Just because all your friends are doing it, doesn’t mean you should. Lyla Cicero discusses the group mentality to getting married.
What’s the best way to predict if a couple will get married? Find out how many of their friends have! In many social groups, once one or two friends marry the rest will drop like flies. So is marriage merely a form of peer pressure? Do we all want to avoid being the last single person left standing? If so, are we really getting married for the right reasons?
Between the ages of 28 and 32, I felt like I was attending one wedding per weekend. As someone who had always viewed marriage with skepticism, it was only when I found a truly egalitarian partner that I considered getting married for the first time. Seth and I viewed our “un-wedding” partnership ceremony as a form of resistance to peer pressure. But despite our insistence on expressing our feminist values, honoring those who did not share the privilege of legal marriage, and refusing to engage with the wedding industrial complex, we were still thinking relatively inside the box. We were still making a heterosexual, legally-sanctioned, long-term partnership with an assumption of monogamy.
One of my best friends is getting hitched next month. Almost five years after my wedding, as I support her through her journey to marriage, I’m seriously wondering if my own is going to make it. After a stressful infertility experience and 15 months raising twins together, my relationship is in its toughest period yet. I’ve never had a “that won’t happen to me” attitude about divorce. Being a therapist, I understand how tough the dynamics of couples’ relationships can be to navigate. I always felt that even trying as hard as I knew I would, it could, indeed, be me. What I didn’t know was what it would feel like to try that hard and have to face the possibility that it might not be enough. I didn’t understand that I could still be so in love with my husband, still see him as an amazing partner, and yet wonder if it’s possible for us both to get our needs met while raising children, managing careers, and constantly evolving as individuals.
I’ve realized that most of Seth’s and my exposure back then was to the beginning of a marriage. For our parents, the reasons for marrying, the life-stage they were in when it happened, and the ways in which they negotiated their relationships were so foreign, it was easy to write-off those marriages as having nothing to do with ours. We really didn’t have much interaction with people who’d been married longer, were divorced, were single by choice, or who were in non-marital relationship structures, either monogamous or polyamorous. We understood that our gay and lesbian friends weren’t focused on marriage, but our response was outrage that they could not marry, rather than questioning whether matrimony was or should be everyone’s ideal. I can only imagine how alienating that time period was for many of my queer friends.
That lack of exposure led our social circle to a kind of groupthink about marriage—an assumption that even though it would be hard, it would be worth it. I even found myself about a year ago proclaiming the benefits of marriage to a friend who was thinking more critically about whether to marry. My argument included the ways in which the cultural meaning of marriage and the social support marriage engendered had deepened and strengthened my relationship. But cultural acceptance makes a lot of other paths—paths that I have rejected—easier, too. What about encouraging more social support for other relationship structures? Were the positive feelings I attributed to marriage merely evidence that I, who once saw marriage an oppressive, patriarchal institution, had caved to the peer pressure? Was I basking in the glow of doing the popular thing, rather than in the glow of marriage itself?
Even if those around us don’t actively pressure us to follow their paths, a lack of other models creates a tendency to default to what others have done. I have seen that kind of “default” at play as, on an almost daily basis, ultrasound pictures appear on Facebook. Can they all really be making a fully conscious choice to raise families, I ask myself? At the same time, I’ve watched the rare friends who have chosen not to have children feel alienated and misunderstood. Resisting peer pressure can be painful, but not resisting it can be as well. This year, Seth and I felt like our own family was being torn apart as our “couple best friends” divorced. Just like marriage, divorce can spread through social groups as unhappy couples see others finding a way out and exploring new lives outside their relationships. Other challenges to traditional notions of marriage can also spread through social groups such as exploring queer identity, kink lifestyles, and/or polyamory. Unfortunately, many of us don’t come to the place where we are ready to consider all of our options until we have the big, socially sanctioned life choices like marriage and children under our belts.
If I could talk to myself back then, before the marriage juggernaut came barreling towards us, I wouldn’t necessarily tell myself not to get married. I would, however, ask myself whether when I decided I could be a married feminist, I was still defaulting to a hetero-normative, monogamous lifestyle, rather than making a more conscious, more intentional choice. I would want Seth and me to at least consider a long-term, non-married partnership. I would want us to talk about whether two adults in a marriage really is the best approach to both relationship and family structure. There are times when it feels like both my marriage and child-rearing would be more manageable with more adults involved. I wish someone had warned me that when the terror of spending life alone is not drowning them out, our desires to explore our own sexuality can become louder. We can suddenly feel unhappy with our level of sexual experience, find out we are a lot queerer than we thought, or that we are not sexually compatible with our partner. In all marriages, we inevitably realize there are things our partners can’t provide us, and have to reconcile either getting those needs met elsewhere or going without.
Many couples discuss whether they will have children, what religion they will practice, and how they will handle finances before marrying. But few discuss how they will keep their sex lives exciting, how they would handle it if their marriage became mixed orientation, or whether polyamory or an open relationship might be an option. Seth and I thought we were thinking outside the box, but we didn’t realize that there were other boxes. Ironically, marriage often provides the stability and safety for us to explore ourselves more fully. For some, this can deepen the marital relationship, but for others, it can lead to the realization that the partner they are with is no longer the right one. These are the things they don’t tell you in the bridal magazines, or talk about at all those wedding showers. How many romantic comedies end with the female lead realizing that, while her husband is really good in bed and a great father, he’s not emotionally available enough?
The peer pressure to marry doesn’t necessarily suggest a problem with marriage itself, but a lack of other cultural models. This results in a lot of people choosing marital and family structures by default rather than by intention—a kind of compulsory monogamy. If I were advising young adults today, I would tell them to seek out people who have set up their relationships and lives in a variety of ways, including traditional monogamous marriage. I would tell them to pursue diverse sexual experiences and explore their sexual orientations before committing to monogamy, or consider relationship structures in which continued exploration could be on the table. I would tell them that marriage is hard—incredibly hard. But, I would have to add that the best things in life inevitably are. I don’t regret getting married, but as I make the decision each day to remain married, I believe I’m doing it with greater and greater intention as I glance down more of the roads not taken and realize what it is I’ve actually chosen, and what I’ve given up.
Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and focuses on relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is a feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UnderCoverintheSuburbs.com, where she writes about expanding cultural notions of identity, especially those surrounding gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.