With a firm thumb at tradition, marriage gets put on hold
By Davina Baum and Sara Bir
It's not that true love has changed. True love probably never changes. It's true, after all. It's the accoutrements of true love that change. The gender expectations (how a girl and a boy behave; how two boys or two girls behave; indeed, how three girls and a boy behave), the sex, the registry list (an Amazon.com registry? Or REI?), the living situation.
As the impressive clergyman in the film version of The Princess Bride--tongue-tyingly played by Peter Cook--so eloquently said, "Mawidge . . . mawidge is what bwings us togewer today . . ."
It does, it brings us together. But it also separates us in how we approach it, compared to previous generations. As times change, so do traditions, and marriage, though not quite on the chopping block, isn't the Holy Grail of true love that it once was. Here, for this rather introspective Valentine's Day issue, we look at two perspectives on a girl's big day, prolonged.
Prewedded Bliss, Part I: Living Together
Over the years, the naughtiness has shed from living in sin. In our present cultural climate, it's not even sinful. Not that it matters much to begin with. For many couples, it's just a fact of life, put into being by a series of circumstances--rent, careers, companionship, love. Ideally, love.
But what's so bad about making it official? "When I was young, people just didn't do that," a relationship expert otherwise known as my mother reminds me. "A couple would never, ever just live together." In forgoing the courtship for the convenience of cohabitation, she says, a couple misses out on that anticipation, the other side of the rainbow to come, the longing the Beach Boys expressed so sweetly and sincerely in "Wouldn't It Be Nice."
I can see her point: if two people are serious enough about each other to share their snoring habits, dirty underwear, and utility bills, why not get the papers to prove it? I can also see that in love and war, things are not always best done by the book.
There is more at stake in being married than . . . well, than just being married. To get married, a couple must first have a wedding, a wedding that is built up to be the opening of a door to a wonderland, a wonderland of fluffy monogrammed towels and gold-rimmed Noritake dinner service for 12 (used once a year, if that) and deluxe barbecue accessory sets.
Marriage, it seems, is a step that leads not only to the union of two souls but also to a jackpot of material goodies necessary for a refined middle-American life, and what follows it must be a small and brand-new starter house to hold all of it. Once again, my mother: "After your father and I first got married, we lived on the Air Force base in a little one-room A-frame cottage that had been built as temporary housing for the state fair. I cooked all of our meals in an electric skillet. Oh, it was a wonderful time."
We, my mother and I, often rail against the excess of modern marriage. "You enjoy each other more when you have less," she'll say. Then I'll say, "And you'll have fewer credit problems and more time to spend with each other. Newlywed bliss!"
Living in sin eschews all of those burdensome material gains and puts an inversion on the delights of one couple, united, living on the cheap. Instead of first marrying and getting a little economy apartment together, my boyfriend and I moved me into his little apartment, so we get to revel uninterrupted in our prenuptial joy, making furniture out of asparagus crates and marveling in awe at the collective mass of our books, which make their home in piles on the floor along the wall.
We have one cereal bowl and four dinner plates, none of which match. Nor do any of our sheets. It's lovely, and someday, after getting married, it won't be like that, not as much. My parents went from their one-room A-frame to a three-bedroom house with a basement full of old dishes, pots, pans, Christmas decorations, computers, clothing, toys, model trains--you name it. They'd probably go back in time if they could, before my brother and I were around and both spare hours and crazy fun were in greater supply (and I guess they could, sort of, because all of the furniture and the electric skillet from the first years of their marriage is still in the basement).
I love living with my boyfriend; it's so idyllic. We are not at that worn-in point with each other yet, and simple stuff, like deciding where to put up new posters, is still exciting. We have hours of sleeping in, only a few rooms to clean, dinners that are not rushed, someone always around to hold a nail that needs pounding into the wall--and no kids and no mortgage payments. Everything good is ahead of us, and everything good is happening now. Why would anyone want to rush out of this?
