One of my co-workers recently came back from a wedding, full of stories about how beautiful it was and how happy the couple seemed. She scrolled through a few photos, then popped her phone back in her handbag and declared that she herself was never getting married.
“I don’t believe in marriage,” she said.
Her words kept coming back to me throughout the afternoon: I don’t believe in marriage. I’d heard people say it before, but not since I myself was married. It felt off; can you apply the concept of belief to marriage? It’s not like the tooth fairy or Neverland; it exists, and I personally can vouch for that. I was surprised to feel put out by her words, as if she’d said that all marriages are a waste of time, including mine. I interpreted her statement as saying that there was no point to marriage. If it was a pointless endeavor, why had I wanted to do it?
Getting married was a milestone I had penciled into my life from a young age. It wasn’t a goal, but one of those things I assumed I’d do: go to college, get married, have kids, run a successful veterinary clinic. The one foreseeable hiccup, that I was “supposed to” change my name, I had already solved. I would simply marry someone whose last name was also Fitzpatrick.
As an eight-year-old, it didn’t dawn on me to question the system. As an adult, I have to wonder why no one pointed out that it would be very difficult to juggle three kids and graduate from vet school by the age of twenty-five, but no one did. Unsurprisingly, neither of those events came to fruition (although I did figure out another rather obvious way of remaining a Fitzpatrick). Getting married, however, was something that stuck with me. I didn’t equate marriage with happiness, but I still hoped I would do it one day.
When I taught English in Korea, we asked the sixth-graders to keep a diary over a holiday weekend. Most of the entries were the same—I played video games or I made rice cakes, but one of the girls ended hers with the phrase marriage me never. She explained that over the weekend she’d observed the women working in the kitchen while the men relaxed, and concluded that once you were married you couldn’t have fun anymore. I thought about what my co-teacher had said, that once she got married she was expected to care for her in-laws and cook soup for her husband every day, even though she hated soup. If my definition of marriage matched theirs, I wouldn’t have wanted to do it either. Rather than get into a linguistically difficult conversation about cultural expectations, I told the student that she was absolutely right, she didn’t have to get married if she didn’t want to.
She was firm. “I don’t, Teacher,” she said.
I, on the other hand, did. Right through the moment when I said my vows, I didn’t analyze why I wanted to marry Jared rather than remain in a mutually committed relationship. I just knew that I did, like the way I know I prefer red apples to green ones. Despite the many origins of marriage that I am opposed to, I didn’t feel like I was signing up for a doomed enterprise or jumping off a cliff with the other lemmings. That’s not to say that there aren’t certain prevalent conventions that make me bristle—like getting so many letters addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Jared Holmes—but it doesn’t make me doubt my decision.
The concept of marriage sounds simple when you’re a kid, and it’s easy to assume that one day you’ll meet that person and step seamlessly into your future together. As you grow older, it becomes obvious that finding one person who you want to spend your life with is no easy feat. If you do fall into a relationship and you’d both like to keep it going FOREVER (talk about a long time), that’s a big deal. Marriage gives us a way to celebrate that, to say to each other I choose you, let’s make this work. It is so full of hope and faith that I am able to find value in it, even through all of the baggage that it brings.
Of course marriage isn’t for everyone, even when it doesn’t mean being relegated to the kitchen with a pot of soup. One of my best friends confessed to me that she and her fiancé, parents to an adorable toddler, were basically getting married to please their families. “It doesn’t make a difference to me,” she said. “We’re already a family.” For her, marriage is a formality, a way of externalizing what already exists internally for her. Her explanation made perfect sense; even though I don’t feel the same way, I understood why she does. Marriage means different things to each of us.
Yes, marriage has its faults, one of the most obvious being that we can’t all agree on what it looks like. To my former student, it’s a fun sponge. To my co-teacher, an added level of responsibility. To my colleague, who has since voiced doubts about monogamy as a whole, its traditional definition appears to ask more than she’s comfortable with. To my friend, a legal document. There are a million reasons not to get married, yet we keep doing it.
I have tried and tried to get to the heart of why I still believe in marriage, and I struggle to articulate it. What I have come to understand is that it doesn’t matter who believes in marriage and who doesn’t. It matters that I do, and that Jared does, and that we approach it on our terms. Our definition of marriage may be different from my co-worker’s, but it has to be. In that respect, marriage is a little bit like a fairy: in order to make it work, you have to believe it’s real.