With the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, I have been reflecting on this widely popular contractual agreement between two people. One of the benefits of being older is witnessing social and political changes; knowing and living through “how it used to be” gives me a deep appreciation of these advancements. And, along the way, I’ve also noticed my own opinions evolving. This is the case regarding my view of marriage.
My first marriage
Although my parents were very happy together, my first experience with marriage was painful. This was in the 60s. It was almost impossible to support and raise a family as a single woman, so being “in the family way”, marry I did. Marital vows were still between “man and wife” and women were, for the most part, still considered their husband’s chattel. Some men felt this more strongly than others. Given the circumstances, I don’t regret the decision. We produced two wonderful children, despite our continually troubled union, but my feelings were consistent. My favorite quip was “Marriage is an institution like the Hudson River Psychiatric Center is an institution.” In a wedding card, I once wrote “If there are any joys in marriage, may they all be yours.” Fortunately, a lot social change happened in those 10 years of wedded un-bliss. Most important was the Women’s Movement. It rocked my world, gave me the courage to pursue a divorce and resume my birth name. I felt like I had escaped from prison and vowed I’d never marry again, never be anyone’s property. I went back to school and joined the ranks of women entering the work force.
Love is lovelier the second time around
When I fell in love with a wonderful man, we agreed to live together with our combo of 7 children, radicals in our suburban neighborhood with three surnames on our mailbox. We kept our finances separate, both claiming a single-head-of-household tax advantage. A few years later, my college employer promoted me to a faculty-level position that included tuition remission benefits for my children and stepchildren. Suddenly, marriage became financially advantageous. I agreed to this union ONLY if I could maintain my hard-fought autonomy; we kept the same monetary arrangement, with no name changes and no joint accounts. I remember saying “I’ll marry you, honey, but I won’t be your wife!” I don’t regret that decision either. When my husband died unexpectedly, I had both the legal rights and social respect of a wife, while feeling confident that I could support myself as a single woman.
Single and all grown-up
Fast forward 20+ years. Women have advanced in many areas of modern life and marriage can often be a partnership of equals. I still prefer independence. After a long relationship with another sweet and loving man, I am wearing a beautiful diamond ring on my third finger, left hand. He surprised me two years ago, declaring his commitment but, thankfully, NOT asking me to marry him. We live 15 miles apart and, at this time in our very adult lives, we are fortunate; we have no practical reasons to move in together nor financial reasons to wed. We are both happy with this choice. It works for us. When asked about our plans for the future, I tell people “I am engaged to never get married.”
Through out this journey, regardless of how I’ve felt about marriage, I’ve had the legal right to choose it. Whether I happily or unhappily made this decision, I always, unthinkingly, had the option to do so. The Gay Rights Movement made me realize how I took this for granted. Thanks to the Supreme Court decision, it is now a legal choice for everyone. Welcome to the institution of marriage! For all the right and wrong reasons — for love, finances, practicality, you name it — all Americans can marry (and divorce) whoever they want and experience the blessings and benefits as well as the struggles and complications. Will this change our cherished institution? Rather than decrease its “sanctity”, I believe that the union of people of the same gender will only advance it toward fuller equality.