Marriage itself is not intimidating--it's the ceremony of it, the wedding. Which is silly. A wedding is just one day, while a marriage lasts (theoretically) a lifetime. A marriage is a living, organic thing that demands an investment of self, and of time and love and understanding. As for a wedding, it can be seen as a one-off investment of cash and tedious planning, of agonizing decisions over which fonts to use on invitations and what color of bubble blowers to pass out to the guests.
Weddings are fun, especially when they are not yours. All you need to do is show up, eat the entrées from the chafing dishes at the buffet, drink midrange Chardonnay, and dance a little bit. Being a member of the wedding party is even better, if you have a short and witty toast, and a spare $150 for a periwinkle-blue dress you'll never wear again, no matter how pretty it is.
It's putting on the shebang that's the big deal, a package deal of common yet senseless conventions. Like this wedding candle business. What does lighting a big, fat, white candle have to do with getting married? And vows: vows, important vows that will set the tone for the rest of your life, must be decided upon. Or written.
The violinist who will play a tasteful version of "Always" must be located, and the vocal soloist, and the terrible egotistical DJ who sees the wedding reception not as a wedding reception but as his own personal variety show. And thousands of dollars must be spent to provide a venue for a douche bag to play "Mony, Mony," "I Will Survive" (what does that song have to do with weddings, anyway), and "The Chicken Dance."
True, there are weddings replete with wedding candles, tedious vows, and bad DJs that are beautiful and perfect and moving. All of these things ultimately do not matter, because it's about the couple, and if they really mean it, everything that's awful or wonderful melts away and it's just the bride and the groom and the significance of their commitment. As it should be. But it seems that some couples get married not to be married, but so they can have a wedding.
When my best friend and I were young, we played with our Barbies at every possible moment, and our Barbie dolls must have renewed their wedding vows with their Ken doll husbands a hundred times. It was one of our favorite Barbieland scenarios. We'd dress our Barbies up in their wedding gowns, do their hair, set up the Barbie Wedding Playset with the little plastic three-tiered cake, and march our dolls down the aisle.
After the ceremony, we'd put on the cassette tape of Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual, and they'd have a big dance party. Then they'd listen to the first Whitney Houston solo album and make sweet love all night long.
There's no point in lying. Like many women, I enjoy fantasizing about my wedding, though it's pretty vague except for a few clear details: I'm wearing the dress that Audrey Hepburn wore in Funny Face, the ceremony is short and sweet, and my boyfriend will have gotten a haircut just for the occasion. Everyone is glowing with smiles. The reception is a big party. We have simple, white cakes and a procession of lovely cream pies, both of which I will have made myself. Our friends' band plays (a postrock wedding!), and all of the guests are happy, so happy. They go on drinking Veuve Clicquot and Pabst Blue Ribbon until dawn.
Joe and I spend our wedding night in the Caveman Room at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Then we get back and everything is the same as before, only we have gold bands on our ring fingers and I sign my name differently.
Not for now, though; we're not even engaged. Too poor, too cheap, too wishy-washy, too satisfied with the way things are. A wedding is scary. Sometimes I'd like there to be a wedding pill, and after taking it--poof!--you'd be married.
But that seems beside the point too--that if you are going to plunge into marriage, you need to do it full-on, wedding and all, because a wedding does change things, as they say, for better and for worse. Until then, I'll be satisfied if, looking back on this sinful era someday, I will think of these years as happy and carefree. Which is what they feel like now, and hopefully will after my boyfriend and I get around to getting married.
Prewedded Bliss, Part II: Living Apart
We lived together once, and it was bliss. Then we got engaged. Soon after, I packed up my CDs and my cat, and moved out.
It wasn't for some quixotic attempt at revirginization, though perhaps if I found religion, I would feel more at peace about the decision. It wasn't because we argued or decided we needed more time or couldn't deal with each other's personal hygiene. In fact, we're still engaged--but now I live 50 miles away. The wedding has been put off, and as a result, our life together is on hold.
Our lives apart are, however, rollickingly good. I chose my career over my fiancé, and it's working out great.
