and why I'm engaged.
The real story of our engagement isn’t the one we’ve been trotting out, where there’s a ring involved and Champagne poured. In fact, I was attempting to circumvent the ring by telling Israel one Saturday night in October to order his Boulevardier with WhistlePig, the most expensive rye whiskey on the back bar, and—once glasses were clinked and our respective cocktails sipped—saying, “If we’re going to get married, we should just get married.”
This isn’t something I would ever bring up out of the blue. It was always him talking about it, as it wasn’t something I ever expected, wasn’t something I ever thought I wanted. Eventually, though, I allowed myself to want it.
Israel had been talking about a ring, often mentioning this future ring, and I am and always have been nauseated at the idea of fanfare around an engagement. I didn’t want him on one knee; I didn’t want someone hiding in the bushes to take a photo. It upsets me slightly, even, when people say “congratulations,” because we haven’t done anything, haven’t achieved anything. We’ve made a decision that so many make.
I did, however, want to get married. I knew we would from early on, and will never forget seeing my mom’s jaw drop when I said, “I could marry him” after we’d been together for three months. (There is a lot to say about how we got to this point, of course, but that’s a longer essay I’m writing that I would like to publish in the traditional fashion. It’s titled “Diamond Dog.”)
After he agreed to my statement—not without a shit-eating grin and some whooping, for I was the one who had officially made this leap—he went about actually getting the ring. Despite all this, he was terrifically nervous about presenting it to me and wanted the moment to be perfect. In the end, I got everything I didn’t know I wanted: the ring wasn’t a surprise, but the person to whom I was getting engaged still cared with his whole heart about making it special. And this was when we decided to make it public, because this was when there was something to show for it beyond words. As you might imagine, I don’t mind having just words, just feelings.
An engagement, a wedding, a marriage—these weren’t my dreams once I had a real consciousness about the world, even though I’ve been in relationships near-continuously since I was 16. The relationships were one thing, things I could get out of at any moment despite how entangled, enmeshed, I have always made myself. While entangled and enmeshed, I was never engaged, and while part of me always knew it was because these men weren’t the right men, these men were men who always left me wanting something more, I also had my politics on my side. They provided plausible deniability, a cover for my fear and indecision and lack of understanding for how to place myself in society. I could put up a smokescreen in front of the lack of true love by making arguments about the role of the state to protect all its citizens equally without requiring some pact that favors male happiness but not women’s, protects men more than it does women, because we are in an inherently unequal and patriarchal society. (That argument worked, still works, with gay marriage legal, though of course my own telling is inherently cisheterocentric. I do not contain multitudes.)
Why I never wanted to get married is perhaps why many women do want to get married, because it makes a statement about our worth (this is both a valid urge and a culturally created one). I never wanted to put that in the hands of a man, any man. The idea still makes me want to puke. It has made me uncomfortable that our engagement was only seen as “official” once a ring was involved, because that’s patriarchy, that’s capitalism, but I’m 35 years old now and what other people think has far less bearing on my mind than it once did.
In the past, the idea that I would need a man to buy a ring for me to be deemed worthy was enough for me to say, “that will never be me.” Now? Who gives a shit. I’m in my relationship; I’m in my body. The ring, when I look at it, speaks only of love and commitment—and that I’m in love with and committed to someone who takes careful notice of my aesthetic preferences. My being a “wife,” I know, will come with expectations beyond our relationship.
When people want me to explain to them how I’m making my future marriage make sense with my politics, I don’t really have anything for them and I don’t really want to. I’m marrying Israel because I love him more than I’ve loved anyone before, and if one day the state decides marriage is abolished and everyone will be treated equally, I wouldn’t mind. I don’t think being married should grant me special status; all it means is that I’ve entered into a union with this person. We’ll be married in a church, and so it will have spiritual relevance beyond its being state-sanctioned.
I don’t feel political conflict because I know what my politics are, and I don’t think getting married should provide us anything but what we decide that means for us. The fact that it does is besides the point. My life isn’t a manifesto. I’ve tried to live like it is; I’m old enough now to see how that’s impossible, that it makes me miserable. I mean, I lived on Long Island for years after college because I didn’t want to be a gentrifier in New York City; it took a massive breakup for me to realize I should live where my friends and work were instead of suffering to make a statement to no one other than myself.
Getting married is not, will never be, a radical act. It’s an inherently conservative decision, to my mind, and even though my ring has a pearl, not a diamond, that doesn’t make it less so. How it exists between two people personally? That could be another story, filled with possibility. I don’t need marriage to be radical in order to want to do it, to want to throw a party where I bake the cake and wear a reconstructed version of my grandma’s dress and then call someone my husband and have the sense of security that that entails and put in the amount of effort that marriage requires. It won’t alter the ways in which I want society to change.
