partner a lot, but it can be confusing. I have had people ask me, after knowing me for a long time, sometimes months, how my wife is doing. I get that partner is gender-neutral and in some parts of the country ONLY used to refer to same sex partners, so I totally get people’s assumptions and they never upset me. The reality it there isn’t a special word for someone you’re committed to in an institution other than marriage. There really should be. I’m sure it will evolve at some point, but it will take a while.

      In response to your anger that a couple who got married after knowing each other for two weeks has more legal protections than a couple that las lived together for many years, I totally get that. In California there is something called a “common law marriage” that I believe goes into effect (if the co-habitants want it to) after ten years of living together. I believe it is as effective for same sex and opposite sex couples.

      Thanks for your response! I really enjoyed it!

  8. For me, getting married and staying married was/is a spiritual committment above anything else. I tend not to focus or even think about the legal protections, although I guess it’s those who don’t have those protections who really think about them. My wedding was a worship service, in a church and was as much a covenant between us and God than it was a convenant between my husband and I. And for me, this is why I take the committment so seriously- if we were to ever walk away, we’d be breaking our promise to God as well as to each other.

    However, I although my wedding was a “religious” event, I know not everyone has religious motivations or focuses to their day, which is fine. I do have a problem with people getting married without serious regard to the committment they are making though.

    To be completely honest, I STRUGGLE with the gay marriage issue. Obviously my faith and my church are opposed to it, but on a personal level, I tend to agree with you- why should we descriminate against those who love each other and want to make a lifelong committment? Also on a personal level, I have no problem with homosexual relationships- its just resolving that with my beliefs and the Bible that’s toough.

    Happy Anniversary!

    • Thank you for presenting your point of view. As someone who is not religious, and does not have many religious friends, it’s very interesting to see what marriage means to you inside of your church. I’ve never thought of marriage as a convenant between you as a couple and God but that makes a lot of sense.

      And thank you for sharing your struggle with gay marriage in such a respectful way. I do want to make clear that I have no issue with religious institutions barring gay marriage (though I don’t think that is fair or right) but marriage is as recognized by the state and federal government, well that is a different thing. I think marriage really is two different unions (for some people). One is a religious or spiritual union, like the one you described (or it can just be a very sacred promise made between two people) and the other is a legal union. It is my belief that the legal union should not be a discriminatory one. But I totally understand that it’s difficult to reconcile your views and your religions views. I don’t envy you that predicament at all.

      Thanks for you insight into all of this. As always it’s much appreciated.

  9. It broke my heart when that awful Prop passed. I think it’s awesome that you are standing up for your convictions, and I hope that EVERYONE who wants to get married can. And damn soon.

  10. We didn’t have a wedding, just vows in front of the clerk in Annapolis with my friend and her husband (who happened to be visiting) and my mom (because she cried on the phone) in attendance. We were engaged for one week, but had been together for 3 years. We were both very serious about marriage and the vows that we took, despite our young age (22 & 23). Hubby’s parents had been married for 30 something years, but his dad had been married once before and I was a child of divorce, so both of us understood that even smart people can make mistakes in choosing the person they will hopefully spend the rest of their lives with. We both intended to only do this once, and we’re in it for better or worse…and we mean it.
    I believe in marriage. I believe it’s a great institution that has been crapped on – things like no-fault divorce have ruined the security that it used to provide women and children. It does provide some legal advantages still, some tax breaks, but in this day and age it doesn’t bind men to their families like it used to, which is truly sad. I believe, barring abuse and infidelity (although some couples can work through cheating), those vows taken are serious and shouldn’t just be undone b/c couples “fall out of love” or what have you. Marriage (and love) takes work. It’s not always fun, but it’s worth pushing through the hard parts together.
    I just don’t think you find that same kind of commitment without marriage. Not that I think your vows were any less serious or real – whether you say them in front of a priest or a clerk or even an internet minister, they are vows after all and you for all intents and purposes are married. But couples who live together first have a higher divorce rate once they get married – there obviously must be a difference being man and wife officially with everything that comes with it (kids being a big part of that, I’d guess). Will actually being legally husband and wife change anything for you? I don’t know. But if it’s something you want, I say you should go for it :).

  11. first, I never fully understood your relationshiop until now and I am glad to know more about you!
    I don’t think you *have* to be married, but I can honestly say that when I find out there is a child born out of wedlock I immediatly judge, and then recant my judgement later most of the time. It is totally terrible, however It is honest.
    I really do think marriage has changed in society – when you see someone married for 72 days and it being all over the media – how are young adults to take that seriously? Marriage is a commitment, as is any long standing relationship/partnership, but it is more than that, it is something I can’t really describe either.

  12. First and foremost, I’m impressed that you’ve taken a stand.

    I can’t say how, per se, but I definitely felt different the day after the wedding. I can’t tell how much is self-fulfilling prophecy and how much is real, but I definitely felt it.

  13. This is an interesting post. For me & dh, it wasn’t much of a struggle. We loved each other, the next step was marriage, period. Neither of us was enough of a rebel to buck convention & incur the disapproval of our parents (especially his traditional Italian family) and live together, especially 26 years ago. As others have posted, I like being married. I loved the fun of planning my wedding & bringing together our families & friends for a celebration — particularly since, in hindsight, the whole baby/family thing didn’t materialize. It was the one big life milestone we did get to do right & to celebrate with our famlies in a big way, and I’m very glad we did it.

    There’s also the moral & spiritual aspect of marriage that others have mentioned. I’m not hugely religious, but yes, standing before all our friends & family members in a church & promising to love and care for each other the rest of our lives did have an impact and give our relationships a sense of permanence and legitmacy. I like the security & certainty (legal, social & otherwise) that being married provides. I don’t think that gay marriage devalues marriage at all. The fact that so many gay people want to be marriage tells me there is something of value in the institution.

    I do think too many people today get bedazzled by all the wedding hoopla, and don’t think quite enough about the hard work that it takes to keep a marriage going over years & years (just like everyone goes ga-ga over pregnant women & babies and then suddenly it’s not as interesting when they turn into whining toddlers or sulky teenagers). I don’t think all those ridiculous reality shows & the hoopla over celebrity weddings (& subsequent divorces) help.

    My sister & her boyfriend (partner? common-law husband?) have been together longer than I have known dh — more than 30 years (in fact, I introduced them at a party, never dreaming what would ensue… he used to go out with a friend of mine). I know their living together did bother my mother for some years, and my sister did talk at one time about a small wedding in my parents’ backyard. But she hasn’t mentioned it for years, and my mother now says she hopes they never get married, it would probably ruin things, lol.

  14. I’m sorry I’m just now commenting on this. When I read it, I bookmarked it to go back and comment on, but I must have promptly forgotten to. Even though I don’t think I had too many expectations about marriage before I got married (is that bad?), I am constantly surprised at the reality of it. I love the partnership involved, and the fact that even though some times it’s extremely difficult, it’s better than I ever could have imagined. And for some reason, I needed that certificate. It’s helped to make me secure in the relationship, something I’ve never had in past ones (and maybe that’s why I needed it?). But I totally get that that’s not for everyone. I don’t see a reason why people should feel pressured to get it if they’re secure without and confident in their relationship. Because after all, why does the government need a say in it? I think your reasoning behind holding of on “officially” getting married is a strong one.

    And, um, if you decide to have a wedding and don’t want to plan it, I’m dying to plan another wedding! I’ve even begged Tim to let me plan another one for us just because I like the planning process, not because I feel the need to have another wedding. Hahaha. No seriously. Please let me plan your future someday wedding (um, as well as make the cake). I’ll even walk down the aisle for you if you want.

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