Welcome to Everything I Know About Love, I Learned from Romance Novels, a column that pre-dates the upcoming book, but shares a title and the best of intentions: to demonstrate that many real-life problems can be examined with the strength and lessons of romance fiction. Today’s letter is about marriage.
Dear Smart Bitch Sarah,
I would love some advice from you and the Bitchery, regarding my rather contemporary guy problem.
My boyfriend and I have been together almost four and a half years and are still very much in love. He was, and is, a wonderful, kind, gorgeous, caring man that I would be lucky to spend my life with. After about a year of dating we started to throw around the, “well, someday when we get married…” talk. Being raised in a community of drum-beating hippies where many of my friends parents shunned the patriarchal institution of marriage in favour of “life partnering”, I recognize that marriage is not a necessity, but it’s something I have always wanted. I thought that my very traditional, old fashioned BF felt the same way.
Now, fast forward a couple of years to one month shy of our three year anniversary. My lady clock is starting to tick while all around me girlfriends are getting engaged and my family (read: my mother) is starting to drop hints. I ask him what he thinks about getting engaged in the next year or so and getting married in the next couple. He flips his lid. Totally loses it. He is a stunned, shocked, horrified mess at the mere mention of getting married. He said, “wouldn’t it be easier to go our separate ways if we’re not married?” Now I am a shocked, horrified mess and think that I have spent 3 years planning a future with a man that doesn’t know if he wants to stick around.
After about a year he managed to fully convince me that he doesn’t have one foot out the door and does want to marry me…someday. Eventually, but hey, what’s the rush, it’s just a slip of paper.
Has any woman ever dreamed of meeting her perfect man, dating for awhile, eventually cohabitating while keeping clear financial boundaries, eventually getting a dog as a test run and after 8 to 10 years of “just making sure” and extensive discussion, reaching a mutual decision with her partner to tie the knot in a quiet, low-fuss civil ceremony?
I think that I can safely speak for the majority of the romance-addicted bitchery that this scenario falls woefully short of the mark.
I can think of only a couple romance novels where the hero and heroine fall in lurrrve and don’t put the cherry on top with a mawwiage (that was an ode to the Princess Bride, by the way). I know many couples that don’t bother to make it official and have wonderful, long lives together. I also know that a marriage isn’t a guarantee that you’ll work out. While I don’t expect our life together to always read like a shiny, sexy romance I suppose I always hoped for the love of my life to feel something more than a commingling of terror and apathy at the thought of marrying me.
He’s recently started talking about, “for our wedding I’d like…” and saying, “when we get married…” I either want to cry, punch a hole in the wall or slink away in embarrassment. I have managed to leech all visible romance and eager anticipation from the prospect of a proposal. The entire thing seems ruined to me. I also recently found out that I can’t have kids, which adds an entire new dimension to my obsessing: if I don’t get to do the pregnancy/baby/mommy gig, can’t I at least have that stupid slip of paper, some tacky wedding photos and a cheap gold ring?
He may be low on the romance, but I do have a great guy that treats me like gold. Am I being a twat? Should I shut up, move on and count myself lucky regardless of whether or not we get married? If he does propose eventually can I in good conscience accept when I know that my marriage is taking place as a result of my tears and emotional blackmail?
Where Have All the Knuckle Draggers Gone
You’re not being a complete twat, but clearly your hurts are overwhelming your clarity. I think that’s understandable.
It sounds as if the officially and legally binding commitment of marriage means a lot to you, particularly as you say you were raised in a community where challenging authority and institutional establishment was commonplace, and marriage as a state-defined commitment was disdained. Now, there is nothing wrong with wanting to be married. But whether you have a notarized marriage certificate or whether you’re living together happily and the only thing in both your names is the electric bill, relationships and happily-ever-afters still take work. The official stamp of federal joint tax returns doesn’t make marriage any easier or harder. It’s still tough.
As for your news of infertility, I’m so sorry. That sucks out loud and it sounds as if you are hurting from it. But even if you can’t do the “pregnancy” part, you can absolutely have the baby/mommy gig through a few different options. Granted, some of them take longer than nine months (and are just as difficult, hooray) but it can be done. There are many, many ways to welcome a child into your heart and your home, and if you want to be a mother, infertility is an obstacle that can be and has been circumvented.
But you need to work out your relationship problems first, obviously. Parenthood is enough of an emotional hurdle without bringing relationship struggles into it. There’s no sense in bringing a child into your drama, and your feelings about being a spouse and about being a parent are different things. They’re related, but for the time being you need to separate them a bit.
That said, holy hell, did your man screw up. He essentially said, when you asked about that permanent binding commitment, “But what if I want to leave?” NOT COOL. No wonder it’s taken a year or more for you to begin to trust him again. And it sounds like you still don’t trust him entirely. I understand that. He did a number on your confidence in his feelings for you.
I think the first step is an honest, possibly painful conversation wherein you explain how you’ve been feeling, vent all your hurt and frustrations of the past year, and explain specifically how his recent talk of marriage makes you feel guilty, ashamed, and hurt. If he’s been acquiescing to the idea of marriage because it is important to you, and he personally finds it repugnant, you need to hear that as well, and hear his reasons why. You have to explain, and you have to listen, and so does he. This is not going to be an easy conversation to have.
But if you want an unpolluted future with this person, you need to be honest, get your feelings out of your head and into the air between you, and then, together, get past them. Time to move on, either together, or separately.
Part of why there’s so much marriage in romance is because once you tie the knot, it can be very hard to undo. In the expectations of the reader, courtship leads to commitment. However, happy ever afters can be tough. There is no “just making sure” and “we’re good enough for now.” There are “happy for now” endings in romance but in most cases, the likelihood of forever afterward is more than a mere possibility. Most romances, however, end with a defined moment that establishes the relationship as permanent.
Real life certainly doesn’t come with guarantees like that, but you aren’t out of line for hoping that your boyfriend of four-plus years would be able to say without test-dogs and joint finances that he is sure you are the person he wants to be with. If he’s not sure, it’s time to end the relationship and find someone who is as sure about you as you are about them. By focusing on marriage, you’re asking him to declare his surety that you’re the one for him permanently. If he’s not willing or able to make that declaration, with or without marriage, it’s time to ask yourself hard questions about moving on.
As for weddings, some people do live together, and quietly have a no-fuss civil ceremony because that’s what is meaningful and beautiful to them. Other people want as many ruffles as possible. Both are totally ok.
But there’s a balance between what you want, and what your boyfriend wants, and that’s what you need to find. There is room for fewer ruffles in your dream wedding, for example. But there is not much room for “If you love me, you’ll want what I want” in a relationship – and neither is there a lot of room for, “Well, you’re good enough for now, but maybe someday we’ll break up.”
That balance, if you can find it, may mean that you move on separately, or move on together. But you need to stop thinking about this in your own head, have a painfully honest conversation, and see what happens. Good luck to you.