This morning, I was reading one of the many blogs I follow. This blog in particular, Spinster Jane, has captured my attention because its author asks intriguing, personal, weighty, and thought-provoking questions about the nature of relationships and about how we as individuals choose (or in some cases, don’t choose) how to live our lives.
In a recent post, she talks about a friend who is enjoying the single life but has recently met someone--and then goes on to discuss the challenges that seem to stem from the typical, societally-accepted romantic notion that when we find someone we really like (or even love), we are expected to ditch our independent existence and are immediately expected to become half of a whole. This notion is pervasive in our culture--especially in marriage--which in many cases treats a married couple as a single entity. And it spills over into our popular culture, where we are served (what I consider to be misguided) ideals that glorify that notion, just one example being the movie Jerry Maguire, where the main character claims that his love interest “completes” him at the end of the film.
Now, I’m not currently a spinster myself; although, I did highly value my single years. Today, I’m in a happy and supportive five-year relationship with my partner, with whom I cohabit. I do, however, completely agree with Spinster Jane in her view that there should be many lifestyle and relationship options. And in opposition to the seemingly constant barrage of societal and romantic-comedy influences, my partner and I definitely do NOT “complete” each other. We don’t see our relationship as the end of our independence, and we certainly don’t consider ourselves halves of a whole. Instead, we view ourselves as equal partners, who compliment each other.
One striking example of my partner’s and my views on the nature of our relationship was illustrated when we were involved in a dispute with neighbors, who happened to be a married, lesbian couple. The dispute occurred because the man who built their home had--without informing me or gaining my consent--ruptured my sewer line and surreptitiously tied it into the sewer line of the house he was building, which they later bought. Now, the truth of the matter is that while the neighbors and I disagreed vehemently about how to solve the problem, the underlying situation was neither their nor my fault.
Nonetheless, we engaged in many heated discussions about potential solutions. Lawyers were contacted; dirty looks flew like arrows. It was ugly. One evening in particular, Brian and I stood across the fence from our neighbors attempting to have a reasonable discussion, trying to tamp down all of the anger and frustration. As part of the discussion, Brian was attempting to shift the conversation from a four-way volley into a one-on-one discussion between just one of the neighbors and me, since the one particular neighbor was--per the city website--the home owner of record. In other words, in the eyes of the city and the law, it was her house.
Additionally, Brian was trying to shift his role in the conversation. He wanted to be there to support me, but he was also trying very hard to direct all questions and decision-making to me--as I was the sole owner of the home that he and I shared. It was my house, and as such, any decisions that needed to be made would ultimately be my--not his--call.
However, as the conversation continued to grow more and more heated, one of the neighbors countered Brian’s efforts.
“You can talk to both of us,” she said. “We’re a unit, like you guys are a unit.”
I remember my response clearly because it was instantaneous, automatic, gut-level.
“We are NOT a unit.” I declared with disgust, shaking. “We are partners, but this is my house. I own it, and decisions regarding this house are ultimately mine. Brian supports me as my partner, but we are in no way “a unit.”
Brian looked on proud and grinning, while my neighbor appeared shocked--as if she couldn’t believe me--and continued to explain that they were indeed a unit and that we could talk with either one of them; there was essentially no difference. Either one could speak for the pair.
The conversation continued to spiral downhill, and at one point the neighbor, who was not officially the home owner, said in a snide and snippy manner, “Well, at least we’re married,” which I found beyond interesting. Apparently, the righteousness of marriage is so deeply held that even a lesbian, who I would have thought would have been more tolerant, would demean us for not having registered our relationship with church or state authorities.
In the end, I paid lots of money to have a new sewer line run on my own property--rectifying the action of the builder at my own expense, and we went our separate ways. But what I find interesting about the whole incident is that when I was confronted with their assumption that we were “a unit,” as they referred to themselves, I recoiled. The notion was contrary to everything I believed in, and it was contrary to everything I believed made my relationship with Brian special.
Now, I am not completely anti-marriage, and I absolutely think that decisions about couple-hood and about flavors of matrimony are highly personal issues. When it comes to couple-hood, what works for some, may not work for others. And just as individuals need to figure out what is right for them, individual couples need to find the right pattern of existence--the right structure within which their love can exist. I don’t think how we pair or don’t pair should ever be a one-size-fits-all affair, and I certainly won’t try to assume that what is right for me is right for all.
There was even a time when I thought I wanted to be married, but that was before I really examined marital law and thought deeply about what was most important to me in a relationship. To be honest, I think I could be more pro marriage if marriage could catch up with all of the various, innovative, wonderful, and creative ways in which people have found to structure their relationships.
In the end, marriage--at least in its current incarnation--is not for me. I like the creative, loving, independent partnership that Brian and I have established over our five years together. And while many marriages do share what Brian and I have, many of the foundational elements of traditional marriage do not support true equality, and many religions specifically still don’t recognize a woman as an truly equal partner within a marriage. Conversely, for Brian and me, everything about our partnership is based on equality and mutual respect and on the notion that we each share an equal responsibility and should each expect equal benefit and accommodation within the relationship.
I’ll confess; in many ways, it would be easier to simply conform and be married. It would provide certain benefits and would obviate the need for many questions and conversations about why we are not married. But, these days, I believe that there is something about the way in which we exist that makes us try harder, that makes us value what we have more. Perhaps it is like being on a tightrope without a safety net. We have made no promises that we may not be able to keep. The only thing that keeps us together is a daily decision to value what we have. And, sure, just as in all relationships, there are times that call for compromise and times when we each need to temporarily put the other’s needs first. But being willing to give and to share does not mean that I have to give up being the unique, interesting, strong, adventurous, independent, creative woman that my partner fell in love with in the first place.
When my mother met Brian, one of the first things she said she noticed was that I still seemed completely me around him. And one of the many things I still love about Brian is that he has absolutely no desire for me to ever not be me. I’ve never before been in a relationship where I felt so wholly supported. Brian wants me to be happy, successful, and fulfilled, and he is beyond happy for me when I manage to accomplish my personal goals. It fills me with great pride when he brags about me and my accomplishments, because instead of feeling threatened, as insecure men might, he instead knows that if I am happy and successful, it is really a reflection on him that he has the good sense to be with a strong and capable woman. Brian wants me to retain everything I had going for me when we met, and I love that he found me particularly sexy when I was at the helm of a boat I had chartered, docking in high winds. He loves seeing me rise to a challenge and loves seeing me have the confidence to overcome my fears. To me, this is what true partnership is about.
My advice to Spinster Jane’s friend would be to take things very slowly. It took years for Brian and me to slowly integrate our lives to the extent our lives are integrated today. And while I support the choices that other people make for themselves--whether they choose to be single, married, or creatively coupled--I do, however, lament how commonly people believe that they cannot retain their own identity within a relationship. Personally, I think that the most wonderful thing in the world is to have the people you care about the most love and respect you for who you are--and enjoy you in all of your fun, quirky, and individual glory.
*For the record, I also vehemently support marriage equality, and while I may believe that the institution of marriage could use some updating, I believe that any couple who wants to should be allowed the equal right under the law to enter into a marital arrangement.