"You're pushing it, boy. I'm givin' you two months... tops. You need to get it together," and everyone laughed on cue.
I had suddenly become the punch line at the wedding rehearsal, flanked by my girlfriend's mother, sister, grandmother and extended family and friends. The hilariously extroverted and, up-until-that-moment earlier, endearingly charismatic wedding planner had turned on me. He'd just asked me if my girlfriend and I were married and how long we'd been together, to which I'd told him "no" and "almost three years." And then came his ever-predictable response.
A question came into my head: Get what together? Conform and become another mindless robot just doing "what people do"? Does "getting it together" mean hitting the two-year mark, taking two months' salary to buy a fat rock, locking it down and starting a family?
I've never felt compelled to do what I was told. Call it freethinking or an issue with authority; my first impulse has always been to question what I'm told, at best, or, on principle, just doing the opposite (which I now recognize as being equally silly). Whether it is being dictated to me by a random stranger, my parents or one of those ubiquitously clichéd societal narratives we all know and are forced to grapple with, I will always be introspective and critically engaged in the decisions I make. How am I not going to think deeply and profoundly about the person I'm going to spend the rest of my life with? It blows my mind how blasé some people approach marriage.
When I think about a commitment like marriage, I immediately think about other big commitments I've made in life. For example, I remember getting an apartment with my best friend right after college. Being so young and naïve, we were just excited to be all grown up (finally!) and living on our own. I think we assumed that every day together would just be an endless party. With a rigorous daily grind at our low-paying social service jobs and the high cost of living in New York City, it was anything but. Let me put it this way -- we lived together for a little over three years and it was an absolute miracle that we both made it out of that apartment alive! And that's not saying anything bad about either of us. We're both pretty easygoing, well-intentioned dudes.
Truth is, it's just damn hard to live with another human being. No matter how much you love them and no matter how well you get along, it's tough because human beings are work. Each person has his or her own annoying living habits and personality quirks. And that's not even getting into how complicated things then become when you mix in sex and physical intimacy. And speaking of sex -- one person for the rest of my life? That was just one of multiple concepts I couldn't wrap my head around in my early twenties. I wasn't even sure monogamy was possible.
Of course, along with marriage comes the whole lifelong commitment thing. I was scared to death of commitment in my early twenties. In college, I quickly became overwhelmed with panic when my then girlfriend suggested I move in with her and "start to build a life together." As the words left her mouth, I had this dreadful vision: a white picket fence, golden retriever, monotonous nine-to-five job in a cubicle, and two well-behaved boring kids sitting in the back of our gray minivan. In other words, moving in with my girlfriend at the time symbolized the death of all of my dreams, the embracing of mediocrity and a slow spiral into predictable, spirit-numbing adulthood.
For the majority of my life, all of my associations with marriage have been negative. Marriage makes me think of resentment, squelched dreams, boredom and, above all, divorce. My own parents' failed relationship, which ended in divorce when I was in the eighth grade, probably has a lot to do with it. By the end of middle school, I could easily count on one hand the friends whose parents were still together (and some of those probably shouldn't have been). It built this profound aversion in me to the institution of marriage. It made me feel like marriage was cursed, as though by entering into such an arrangement, you were just biding your time before inevitable failure.
I met my current partner over eight years ago. We were friends and then a bit more than friends, for years, but never fully committed. She was my biggest supporter and closest friend, this breathtaking woman who was mature and funny and fiery and rational and huge-hearted and, oh, by the way, gorgeous. What I loved about her, and made me want to always be with her, also became the source of tremendous anxiety and what triggered in me this enormous desire to run. The thoughts kept coming up, Carlos, this woman is incredible. You can't just date someone like this. You know what this leads to...
So I had finally found the most amazing woman, which created for me this impossible dilemma -- I only wanted to be with her but I still never wanted to get married. When we finally decided to be in a committed relationship, it felt nothing like any other relationship I had ever been in. I felt free and alive like no other point in my life. Each day together felt fresh and thrilling. I felt like the best version of myself I had ever been. I felt overwhelmed by creative energy while remaining at peace and centered, something I had never been able to achieve on my own or with anyone else. She was like this miracle worker who made everything about me better.
And that was enough for me, for a while. The years came and went. We went to multiple weddings together, including her sister's that I mentioned earlier, and watched many people we care about publicly declare their love. I felt satisfied by what I had been able to pull off -- the healthy committed relationship without the downsides of marriage. I was a magician. I had tricked fate. I had found a way to avoid one of my greatest fears in life. Or so I thought...
Her associations with marriage are the opposite of mine. She grew up in a healthy, united family, surrounded by friends who, for the most part, also came from two-parent households. For her, marriage symbolized a defining union between two life partners wanting to bring their families together and publicly celebrate their love. Hearing her describe her feelings about both weddings and marriage began to slowly soften my perspective. Damn, I thought, there is something so beautiful and poetic about having a celebration to honor the love you share with your life partner. And to share that day with every other person you love? Wow. That must be incredible.
That was my first surprising turn toward considering marriage. The wedding ceremony was something I did find value in. On the other hand, the marriage, or more accurately, the culture surrounding marriage, was what I feared most. And, of course, the marriage is the most important part. As one of my dear friends once told me, "Too many people plan weddings, not enough plan marriages." He's been happily married almost twenty years. Needless to say, I listen very carefully whenever he shares relationship wisdom.
I would openly communicate with my girlfriend (and even others who'd ask) about my fears and concerns surrounding marriage. I needed to wrap my head around my past associations with marriage and deconstruct the fears I had surrounding it. My partner would listen, ask gentle questions, and try her best to be patient, but with each passing anniversary, I could see the anxiety and fear growing in her eyes.
During the holidays I would watch her beautiful family -- two of her sisters in healthy marriages, her parents married for over forty years, and relish in the joy we all shared together. I want this, I'd think to myself, not that you have to be married to have this. But there is something so unique and special about this communion of family, this ceremony of loving each other, and this ritual of affirming what we mean to each other.
I pictured the wedding ceremony we might have and how beautiful it would be to share that day with every other important person in our lives. I thought about fatherhood. I thought about our children being able to share both of our last names, all of us being the same unit -- a family, a distinct, unbreakable home. I watched friends, who'd had similar issues to mine, remake and redefine marriage on their own terms. Question tradition and then either defy certain customs or recreate them for their own needs. I witnessed the relationships of our friends in which roles became more fluid. Those relationships became my blueprint for the real possibility and promise of a life I had long ago almost ruled out.
And then, one day, late last year it happened. Two and a half years later than I was "supposed to," I finally felt ready. I admitted to myself that I wanted to get married to the woman of my life and this past winter we got engaged.
Which is not to say that I no longer have any fears surrounding marriage, but I have an overwhelming and profound sense of belief that we can build a life together on our own terms. I know it is possible because I have seen it done. And, sure, it will be scary and hard work at times, and also rewarding and humbling and beautiful and inspiring. I look forward to building a family we can call home. I look forward to my partner and I constantly re-envisioning and remaking our own ideas about both commitment and marriage... for the better.
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Seven Years Later: Reflections on Marriage by Seth Dombach