Thursday, July 15, 2010

Do You Believe In Marriage?

When my partner and I were starting to get serious, my dad asked me gravely, “Does Drew even believe in marriage?” And I had to bite my tongue. Sure, Drew comes from a less “traditional” family than my dad is used to, but still, the way he worded the question... Can we “believe” in marriage like we “believe” in Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy? It’s not like its very existence is up for debate!

Of course, that’s not what my dad meant. He was asking, or trying to ask, whether we considered marriage worth it. Is it a goal for us, a thing we embrace? Seems like these questions are in the air lately. Elizabeth Gilbert, in her recent memoir Committed, doesn’t doubt marriage’s existence. What she doubts is whether it holds any value anymore for our relationships today.

If you were to ask Gilbert whether she believed in marriage at the beginning of the story, her answer would be an emphatic no. Both she and her partner have experienced ugly divorces, and they’ve vowed never to get married again. That is, until Homeland Security detains Gilbert’s non-American partner as he enters the States. Without a ring on his finger, the government insists, he can never enter the country again.

Gilbert is terrified—but figures the best way to cope with the fear is to learn everything she possibly can about marriage, and turn it into a book. (I love her typical writer’s solution to the problem. I’d do the same thing—that is, if I were lucky enough to have the money and brand name to get an instant book advance. But that’s another post entirely…)

Committed is an extended personal essay on marriage, each carefully researched chapter bracketed by anecdotes from her relationship, as she and her partner try to figure out how to build “a careful habitat of [their] own.”

Throughout the book, it becomes clear that she’s sorting through the pieces of “traditional” marriage—in all its complex forms—and carefully choosing the qualities that she wants. Gilbert wants a “Wifeless Marriage,” as she dubs it, where neither partner ends up taking on many domestic responsibilities. And when things are getting strained in the relationship, she wants to be able to take off for, say, Cambodia for a week alone, with a partner who doesn’t at all begrudge being left behind.

That could be threatening from some perspectives—the idea that she’s remaking marriage to suit herself. But I’m not so sure. Is marriage an all-or-nothing endeavor? I don’t know that it is, whether you come from a “traditional” pattern or not.

I went to the weddings of two dear friends this month. The first took place in a friend’s backyard, with a DJ playing a mix of video game music and Celtic airs. The second bride walked down the cathedral aisle to familiar organ tunes. The first bride plans to hang on to her maiden name; the second just changed hers on Facebook. So we know it’s official.

But I know them well enough to know that their marriages are going to look different than ever before. But I know them well enough to know that Tonight my non-“traditional” friend is probably cooking dinner for her husband … and my “traditional” friend may well be dragging her partner along on some spontaneous late-night adventure. Neither is going to be a “typical” wife to a “typical” husband. And that’s the way they like it.

What’s my marriage going to look like, when Drew and I get there? (And yes, for the record, we do “believe in marriage,” or at least it doesn’t terrify us as it did Gilbert.) The liturgy-geek in me is looking forward to designing a wedding, with words and songs and actions that reflect us both.

And the wedding will only be the first step—toward designing a marriage that will last much longer than one day. The “ordering of our common life,” as the Prayer Book puts it, will be just as much an act of creation as any story I will ever write.

It won’t be simple. Creation never is. Gilbert acknowledges the difficulty herself:

Wifeless, childless, husbandless marriages… there haven’t been a whole lot of those unions in history, so we don’t really have a template to work with here. Felipe and I will have to make up the rules and boundaries of our story as we go along…. I don’t know, though. Maybe everyone has to make up the rules and boundaries of their story as they go along.

I don’t know what it will look like, but I’m excited to find out. One way or another, I think, we’ll end up with a marriage that I can believe in.