the marriage thing
September 4, 2002 08:51 AM

The question I posed to the We Have Brains group this week was this:What is the meaning of commitment and "love" as seen through the lens of your other beliefs?

I've talked before about how I think feminism - really all the social equality movements since the 1960's - has impacted the way we think about marriage. We being the generation of people raised with feminism and social equality as serious concerns.

I've talked about it before [read it], but I'm not going to talk about that again. Not today, at least. [I'm sure I'll talk about it again at some point; I'm repetitive like that.]

So what am I going to talk about?

Well, there's this. I'm not married. But I am half of a long relationship. We've lived together now for five years. And yes, we've talked about marriage. It's not a priority, but we've talked about it. We're not going to do it. At least, not for a long time. You could explain it by our parents (one child of divorce, one of too-early but otherwise successful marriage). You could explain it by our cultural environment, our friends, our families, the things we watch on television.

Maybe all these things contribute. Ultimately, it's a decision for two people.

That. Is a valuable contribution of feminism & social equality - making marriage less an economic and cultural necessity, less a trap.

Now we talk about marriage as if it's all love, all commitment [it's also all work, as is any relationship]. But it does still have that economic component. There is still a question of providing, it's just now a shared responsibility. Or is it?

This probably seems shallow and consumerist, but I have always wanted to make enough money to provide for my house and family. I've never really been interested in the Cinderella fantasy - doing whatever I want while some devoted person works to pay for it. I doubt anyone straight out taught me this lesson, but I watched my mother go through college and graduate school and make an effort at her career. They may disagree, but it always seemed to me my parents were pretty equal contributors (financially and otherwise).

And my little grownup family started the same way. Somewhat. We started as starving artists, that didn't work out so well, we tried other things, I found something I loved, and the boy discovered he hated offices and loved teaching. Well. If the money we pay people is any indication, teachers, particularly teachers of things like art and theatre, are less valued than people who write emails and shuffle papers.

What does this have to do with equality, love and commitment? Everything. Commitment isn't simply a question of love and monogamy; it's about living together and the negotiations that requires.

Within the context of our little family, our relationship seems equal. We play different roles, but it makes sense. He does more of the household work, and I pay for more of the house-related expenses. I work full time, he works part time. In many ways, it's an arrangement that reverses the expectations of The Feminine Mystique and Father Knows Best.

Feminism helped enable that. I think feminism engineered a little perspectival shift around the career thing. I read in some book recently [oh, yes, I am so specific] that men think of good/bad career as a purely financial thing, whereas women think of it as a question of fulfillment. Personally, despite the feminist angle of the book, I think that's a narrow, anti-feminist perspective on gender and career. I also don't think it's true. I think that social equality has contributed to men and women both thinking about providing as no longer exclusively financial. Ultimately, this is a big chunk of the love and marriage thing: what options are available to us and our lives together?

Many. There are so many options. I've focused on the "unconventional" fiscal and legal arrangement of our household, but there are obviously also different ways to think about love - for instance, having a committed relationship without living together, or living with several people.

While there are many options, though, it still seems that only the most conventional are still widely accepted. Marriage still appears to be a goal for many, I think in part because it is a way to ensure public acceptance of two people's importance and commitment to each other. Isn't this, after all, the goal of legally recognised gay/lesbian marriage - acceptance?

Well. You can't expect instant acceptance of all life choices; social change is geologically slow. And I guess the point of all this is: I'm glad to be able to negotiate how our lives work within my relationship, glad not to have to do things one way or another.

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