Monday, 26 January 2009


I was never one of those little girls who dreamt of their wedding. In fact I’m not sure I’ve ever met any woman who was, but maybe that’s just the circles I move in, rather than indicative of womanhood as a whole. For many years I just never though I’d get married, primarily because, sad-arse that I was, I didn’t think anyone would ever want to marry me. Although I had the excellent example of my parents’ happy marriage, I thought it far more likely that I would end up serially monogamous to a series of cads who treated me badly.

So imagine my surprise when I found myself wondering and wondering when my partner would finally propose, and worrying that he didn’t want to marry me at all. (cough-false consciousness-/cough)

These days there are many ways couples can show their commitment to each other besides walking down an aisle, saying “I do” and having to pash in public. To some purchasing property together may be a bigger leap of faith, or having children, or agreeing to shift to the other side of the world indefinitely. A ceremony, particularly one that has evolved (not very far) from a transfer of ownership, just isn’t that important to many these days.

For me it was. For me it was shorthand, in a language I could understand, for “I’ve thought really hard about this and I reckon you and me we are forever.” To hear that mattered. And, socialized beast that I am, to hear it in the traditional format of a marriage proposal mattered more to me than I expected.

We set a date almost immediately* and it felt like it was a suitable distance from the now. As I found when I was pregnant, it took me quite some time to shift my thinking from being in the preparatory state. Even though I wanted to get engaged I wasn’t entirely convinced I wanted to get married, and part of that concern was wrestling with my inner feminist about the institution of holy matrimony.

As a feminist I reject the idea that marriage has to be about an exchange of property rights; transferring ownership of a woman from her father to her husband. For some it still operates in this fashion, and I wish it didn’t. For me, getting married could be something quite different from that, it could shake off the shackles of its origins just as the word queer has.

I quite understand that for others it simply cannot. Had the Civil Union Act passed a few years earlier I might have opted for that instead. As it was it came in just before we got hitched and so we hadn’t really considered it, although we were both strong supporters of the legislation.

And I support a lot of what Anita wrote about taking marriage, and civil unions, out of our legal framework entirely. Why do we need a law to recognize what are effectively personal and emotional commitments, which have little to do with the state? It’s nice to have a piece of paper to acknowledge a momentous event in your life, the official melding of two lives, however wedding certificates are really dull documents, not even printed on pretty paper, and is protecting them really worth all that institutional bother and bureaucracy?

It’s nice to go to weddings, be they civil unions in churches or traditional services on cliff tops. I enjoyed organizing our big day (weekend actually) to the point where I still find myself sizing up places as possible wedding venues. However that’s more because it was a great event to put together, so intricate and challenging and with quite high stakes. We were able to come up with a vision and then achieve it, and that was rather satisfying. It didn’t have to be for a wedding; it could have been a 30th birthday party, or an International Women’s Day rally, or even a funeral. Generally though it’s hard to source the moolah to put on those events at the same level as a wedding. It’s socially acceptable to be obsessed with organizing your wedding for months beforehand, but start showing an interest in planning your 30th birthday a year ahead and people will think you are self-obsessed and a bit mad.

So I’m a hypocrite, I guess. I value my marriage, but I don’t expect anyone else to really care about it, give it any special status, above the relationship that lies at its core. I love weddings, and talking about them, but I don’t really support the institution behind them. Ah well, we’d be pretty boring if we never contradicted ourselves.

* Actually we set a date about two days after getting engaged, but the next day realized we were looking at the calendar for the wrong year and then it all became complicated.


Alex :) said...

