Let’s take a beat and talk about relationships. For a whole new crop of millennials the season of engagements and weddings has just passed, bringing with it a wave of terror at aging and growing up. I’m on the other side of that wave; my friends are almost all married or in long term relationships, and most have moved on to the having children portion of the program. Perhaps it’s that perspective that makes me throw so much shade at the way young women have been lobbing passive aggressive internet posts back and forth about whether getting married young or not is a disaster of unspeakable proportions.
According to the Internet, I should have gotten married young because without a “Godly” marriage young women act slutty. I also dodged a bullet by not marrying young because doing so means you can’t have fun anymore and will eventually become resentful. It makes sense that young women are fixated on weddings and marriage. From a young age we’re taught to put a great deal of value on a one-day party, the planning of which should cause us undue amounts of anxiety and cost more than any reasonable person would spend. Little girls dreaming of their wedding days is a common societal trope, and pushing back against that is only natural as we grapple with what womanhood means on a personal level.
But what seems to elude those engaged in the Battle of the Bride is the big relationship picture. We live in uncertain times, and I can understand the desire to hold onto one thing you think you did right, be it getting married at 21 or not getting married until 30. The problem is that by taking one small piece of your life—one decision out of thousands—and repackaging it is as some sort of wisdom leads to nothing but woman-on-woman snark. As you grow older, you learn that relationships are all extremely personal and move at their own pace, as opposed to high school when everyone was pretty much at the same point after X months of dating. So with that in mind, the only relationship advice we are universally able to give is of the “happy and healthy = awesome” variety.
You may be saying, “But no! I got married and the companionship I have with my husband/wife is everything!” or “But no! I’m young and wild and can’t be tied down right now!” Good for both of you, but neither of your cases is in any way unique enough to create an exception to the “happy and healthy = awesome” rule. You’re both looking at marriage through an outdated lens that puts undue value in a woman being a Mrs. and emphasis on a woman’s domestic role as wife.
Do you have friends who live together? Because I hate to break it to you, but their relationship is likely close to what it would be if they were married. I say this because I myself am in a domestic partnership, and have been for about two and a half years. We moved in together after knowing each other six months, and we’re already living out the married lifestyle. We go to work, come home, make dinner, clean, pay bills, make plans for the future—all of that stuff married folk do on the daily. Our lives are completely entwined, from finances to pets to long term goals. It was an enlightening and freeing day when I looked around and realized that we could go to the courthouse to sign the paperwork at any moment, and our day to day lives would not change in the slightest.
But getting serious wasn’t the end of my adventures. Sure, I did some stuff before I met my partner, but it’s been with him that I’ve had the best adventures. When you find someone who has the same goals and values you do, it’s not a matter of who is holding who back, but rather of pushing each other forward. Had it not been for my extremely supportive partner, I never would have moved across country and started a career in writing. I never would have applied to graduate school on a whim, or been able to manage working and going to school part time. Is it really marriage you’re afraid of, or someone holding you back? Let me give you some advice: If you feel a relationship is holding you back, either talk about it or end the relationship so you can find someone who helps you be the version of yourself you are most proud of.
As for those of you who are married and looking to extol on the virtue thereof, calm the hell down. You weren’t given some womanly wisdom with the cutlery set you registered for at Target. Commitment is not the sole domain of the betrothed or married—it’s an approach to a relationship that anyone can take with or without a ring on their finger. The only difference between the relationship you are in and the relationship I am in is that yours is legally recognized. Like I said, my partner and I could head down to the courthouse right now and change that, so it’s not really that big of a difference when all is said and done. Those romantic visions of engagement and weddings boil down to nothing more than promises, and the keeping of those promises is institutionalized in marriage. So, sure, we didn’t throw a big party when we decided we wanted to stick it out for the long haul, but we’re putting in all the work just like you.
Falling in love also doesn’t give you a magical understanding of the needs of all other people. So although I’m in a long term, committed relationship I can see the value people find in being single. Or rather, the lack of inherent value they attach to having a significant other. Being a single woman is in no way a bad thing, nor is being a single woman who enjoys casual sex. As is true of relationships, if someone is happy and healthy without a boyfriend, then they are doing everything they should be doing and we should all salute them and wish them the best. No matter how well you know your own emotional needs, you do not understand the needs of all women, so just let them do their thing.
Sometimes I wonder if this entire debate boils down to insecurity on both sides. Are we yelling into the abyss to justify our decisions because deep down we won’t know for years if we made the right one? I get that—I really do. I have alternate timelines I consider on occasion, albeit all of them are darker than the one I’m currently in. But there are more constructive questions we could be asking in order to overcome the lingering fear of adulthood embedded in how we talk about marriage.
What does it mean to be a wife? What does it mean to be a woman in an adult relationship? What does your life look like after the big party, and why is skipping the big party such a big deal? When I first met my partner, I had just ended a long and toxic relationship that led to a short and toxic engagement. The experience made me rethink what I wanted, and for a while I thought I didn’t want to get married. The baggage we attach to the word marriage obscures what it really is: a partnership. Once I looked around and realized I was in a partnership with someone who considered me an equal, the fear of marriage fell away completely. It was replaced by a dread of weddings, until I realized what I was dreading was what the Wedding Industry had been trying to sell me since I was a kid. Signing paperwork stating my partner and I are family isn’t scary at all, just the symbolism and spectacle I have been told I should want to accompany that day. When I looked past those trappings, I realized a wedding need only be as big a deal as you want it, regardless of how many voices tell you otherwise. It’s what comes after that’s important.
What it boils down to is this. Getting married is great. Being single is great. Living together is great. It’s all fantastic, as long as you feel supported, respected, and cared for by your significant other or fulfilled in your life. That’s literally all that matters, yet what no one seems to be advocating. If you want to help your fellow young women in navigating these complicated waters, and set a lasting example for the next group, your best bet is celebrating all relationships that are healthy, be it with another person or with yourself.
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