A few months ago, my boyfriend proposed. I have dubbed his proposal the “nonposal”, a label he vociferously rejects. The words “marry” or “marriage” were not mentioned, making it hard to grasp what he was getting at. The next stage I entered into was denial, because the nonposal came off the back of a pretty intense argument. But eventually, I accepted that his casual “Well shall we get engaged then?”, was in fact his lovingly inelegant way of telling me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me.
I said yes.
And then the doubts set in. Not about my boyfriend – I know I love him, I know I want to make a commitment to him. The doubts were about the institution of marriage itself – and they took me by surprise. On the few times I'd vaguely thought about getting married, my concerns had been with the ceremony. I didn't want to “obey” anyone; I didn't want to be “given away” like I was a chattel. Having always considered marriage to be no more than a public declaration of commitment, by two people who love each other, I held no reservations about the institution.
But having got engaged, my concerns now were with the state of being married itself. Suddenly all I could think about were the hundreds of years where marriage was little more than an oppressive means of exchange, where women were worth no more than the property they represented and the children they could bear, where consent had no meaningful status. History weighed heavily on my mind. I felt deeply uncomfortable about the whole thing. I felt dishonest. I didn't want to pledge my allegiance to such an institution. I didn't want to assimilate my private love into a system that represented everything I hate about society. To get married, no matter how equitable and loving our own relationship was, felt like a betrayal of all the women who had gone before me, who had been sold into a system with no way out, who had been abused, beaten, killed. Whose names had not mattered, only those of their fathers, husbands and sons. How could I, in good faith, take part in such a charade? I thought seriously about giving up my embarrassingly traditional dreams of a church wedding with beautiful vows and a drunken champagne-soaked bash to follow.
But, over time, I became used to the idea. I talked away my concerns. I convinced myself that I was being ridiculous. I thought of all the marriages that I admire, that made me think “that's what I want”. I told myself that I, along with all the other people who get married today in full awareness of marriage's oppressive past, could reinvent marriage for the twenty-first century. And I knew that, for me, the central part of the whole event, the public declaration of commitment, was something I wasn't prepared to give up. It felt like such a beautiful and sacred thing to do.
I haven't really thought about marriage much since those early weeks. The actual wedding is over a year off, because there is no way either of us have time to plan anything before then. So we've just been muddling along, being happily engaged.
But this week, I read an article by Holly Baxter about civil partnership. Apparently, our revered prime minister, our dear leader in all things moral, has been expressing concerns about allowing civil partnerships for heterosexual couples. Such a step would, he gravely claimed, “undermine the sanctity of marriage”. And therefore he intends to veto such a step.
To be honest, I've never really considered a civil partnership – and not just because I can't have one. The term sounds so bureaucratic, so soulless. It seems totally at odds with the type of relationship it is meant to honour. For the same reason, despite my reservations about the patriarchal nature of the Church of England, I would never consider having a civil wedding. It is no doubt illogical, and obviously many people feel differently, but I personally find something comforting, awe-inspiring, about repeating words that are centuries old, in a building where thousands of couples down the ages have done the same. It reminds me how small I am, it reminds me of community, of the stretch of history. It feels solid – like I want my marriage to be.
But then Holly started explaining what the differences were between marriages and civil partnerships: “Civil partnerships also include the names of both parents of each partner on the certificate, rather than merely the names of the fathers,” she wrote. I read this simple sentence with horror and felt all my reservations rush back, with a new intensity. I can deal with the “walking down the aisle” thing – I can simply choose not to do it. But this? This was a legal document. And it would have a space for my father – and nothing for my mother. Like the woman who has brought me up, who has been an inspiration and rock for me all my life, who has taught me how to pick myself up, dust myself off and keep going, no matter what life throws at me, doesn't matter. Like she doesn't exist.
I cannot, in good faith, take part in an institution that, in the twenty-first century, thinks this is an acceptable state of affairs. I will not take any vow issued by a system that is complicit in the symbolic and cultural annihilation of women. I cannot sully a relationship that means so much to me, by associating it with an institution that renders my mother worthless, invisible, surplus to requirements.
In the meantime, kind friends have informed me that I have the option to draw up an agreement with a solicitor, which is what I'm currently looking at. But I still have hope. There is a petition on change.org asking the equalities minister to change this antiquated and needlessly discriminatory state of affairs. I have hope that, given we are in the twenty-first century, given there can be no possible objections to such a simple change and given, as I said, my wedding is a while off yet, we can change this before then, and I can stand up in front of my friends and family, and publicly pledge to spend the rest of my life with the man I love.