I am ambivalent toward marriage.
I’ve been looking for the perfect descriptive word for months now, knowing this was something I wanted to write about but not knowing exactly where to begin. And then, last week, I heard Lauren Groff on Morning Edition talking about her book, Fates and Furies (which I loved); and I realized she used precisely the word I’d been seeking, described precisely the way I feel: I am ambivalent toward marriage.
To be clear, I am not ambivalent toward love, fidelity, respect, acceptance, forgiveness, humor, faith or sex. Nor am I ambivalent toward Bernard.
Also to be clear, Bernard has always been ambivalent toward marriage. Marriage, to him, has never been anything but a piece of paper, albeit one with benefits in the areas of taxes and insurance. Marriage does not define people or feelings, though the pressure associated with being married can certainly weigh on both. This is what Bernard would say, though perhaps not using those exact words. This is, after all, my half of the narrative.
But I know what he would tell you, if you asked him: We are married because I pressured him into it. I insisted that it was the responsible, proper, expected, normal, and right thing for us to do. I spent my life preparing to be married; it was always in my plan. Marriage was the path to which that one special, magical relationship would naturally lead, the pinnacle of womanhood. When the right opportunity presented itself, I was not going to be denied.
This idea of marriage as life’s loftiest achievement was, I think, planted by my mother, who, to be fair, did encourage individualism, self-reliance, et cetera, but who also constantly, constantly nudged me – with a wink and a grin – toward the boys she considered good husband material: smart, good-looking boys from good families, sons of lawyers and bankers, future breadwinners who would be capable of supporting a Junior League wife, two kids, and a Volvo station wagon. My mother, who was separated and soon to be divorced, wanted for me the happily married life that for her had somehow gone awry. She wanted me to net the right guy, to be the right wife.
None of it came together as my mother had hoped, however. I was defiant and willfully independent and entirely unsuited to role my match-makers expected me to play. And then I met Bernard and decided I wanted to marry him. And so I did, certain that if we got married, we would grow into the picture we were supposed to be. I was very much in favor of marriage; marriage was the answer to my problems.
Now, years later, my children would like to know why.
I have been the villain in this story, I should tell them. I wanted to be married, and Bernard wanted to be with me more than he wanted not to be with me, even if it meant having to exchange rings.
But good always triumphs over evil; really, in the end, it always does. In the years since we tied the knot, there have been dozens of times when I, the villain, have fussed and criticized and thrown temper tantrums because Bernard would not conform to my superficial vision of the picture-perfect husband. All the while, he has just wanted me to be me, the person I’ve had to grow into. He never wanted a picture-perfect wife or picture-perfect marriage. He never bought into the convention. A marriage certificate has never been more than just a piece of paper, something he could just as easily take as leave. But he has never been ambivalent toward me, nor likewise toward love, fidelity, respect, acceptance, forgiveness, humor, faith or sex.
My husband is ambivalent toward marriage. I think, perhaps, he is right.