In my introductory post (which Chris has told me sounded “kind of bitter,” so: I apologize? Because I’m totally not! Seriously!), I left off on the thought that what he and I feel for and about each other and the life that we’ve made with each other seems to be in the spirit of our society’s norms and well within its mores – we’re a committed, heterosexual, long-term, monogamous couple who own property and a giant television (seriously, it’s kind of like a wall and we love it, because Game of Thrones is amazing on it). Pretty much all of Society implicitly condones as ideal* the manner in which we live our lives. But somehow, we’re still viewed (and somewhat treated) as deviants.
Because social norms aren’t just implied. Whether prescriptive or proscriptive, lots and lots of them are codified as laws and related regulations. And while a lot of laws in the US and other developed countries are proscriptive in nature, telling us what not to do (“No Parking,” “No Loitering,” no stealing real property or someone’s ideas, don’t bludgeon that person no matter how much you want to, etc), laws about marriage are both proscriptive and prescriptive. They tell us who we can marry and who we can’t. They tell us when we’re allowed to marry and when we aren’t. They tell us where we’re allowed to marry, who’s allowed to perform the ritual that makes us married, and how many people have to be there to provide witness that we actually are married. They tell us what’s allowed in a legal marriage and what isn’t. They tell us that if we want to put provisions or protections in place around one or both of the parties in a marriage, other legal contracts are required. They tell us how we can and cannot end a marriage. And they tell us what a marriage does and does not entitle each person to, both in personal protections and in public acknowledgements.
There’s a whole lot more to the legal institution of marriage than the emotional and personal recognizing of two peoples’ commitment to and partnership with one another. And I think that’s one of the reasons that it’s often such a difficult concept to wrap our heads, hearts, and words around.
So what is “marriage”?
That’s a really, really, seriously dementedly huge question, isn’t it?
When I’m teaching, I always like to start out with lexical definitions of important terminology. They’re never going to be the end of the discussion, and sometimes they don’t even add any substantive value to any deeper-level analysis. But at least they provide a starting point.
I know we’re going to keep coming back to this construct over the course of this project. And if we do this right, the definition we’re using and discussing will expand and change. But we’ve got to start somewhere, right?
So what do dictionaries give as the definition of marriage?
In 2004, the Washington Times ran a brief article that talked about a planned change to the definition provided by Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin as well as a modifying clause added to the definition in the absolute authority on the English language: the Oxford English Dictionary. And in 2009, Slate ran a similar article that once again pointed to the OED and the American Heritage Dictionary (published by Houghton Mifflin) and included a mention of Black’s Law Dictionary in the pool of resources that had altered their definitions. In all of these cases, the definitions were modified to include language regarding same-sex marriages (which: YAY!). Yet these changes seemed to be predominantly addendums, not modifications of the entirety of the definition. Also, they were several years apart. We aren’t exactly seeing evidence of sweeping changes to our overall social understanding of marriage.
Now, part of the whole debate about what is and what isn’t a marriage in the United States stems from the lexical definitions, rather than the practical definitions. In fact, for years, many opponents of marriage equality and freedoms relied on the lexical definitions of marriage as an irreligious means to justify their religious ends. This is a theme that I have a feeling we’re going to come back to a lot: people trying to camouflage their religious sensibilities behind a blind of secular understanding.
Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t think that everyone who does this means to do it. Sometimes (as is the case with some of our own friends and family), people don’t even know they’re doing it at all. No one’s looking to actively cause harm or to negatively label or categorize people they otherwise care about. (… Or don’t care about, because how many of us can say that we truly care about everyone on the planet?) But that doesn’t make it okay. (And it’s certainly not helping.) Honestly, I think a good portion of categorization and labeling happens subconsciously, even by the most progressive amongst us. But still: not okay and not helping.
For the purposes of this post (and if I’m diligent, there will be others), I just want to look at one definition.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary (2011), marriage is: “The legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife, and in some jurisdictions, between two persons of the same sex, usually entailing legal obligations of each person to the other.” It goes on to provide subsequent definitions, including, “[a] similar union of more than two people; a polygamous marriage” and “[a] union between persons that is recognized by custom or religious tradition as a marriage.” Interestingly, there are a handful of additional definitions to ponder in the American Heritage dictionary. But let’s leave aside the definition that includes the wedding itself (as the ceremony can also be called a “marriage,”).
