This week, we wanted to explore the concept of Staying. Staying as in not moving, not making a big change, keeping things more or less as they are. We live in a culture that’s pushing us to always make a big change, to always move forward, and do the next big thing. And the truth is, that’s not always possible (or even advisable). And in this particular economy, we can’t always move on to grand things. Sometimes the next step is a tiny one: It’s learning to be happy with what we have, or making one small change. So it seemed perfect to start this week with a topic that has come up over and over on APW: waiting for the engagement. And in this post, M. has decided that she’s fine with what she has. No ultimatums, no waiting—just being together and being happy. And it turns out, this post about non-engagement might be the most important post on engagement that we’ve ever run.
I’m not planning a wedding. Not even close.
Two years ago, a few months after my boyfriend Bo and I started dating, we went to a wedding together. It was the kind of wedding where, along with all the bride and groom’s invited guests, their whole church congregation was asked to come, and the reception was just champagne and cake in the church basement. It was beautiful, and we loved how inclusive it was, but we both said that if either of us had a wedding, it wouldn’t be like that. (Good—I thought—even though he says he doesn’t think he’ll ever get married, he’s thinking about it. It’s only a matter of time.)
Then, that fall, another wedding—this time for friends of mine from college. A very beautiful, traditional Jewish wedding—one where the bride and groom couldn’t stop grinning out of sheer happiness. We shared their joy, but again, we said, were either of us to get married, it would be different. (Well, he’s still saying “If I ever have a wedding,” not “If we ever have a wedding,” but if he’s got opinions, that’s got to be good, right?)
Last summer, we went to the wedding of one of Bo’s cousins, and it was flashy, pink, and ostentatious. (There were professional fireworks! it was held in a place called “The Palace”!) We laughed and laughed—it fit his cousin perfectly—but there would never be any fireworks for us!
And by then I had realized that there really weren’t going to be any wedding fireworks for us. Because we’d probably never get married.
We’ve made as strong a commitment to be with one another as two non-married people can make, but my boyfriend grew up in a family led by two people in a toxic, codependent marriage—the kind of family where the kids want their parents to get divorced because then maybe things might eventually be bearable. And that has poisoned marriage for him in a profound way.
This is usually the place in a story like this where people have one of two reactions, both of which grow out of stereotypes of men not caring about relationships and marriage as much as women do. Either (as my mother does) they insist that he’ll “grow out of it eventually,” come to his senses, and propose. Or, (as my sister does) they imply that his not wanting to marry shows that he doesn’t love me, not really, and it will all fall apart. At the beginning of our relationship, I wanted to believe the first one and secretly feared that the second was true.
I don’t doubt that there are men whose lives have followed those storylines. But however simple they may seem from the outside, every one of those situations was unique, with two individuals and their specific relationship. I know my partner, how he loves me, how he appreciates what I do for him, how he balances my faults and I balance his, how he calls me “wonderful, brilliant, and capable,” and I know he could never be shoehorned into those simplistic arcs. Even if he does eventually marry me, or we eventually break up, it doesn’t mean that those were always the only two options.
To be at the point where your relationship stops playing by the rulebook that says “either you get married or you quit” is disorienting. One of the nice things about assuming one will eventually get married is that (as APW illustrates well) weddings can be a crucible that helps forge a couple into a lasting partnership. Looking back on the two years when my sister and her husband were planning their wedding, I can see that the hurdles they jumped together then are the same ones they navigate with such skill now: money, family relationships, learning when to defer to the other and when to stand their ground. Those issues are just as important for Bo and me to get through, but we have to cover them piecemeal, as they come up, and since the stakes of the individual incidents of daily life are often lower than those of a major life event like a wedding, we have to make sure that the hard conversations actually happen rather than letting something slide that we really care about because “Oh well, it’s just this one time…”
That’s certainly doable, though, and it turns out that making sure those conversations happen (instead of just waiting for them to happen when you’re hashing out a guest list or a wedding budget) is a really good way to strengthen a relationship. What’s been unexpectedly painful for me is this: in recognizing I might never get married, I’ve had to grieve for the wedding I’ll never have. No bouquet of peonies. No photos of the day to look at and celebrate for the rest of our lives. No matching silverware unless one of us buys the whole set.
That last one might sound silly. But admitting to myself that it’s okay that no one’s going to give me a set of china may be one of the most important things I ever do. By letting go of the things I’ve always assumed will happen in my life, I can open my eyes to the other possibilities I’d never even seen because I wasn’t looking in that direction. And I’m learning that I can be happy with a partner, when I thought I would only ever really be happy with a husband.
Using the language of APW, I’m neither a Wedding Undergraduate, nor a Wedding Graduate—whereas those women have gone to Wedding University, I’m going through Relationship Vo-Tech. And I’m okay. It’s okay that when I read APW, the posts that speak most to my life are the ones about building a marriage, even though I’m on a different track—one that means I haven’t had any need to look at the ones about dresses or guest lists first. And it’s okay if you’re that way, too.
Photo by: Submitted by the author, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license by Flickr user Eddi 07.