Yep. I have been thinking about this pretty hard for a while. I really wanted to think through why it was that I had always expected/wanted to get married. Was it the institution itself, or just an excuse to get pretty for a day and have a big party? When I realised that the only thing that appeals to me about getting married is the wedding itself, that was step one. Secondly, I started thinking about the relationships I have been in (especially the poisonous ones) and how my rationality seems to fly out the window when someone is interested in me. Starry eyed and ridiculous, I lose the ability to make good choices for myself and end up committing too much too soon. This may be partly our culture in New Zealand when it comes to dating (or the lack thereof). But I think it's also a reflection of the larger issues at work as well. We are indoctrinated as women to expect marriage. We are told that we are not women until we are hitched. We are told that marriage is the end, a time to be relieved - 'sweet, now I'm sorted forever'.
It took going to a friend's wedding in December to finally make up my mind. Not that it wasn't a lovely wedding. It was. Lots of good peeps and nice vibes. But it really drove home to me what this thing is, how little it means and how much it means. That, and the fact that everything said about the groom in speeches was action based. Everything said about the bride was how beautiful she is. Which she is, but that really made me feel like I dont want to be that lamb. And it's far safer for me, knowing how I am, to decide now never to do it. That's not to say that no one else should get married, or that I have judgement for those who do. But my personal decision is an act of pre-emptive self-protection. So yeah. Just getting that off my chest. Cheers for the post :) :).

Cat said...

I have been to some really awful weddings, where it was all about 'giving the bride away' and being traditional and white and just argh.

I have also been to some truly wonderful weddings, where the couple used it as a public declaration of their love for each other, and everything was so right and based around their personalities and everyone was so happy to be there and just awww.

I don't think you should feel bad about getting married if you do it for the right reasons - love and committment. It's perfectly reasonable to want to declare that in public.

I think it's possible to get married without bowing to tradition and expectation. At one of the very first weddings I went to, the bride wore a pants suit and a nice hat, and had a guy as her 'bridesmaid'. Afterwards was a bbq at her parents place, and one of their favourite wedding gifts was an axe. And if you knew them, that was totally right.

Dave said...

An ex GF of mine had been planning her wedding with her mother since she had been 12. needless to say I ran and I ran.

Hugh said...

It doesn't matter if the couple write non-possessive vows and the bride wears pants. It doesn't matter if it's a wedding that celebrates a marginalised culture or a religious fusion or even an atheist wedding. It doesn't matter if it's two women or two men. It doesn't even matter if it's a civil union. If the state is issuing a sanction of the romantic relationship between two people, it's a wedding, and that means I don't like it.

I've never understood the appeal of weddings. I've wanted one in the past, but even then I didn't understand why I wanted it. I understand why now - there was a vague but pervasive pressure to get married. Not to 'take possession' of my supposed bride, not to enforce a particular view of religion or sexuality. Well, those pressures were there, but the pressure to submit your marriage to the state for approval is separate.

The fact that the state is at present fairly lenient about whether or not it grants approval - asking only that a fee be paid and no marriage currently exist - doesn't change the fact that it's still getting the state to validate a relationship between two people, something I find unecessary and sinister.

I can understand the need to make a public declaration of your love for a person, although I don't see why it's restricted to romantic love. I can certainly understand the desire to have a big party. What I don't understand is the concept that that declaration gains more force by being registered by the state.

So that's my question, really. If you want to have a big party and publically declare your love for somebody - why not just do that? Why take the extra step of 'making it official' by getting a marriage certificate? What is the point of that?

Psycho Milt said...

So I’m a hypocrite, I guess. I value my marriage, but I don’t expect anyone else to really care about it, give it any special status, above the relationship that lies at its core. I love weddings, and talking about them, but I don’t really support the institution behind them.

Not a hypocrite. Marriage is what the two of you personally make of it - no ceremony or legal document can alter that. If you value your spouse, your marriage will have value, and if you don't it won't, and that's about it. People who want to blather on about gods or roles the state or whatever in relation to marriage have fundamentally misunderstood who's getting married and why. The "institution behind them" is at bottom line the commitment of two people to form a family together - if that's your plan, where's the hypocrisy? You can reject the bullshit wrapping material people have put on it without rejecting the core purpose of it.

Anonymous said...

Oh god don't mention the m-word!