I want to narrow my focus to those definitions that describe a seemingly informal long-term arrangement: in addition to the legal union, American Heritage also describes marriage as both “common-law marriage,” and a “close union.”
Since many states (and the Federal Government) don’t have official standards for common-law marriage (other than a heterosexual couple living together and describing themselves as such or jointly filing their taxes ), let’s conflate the two for a minute, shall we? Because, really, what’s a common-law marriage other than two heteronormative, cis-gendered people trying to come up with a secular way to think of themselves, their “close union”, and the protections the latter should afford the former?
And this brings us to a different set of questions … not the least of which is why gender makes it “easy” for one couple to avoid some of the pre- and proscriptive laws about marriage and claim some legal rights based on their close union, but why it’s impossible for another.
*I realize the fact I’ve said “ideal” is kind of in flagrant contradiction with the fact that I lamented the fact that we (and by “we,” I mean I) catch a lot of shit for not having/wanting/making kids … Since we’re relatively youthful, society (and my Lady-Parts Doctor) insist we have “plenty of time” for changing our minds on the whole child-free thing and the makin’ of the young’uns. So: we still conform pretty damned well.
So I like to spend a lot of time lurking in the Feminist blogosphere*. As a social scientist/sociology professor, it’s a good way to keep in touch with real-life interactions and conversations about social justice and to prevent (or at least help prevent) my thoughts from becoming entirely theory-based. (Theory-only studies can be super dangerous if you’re a person who lives in the intersectional sweet-spot between different forms of privilege).
So in my rounds on Tuesday night, I came across a post & thread* on Feministe that led me to this Society Page announcement from the New York Times. I saved the announcement and bookmarked the thread, because I have every intention of using them at some point in this project. But for now, I just want to get this out there: 30ish dudes who are even remotely interested in teenaged girls/ladies make me go *squick*.
*The fact that Word’s spellcheck just accepted blogosphere as a word, without question, is baffling to me, considering the word transgender gets the red-squiggly-line treatment. This will obviously require some investigation at a later date.
*In the comments of that thread, you’ll find a link to this “article” about a Z-list actor and his 16 year old aspiring beauty queen bride. This story is so squick-worthy I cannot even begin to comprehend writing about it. My brain is currently too busy throwing up.
I honestly can’t remember the first time I thought about marriage. I get the feeling that I never really thought about it until just a few years ago. In some respects, that makes me a very lucky person indeed. In others, it makes me feel very much outside the boundaries of “normal.” Growing up in America, at the end of the twentieth century, specific values were decidedly in place: college, job, husband, children.
I don’t believe that I ever questioned the possibility that I would get married. It was simply a part of the future life I’d have: a nice house and a job that paid me enough to buy what I wanted with relative ease (as a child, I’m pretty sure I was looking at all the She-Ra dolls I could handle and an awesome swing set; as an adolescent, books and sweaters and movie tickets … and an awesome swing set). I’d have pets (many cats). I’d still spend most of my weekend evenings with my best friends. And I’d have a husband: some nebulous, vaguely man-shaped idea that hovered on the sides of all imagined futures as a comforting presence.
Please don’t misunderstand: There was never any conscious pressure from parents, friends, or family to conform. But from my earliest consciousness through adolescence, these ideas (which weren’t really ideas, but were more of an understanding) didn’t waver. Strangely, though, when I played dress-up or imagined my future self, it was never as a happy homemaker. It was typically as a spy or a warrior or a (mostly) benevolent monarch. I never even envisioned myself as a bride. Lady with awesomely huge gowns? Yes. Lady wearing awesomely huge gown for the purpose of marriage? No.
And now, in my early-30s, I have many of the things I thought I’d have when teenaged me envisioned my future life. I have a nice house (well, it’s a condo – but it’s nice). I have a job that unsteadily pays me enough to buy books and sweaters and movie tickets (and consider myself very lucky, though somewhat unhappy, with said job). I have 2 adorable (if insane) cats. I do indeed still spend most of my weekend evenings with the same people I hung around with as a teenager (because they are awesome and I love them). And I share my life, my home, my financial present and future, my pet cats, and my books with the person I’ve loved for over a decade (although I don’t really like sharing my books with him, as he’s impossibly hard on paperbacks and they go back in the shelves with broken spines and torn covers).