It's terribly practical, of course. A paying job in today's economic climate is not something to take lightly. Nor is a career move and the opportunity to advance. But since when does practicality play a role in love and romance? Since I grew up.
This is new to me, the understanding that practicality and romance can exist at once. It is difficult, now, to understand why I thought that the mentally unstable and alcoholic carpenter made a good match for me. Or the Russian souvenir hawker who didn't speak English and had an aversion to condoms.
It's all so clear in hindsight, now that I've found the man I want to marry for real. I can't imagine it being any other way.
Except for the niggling details of our living situation.
The reality of this modern world is that relationships and marriage are often relegated to the passenger seat while career sits hard-headedly in the driver's seat. According to a recent "State of the Nation" report in The Atlantic Monthly, the paradigm of the single-earning household has been firmly jettisoned, and now, more often than not, a household consists of two workers.
While the two-earner household has deep repercussions for many aspects of our social and political safety net, it also speaks to the increased wage-earning role for women. Though this was established two decades ago, the changing paradigm now affects a new generation--namely, me.
Me, the terribly unambitious woman who had the opportunity to take on a great job at the expense of her relationship--and took it.
I thought at first that the compromise was obvious. His job wasn't as good as mine; he wasn't happy and I was. Therefore, my job wins and he moves here. It seemed practical at the time, resplendent in stark black and white--because, after all, how could we have a relationship if we only saw each other two days out of the week?
I scrambled to come up with job possibilities for him, and I presented them with great excitement. I made contacts and talked him up to his potential new employers. And he politely ignored me, plugging away at his beleaguered dotcom, barraging me with stories of how he was underappreciated and overworked. Then, somehow, the practicality kicked in.
Despite the problems, he loves what he does and he believes in the company. He loves the city: the sunny apartment that he's lived in for seven years, biking to work, playing pickup basketball in the Mission. Is it fair of me to pull him away from that, to make him either quit his job or suffer the nightmare of commuting?
Financially, living apart is no good. We both pay separate rent, phone bills, utilities. We both spend too much on gas, a resource that, as any patriotic American knows, needs to be reserved for the military planes. I spend too much money on takeout, since I no longer have his kitchen prowess at my fingertips.
But it's turning out OK. We have a city house and a country house--just like rich people! Though we spend most weekends in the North Bay, there's always a house to crash at if we decide to go to the city for a night. Sunday nights, when he leaves, are lonely and depressing. But I know exactly what buttons to press to turn on the television, my surrogate lover. (My shame at this obvious weakness for empty entertainment is trumped, every so often, by my need for, well, empty entertainment in lieu of his unempty company.)
The truth is, if the standard paradigm of love and marriage doesn't work, then it need not be applied. There are any number of ways that couples make do now--in these progressive times--that the dual shackles of morality and religion are loosened. Couples are living together longer, prolonging marriage and baby making, while ambition and career take precedence.
Though my East Coast friends started pounding the marriage drum themselves years ago and are now getting started on the babies, most people I know are waiting longer to get married. Statistics bear this out. The average age for a first marriage is creeping higher and higher as young professionals (urban or otherwise) focus on career before relationships.
It's not ideal, by any means. But it's livable for now, and--above all--it's practical. The wedding, the gateway to our future life together (really together), sparkles in the distance.
I'm tired of being asked when he's moving up here. I'm tired of having a fractured social life: single during the week, part of a couple during the short, short weekend. I'm tired of the implications that our relationship will not last if both of us remain romantic martyrs to our careers.
I think about the wedding often. It's just as untraditional as our situation is now. I picture it as a huge party--no white dress, no walking down the aisle, just champagne and sun and friends and family.
I suppose I no longer see it as one or the other. The relationship is secure, though the distance is certainly a test. My panic attacks at not knowing where he is have abated somewhat. If a terrible accident took him away from me tomorrow, I doubt that I'd see my sacrificing my job for him as worthy (and learning not to think this way is part of the process). But, barring disaster, a girl's got to do what a girl's got to do. And that, if nothing else, can stand as a rallying cry for an unmarried generation.
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From the February 6-12, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.