Jesse and I have been a couple for almost five years. We own a home together. We have similar core values. We actively plan for our shared future.
We are unmarried. And have no plans of becoming so.
And up until recently, I have been very happy with this mutually made decision.
Our relationship centres on our self-devised philosophy of independent togetherness. Although we are navigating our lives together, we maintain an element of separateness, which suits our respective temperaments and situations. Jesse requires alone time to recharge; I am often out and about attending events and taking meetings, which facilitate this. I need to spend a lot of time working and ‘achieving’ to validate my existence (don’t worry, I know exactly how this reads and I am working on it); Jesse has recently returned to studying and requires time to work on assignments.
We balance and enrich each other’s lives.
I turn thirty this year and as I have approached this milestone I have increasingly become the recipient of enquiries about my unmarried state. These questions and queries come from friends (not those closest to me mind you, they are intimately aware of my feelings on such matters), acquaintances and sometimes strangers. Do I think Jesse will propose soon? When are we getting married? Are we planning on having children?
Jesse receives no such enquiries. No one asks if he plans to propose, when he will get married or even suggests that our relationship would be more meaningful if we did tie the knot, as a well-meaning someone once rather hurtfully implied to me. In our experience as a couple, enduring this mostly well meaning, albeit rather pointed, line of questioning falls squarely on me.
The Marriage Narrative
While we are defined as a de facto couple under the law and enjoy many of the same privileges traditional marriage affords, these labels are not equal neither in a legal sense nor in the way they are perceived by society. As has been highlighted in the recent and thankfully successful campaign for marriage equality: marriage is viewed as the pinnacle of relationship status and is something to which every one has the right to aspire no matter their sexual orientation.
Modern marriage, that is marrying for love rather than for money, blood or politics, is still a fairly new phenomenon in human history. Despite its recent advent, it is one that we have quickly become conditioned to desire. Thanks to the way relationships and marriage have been represented in our popular culture, we now equate love with romance and regularly seek opportunities for public declarations of love such as an elaborate proposal, a marriage ceremony and heartfelt speeches at a wedding reception.
Let’s not forget too, that marriage means big business: the dress, makeup and hair, the food, flowers, photos and venue. In 2011 the Australian wedding industry was worth a reported $4.3 billion set to hit $4.7 billion by 2017. The legalisation of same sex marriage was predicted to inject a further $1 billion. It is therefore within the interest of this industry and the businesses both large and small that depend upon it that we continue to aspire not only to marriage but, more importantly, to a ‘dream wedding’.
A Public Symbol of Togetherness
Given the marriage narrative described above, coupled with my having passed the average age for women to marry in Australia (according to the ABS, the average bride is 28.7 years old, up from 25.7 in 1996), it is no wonder that I have felt increasing pressure to get married.
As a side note, the average groom is now likely to be closer to 30 years old compared to 27.6 in 1996. I put to Jesse that perhaps he felt less pressure to marry not only because he is a man but also because he not yet reached the average age of marriage for a groom. He declared this rubbish, as no one, including himself, knows how old he is.
The ring as an emblem of marriage derives from ancient Egypt where the circle was considered a symbol of eternity and was worn on the left hand ring finger because of their belief that a vein ran from this finger to the heart. Western traditions of wedding rings come from Rome and Greece where they become associated with a promise of fidelity.
Over the last year or so I have taken to wearing a ring on my engagement finger most days. My desire to do this comes from a mixture of factors: it helps me deflect uncomfortable questioning from strangers, fuels my self-satisfaction that people might think I am engaged but that I managed not to share that fact on social media in one of those engagement announcements typical of the platform, and fulfils my desire to have a publicly visible symbol that I am in relationship.
Seeking Approval for Our Life Choices
And herein lies my recent questioning of Jesse and I’s state of independent togetherness. In wearing a ring on the ring finger of my left hand, I want people to know that I am in a relationship and that it is serious. I am taking what is an intimate agreement made privately between the two of us and asking those outside that agreement to recognise it.
Why isn’t my own knowledge of my happiness within my relationship enough? Why do I want that acknowledgment and approval from others? Because, let’s face it, I already have the approval of the people I truly care about: my family, Jesse’s family and our close friends.
Each time I burn with jealously when I discover via social media that yet another acquaintance is now engaged, I have come closer to the realisation that the sort of approval I am actually seeking is that of my broader acquaintance. I am chasing those likes, comments and heartfelt messages that they all get and I hate myself for it.
I wrote and published a book last year, which I consider one of my greater achievements in life alongside graduating from university with first class honours and starting this publication. When I shared this achievement on social media about this lots of people were supportive. When I am at my lowest, I find myself engaging in a rather loathsome and self-indulgent thought pattern where I imagine that I announce that Jesse and I are engaged on social media and I get ten times the likes than I have for any of my actual personal achievements and that everyone is ecstatic for me.
I believe I should be stronger, smarter and better than to want what everyone else has.
But this too is a dangerous line of thinking, for to view conforming to society’s expectations on relationships and marriage as a weakness is to imply that in not conforming to them I consider myself to be superior to those who do. Which sometimes I am ashamed to say is the case. And I hate myself for this too.
Reframing the Narrative
The universality of love is perhaps what makes it so easy and natural for us to celebrate the relationships of others. Celebrating individual’s tangible personal achievements requires more effort: we need context and further information to truly appreciate what has been done.
Instead of holding out for society to recognise our achievements over our ability to form a relationship, we instead need to reframe the marriage narrative and consider it only in terms of how it aligns with our own views on the subject. And importantly, we should strive to respect and recognise value in the choices of others.
Jesse and I will never be legally married or have a wedding, but we have workshopped our own agreement on what a life together will look like: one of independent togetherness. For us, this does not require widespread approval nor a public ceremony to hold us accountable. Now all is left for me to do is continue to reframe my own hang-ups on love, marriage and validation.
We will be happy in our relationship without care, doubt or comparison.
We are happy.