Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Perhaps because it was Marriage Protection Week I’ve been thinking about marriage lately. Unlike most women, I don’t think about marriage often and I think about marrying a Church Guy even less, but again, lately I’ve been wondering if I could be happily married to a Church Guy and what it would mean for me if I were.

Overall, marriage holds no compelling interest for me. I’ve concluded that marriage brings me nothing I don’t already have. Security? Got it. Social acceptance? Got it. Companionship? Got that, too. Children? Don’t want ‘em. Tax break? Doesn’t matter—and it’s insignificant unless you have property or children. Property? Good credit withstanding, I don’t need marriage to get that (see Security.) So there sits Marriage, like a used car in a bright parking lot with plastic flags whipping overhead, and I approach it, check out the price tag and keep walking. I’ll grab a taxi, thanks.

I also imagine what's written on that price tag: a total loss of independence and a significant loss of identity, critical thinking faculties and self. I would disappear and in my place would be a We, one half of which would be paternalistic, boring, uncool and, most likely, fundamentalist.

As always, I begin with a caveat. I do not hate marriage (or men—I like them quite a lot, actually.) I think marriage is nice. My parents were married. My sister is married. At least thrice, I’ve thought favorably about marriage. I respect marriage and the fact that it’s hard and weird and, because of it, your life turns absolutely upside down and you’re dunked in the middle of all sorts of social, economic and legal upheaval. I look at my sister's marriage and I admire her and her cute little family for working hard to raise a family now. But I take one look at a traditional fundamentalist marriage and I think, Yuck, you two are poster children for celibacy and desert islands.

Back in Los Angeles, circa 1992, I began to date a man in my dad’s church. Let’s call him Bob. We were the perfect picture of Christian dating—no funny stuff, no hanky panky, no heavy breathing. We held hands, we went to movies, dinner, theater, ballet, he had me home at a decent time and there was no flak from my folks—who were curiously silent about the whole thing. (However, my sister thought our age difference was weird and one Sunday afternoon on the church parking lot, she freaked out and yelled that it was gross.) There was a curious absence of heat between us, but I was a chaste 21 year old and wouldn’t have known what to do with it if heat had suddenly appeared while we shook hands goodnight on my parents’ front porch.

After almost a year of holding hands, theater and ballet, Bob and I had a curious conversation on our way home from dinner.
He said, “What do you think about marriage?”
“I’m still in college,” I said.
“I know, but what do you think? I think I want to get remarried, settle down…” he said.
I said, “I have things I want to do first—graduate, travel, write, go to grad school, travel more….” Maybe smoke a cigarette, I thought.
“What about kids?”
I snorted. “No way. I don’t have a maternal bone in my body.”
Shaking his head, he said, “You’ll change. When they’re your own. Everyone wants kids.”
“You know what I hate? I hate people telling me what to think. That is so sexist, like I don’t know my own mind. And what does that mean, ‘when they’re my own’? So, I hate them now, but after a few years I’ll suddenly love them against my will. What crap. I don’t want kids.”
“Yes, you do. You just don’t know it yet.”
“I don’t.”
“You do.”
“I don’t.”
And so on, until I began to have panic attacks brought on by the vision of marrying Bob and popping out a gang of Bob Jr’s at the age of 22. To save my sanity and pass my finals I broke up with him one week later. Looking back I know it wasn't just that he and I wanted different things that ended our dating, it was the fact he didn't listen. He actually thought he knew better for me. He thought he knew me. I hear he’s married/divorced/remarried and now has all the kids he can possibly want.

There’s a part of the Bible that says something like “…as Christ is the head of the Church, the man is the head of his household.” Something like that, I don’t know. It’s a beautiful way of illustrating Christ’s love for the family of man and of admonishing husbands to love their families the way Christ loves us, isn’t it? However, it’s also a verse that gives me the creeps because I can see some Church Husband spinning it out so that it means, “I’m your personal marital Jesus and now you have to do everything I tell you.” Why would I, a 34-year-old woman, allow someone to tell me what to do? But if I accept the traditional model of Christian marriage, that’s what I’d be getting, I think. Of course, this vision of Christian marriage is an oversimplification, one that many Christian guys would protest, but with all the repression, prudery and witch-hunting, it’s weird how many Christian marriages resemble The Crucible.

What better place for oversimplification than a fundamentalist interpretation of marriage? Oversimplifying things erases nuance, context and shades of ambiguity, distinctions that fundamentalism cannot allow or the entire foundation of the belief system cracks. In such a flat monochromatic landscape, my place in marriage is fixed. Of course, one could argue that my view of marriage and Christian men is itself a fundamentalist position, equally dedicated to oversimplification and the erasure of nuance to defend an unpopular but provocative position. However, I’d pit my oversimplification against a fundamentalist’s any day and argue that their view of marriage is rather un-fun, infantilizing and bizarre.

Here’s a story for you: In Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jane flees Thornfield Hall on her wedding day when she realizes the man she desperately loves, tyrannical Rochester, has locked his crazy wife Bertha in the attic all these years. Homeless, about to eat pig swill, Jane finds her cousin St John Rivers, an Anglican minister preparing to travel to India to convert its heathen hordes. Jane stays with his family, taking dictation and recovering from the Bertha episode, when St. John suddenly proposes. He is a fine man, a learned man, but an unbending priggish man who would break her spirit like a cracker. She refuses him and returns to Rochester after learning Bertha is dead and he is blind, maimed and his house burnt down. To the reader’s surprise, they marry and Jane’s wild spirit finds a home in her broke down, blind, crippled husband.

I love this book.

I love that it was written by the daughter of a clergyman; I love that Jane was plain but smart; I love how she was stubborn, outspoken and knew her mind; she was implacable and unsentimental, and picked the crazed cynical non-Church Guy over Uber Church Guy.

My feelings about marriage evidently come down to a matter of independence. My reading of my self conflicts with the way a traditionally trained Church Guy would see me, which would be through the eyes of an orthodoxy that maintains marriage as a ‘natural,’ ordained event. It becomes the period at the end of a woman’s sentence; it becomes the natural place for her to end, like arriving at the end of a fairy tale in which we are rescued from the ashes of singleness by the love of a good man and we, naturally, marry and have children. I suppose it is a romantic story—if you think your life is ashes and all it needs is marriage to make it better. Most likely, what women need is what Virginia Woolf calls “a room of one’s own”—what people in my generation call ‘getting a life.'

People ask me why I don't date church guys. Well, let’s see: I’m a 34-year-old, non-nurturing stubborn, opinionated, smart-mouthed, rabidly progressive and arrogant over-read feminist/Christian, who would rather hire someone to clean my house than do it myself. Will I ever marry? Whatever.

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