Thursday, October 22, 2009

From the vault: Icing on the cake--the truth about marriage

[Editor's note: In a comment to my post on Steve Harvey's book, someone asked what I though about marriage, so I decided to revive this post from last year. See also "Love and Marriage...again" and "From a Married Lady to Young, Single Sisters."]

Professor Tracey has me usual. Over on Aunt Jemima's Revenge, she has launched a spirited discussion about black women and marriage. Rather than go the usual "why can't black women get married" route, hand-wringing over dire statistics like these:

The marriage rate for African Americans has been dropping since the 1960s, and today, we have the lowest marriage rate of any racial group in the United States. In 2001, according to the U.S. Census, 43.3 percent of black men and 41.9 percent of black women in America had never been married, in contrast to 27.4 percent and 20.7 percent respectively for whites. African American women are the least likely in our society to marry. In the period between 1970 and 2001, the overall marriage rate in the United States declined by 17 percent; but for blacks, it fell by 34 percent. Read more...

...Tracey asked something different--something no one else seems to be asking, since it is easier to cast black women as powerless victims or simply undesirable (too educated, too aggressive, too black, too too). She wants to know, "Do black women really want to get married?"

Yet every time I look around black women are single. And I mean single, not alone. There is a difference. Plenty of black women have healthy and hearty dating lives. I just wonder why black women getting to the altar still seems to be an issue. Particularly for educated, financially sound, well-traveled, high-powered, and ambitious black women. Read more...

Sisters are weighing in with their thoughts for and against getting hitched in the 21st century. (Head over to AJR and leave a comment.) Here's my take:

Marrying a man and sharing my life with him was always one of my life goals. It wasn't a primary goal or a goal I necessarily thought I could achieve (dire statistics and all), but it was something I hoped for. My desire wasn't about the spectacle of a wedding, or the idea of being "chosen," or being taken care of. I hate the whole "my day" foolishness; I like to do the choosing, thank you; and I was raised to take care of myself. What I wanted out of marriage was a partner for my life journey--someone to be my friend, lover, supporter, cheerleader, rock, protector and challenger. (Before anyone balks about gender bias...I know words like "protector" are loaded...EVERYONE--man or woman--needs someone to serve in these roles at some time. I like to think that I am all of these things for my husband,as he is for me.)

As a single woman, I think that I was pretty level-headed about marriage. Like anything else in life, circumstances may well have put matrimony out of reach. No truer words about marriage and family have been spoken than by Baz Luhrman in "Everybody is free (to wear sunscreen)":

Maybe you'll marry, maybe you won't,
Maybe you'll have children,maybe you won't,
Maybe you'll divorce at 40,
Maybe you'll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary…
What ever you do, don't congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either
– your choices are half chance, so are everybody else's.

I'd be lying if I said I was immune to pressure to get hitched. My parents and grandparents all have/had till-death-do-they-part marriages. It would be hard not to be a part of that tradition. And though most of my black girlfriends were single in their 20s as I was, most of the white women at the Chicago PR agency where I worked began to get engaged as they approached 30. All those flashed diamond rings, European honeymoons and new Northside condos can wear on a sister. I won't lie, feminist me was envious of my colleages' "chosenness" and the increased financial stability that being one of two earners in a household brings. Sometimes adult life feels hard when everything rests on your shoulders and yours alone.

But that insecurity was a sometimes thing. I didn't want to marry young. In my 20s, I built my career, traveled, took classes, dated, made friends and discovered myself. I enjoyed every minute of my single life and wouldn't trade it for the world. I miss it sometimes. I was determined not to wait on a Prince Charming that I knew might never come. Turns out, though, he did show up. I met my husband the summer of my 30th year and married him exactly a year later.

Seven years on [Editor's note: Now nine] , I believe that getting married is one of the best things I have ever done. I love my husband deeply. He is all those things I wanted in a partner and more. (He shares my love of dry, British comedy; politics; and he has great legs. Bonus!) As wonderful as my husband is, understand that he didn't make my life, he just makes it better. I had a good life before I married. I would have had a good life if I had never married. If my life is a cake mixed from all of my experiences, hard work, dreams and skills, my dear husband is the icing. And a very sweet icing at that.

That's what marriage is to me: icing on the cake. I love it. I recommend it. It is not; however, a substitute for personal growth and development. Put another way: the right life partner can greatly enhance your journey, but he or she can't walk it for you. YOU are the only person who can make you happy, successful, financially stable, etc.

And because there is nothing folks love more than advice from pompous, know-everything married people, here's some other random wisdom about being hitched:

There are no rules in marriage.

I often hear people say, "Girl, you know I can never get married, because I hate [insert hated thing that no one said you have to do here]." If you don't like sharing a bed, cooking or children; have separate rooms, order in and use contraceptives. Forget tradition and what your friends, in-laws, parents think your marriage should be like. A committed couple needs to negotiate a relationship that works for their unique needs. I get confused when I hear people voice opposition to marriage, based on a traditional structure that no one need adhere to. Your marriage is what you make of it. Thus, I should have called this essay "My truth about marriage," because it is only my truth.

But there are truisms about building rewarding relationships.

A few women on AJR mentioned not wanting to trust another person with financial information or personal information, or voiced fear of being controlled. It seems to me that, marriage aside, any successful long-term relationship hinges on honesty, trust, respect and compromise. You have to be clear about who you are and what you want. You also have to get a little "naked" in the figurative sense; you can't reap the benefits of being truly loved if you won't cede control enough to drop your guard and be vulnerable. [Editor's note: And this goes for men as well as women.] It also helps to know the difference between respect and control. When my husband tells me he's grabbing a beer with a friend on Saturday night, it's not because I'm in charge of his actions; it is out of courtesy and respect for the person that shares his life and home. If I'm planning to spend all Saturday hanging our with girlfriends, I let my husband know--not for permission, but because we are a team and it is courteous to let him know where I am and what my plans are.

