Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My partner and I have been together for almost nine years. We are in love, are deeply committed to each other, and are starting the conversation about having a child soon. We have nothing against marriage, it just hasn’t been a priority for either of us, so it simply hasn’t happened.
Other people don’t seem to understand that. We are constantly fielding questions from friends, family members, and new acquaintances asking us when we’re going to get married, why aren’t we married already, will we get married once we have a kid, wouldn’t it just be easier if we were married, and so on and so on.
I’d like to tell folks to mind their own f-ing business, but I know most of them mean well (and our grandmothers wouldn’t like that too much). So what can we tell people to shut them down, but not completely shut them out?
A Polite Request to Shut The F*ck Up
Dear A Polite Request To Shut The F*ck Up,
I used to dread being asked when I was going to get married. I had been with the same man for five years, we lived together, I wanted to get married, and he wasn’t sure. The question would come from friendly faces, usually co-workers or other light acquaintances trying to make small talk.
I would squirm as I tried to decide between answering honestly, “I want to get married but he doesn’t want to because I don’t know maybe I’m not good enough or maybe he doesn’t think he’s good enough and we talk about it all of the time without any resolution and I have this pain in my stomach and I’m terrified that we’re going to break up,” or, answering with a lie that would make the asker more comfortable, “Soon I hope! Ha ha ha!”
The problem is that we treat questions such as, “When are you two getting married?” like small talk, but they’re not small talk. They’re the biggest talk there is. Why do people feel comfortable asking you this intensely personal and probing question?
Marriage is something that occurs for many adults, but many other events occur for many adults and you aren’t constantly being asked about them. No one is demanding to know, “When are you going to get a Masters in Business? When are you moving to Florida? When are you going to retile your bathroom? When are you going to try running a 5k? When are you going on a cruise? When are you going to start composting? When are you going to buy a glue gun? When are you going to volunteer at a soup kitchen on Thanksgiving?” Any of these events may happen in your life, but they aren’t inquired about because they aren’t assumed.
There are three events in an adult’s life that are assumed:
- You will get engaged
- You will get married
- You will have babies
These events are assumed to occur and are assumed to occur in this particular order for reasons that no longer apply. Engagements proceed marriage so you can get to know your spouse and everyone can verify that you aren’t getting married because the woman is pregnant. The marriage occurs to publicly bond you two together with the promise that you will take care of each other and the rest of us can relax. The babies occur to keep the human species going, provide grandchildren, and ensure that you never get to go see a movie with your spouse for the next 15 years.
Going through these big three events out of order or (gasp) skipping them altogether used to be social suicide. You were not accepted if you did not conform, and to not be accepted meant, at worst, that you’d be outcast from the group and, at best, that you’d be the subject of gossip.
Today, if you do not adhere to the above mentioned heteronormative life schedule, the consequences are milder, but they still exist. Instead of being an outcast, you’re questioned. You’re constantly put in the position of having to correct the assumptions of others.
Why do people continue to assume that all those around them are moments away from getting engaged, getting married, or acquiring offspring?
They ask because they assume that it’s a safe question. OF COURSE you want to get married because you have ovaries and love tax breaks. If we unpack the question, “When are you getting married?” we find that there’s more going on. The subtext of “When are you getting married?” is “When will your choices match the ones that have been assigned to you?” and, “When will your life choices reflect and therefore validate my own?” and, even more, “When will you conform?”
To be married and to be a long-term partner are not the same thing. The act of getting married can be hardship in itself. Marriage used to be as simple as calling all of your townfolk out into the open and announcing to them in a clear and loud voice that you and your partner were now together. It was a simple procedure. Today, marriage involves gathering upward of $20,000, committing to hundreds of hours of work, planning, coordinating, and implementing a ceremony and reception, all while grappling with a Wedding Industrial Complex that’s urging you to go bigger, get better flowers, spring for the fancy shoes, and put tiny magnificently calligraphed chalkboards on everything. Planning a wedding is its own form of hell and I do not disparage anyone for choosing to skip it.
When someone asks you, “When are you getting married?” you must understand they don’t realize that you’ve gone off script. They don’t realize that marriage isn’t in your plans. And they don’t realize that their assumptions are a passive critique of your life choices. The question “When are you getting married?” isn’t meant as an indictment. It’s a simple question that is only made complex by the fact that it assumes information that shouldn’t be assumed.
Know this: You don’t need to justify your life to anyone, including your grandmothers. These questions don’t point to you. They point to the asker. They reveal their assumptions, their needs, their anxieties.
It’s not your job to make them comfortable, but it’s also not your job to make them uncomfortable. It’s your job to report your truth. When asked, “When are you two getting married?” I suggest that you respond with a simple, “We’re not.” That’s all. Leave it there. You don’t have to derail a polite conversation by educating your asker about all of the cultural bullshit that accompanies their question. Answer the question succinctly and accurately, and then move on.
You’re living the life that best suits you and your partner, and you don’t need to apologize and you don’t need to clarify. The questions will come, but those asking will have to find the answers on their own.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.