The only marriage I’ll ever really know anything about is my own, and I really know only half of that. In the half I know, I see things from only my own limited view; I know what it’s like for me being married to Bernard, which is probably entirely different from what things would be like for you if you were married either to Bernard or to me. (No, not offering those as options; you’re missing the point.)
You and I, married friends, we can swap stories and compare notes all day long. We might notice things, peering into each other’s worlds, that would help us grow, that could make us appreciate and improve our own relationships. We could talk about how to share household duties, the pros and cons of date nights and what to do about all that snoring. We could agree, most likely, that a marriage built on trust, respect and acceptance is far sturdier than one built on a superficial frame.
Perhaps we could get together, drink some wine, untether our war tales and make lists like “10 Things Married People Should Never Do” or “4 Steps to Rescue Your Marriage.” But there’s no guarantee that our 10 things or four steps would apply to anyone outside our tiny tipsy herd. And in the end you’d go home to your little world, I’d go home to mine, and we might find that our lists didn’t ring true even in our own homes. Similar, we’d be, but different.
I wonder if we would see this during our list-making wine-drinking spree: It’s a precious freedom, the ability to pair and marry at will, that not everyone in the world can enjoy.
In the great life lottery I drew, from the nature pool, white, blonde (in my childhood), blue-eyed and straight. From the nurture pool I drew a moderate and tolerant two-parent household, a (lightly) Presbyterian one with college degrees on both sides and a master’s on one. I landed in a home with books, art, dogs, music, a diverse assortment of friends and food, a home in which I was loved and respected for who I was, quirks and all, from my birth until my parents’ deaths.
It’s easy for me to forget the incredible privilege that’s hard-coded into this lucky life hand, until I read something like Frank Bruni’s “Do Gays Unsettle You?” in last Sunday’s New York Times. Bruni, one of my favorite columnists, never fails to get me thinking; and this particular piece was a true focus tilter, a call to look both at the world and myself from a different angle.
My parents (my mother, really) had a number of gay friends, although most of these friends were closeted, their sexual orientation never a topic of open discussion. Our house was a model of acceptance but stopped short of overt support. Had Margaret or I been born with a preference for women over men our parents would have loved us just as much; but they would have been saddened by the hardships we’d surely have faced on that life road. Life is challenging enough, my mother once said, even with the most conventional of circumstances.
Generation passing to generation, my house now is not unlike the house in which I grew up. We have openly gay friends, welcomed and accepted in our home. Conversations with our children are a good bit more candid with regard to sex, sexual orientation and families (thank you, Modern Family and Glee), but our model of acceptance probably stops short of overt support.
While I’m completely comfortable teaching my son and daughter the nitty-gritty details that accompany love is love, sex is sex, and violence is violence (three distinct things, two of which are often better when paired, one of which will never belong), I am just the tiniest bit ill-at-ease, if I’m honest, when face-to-face with gay couples’ public affections. I’m not much of a public affection kind of gal to begin with, but some feels more foreign to me than familiar, and foreign things feel less comfortable than familiar ones, even to a big, soft, left-leaning liberal like me.
Which, of course, was Bruni’s point and why I’m still thinking about his column. “Walk the walk, don’t just talk the talk,” that’s the gist of it. If you support gay rights, stand up in practice not just principle.
So for a week now, the week leading up to the big VD, I’ve been thinking about marriage and commitment and hypocrisy; about the privilege to pair up for life with a partner of my own selection and the accompanying responsibilities. All of them.
As a straight married couple living in the United States, Bernard and I take for granted right to hold hands and share secrets; the right to agree and disagree; the right to be there for one another, in sickness and in health, each of us with the one person who wants to do the same for the other.
And, of course, the right to have sex, which typically, even for straight couples, is where things get all tangly, where people get nosy and judgmental about other people’s business. As long as the premise is assumed to be one-on-one man-woman sex, though, we as a culture are generally open and sometimes enthusiastic. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Jenny with the baby carriage. Or something like that.
We toss them together – love, sex and marriage, in the easy public narrative that starts with hand holding and links not only the one man and one woman but all the married man/woman couples lining that conventional landscape, a shared story with a strong common thread of tradition.
Or something like that. Something we ordinary traditionalists, even the liberal ones, are most comfortable seeing.
What if we were truly willing to shift our line of focus, to cut across the plane and be open to seeing, without judgment, a wider variety of pairings, accepting that every pairing outside our own is inherently foreign anyway. Would having a new slant on that view really impact our private realities, the unique alchemy of our own marriages?
What we have to remember, you and I, is that your marriage isn’t a reflection of mine. It’s a window, my view of you, not a mirror. The only narrative I’ll ever hope to understand is my own, and I’ll only really ever understand half of that. Yours will always be foreign because I’m not cast in your play. But my right to pick mine is only as strong as your right to do the same, whether foreign or familiar, comfortable or not, behind the door or out in plain sight.