Racism can force black men and women into constant defense mode. It can make us wary and suspicious--even of each other. Wary and suspicious are not exactly recipes for good relationships. I've always wondered if the shell we develop to guard against racism is at the crux of the sorry relationship between brothers and sisters.

There is something about saying "forever."

You may be rightly thinking that all of the things I love about marriage can be achieved without the marriage license. Indeed, gay people have long had deep, committed relationships not recognized by America as marriages. There was a time when black folks weren't allowed to marry, but we know our ancestors formed bonds and families just the same.

For me, though, there is something about pledging commitment to someone in front of family and friends. There is something about being certain enough about your loyalty to another person to enmesh your life with theirs legally, as well as spiritually.

Right or wrong, our culture places special honor on the marriage commitment. A spouse is revered as something more than a live-in lover. Don't believe me? Take it from a gay person who is fighting for the right to marry. Check out Tom Ackerman's essay "A Marriage Manifesto...Of Sorts."

I no longer recognize marriage. It's a new thing I'm trying.

Turns out it's fun.

Yesterday I called a woman's spouse her boyfriend.

She says, correcting me, "He's my husband,"
"Oh," I say, "I no longer recognize marriage."

The impact is obvious. I tried it on a man who has been in a relationship for years,

"How's your longtime companion, Jill?"
"She's my wife!"
"Yeah, well, my beliefs don't recognize marriage."

Fun. And instant, eyebrow-raising recognition. Suddenly the majority gets to feel what the minority feels. In a moment they feel what it's like to have their relationship downgraded, and to have a much taken-for-granted right called into question because of another's beliefs.

Just replace the words husband, wife, spouse, or fiancé with boyfriend, girlfriend, special friend, or longtime companion. There is a reason we needed stronger words for more serious relationships. We know it; now they can see it.

A marriage is a lot of things. Culturally, it's a declaration to the community that two people are now a unit, and that unity should be respected. Legally, it's a set of rights and responsibilities. And spiritually, it's whatever your beliefs think it is. Read more...

The personal benefits of marriage can be found in many a committed relationship, the legal and social benefits...not so much. [Editor's note: When I first published this, reader Satsuma wisely pointed out that society shouldn't offer special goodies--legal or otherwise--to people merely for having the luck to find a partner. She's right.]

No one needs to be married.

All that said. No one needs to be married. It is a personal choice. God knows I know some people that ought not be married. And I know some people who don't want to be married. That's cool. Even for those of us who do want to "jump the broom," stuff happens: "the right one" just never comes along...or we choose wrong...or we choose right at the wrong time...or we choose right and circumstances change...marriages fail. Life is mercurial; no one should invest all their happiness in part of it.

There are numerous paths to a rewarding and happy existence and not all of them include marriage.

That's the truth.


The New Black Woman said...

I think you're absolutely right. I, too, am feeling that pressure to get engaged and married. While my closest friends are still single, I know a lot of white friends I went to school with are getting married like there's a true shortage of men out there!

Last year, another woman at my job got married. She was 27 and she kept asking me (25) when me and my boyfriend were going to get married. So, I had the pressure from work.

I think you're right in that marriage is what you make it. I think a lot of people get caught up in how they THINK their marriage is supposed to be (keeping up with the Jones' affect). It's probably the reason why so many people have high expectations when it comes to how married life is going to be. They don't realize that it's actually hard and you're actually trying to make a living together.

Courtney said...

Thank you, Tami. I'm 23 and unmarried; so far, it seems like it might be a challenge to stay unmarried long enough to build my own life.

I think you were really right when you said marriage might work best when it is the icing on your cake! I am going to try to hold out for that kind of relationship.

dorkismo said...

OMG I LOVE this post.

I've been with my third husband for 16 years now, and I agree with all you say about the value of having a real companion to share your life with, and with the value of waiting ... something I wish I'd done. Too much of my life went by because I was embroiled in some kind of romantic craziness or other.

Each person has to figure out for himself what he wants in life and why, and then see if there's someone else out there who can share that vision. And conversely, just as importantly, someone whose vision we can complete.

Thanks for another fantastic post.

Anonymous said...

I think I agree w/ EVERY word you said, esp the part a/b marriage not having rules. I've been irritated by bossy married ppl trying to force their made-up marriage rules on me and other single ppl. (BTW, that's difft than the advice I get from my long-married parents, which I appreciate.) I'm 34, professionally successful, and have had a full, exciting life so far. I def am NOT looking for a man to make my life but rather to join me in my already fulfilling walk.

I gotta be real, though: a big part of this marriage issue for me is a/b both companionship AND sex. I don't believe in whoring around and, like many women, I'd prefer to have only one partner, but that would be very difficult if I was going to spend the rest of my life single. What's a principled single girl w/ a healthy libido to do??

Marissa said...

That was me who asked -- thanks a bunch, Tami, for the repost and the links! I've read the posts you linked to, and I enjoyed them a lot. I hadn't heard this "stop waiting for President Obama" nonsense -- it's pretty amazing.

Cindy said...

The truth of the matter is that no one else can decide what is right for you, or when, if ever, the time is right for you. Even with all that in consideration, there is no guarantee anyone will stumble across the person who will be the right partner for us in the moment we are ready. There's a lot of making your own rules and grabbing the luck when it lands on your doorstep.

So happy you have found someone who fits with you, Tami, and is willing to blaze the trail with you too. You are a lucky gal!


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