Most of the young couples I know who have recently gotten married lived together for a couple years before becoming engaged. For two people who have cohabitated romantically for an extended period of time, their daily routine no different from that of a traditional married couple, does marriage make their lives together significantly different in any way when it finally happens? I’ve occasionally asked this of my newly married friends—whether anything changed in their relationship after they exchanged rings.
Without exception, these couples—who, following their honeymoons, returned home to their same living arrangements and shared Netflix accounts—report back: no, everything’s exactly the same. Largely, they’re so insistent on this idea that, for people who are already deeply connected, marriage changes nothing (like a Hollywood star asserting that he’s still the same humble boy from Iowa despite his fame) that, to this listener, it sounds as they believe that it cannot rightly be otherwise—“no” may or may not be the true answer, but it’s definitely the “correct” answer, and it’s easy to understand why.
The basis of a romantic relationship should of course be the people inside it, and after a wedding, the people haven’t changed. The substance of their bond rests within the everyday interactions and the private love and kindnesses that occur outside of the public sphere in which the ideas of “married” and “unmarried” exist. To suggest that a social construct like marriage should play any role in defining their bond is to suggest that their bond is not strictly a personal matter but itself a social construct, beyond their control.
Maybe they’re right—maybe marriage really does alter nothing for modern couples of pre-established intimacy. But, then, why do modern couples still get married? Are they doing it strictly to please their parents, or else to fit in with their newly married friends who themselves did it to please their parents? Are they all subservient to a tradition that has no meaning to them? When today’s newlyweds report that their wedding hasn’t changed anything between them, they say it with pride: their love resides on a loftier plane, or else on an earthlier one—in any case, they haven’t let the guidelines of some ancient institution reformulate the shared life they’ve mutually worked out for themselves, and they haven’t allowed this social signifier of “adulthood” to quash their youthful ardor.
They don’t mean to devalue the concept of marriage when they make these assertions—they likely said their vows with tears in their eyes and will tell anyone that their wedding day was the best day of their lives—yet they might agree more generally that the significance of an event lies in its consequences, and here the consequences appear to be absent. Somehow, they don’t seem to think it odd that they’ve just spent some obscene amount of time and money to participate in a ritual that—if all they’ve said is true—exists (at worst) in ideological conflict with their own self-conception or (at best) represents an empty pageant enacted fully outside the historical context that would have supplied its sense and purpose.
I got married recently—or, in fact, not that recently: I did it in late February, but it was a secret until about a week ago. Before our wedding, Quinn and I had “dated” for seven years, living together for most of that period. We were married by a judge, without witnesses and without our parents’ knowledge: we waited almost four months to tell them. Nearly everyone in our lives was kept in the dark. I’m pretty certain that we didn’t do it to please anyone else, so why did it we do it? What does it mean to us?
As with most major life decisions, the reasons are hard to describe, but if you ask me what in our relationship has changed since our wedding, I swear to you that I will not answer that everything’s exactly the same, that weddings are basically a stupid farce through which we all traipse like confused sentimental sheep. What is different for me and Quinn now? Well, everything.
The change is subtle but pervasive. For me, it’s the feeling of having chosen the life I chose, of having committed to my commitments. It’s a sense of augmented reality—a this-is-really-my-life feeling of confidence, security, and clarity. To say that I feel more fully committed to my plans and surer of the future today than I did a year ago is to confess a certain failure of my pre-marriage self—the only way to account for the current difference is to acknowledge that what I thought then was certainty and lucidity must have contained an element of dim amorphousness, of the all-purpose fear and doubt that makes one’s own life unreal.
Culturally, Quinn and I come from very different backgrounds—for this reason her parents disliked me before they had ever met me, still don’t like me, and will probably never like me. Long ago she and I decided that we would make a life together despite this. But we were young, and it was challenging, and at certain points it seemed unworkable. Steadily, however, we worked through the complications, and on my wedding day I found that I had no doubts left—for a habitually nervous person, I felt remarkably calm: the wedding was not a decision but a celebration of what we’d already decided on.
Still, we had to get married to know that for sure; people are imperfect that way—we use certain tricks to help ourselves out. The ceremony was nothing—some words, a breakable legal document—but it let us express what we had long suspected and in this expression let us feel it more keenly: the joy of what we’d built together.