Love and marriage, go together like a horse and…line?

10 02 2011

Marriage is a funny topic in my field. One of the things I learned when I started working with this population—mostly young, low-income, non-white families—was that I had to ask what exactly “marriage” meant. Plenty of people will introduce a partner as their husband or wife. Then you get to the “marital status” section of the application, and they check “single.”
 
Husband and wife, it’s just terminology. Women will often call a man their husband because, while he’s not the biological father of her children, he cares for them as though he is. Men usually refer to one woman as their wife, to distinguish her from the rest. She is his favorite, “main” girl.
 
Come on, ladies, who wouldn’t fight for that title?
 
Very few of the kids I work with have married parents. Actually, only one family has a mother and father, married to one another. (La dee dah.) The rest having a shifting rotation of partners, some long term, some fly by night.
 
I grew up with a certain view of marriage–it is inevitable. That it is just something you do when you grow up. I had married parents, and married aunts and uncles. (And a couple of married uncles, too.) My friends were in the same situation. I knew couples that were divorced, but of course they at least gave it a try.
 
I would think, since the kids I work with grow up with a different norm, that their ideas of the future would play out differently. But they don’t. It’s exactly the same talk. “What do you want when you grow up?” “I want to go to college, get a job, and get married.” Huh.
 
The moms tend to still have this in mind as well, so maybe that is where it comes from. They have had kids, often with a couple of different men. But those men weren’t It. (Not “Pennywise the clown” It, but “Mr. Right” It.)
 
Some women even talked about partners they had for years, and had children with this way. They weren’t ready to marry this man they had been with for eight years and three kids. They talked about someday finding the right guy, and doing things “the right way.” Getting married. Having a family.
 
The first few kids were practice runs?
 
Marriage is status. I have one client who insists on being called “Mrs.” and gets very insulted when people forget this. I was surprised at first, because I didn’t know of any husband.

Well, there is one.
 
Granted, he lives with his mother, in North or South Carolina, she’s not sure which, and is, according to their daughter, “a crackhead.” Also, this woman had a boyfriend for about ten years. But show some respect. She’s a married lady.
 
I hear people talk about “the breakdown of marriage” and children born “out of wedlock.” I’ve talked plenty about how difficult it is to be a young, single mother, and how much respect I have for the women who do this.
 
So when we talk about marriage being sacred, I get a bit tetchy. Especially since it reeks of classism. “My people, we do family right!”
 
Personally, I don’t care about marriage too much. I don’t have the late twenties obsession I’m constantly being told by amusing, cute actresses I’m supposed to have, and I don’t have the bitter hatred and rejection of the institution that is apparently the only alternative.  I just get cranky when I’m told that my uncles’ union is a threat to this sacred institution the world over.

I’m ok with marriage. I’m not ok with weddings. I don’t love being asked to spend a weekend traveling to, and attending, fancy registry gift in tow, an engagement party, bridal shower, bachelorette party, and then all the wedding weekend entails. Question-why do people still register for expensive sets of pots and pans? You’ve also registered for a rice cooker, panini pan, waffle iron, pancake griddle, George Foreman grill…what the eff food is going in these pans, you’ve already got a specific dish for every type of food you would want to make!
 
OK. I’ve composed myself. And we’re back on track.
 
We’ve all heard the line. “People these days, they focus on the wedding, not the marriage!” I find that to be true of plenty of my contemporaries.
 
My clients? They really want the marriage. They talk about making a run down to city hall, not renting out a villa for a celebration of their love. They want the partnership, the support.

The problem is, that’s been ruined by the fairy tale just as much as the wedding has. Who can live up to the marriages that you see on TV and in the movies? Or to the marriage that Will and Jada claim to have? The all consuming love, knowing what the other person is thinking, knowing instantly that you’re right for each other…it doesn’t usually happen quite like that. Which has left a lot of people feeling disappointed.
 
At least that’s something that reaches across class lines.

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15 responses

10 02 2011
Thorn

My grandmother had a social work-type job after World War II and remembers asking a woman who had ten kids with the same man why she didn’t just marry him. “He’s not my type!” was the answer. To her, that was the funniest thing she’d ever heard (in more ways than one) but I think it’s even more common now. I see it a lot at the church we attend, where people think it’s very strange that my partner and I don’t consider ourselves married when that’s the (lesbian) norm there, where marriage isn’t legal and a lot of them have never had even non-legal weddings. I see a lot of sides to this issue and I really liked this post.

10 02 2011
socialjerk

Thank you so much!

That story is pretty funny. I guess if he’s not your type after ten kids, he never will be. One of my coworkers was talking about her sister, who has been living with the same man for about 15 years and has three kids with him. She says she doesn’t want to get married because she, “doesn’t want that responsibility.” I can’t imagine what would really change, but, to each their own, I guess.

10 02 2011
MH

I’m starting to think that married couples should wait to have their wedding receptions. Until, oh, say…a few years after the ceremony. If you can make it that long, you deserve Expensive Cake and a Pretty White Dress.

10 02 2011
socialjerk

Or we can just wear pretty dresses and get cake.

What are you doing this weekend?

10 02 2011
Uncle Joe

On behalf of all those “married uncles” out there, I thank you for your crankiness.

10 02 2011
socialjerk

You know, my crankiness usually goes unappreciated.

And I would like to thank you, for living in Hawaii.

11 02 2011
Nectarine

Nice post. People’s ideas about marriage make my head spin.

I get reactions from all kinds of people since my partner and I have been together for years and have a child together but are not “married”. I say, we bought a house together with a 30 year mortgage, what greater show of commitment could there be?!? And why does it matter to anyone besides the two of us anyway?

