We have been together almost eight years, and you can tell. Though a checklist was never actually handed to us, the boxes would be X’d: the house, the used station wagon, the two toddlers in the back seat, the leather jackets in a plastic tub in the basement marked “Former Selves.”
We were not each other’s first big loves. We had both been in relationships with some murmur of marriage that ground down and ceased, and maybe the wedding fantasy died then, too. And so, when it came time – when the thirties hit, and the love was lived-in – we looked at each other and said: Should we. . . do you . . . let’s have a baby!
We skipped the marriage step. Still, sometimes I refer to him as my husband, particularly if the person in front of me is wearing a tie or leaning on a cane. I’m no evangelist for the unmarrieds, and I’m too tired to explain. At the same time, if that tie is knotted with just a little too much neo-con smugness, I might wield the phrase “my partner” like a weapon. This is never my finest hour.
A few times a year, I’ll say, “We should get married.” And he says, “Why is that again?” And I ponder the question on my way to the buffet at the wedding we’re attending, and by the time I get back to the table I remember something: I’m having the buffet and the night out already! I don’t have to get married!
Of course, it is our great privilege not to be married, as most gays and lesbians in the country will note. Seeking access to marriage is a fight for equal liberties that my partner and I won by standing still, and now, by doing the same thing – nothing – we’re exercising another kind of liberty. This puts us in groovy company: the 2001 census showed that 30 per cent of Quebec couples live together without nuptials, compared with only 12 per cent in the rest of Canada. Only Sweden matches Quebec in unmarried households, and we like the idea of ourselves as chilly, free-thinkin’ swingers. We talk about it at Home Depot.
There are three all-good reasons that people get married: religion, family, or the intense need for a party (usually due to religion and family). Both of us, incense and Christmas not withstanding, are secular second children whose older siblings had days-long destination nuptials that were quite enough wedding per family per lifetime. We figured we could use that party money for a down payment on a house. There, we have nice evenings with our friends, and usually they don’t have to buy us flatware or dress in organza to get a drink.
When we had children, we talked about marriage. And then, back to the buffet. Still, I envy the ease with which married people travel through the world; they require less documentation. But when people say “out of wedlock” – and they don’t any more, at least not to our faces – I wonder: What dusty idea of the virgin bride are we selling here?
I’m happy for my friends who put on the white (nice try, guys), but when I really think about why I’m not married, I realize that on some quiet level unmentioned in my wedding toasts, I equate marriage with loss. The older I get, the narrower my life becomes. Whenever movie characters get together and one is a gallery owner and one is a bacteriologist, I think, How did they meet, and how do I get in that clubhouse? I seem to encounter fewer and fewer people who aren’t like me, and I hate it. Maybe my darkest fear is that marriage narrows the population of people from whom you will love and learn to a party of two.
In her 2005 book Marriage A History, historian Stephanie Coontz writes that our contemporary view of marriage as the most pivotal relationship in our lives is a development of the last century. Prior, the notion of favouring marriage above all other bonds would have been considered hubris, a betrayal of one’s service to the public and extended family.
In a recent New York Times column, Coontz points to a study that suggests the time Americans spend socializing with others outside the workplace has declined by almost 25 per cent since 1965. Free time is spouse time; let the world beyond the hearth wait. But fewer intimate relationships mean fewer people to lean on and more pressure on marriages. No wonder they break. Maybe you and me against the world needs a tweak: You and me in the world.
I fully admit we don’t always live up to this ideal. We spend too many nights on the couch watching DVDs like a pair of barn owls. Then again, barn owls mate for life, no Vera Wang required.