I (she/her) have been with my partner (he/him) for a few years now, we live together, everything is fine and dandy, except for one thing. We’re both in our 30s, and recently the topic of engagement and marriage has come up. I’d really like to eventually, and he really doesn’t. Our relationship is good, and I know nothing would really change in the practical sense if marriage was a thing that would happen, but even so I can’t help feeling sad about marriage being off the table.
When there is marriage-related things on tv or I walk past a jewelry store I get weepy and sad now and feel like I’m not good enough for my partner, even though logically I know that’s not actually true. Sometimes friends or family ask when/if we’re getting married, and I don’t know how to respond since I don’t want to sound like I’m just throwing my partner under the bus by saying “I want to but he doesn’t so ask him about it”. My parents are getting on a bit in years so even if my partner would change his mind some years down the road, them not being there for it is a real possibility.
Obviously some of it is cultural/gender specific (old unmarried spinster=bad, etc), but on the other hand, being “chosen” by somebody, having that promise to stick with each other and having a ring to symbolize that is important to me, as well as doing the ceremony part (even if it is small) in front of other people to make it “official”, and I don’t know how to let go of that. We’ve talked about why it’s important to me and my partner knows that I’m not happy about it, but that’s all. If they ever did propose, I’d want it to be because they truly want to, not because I somehow sadded them into doing it out of guilt or pity, so I’ve been trying to keep my feelings to myself as much as possible. At this point he might think that wedding-related stuff gives me the runs since I always have to go to the bathroom if anything related to it comes up on tv or whatever (but surprise, I’m not actually doing a poop, I’m doing a cry).
I’m a bit stuck on how to deal with my own feelings about the whole thing without feelings-dumping on my partner, I guess? I’m on the autism spectrum, so I try to be as conscious as I can about not saying something out of line, but I really don’t want to mess a good thing up by making a hen out of a feather. Any advice about how to manage my feelings/clueless askers in a mature way would be great, but if not, permission to be sad about something that feels like a silly issue is fine too.
Regards, Hapless and Ringless
Dear Hapless & Ringless
These “I want to be married and my partner doesn’t…is this just me being silly?” questions are accumulating of late.
I have an hour of free time and possibly a few more things to say about this, so, hi.
I have a lot of beefs with cultural narratives around marriage. Like, which is it, the pinnacle of achievement in a person’s life (especially if you are a straight woman), the sole legitimate goal of romantic attachment (especially for straight women), or a ridiculous, time-wasting, trivial obsession (that straight women focus on instead of more important matters)?
Let’s forget proposals, rings, parties, “being chosen”, fairy tales that end with a wedding for a moment. Let’s put aside religious traditions, also. Let’s even put feelings aside for right now.
You are in your thirties, living in a household with a fellow adult. That’s great. You’re viewing that arrangement as long-term and possibly permanent. Also great. You are making joint decisions about your future with this person – where you will live, where your money goes, where your time goes, where your attention goes. I don’t think it’s trivial to want to put some formal protections and expectations in place around making those decisions.
Marriage, as a legal institution, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll always get along, be happy together, or maintain positive feelings about each other. Marriage is a way of formalizing and legalizing family ties. It cements certain obligations and offers certain protections that – depending on where you live, and depending on who you love – cannot be easily acquired any other way.
Marriage, however it is practiced and administered where you are, legally clarifies pretty big questions that have far-reaching consequences, such as:
- Who counts as family, legally speaking?
- If you have children, who can make decisions about their custody and their welfare?
- What happens if one of you dies? To your children, if any? To your property? To your creative work/copyrights (if any)?
- What happens if one of you becomes ill or incapacitated? Who can make decisions about your care?
- Would you even be allowed to have medical information or be allowed to visit each other if something happened to one of you?
- How will retirement benefits, pensions, medical benefits, insurance benefits be distributed?
Do my fellow straight people understand what can happen when these protections are not available? Do you understand how quickly you could be erased from someone’s life by these “mere” formalities, if your partner’s feelings about you change someday, or if they get sick or die and the whims/prejudices/greed of their family of origin or the state decide that you don’t matter, that your relationship isn’t “real” enough?
If your partner says he doesn’t want to get married, okay, nobody can make him do that, let’s assume he has his reasons, people shouldn’t get married unless they really want to. If your partner says he plans to be with you long-term, and you believe him, is he willing to hire lawyers and work out the alternative legal paperwork that would spell out and protect both of you in case something awful happened in the future? Or does he expect you both to trust feelings with your money, your time, your potential kids, your future, your health, your end-of-life decisions, with everything you will ever own or do or make?
I think it’s absolutely normal, reasonable, and okay to want to marry someone as a condition of deciding to build your life with them. I think that if you want marriage badly and your partner does not, this is an area of deep incompatibility between you, and until this question is resolved to not only your not-secretly-crying-in-the-bathroom-anymore or even to your satisfaction but to your happiness, my honest suggestion would be to take your partner at his word. If you believe him when he says he doesn’t want to ever get married (and especially if he is not open to formalizing your relationship in other ways), how would it change what you’re willing to invest in the idea of a shared future with him? Would you want to stay? If you do decide to respect his reluctance and his reasons, and knowingly choose to invest under those conditions, I hope you will be happy and at peace with that someday. Time will tell. Your happiness will tell.
In the present, your UNhappiness will tell. Because, speaking of deep incompatibility, you’re crying in the bathroom because you don’t feel like you can allow yourself to feel your feelings about what you want from your life in front of the person you want to share that life with. That’s a problem.
I don’t have pointers for learning to be okay with less than what you really need and want from life, from your relationships. You want to be married. You want to be married to this specific person. You don’t have to apologize for, minimize, or hide that from me or him or your family or anyone. If your partner knew how very upset this makes you, would it change his mind? If your truthful, vulnerable feelings can “mess a good thing up” then was it that good?
P.S. For the “marriage isn’t a big deal, it’s just a piece of paper” crowd, my usual question is: If it’s not a big deal to you, and it is a big deal to your partner, why not go through with this “trivial,” “silly,” “meaningless” “piece of paper” to make the person you love happy? Why is the person who thinks it’s important the one who has to compromise?
In the sputtering that follows, usually what we discover is that it IS a pretty fucking big deal (and that’s why they don’t want to do it).
P.P.S. I said this on Twitter, it’s probably worth sharing here: On most days, the difference between being married to Mr. Awkward and living with Mr. Awkward is unnoticeable, in a good way. Our conversations are the same. Our domestic arrangements are the same. On a few days, the question “Are you a family member?” and the answer “Yes, I’m his wife” has really, REALLY, reallyreallyreallyreallyreally mattered. It has made doors that are locked against other people open for me. It has allowed me to advocate for him, to know immediately what is happening with him, to take care of him, to deal with paperwork and money and bureaucracy on his behalf. (All is well now, thanks to all who sent encouragement last fall). I’m about to have some pretty minor surgery (BEGONE, GIANT UTERINE FIBROID!!!!!) and it will be his turn to take care of me. I wish marriage were available for all people who want it, I wish there were more accepted/less expensive and complicated ways to codify this stuff, but this is why I feel so strongly about your situation, Letter Writer. ❤