Last week would have marked my 4th wedding anniversary, had we not divorced. Actually, I suppose it’s still the 4th anniversary of the wedding, although people tend not to celebrate those occasions after they split up, for obvious reasons.
On May 22nd, 2009, I married my college boyfriend. I was 23 at the time. It was a Friday. The wedding was teeny tiny (8 guests, all family). We made it to our 1st anniversary, in 2010, but separated shortly thereafter. The divorce took the best part of a year due to jurisdictional issues, because we both had moved out of the state of the “marital domicile,” but it was a fairly uncomplicated process.
I want to emphasize at the outset that my ex-husband is one of the best human beings I have ever met, and I do not regret the time that we spent together in the least. Neither will I divulge any personal details of the marriage. But I have long wanted to say something about it.
In retrospect, I basically believed on some subconscious level that getting married would fix the biggest, recurring problem in our relationship. If this had been made explicit to me, I would have realized that that was not a good motivation and unlikely to work, but it was a belief lurking beneath the surface of my mind, so I didn’t figure it out until later.
Beforehand, I had a few misgivings about the institution of marriage itself, and felt ambivalent about changing my last name. I didn’t really internalize the desire to get married, and wished I were the kind of person who felt no such desire. I didn’t like that gay people couldn’t legally marry, and the unfairness of it all. But apparently these concerns were not serious enough to keep me from going through with the marriage (and name change) anyways.
Almost immediately after marrying, I realized that marriage was mostly a signal to the rest of the world about our relationship, rather than constituting any sort of drastically new agreement between us. And respond to that signal it did. My parents treated me different, strangers treated me differently, dentists and doctors and bankers and everyone treated me somewhat differently.
The change was both empowering and bewildering. As a Married Woman, you are definitely a real adult — but a real adult who is constantly and significantly beholden to another. Before the wedding, you are still a child. Immediately after, you are a wife. I am only now, in my years as a Divorced Woman, finally enjoying real adulthood on its own terms.
Maybe you want to have an “egalitarian” marriage, maybe you don’t plan to have kids, maybe you’ve married for happiness and self-actualization instead of out of economic complementarity. Nonetheless, you as an individual and you as a couple face barriers as to how conservatively or liberally you want to understand your marital bond. Some of these barriers are internalized, some of them are in the minds of the people around you.
The institution of marriage can and does change over time, but those changes emerge from many marriages taking place at the same time as other sociocultural shifts. You can’t do much to stop that kind of change, but neither can you do too much to accelerate it.
I’m giving myself a break for having been born into a world where marriage is viewed more in terms of pleasure and convenience than as a sacred and unconditional bond. And I’m giving myself a break for having gotten divorced amidst some alleged divorce epidemic that’s threatening the foundations of society, thereby contributing to it. It’s not my fault and not my problem.
I’d been halfway feeling like writing something about the marriage experience for over a year now, but didn’t have any grand conclusion in mind. Having put this stuff down, I still don’t have any grand conclusion. I don’t have any fantastic advice to people thinking of marrying or thinking of divorcing, either.
If you do get married, secularly married, realize that you’re first and foremost expressing something about your relationship to the rest of society that’s only partially under your control. But if you decline to get married — especially if you’re in a long-term relationship — you’re publicly expressing something too, because marriage is such a popular and deeply rooted institution to have opted out of.
Would I get married again? Maybe. I don’t feel like it’s a crazy thing to do, even now. I know that my troubles were partially in virtue of having married the wrong person.
But most days, I feel like the marriage experience has turned me into the person I wanted to be in the first place, years ago when I was struggling with the foreign-feeling desire to marry: Someone who values close relationships and appropriate commitments but who feels no particular need to formalize that in the eyes of the bureaucracy and in the eyes of her fellows.