Most little girls grow up dreaming of their perfect wedding day. What dress they will wear, the food, the shoes and who will attend. I was not one of those girls. In fact, I still remember playing the groom with my younger sister, a job she bore with sufficient humor, wearing a fluffy white approximation of a bridal gown around the house.
During my college years it was uncool to talk about the m-word. In our seminars, we talked endlessly about the politics of marriage, its mercantile origins, its role as an organizing principle of the patriarchy. Every sitcom and comedian cashed in on the joke that is monogamy. People around me constantly complained about their spouses. I believed that spontaneity will stop, romantic gestures will become extinct and sparks will fade, once you get married.
“I’m never getting married,” I told my best friend, still living in London and tired of its miserable dating scene. “I’d be so much happier living in a beach-house with my two dogs and a high-powered career,” I added. It was near the beginning of my time in London, and coming out of an awful breakup, I spent the next few years "deep single," a term I coined to describe the fact that I didn't go on more than a handful of dates with anyone and never came close to using the words my boyfriend.
But in this past year, having entered into a serious relationship after a long time, and moving in with someone for the first time, I found myself giving the idea of marriage a thought. Being twenty-four, I’ve seen three of my cousins get married and they're all in their twenties. One of my best friends who recently got engaged is the same age as me.
It was only until recently, after a discussion with my boyfriend on the relevancy of marriage today, that I realized just how much it actually meant for me. And how little the concept of marriage had been on his mind. Partly because, his parents divorced when he was still young and was perhaps a little jaded about marriage. Or that, being from a Northern European upbringing, having children “out of wedlock” was common and marriage was never regarded as a ‘Must’ to start a family. Or more importantly, as a man, his entire life has not been shaped by a desire for, or a rejection of, a fluffy white dress.
The word that came up most frequently during our discussions was recognition rather than love. Today, marriage feels more like a public affirmation that subtly changes strangers’ perception rather than a loud declaration of private desire and devotion. Putting it that way may evoke the view that matrimony is a socially entrenched institution, aimed at promoting prosperity and domestic stability. Prompted by oft-cited societal shifts: dramatically changing family structures, declining marriage rates, the growth of cohabitation, and increasing numbers of young people purposefully foregoing marriage, we both recognized that the idea of marriage is almost always ideologically charged and can sometimes be misleading.
But recognition can have an important personal dimension too, I argued. To get married today is to announce, to yourself and to the world, your belief that you are capable of extrapolating your current wishes, priorities, and motivations into the future. Such an opportunity shouldn’t be out of reach for anybody who does want it, although throwing open the marital gates certainly doesn’t guarantee a secure and serene future.
My desire for a wedding, that I had also come to realize, made me question my confidence and assertiveness that I was so sure of in the past. My need to equate a solid relationship with a ring on my finger, made me feel like one of those conservative “Bridget Jones” types. Now, my desires were opaque even to me. Why do I, a young and educated woman in the 21st century, value marriage so highly? To do so felt like a betrayal of myself, of my education, and of my achievements. However, I reminded myself that the successful woman who is in a happy relationship is not the same as the “pining woman.” She's the one who is acknowledging the full range of her desires.
Raised by an Orthodox-Christian father, and a Buddhist mother - my parents were very different people and came from very different backgrounds. But they shared one thing in common - similar life values. So they got married before it seemed too late, and now they’re happy. Celebrating their 25-year anniversary this year, my mother gave me a tip: “The way to stay married, is not to get divorced.” They belonged to a generation where if someone’s broken, you fix it - rather than throw it away. They stuck it out in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.
Western culture holds two paradoxical values at once: a culture of marriage and a culture of individualism. Compared with other European counterparts, Greek-Cypriots are far more credulous about marriage. Complemented with my mother’s Chinese upbringing - where the agreed notion is that even if a marriage is unhappy, one should stay put for the sake of the children - it soon became evident where my own deep-rooted desires stemmed from.
In both these societies, people tend to believe that a woman lives together with her partner out of wedlock not because she doesn't want to marry him but because he doesn't want to marry her. The society's doubts in the commitment of her partner and makes a cohabiting woman pitied and looked down upon, which can sometimes be detrimental for her self-esteem and psychological well-being.
But the promise of 'happily ever after' is a larger part of the problem. Societies at large, seem to believe that marriage is a kind of end point and a solution to all ills, rather than the start of a complex process that largely depends on who we are and how we deal with it. The central question is: “Can [a marriage] tolerate the process of disillusionment, the facing up to limitation that all long relationships have to go through?”
It’s nearly impossible to detangle personal preference from social conditioning, and our deepest desires from the codes we have been taught to follow. Over time, the argument for marriage has shifted. It’s no longer about external forces having power over us: churches, the state, the legal idea of legitimacy, the social idea of being respectable. What we are now focused on is the psychological point of making it hard to throw it all in. People acknowledge it is a myth but the myth still wields a dangerous power - an idea that marriage, if only we surrender to it, can make us better, happier, different, and more complete. Maybe it can. But surrender doesn't seem a healthy message. Cultivating the self matters more. And today, in a happy relationship, instead of feeling as though I’m living within a restrictive set of rules, guiltily desiring secret things, I feel like I’ve finally found someone I can write the rules together.