I got married in a country where getting married is a little like registering your car - there is no ceremony or anything, you just sign some papers, drop them in to the local town hall and voila! For this reason it is quite common for people there to "marry" when this suits them (it is often useful to marry for quite practical reasons) and for the "wedding" to come weeks or months later (or years in my case!), when it is convenient for this to happen. In this way the legal transaction of marriage is quite separate from the cultural ceremony.

I was quite happy with my marriage being a signing of papers and so was my husband but there was always a bit of pressure from family for a wedding and when we could afford it we decided to do this for our family. It has been fun but it has also been a challenge not to feel like we are compromising the original marriage that we chose. It has also beem interesting how much of a challenge it is to keep it simple, it has ended up more elaborate than I really wanted (though this is fun in it's own way). It is also interesting to see how differently friends and family have reacted to this than to the signing of the original, legal contract, how much more significant people see this as being. The greatest source of tension has been the nature of the "ceremony" and I have been frustrated by some pressure from family and friends for a "real" ceremony. Most interesting to observe has been my mother trying to do the right thing. She herself doesn't believe in marriage and has never married. At the time of our original marriage she asked, "do you want me to come? This is important, isn't it?" and while she hasn't been closely involved in planning this wedding I have been surprised by how seriously she has been taking the idea of a public ceremony.

My husband and I are legally married and have bought property but probably the most significant step for us was when I changed my name to take his surname. At the time I was challenged by a few friends on the decision but while there are all those cliches about marriage just being about two people who love each other etc, my experience has been that marriage is the coming together of two families and for this reason I am happy to share a name with my husband. Family names in general seem quite arbitrary to me (my husband himself was born with a different family name) and it is handy to have the same name; I guess I made the decision that sharing a name with my husband is more useful than sharing one with my father.


Hugh said...

there is no ceremony or anything, you just sign some papers, drop them in to the local town hall and voila!

New Zealand is such a country. There's no requirement to have a ceremony. For some reason most people do, but if you're so disposed, you can just do the paperwork.

Azlemed said...

MY husband and I just celebrated our 11th wedding anniversary, and i am glad that we have achieved that.

We got married when I was starting 3rd year at uni, and he was doing his masters, we knew we wanted to get married, it was the norm in both our families that you made this sort of commitment to each other.

We were going to be engaged longer but as students under 25 it was better to get married when we did.

I have added his last name to mine, as mrs.... is not someone I aspired to be or that I like. WE did give our children just his last name though.

I like the legitamacy of our marriage, it was about publicly acknowledging our commitment to each other and it is something that I am glad that I did.

Anonymous said...

Hugh, that is interesting that everyone seems to choose some kind of ceremony then (I thought this was compulsory). In Japan (where I got married) the "paper wedding" is not at all uncommon and I can think of several friends who did it this way.

Anonymous said...

>It took going to a friend's wedding in December to finally make up my mind.

Me too; before meeting my husband I had never wanted a marriage/wedding and after attending a few weddings I vowed I would never participate in such a ridiculous event; I hated especially how the brides always seemed to be on display. But, as I posted above, it became apparent that our marriage isn't just about us, that the wedding is something the family wants, and it is hard to resist this.

A few weeks ago I caught up with an old uni friend who I hadn't been in contact with for 10 years. We used to attend a Marxist reading group together and were never going to marry/breed etc etc. In the 10 years since we had last met we had both gotten hitched :(


Hugh said...

Anon, the fact that you thought a ceremony was compulsory is really interesting to me. Do you not know of anybody who hasn't had one?

Ruth said...

In New Zealand a ceremony is compulsory, but it can be very brief. Each of the couple has to say something to the effect that "I AB take you CD as my husband/wife" using their full names. This has to be said in front of two witnesses who sign the certificates. It has to be done in front of a registered celebrant (I am one) who also signs. That's the absolute minimum.

Hugh said...


That's not what I mean when I talk about a ceremony. That's just a formal witnessing by a registered celebrant. And the formula you have stated does not need to be used, especially not the words 'husband' and 'wife' - it's merely necessary that they affirm in some form their need to enter into a marriage.

And before you ask, yes I do work for Internal Affairs.

