Negotiating a Life Partnership

People used to the more traditional rituals of heterosexual courtship have asked me, “So how did you propose to your wife?”, wanting to hear about that moment I “popped the question”. The short answer is it didn’t work that way. The longer response is to tell them that in our case, it was a philosophical discussion and negotiation of sorts over several months that led at some point to both of us agreeing to do the marriage thing. The decision slowly evolved between us, until one day one of us said something to the effect of, “So are we going to do it?”, and the other indicated affirmation.

Now during this time we had already been living together for several months (since August 1982 and were already in agreement that we would spend the rest of our lives together. The question on the table was whether our already personally committed relationship would be enhanced or hindered by the institution of marriage and all its patriarchal baggage. I do wonder, if civil union had been available then as a more inclusive (of same-sex couples) legally recognized partnering, that we might have chosen that instead of the more heterosexually exclusive marriage.

Anyway, we ended up finding several compelling reasons for participating in this traditional institution. Possibly the biggest reason was to ensure that our families, friends and other people in our lives would fully recognize and honor our union. A second was recognition by the state and other institutions that we were, or could be, involved in. In 1982 there were still very limited rights for unmarried partners regarding sharing work benefit packages, hospital visitation and other such benefits conveyed at the time only to spouses.

There were several significant concerns, at least in our minds as two committed feminists, not to participate in this traditional institution that seemed loaded with elements of patriarchal culture. A personal concern was whether we, as two individuals trying to live our lives beyond the constraints of gender roles, would be pressured by the weight of conventional wisdom (reinforced possibly by family and friends) into behaving more like “husband and wife”. A more political concern was whether our participation in this institution was in fact endorsing an institution used in much of the world to control and subjugate women and promote bigotry regarding sexual orientation.

The first concern we decided we could overcome with our raised consciousnesses and the vigilance of awareness and focused purpose that we had gained as activists. We would avoid referring to ourselves and each other as “husband” or “wife”. We could proactively alert our family and friends that we had no intention to fall into the conventional familiarity of those roles. We would try our best to run our household without a stereotypical division of responsibility, with both of us involved in cooking and cleaning and later parenting, if we should have children.

As to the second more political concern, maybe our example as a more egalitarian marriage partnership could be a counter to the traditional conventions and we could somehow be the change we wished to see in this institution.

Our months of discussions leading up to our decision included fleshing out and weighing these pros and cons, but also wrestling with the dichotomy between marriage as a romantic versus a business partnership. Sure the urge to partner should be motivated by love, but wasn’t the nuts and bolts of marriage more about legally combining and agreeing to jointly manage these combined resources? Using a loving relationship as the bond to build an economically sound partnership around?

So somewhere towards the end of these discussions, lost now from both our memories, Sally and I decided we would “tie the knot” like innumerable people had done before us. But we were determined to do as much as possible our own way and give as little weight as possible to convention. So right from the start we did not have any engagement rings and we refused to refer to each other as “fiance”, which led to some somewhat awkward introductions like “This is the person I’m planning to marry”.

The wedding ceremony and reception lacked much of the conventional cast, costumes and props. We did not have bridesmaids, groomsmen, maid of honor or best man. We had our parents and siblings standing at our sides as we spoke our vows. Sally did not have a wedding dress. No bouquet was thrown or garter removed. We did not have a tiered wedding cake, but a big sheet-cake instead with a caricature of Sally and my smiling faces, drawn by my brother Peter the artist and rendered by the bakery that did our cake. Though Sally’s sister and virtually all of her numerous cousins were married by a Rabbi in a Jewish service, we were married by our feminist mentor, Toni Carabillo, in a completely secular service with no glass broken underfoot to cries of “Mazal tov”.

We wrote the text of the ceremony ourselves, with Toni editing the final version and adding a very appropriate poem she had written, called “Holding Close with Open Arms”…

Love that holds close with open arms
Is love large enough
To leave each free
To grow, to learn, to do
As each, uniquely, must
With perfect trust
That makes no rigid rules
That then become the tools
Of mutual constraint

Love that holds close with open arms
Is love that’s there
To make both safe enough to dare
Some new frontier of being
That cherishes each advance
Confident of the chance
Of growing, too….

Now 25 years later, the seeming paradox of the title of Toni’s poem still inspires our partnership. There have been times over those years that Sally and I have worked very closely together on joint projects (including raising our kids) and other times when we have each been exploring different paths, but always with shared interest in and support for the other’s path.

And now that I think of it, we have also applied that same principle of “holding close with open arms” to raising our kids, giving them lots of love and support, but also giving them as much freedom as possible to direct their own life’s journey.

2 replies on “Negotiating a Life Partnership”

  1. An interesting journey you are on. 🙂

    I remind my children that their father and I lived together before deciding to marry — for 13 years. There was no reason for us to marry before we were ready to have children and then we decided to do it simply thinking that it would be easier in dealing with any legal issues related to the children. We were already in love, had bought a house, had sorted out several issues, were going to stay together. That wasn’t what the marriage was for.

    And the wedding was on the ship to the Bahamas where were stayed for a few days “honeymoon.” Good excuse to go, huh? 🙂

    Now the children are in their teens and I hope they take our example to heart when/if they partner up. DH and I have been married now for 17 years so maybe we got this one right. 🙂


  2. Nance… I know other people that have been together as a couple for a long time without getting married. Sometimes one of the parties has been previously married and does not want to go there again. Sometimes the dynamic of not “tying the knot” just facilitates the relationship better. Marriage can be an overwhelming one-size-fits-all relationship. All that said, sounds like you two made a good decision to marry when you had your kids.

    So congratulations on your self-defined 13 year relationship and your 17 years in the grand “institution”…*g*

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