I have been pondering marriage a great deal lately, mostly because I fear mine has fractured like a bone china cup, still intact but crazed by fault lines, any of which could cause the whole to collapse into pieces. We have been married ten years, together for nearly thirteen. We have moved across country, bought and sold houses, invested, had two children, acquired a new car, adopted a dog. We have, in short, lived the american reality, if not the dream. We are married. But what does that mean? I have a dear friend whose support of “traditional marriage” makes me unspeakably sad, especially since right now I don't even know what marriage means, except that my gay friends and acquaintances long for it as a near unattainable dream.
Thinking across the various stories of marriage that have built the idea in my head, marriage was never about sex, or children, or even love, but about alliances. Us versus them. United we stand. Think about it – Disney princes rescue their unknown ladies (Snow White had never even met her prince) from poverty, evil, enchantment, all by offering a shield against these things. In return, they get a kiss. Isn't that what wedding vows promise? Not “I will love you” but “I will take care of you even if you're sick or poor”. A couple might as well write a legal contract specifying individual obligations. That is traditional marriage. It doesn't sound so romantic when you realize it's a negotiated bargain, sealed with a ring.
Historically, traditionally, marriages were bulwarks against warfare, destitution, the neighbors. The kings and queens of Europe didn't fall in love, they negotiated for the most advantageous match. And that bargaining wasn't limited to nobility. Even peasants had dowries, and girls with more goods were more desireable. If they could breed well, all the better. Many healthy children meant more swords in a fight. Lots of workers meant a better retirement for the elders.
The mythology of marriage is that it begins with love. I don't agree. Love is what happens quietly after years of marriage. After fighting and making up, after traveling and staying in, grieving and celebrating. Love is not just wanting to share the good with your partner. It is cleaning up bedpans and vomit; dealing with annoying habits that you never can embrace; seeing the beauty inside the ugly. Only when you know the whole of a person – beginning to end – can you truly love. I say marriage begins with sympathetic resonance, a sense that this one person will stand with you against all foes, and will help you achieve the highest heights.
My college roommate was married last spring. In attendance was a gay man I know and his partner of fifteen or so years. They are comfortable with each other in the way that long-married people are; I was warmed by their affectionate smiles and eye-rolling at each other's foibles. At the very beginning of their relationship they weathered the storm of a life-threatening illness that still must be managed on a daily basis, and they told me a little about how that affects their long-term plans together. For them, that future is an unquestionable fact. The strength of their union is awe-inspiring. I think often about my morning spent with them and what a marvelous example they are of what a marriage should be. It's ironic that at a “traditional” ceremony, the two people united hope to have a relationship as strong, loving, and long as that of our gay friends – two men who still had to be careful not to touch or say anything publicly that might indicate their relationship to an outsider.
My husband and I are stuck in silence right now. Looking back, I see the flaws in our earliest alliance, and wonder why we ever walked down the aisle together. I have leaned heavily on my friends for consolation, and they, in turn, have given me absolution for whatever decisions I might make. For now, I am searching for solutions. I owe that to myself and my family. And by doing so I hope I honor my many gay friends who have shown me what marriage truly means.