In Defense of Marriage
As the director of our local public library, I get to officiate at weddings, usually about ten per year. “Librarian” isn’t like “Ship Captain,” the kind of profession that’s associated with officiating weddings. Like most of the other good things that happen in our lives, I lucked into it.
We have a very good mayor, one who has served our town for about 20 years, and a good judge, too, with a similarly long tenure. At this point, the mayor mostly limits his wedding officiating to commissioners’ meetings on Monday evenings, and the judge mostly performs weddings in court on Wednesday mornings prior to trials.
When I found out about this situation a couple of years ago, I let our borough clerk know that I would be happy to serve as a representative of the town if couples wanted to be married at other times of day, other days of the week, or in other locations. It’s satisfying to serve as an alternative for couples who want to be married at more typical times and locations, such as a Saturday in our park or community ballroom, or a Friday evening in their home.
I don’t promote my services, since I don’t want to compete with the clergy in town, or with officients who rely on wedding services as a way to make a living. Plus, I’m happy performing about ten ceremonies per year. Mostly people find out about me by word-of-mouth or by asking the borough clerk when they apply for their license.
As a librarian, I would be violating our code of ethics if I were to accept a fee for any library-related tasks, so couples make a donation to the library instead. Whatever feels comfortable for them is fine with me, though they generally choose an amount between $100 and $350. I get to be part of one of the best days of their lives, if only for a few minutes, the library benefits, and I put my minister license to good use. Almost thirty years ago, my friend’s father became a minister in the Universal Life Church. He ordained his son, who in turn ordained me. It was fun to know that I was a minister, even if it didn’t come up all that often. And then, starting a few years ago, it became one of the best aspects of my job.
I always meet with the couple first, usually for about an hour, and they tell me their story. For the most part, they’ve been together for a long time, frequently for ten years or more, sometimes for a lot longer than that. Many of them met in high school or even earlier, sometimes they even dated for a little while, then were separated for some time before finding each other again and falling in love. Much of the time at least one person in the couple has children. Most of the couples are straight, some of them are not. Mostly they think of their ceremonies as weddings, some of them do not.
They tell me what they want their lives to be like after the ceremony. Mostly, they want pretty much what they have already, maybe just a bit better each year, and they want it to last for the rest of their lives. They want to travel. They want to declare their love publicly, sometimes in the presence of someone who will find it especially meaningful, most often a parent, sometimes their kids. They want to have their union recognized by their families or the state or by insurance companies, but mostly they want to demonstrate it to each other.
They want the ceremony itself to be short. With a handful of exceptions, they’ve wanted it to be secular. Usually they are shy, at least at first. We’re not used to talking about something so important to us, especially with people we don’t know. We’ve been conditioned not to talk about how much we love someone else or what we enjoy about our lives together.
It’s also difficult to think about our relationship as something we’ve created within a context in which we’re the major players, but hardly the only ones. When we’re a couple, when we think of ourselves as just a couple, when we talk about how we’re together, we get to maintain the illusion that we’re in the two-person cockpit of a tiny plane that doesn’t have room to allow anyone else on board. Planning a ceremony, even if just a few family members or close friends are invited, forces us to think more about the value of consensus, demands that we recognize the ways in which we can please or disappoint people whose opinions matter to us, whether we like it or not.
I think this idea—that other people seem to care way too much about the presence, absence, and status of our relationships—is why we romanticize marriage or vilify it. In a recent episode of the podcast, “Roderick on the Line,” Merlin Mann paraphrased an old joke he associated with Mort Sahl: when you run out of things to talk about, that’s when you say, “Will you marry me?” So many of us put off marriage. It’s too big. Or we do the opposite: we stay in bad relationships in the hope they’ll turn around, that the other person will change, that we’ll learn to love them enough to marry them, or they’ll learn to love us enough.
During our introductory meeting, to put the couples at ease, I often tell them a little bit about my own engagement, ceremony, and marriage. I’ve been married for 15 years. This in no way qualifies me as an expert, not on marriage in general nor even on my own marriage. I haven’t researched marriage as an academic topic, and the one marriage I have observed closely is impossible for me to assess objectively. But I can describe my feelings about it, and I think that’s something we don’t often encounter.
I’m a terrible chess player, but I enjoy talking to people who are good at it. I think what they love about chess is the idea of possibilities, of anticipating something far in the future that’s contingent on what you do in the present. They love recognizing patterns and creating something new based on the constraints of the rules and the understanding of history they share with their partner. Chess is an intellectual exercise and marriages, I believe, are an exercise in not overthinking things, but the rest of the analogy feels right to me.
When we make dinner, when we’re in bed together, when we’re walking hand-in-hand, I can feel where we’ve been and the many possibilities for where we’re going. Those possibilities are what prevents any individual moment from being mundane. In retrospect, some moments or days or weeks are more eventful or memorable than others, just as I’m sure some moves in even a classic chess match must seem perfunctory after they’ve been made, but the moments themselves, as I’m experiencing them, are part of a vital narrative. They are unique.
That word, “unique,” is another way I characterize marriage. Per Merriam-Webster, unique has three basic definitions, each with at least one single-word synonym: 1. sole, 2. a) unequaled or b) peculiar, and 3. unusual. So unique isn’t unique, not in any of its iterations, not for any definition of unique. Even still, that last definition, unusual, the one which it is acceptable to modify with “very,” the one that many people seem to feel requires the use of very every time it is used—it’s painful, right? Even though you know it’s correct, and has been since well before you were literate. The pain stems from the idea that unique is losing some of the shading that makes it distinct from other words, the shading that gives you a sense of satisfaction when you use unique to mean sole, unequaled, or peculiar.
That’s how I feel about marriage. I don’t think anyone’s relationship is any less sacred, that a couple is any less committed to one another, if they have never chosen to establish any sort of formal union. And yet the occasion of the ceremony is itself a sole experience for a couple, the exchange of vows in front of at least two witnesses is unequaled, the decision to invite the government to view the two of you as a conjoined legal entity is peculiar in every sense.
There is a reason that couples who have been together for 25 years cry when they consecrate their union, why I can barely get the words out of my mouth when I have the privilege of making their pronouncement for them. It’s just one moment in each person’s narrative, but it is nothing resembling mundane. It is a moment that, looking back on it in 5 years, or 10, or 15, or, I imagine, in 25 or 50 or 75, takes on both greater and diminished importance. For me, It was in many ways a catalyst, the point through which every possibility must pass, but in other ways every moment since then was even more important, at least in the moment. And each moment remains that way. A couple of sentences ago, I wrote, “I imagine, in 25 or 50 or 75 (years)” and I mean that literally. I imagine it all the time.
I respect people who don’t want that experience, or who, having experienced it, do not ever want to experience it again. But I want everyone who wants that experience to have it. Like most of the other good things that happen in our lives, I hope they luck into it.