I am privileged in uncountable ways: I live a comfortable and unremarkable life. But in my social interactions, I’m somehow made to feel remarkable (and not necessarily in a positive way). Because I don’t have a husband.
And now we’ve entered the point in my brief narrative where my mother would quote Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” But you know what? Though she was seriously awesome in so many ways, Eleanor was wrong. Words and judgments and vibes and sideways glances have a real effect. Even if you don’t want them to.
For years and years (yes, it’s been that long), the fact that Chris and I were “together,” “boyfriend/girlfriend,” “partners,” etc., bothered no one. No one questioned us, no one judged us. We existed in that blissfully non-judged state of hetero-normative understanding that comes from the committed monogamy of late teens and early-to-mid-20-somethings. We were with each other, and no one questioned our commitment or arrangement. We graduated from college. We found jobs (I wound up finding several in a row: job after job after job, because I am the quixotic one and none of them “felt right”). I went to graduate school (school feels better than jobs). We moved in together. We started giving friends and family members gifts from “both of us” (which is obviously one of the surest outward signs of commitment one can give). I found some more jobs. We went on vacations. We found out our asthmatic cat was also diabetic. We discovered foodie-ism. We opened a joint checking account. We read books and watched movies. We bought a house. And (in the best possible sense) no one cared.
But a few years ago, a little after we bought the house, something very strange happened. People started questioning. Given the fact that we’d lived for so long with no one questioning, this was extremely confusing, as questioning often equals a form of caring? But this new inquisitiveness on the part of our family, friends, & acquaintances didn’t feel like caring. It felt like judgment. And it felt pretty damn crappy. At first I thought that maybe, just maybe, I was being hypersensitive (it’s been known to happen).
Throughout our life together, I’d occasionally field an inquisitive line or two from a well-meaning parent of friends or from a distant relation regarding our future plans and commitment. At friends’ and family members’ weddings, I was asked, “When’s it your turn?” (Strangely, Chris was very rarely around when these conversations took place!) And at work, he heard, “How’d you get away with it?” or some variation. Obviously, the differences in these lines of questioning raises some serious fuckedupedness in terms of social norms. But we’ll get to that in later posts, I promise. Still, though, the questions weren’t invasive and were quickly dropped when one of us laughed and changed the subject. Because the thing is: we are married. We have built our lives around each other. We’re never wanted to be with anyone else. Neither of us actually has been with anyone else. We’re partners for life, and that’s that. So the issue of having a giant party, wearing rings, registering for gifts – it was never really something that we felt we needed. Which is not to say that we don’t like parties and gifts, because we do. We love food and our friends and our family and celebrating pretty much anything that comes up. Also, I love jewelry. But none of these things were considered necessary as precursors to us spending our lives together.
But somehow, now that we’re in our 30s, our lack of public proclamation (aside from the joint gift-giving) is somehow unacceptable? The questions aren’t one-offs at the occasional wedding or holiday anymore. Every holiday, every gathering (weddings, funerals, random Sundays and Thursday evenings), the judgment is there. And now the questions aren’t just about when we’ll be “making it official.” Now there’s another generation involved: our non-existent children. When will they be planned? When will they arrive? When will they grace the world with their unquestionably awesome presence? The problem is that not only are the children non-existent, they’re not wanted.
It’s him and me (and the cats), and we’re fine. We’re better than fine. We’re good. Great, even! And this has somehow made us wrong. But we don’t feel wrong. We feel the opposite of wrong. We feel so right as to think of our life together as a foregone conclusion, pretty much from the moment we met.
So where’s the disconnect? Why does there seem to be such a wide gulf between what he and I feel and know and what society believes and has institutionalized? What, if anything, are we missing? If we were to get married, would we feel any different about each other? About our lives? Why is marriage such a heated topic of debate? (And why the hell do people think it needs “protecting?”) And is there something intangible that connects a public legal status with a private emotional connection?
That’s, in a nutshell, what this project intends to find out.