One of the writers I had always been reading on the subject of marriage and its incompatibility with feminism or justice was Jessa Crispin. She ended up getting married in 2018 and writing about the reasons why for the New York Times. Here there’s a mix of necessity and love, because of her husband’s immigration status, and like any steely-headed woman she was trying not to make any of it about her heart. What this piece tells me is what I’ve already known, which is that society doesn’t give women a fair choice about marriage—whether to be for or against, whether to be happy about it or resigned and level-headed—and the heart, despite our best efforts, is always going to get swept up at some point. (It should be said, she is still writing about the ways in which mainstream feminist writing on marriage fails to account for working-class women.)
Truthfully, I’ve mainly avoided women writing about marriage, though I’ve loved women writing about having children—that’s the problem I long to solve (Motherhood, A Life’s Work, Drifts, and Little Labors are my favorites) that I don’t know if I’ll ever solve, though, according to biology, my time on that one might be running out. It was only according to society that my time on marriage was also ticking.
When the ring was on my finger, though, I turned to Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, who famously chronicled her divorce and subsequent new love in Eat, Pray, Love. (I knew it would be a breezy read.) She, too, needs to get married for immigration reasons, though she and her lover both said they never would because they’d been divorced before. While they’re traveling through Southeast Asia because he isn’t allowed into the U.S., she decides to put her journalist hat on and figure out what marriage is really all about. The answers aren’t surprising: Marriage makes men happier than women; women who are older and more established are happier in marriage than younger women; everything about marriage is different from culture to culture; no one will give your relationship the same status as a marriage until you are literally married.
By getting married, I could be justifying the whole charade. I don’t doubt that. In participating, I am reinforcing it as an institution, especially because there aren’t any urgencies around visas or health care that are inciting our decision. I’m covered under his work’s health insurance already, by virtue of living together, and that’s a damning notion already, of course: The only way I’ve gotten good health insurance since I’ve been a freelancer is in this partnership. It shouldn’t be this way.
But even when marriage is functionally abolished, as I read about in this entertaining 1926 piece reported from the early years of the Soviet Union in The Atlantic, people’s lives might be a big mess and kids might be put on the street. (Quite a lot has been written on this subject, and as I’m not getting my PhD in marriage in the Soviet Union, my full understanding is shaky.) Krilenko, a public prosecutor, says:
Free love is the ultimate aim of a socialist State; in that State marriage will be free from any kind of obligation, including economic, and will turn into an absolutely free union of two beings. Meanwhile, though our aim is the free union, we must recognize that marriage involves certain economic responsibilities, and that's why the law takes upon itself the defense of the weaker partner, from the economic standpoint.
From this, I take that everything we want the world to be, it isn’t right now, and while we can work toward socialist equality, we are making do with what we have right now. I want to believe that our marriage will be “an absolutely free union of two beings,” but we don’t live in a society where that is possible. No matter all our good intentions, marriage as a construct is more about how the world sees us and less about how we see ourselves. I don’t know what being a “wife” will look like to the world, and I will only ever understand what embodying it will be like for me. This gives me a sense of softness toward other women whose choice to get married in the past I have understood as a capitulation. What a simple-minded mistake I made, and I called it “feminism.”
I’d like us all to aim for a better way of living, a way of living with collective care and equity, and if it makes sense then to abolish marriage, let’s do it. If I live to see that moment, I hope I’ll still want to keep my ring on anyway.
This Friday’s paid subscriber interview is with Tamar Adler, the author of An Everlasting Meal: Cooking With Economy and Grace and Something Old, Something New: Classic Recipes Revised. We discuss the state of food media, the requirements of social media, and much more.
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Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power by Lola Olufemi. I’ll be writing about new feminist visions soon, and I’ll be interviewing Olufemi for paid subscribers.
Pasta, baby! Back on the pasta beat. Tacos. Absolutely nothing exciting but everything satisfying. Above, a cast-iron vegan arugula pizza I made on Three Kings’ Day, shot by my friend Ricky.
I had similar struggles before getting engaged, but absolutely loved being engaged. It was just about us committing in a way that was wonderful. And for me the emotional commitment of getting engaged was much bigger than the legal commitment of marriage and the world viewing our partnership differently. It was also one of the more selfish parts (for me and my partner together) in the whole wedding process. The wedding turned about to be about so much more expectation, opinions, people, and battling an overwhelming capitalist machine. Trying to say, I hope you are also enjoying this moment.
Loved this piece, thank you for sharing! Gonna be mulling this one for a while, especially the phrase "women whose choice to get married in the past I have understood as a capitulation." I didn't realize until it was put to words that that was sort of my lens too, and seeing it laid bare like that gives me a lot to reevaluate.