12 02 2011
socialjerk

I always refer to a couple of friends of mine as married. Whenever someone questions it, I just say, hey, they own real estate together in NYC. That is a much greater commitment than any ceremony.

It always confuses me when people have opinions on things, like other people’s marriages, that clearly do not affect them in the slightest. So congrats on your child and 30 year mortgage, it sounds like you’re pretty serious 🙂

12 02 2011
cb

Like Nectarine, I have lived with my partner for years and we aren’t ‘married’. I don’t have any strong feelings for or against marriage. We sometimes have the conversation of ‘shall we get married?’ ‘yeah, sure’ and then haven’t ended actually doing anything about it!
Maybe it’s because both my parents and all my grandparents have died that I feel a wedding might be a little sad for me 😦 This led to many tears at both my sisters’ weddings and I know it’s not a good reason but it makes me maudlin. We all have deepset ‘issues’ and thinking that my mother and father would not be there might be a bit of a brain-block for me 🙂
We don’t feel any less committed to each other though!
I do feel a bit angry that our government is now trying to bribe people into marriage with particular tax breaks that will only be available for married couples..

12 02 2011
socialjerk

I think that’s a perfectly good reason for not wanting to have a wedding. You guys are happy with your situation, and you don’t have to justify your reasons to anyone else. (Ugh, I’m such a social worker!)

So you didn’t have special tax breaks for married couples before? We have that here, and it bothers me as well. When George W. was first elected, he made a big deal about “promoting marriage” and having this be a government priority, because marriage is the foundation of society, and everyone just knows that kids do better in homes with married parents. And yet, he supported a constitutional amendment that would have banned entire sections of society from marrying. Ridiculous.

12 02 2011
Weekend Links 5 | Fighting Monsters

[…] SocialJerk has a topical post about marriage and aspirations in the week that Hague called for the government promotion of tax breaks for married couples at the […]

12 02 2011
kuma4

I get a bit “tetchy” when I see people becoming “tetchy” about marriage on the basis of what they’ve seen of others.

When people say “marriage is sacred,” it more often than not means, “marriage ought to be sacred.” However, when has sacredness been anything of real, true, convicting importance in these current days? The only thing we seem to treat as sacred (not necessarily view as sacred, note the difference), are the things like: the all-seeing box (now more like a shiny window into humanity), the phone of omnipotence, the almighty pipe, this that, and hoo-ha.

What makes something sacred to begin with? (Now I am touching the uncomfortable zone.) Man cannot make anything holy–where would it come from? “The inmost good of a man.” Alright…and where has this Good come from? And what is “Good,” anyway? (This latter question is nearly impossible for most to answer, because we live in an age of relativity.)

So I actually agree with you–but for different reasons. I don’t think marriage is very sacred anymore, because the God is very rarely a part of it anymore. (I am not referring to the weddings in the chapel, I mean that the man and wife choose to make God their foundation both in marriage and in their lives.) How is anything sacred without God?

12 02 2011
socialjerk

When I talk about marriage, I’m not talking about a sacrament. I’m talking about a government institution. Clearly the religious aspect of marriage is important to you. But what I’m referring to is the contract that people enter into, which grants them certain rights and responsibilities under the law. People’s conceptions of what is or is not sacred or holy should not enter into judgements of secular marriages. Marriages in this country do not need to be sanctioned by any church. Many are not. Therefore it bothers me when people act like others are violating the “sanctity of marriage” when we are not necessarily talking about anything religious.

Now, I’ve mentioned before that I do not believe in God. Clearly we approach this topic from very different worldviews. This is not something either of us are going to change our minds about. I would never try to change your mind, or anyone else’s mind, about the existence of God. I don’t kid myself into thinking I could, and it doesn’t interest me. I was not saying that no marriage is sacred. But as an institution? I think it depends on how the married couple sees it. (As I’m sure you can see, I do, in fact, buy into the “age of relativity.”)

But sacred doesn’t just have to mean “God.” One definition of sacred is “regarded with reverence.” So while I don’t believe in God, I do believe in love, my family, my friends, music, baseball, writing, education, equality, and Harry Potter. Those things are sacred to me. God has nothing to do with it, because that’s how I live my life.

As for our mutual tetchiness, I’m not sure what I should base my opinions on, other than my own experiences and observations.

16 02 2011
sarahk

I had a friend when I lived in NYC, who was my same age, probably 23 at the time. He had 2 sons with his long-time girlfriend (they both worked with me at a settlement house) and they all lived together and had a very happy, domestic life. When he found out I was married (I married at 22) he was shocked and said he wanted to get married but couldn’t handle the commitment.

Meanwhile, at 29, I’m a huge animal lover and people always ask why I don’t have a dog. They never believe me when I say I can’t handle the commitment. I guess it’s all about what you’re committing to. It’s been easy to stay with the same guy for 12 years and counting, but having to come straight home from work and wake up early for walks every day for the next 10 or 15 years (or longer, for kids) seems impossible.

I was religious when I got married so it seemed important. We had a super cheap and laid back wedding and promptly moved 1500 miles away. If I had it to do over again I’d still get married because it meant a lot to our families but I have lots of friends who are long-term couples (10+ years) and I totally get why they don’t bother with it.

When it comes to my clients, they’re usually dealing with so much chaos that just getting a lease signed is a triumph. Actually getting married can seem pretty insurmountable, and I’m pretty sure it can mess up your benefits too.

18 02 2011
socialjerk

Concern about benefits is a great point. That factors in for a lot of ny clients.

I think region also plays an interesting role. In NYC, none of my friends are married. My friends in Connecticut, though, pretty much all are.

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