Anonymous said...

Hugh, no I don't. Do you?? This impression was reinforced for me by the confusion of family etc when they realised how we were doing it. In fact, my husband and I ended up having quite a big argument because friends travelled for some distance to be with us for our "marriage" and he was mad at me for not explaining that there would be no ceremony (for the record I did explain, they just didn't quite process the fact). In Japan even the witnessing bit isn't necessary; you can submit the papers by post if you like.


Julie said...

Thanks for sharing your difference experiences and thoughts on this.

I've been to a few weddings where no woman has made a speech, not even the bride. It makes me uncomfortable.

What can you really do at someone else's wedding to express your feminist principles without a) making a dick of yourself and b) possibly wrecking your friendship?

M-H said...

Hugh says: "So that's my question, really. If you want to have a big party and publically declare your love for somebody - why not just do that?"

That's exactly what we did, last weekend, as it happens, here in Sydney. Over 60 people came and it was great. But... in order to make it work for us we had to spend thousands of $$$ in legal fees to draw up documents establishing our relationship, and giving each other equal shares in our two houses, and we also had to pay stamp duty to the state government on one of these 'transactions'. If we'd been legally married we wouldn't have had to do that, we could have exchanged the property free of charge and without any need to prove our relationship. But, here's the kicker: we didn't have a choice in that, because we're both women and under Australian law we can't marry each other (even if we wanted to) or even establish our relationship as a civil union.

So it's great to be able to get married if that's what you want, but don't forget that in many places it's just not possible, and that leads to discrimination under the law.

Here's a question: Do civil unions in NZ bring the same legal rights as marriage?

Hugh said...

M-H, yes they do.

Similarly, living in a de facto relationship for two years also brings identical rights.

But M-H, even if you and your partner were not disallowed from marrying or entering into some other bond that precluded you from having to go through that particular expense and bother, there would still be the issue of those, hetero and homosexual alike, who simply don't want to get married. Why should they be forced to go through all that because they don't approve of the institution of marriage?

Similarly, what of those who want to make a commitment to their partner but don't want to enter into the degree of financial interdependence that you and your partner desire? Shouldn't they be allowed to make that commitment without necessarily financially intertwining themselves?

Hugh said...

What can you really do at someone else's wedding to express your feminist principles without a) making a dick of yourself and b) possibly wrecking your friendship?

Personally I wouldn't want to be friends with anybody who didn't let women speak at their wedding.

M-H said...

Actually, Hugh, we have both financial independence and co-dependence. I don't think you'd call it interdependence. We hold our two properties jointly and pay the expenses associated with those jointly, and keep all other monies separate. One of us earns rather more than the other. We've both learned in the past that this is important to us. And neither of us wishes to marry, ever. I was just making the point that we can't even register a civil partnership here, and there don't seem to be any plans to introduce such a concept into backwards Aus. Although, to be fair, the Rudd govt has dismantled several dozen bits of legislation that were discriminatory, we still can't register our partnership in any way.

Anonymous said...

Australian law recognises de facto hetero relationships when it comes to immigration, though. My friends (who aren't married, Australian guy and non-Australian partner) only had to do pretty much what my husband and I had to do here in NZ in order to assure the department of the authenticity of the ongoing relationship (photos going back a period of time, letters addressed to both etc).


Julie said...

Personally I wouldn't want to be friends with anybody who didn't let women speak at their wedding.

So Hugh you've never been to a wedding where there speakers were all men? How do you tell beforehand whether this is going to happen or not, so you can RSVP no if it is?

Hugh said...

Julie, I haven't been to many weddings, but those which I have been to have had a fair mix of speakers. I really can't imagine anybody I'm close enough to be invited to their wedding would be so sexist, but perhaps one of these days I'll be unpleasantly surprised.

Julie said...

Sorry I wasn't meaning to sound so facetious, I am genuinely curious. What about family?

hendo said...

Oh I love the way you express it: 'I have thought really hard about this and you and me I reckon we are forever'. That's beautiful.