Some Cautions Before Hetero-Marriage (Or, Spinster Feminist Theory)
At the table across from me, a young woman—late 20s, white, wealthy—lets out a shriek-squeal.
I know this sound because I went to a Christian college. This sound peeled across the women’s dorms Spring semester of our senior year. At my college, “Ring by Spring” was the motto—and this shriek-squeal was the soundscape when a young woman came back from a date with a rock on her finger.
The dorms had a lot of concrete and thus the sound echoed and pierced my young feminist eardrums.
I had been dating my boyfriend most of college and I most definitely was not getting engaged, this I knew, despite the pressure I felt. (We were the kind of couple that probably could have gotten engaged and married and then divorced in our later 20s, but instead we skipped the marriage and the divorce.)
I am sitting at my table drinking my coffee in the late morning sun. It’s now a good 15 years since my senior year of college. I am approaching middle-age, I often remind myself just to get used to it, even though it’s still a few years away. I am also embracing the word spinster. In college, I never would have imagined myself still single at 38, but nor have I found being a heterosexual-inclined feminist a smooth life path in terms of choosing a partner.
I am reading my feminist theory books this morning and that old sound has alarmed me again. I start listening in, going between reading my books and being inquisitive/invasive.
Her friend across the table (who has these amazing black and white ribbon sandals I am coveting) has just casually explained she is getting married in 2020—ahhhh, no big deal she says, the ring on her dancing finger catching the light. In the way the information was withheld prior in this conversation, it built up the drama, so when the information finally came out—there’s a lot of shrieks and squeals.
When the conversation turns—when the woman with a rock on her fingers asks the other woman with no rock on her finger, what do you want in your relationship? I really perk up my ears.
She stumbles. I am afraid to say what I want, she says. What if I say what I want and it is not in fact what I want, or not what I want tomorrow, or not really what I want at all?
Her friend presses her to keep exploring her feelings. I learn she and her partner have just bought property in NYC and put a bunch of money into it. (For a moment, my jealousy shifts from the beautiful sandals and I am panged by envy of the invisible stream of money that seems to flood her 20-something white life. I think of all the books I would have written by now with that invisible stream!)
The woman who is afraid to say what she wants keeps talking but in a much softer voice, which is my cue to stop listening, and so I do. I am nosey but I have some sense of boundaries that will kick in.
I move out of the sun, to a table across the way in the shade. I ponder what I just heard. I am thinking about one of the first books on feminism I ever read—Carol Gilligan’s The Birth of Pleasure, in which she analyzes women’s speech patterns and how we come to be disconnected from ourselves inside patriarchy (and yes, this disconnect also manifests for men, Gilligan explains at length, albeit in different ways). Patriarchy is about lots and lots of disconnections, and one of the main lines of disconnection is from our feelings and our desires.
I go about my business of reading and working on my dissertation until the woman afraid she cannot find words for what she truly wants speaks louder now. I hear the next part about how she feels about the prospect of getting married herself.
It’s just…I dunno…We want to keep the excitement of the relationship alive. Getting engaged and married is part of that, that’s a way to keep a relationship exciting. That’s what people do.
My heart sinks.
I have a fantasy of walking across this coffee shop patio and giving her my feminist consulting card and saying Let’s talk. A fancy wedding and the marriage institution will not solve this.
But I don’t do that because that’s rude.
This all makes me thing of a really provocative feminist theory article I assign from 1980: Adrienne’s Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence,” which is a call for hetero feminists to be honest about what kind of institution we are entering with marriage. Be honest about its history of violence. Be honest that it is sold to you as the grand adventure of your life and that image is false. Be honest as to how it disconnects you from women’s kinship and the cost to your inner life and your creativity, Rich says.
In this moment in the sun, hearing her say that marriage might bring or maintain excitement again, it makes me wonder how many women married men because it was part of the very fantasy Rich punctures. It is a fantasy that marriage will fix something not working in a relationship. Or will at least provide a temporary distraction from the desires we are already so disconnected from.
I think of the women clients I had the past 8 years who were painfully unhappy or compartmentalized in their marriages, or maybe not actively unhappy but partially numb as survival strategy. I think about the ways women narrate their hetero relationships on social media—BEST FATHER EVER, BEST HUSBAND EVER, BEST FIANCE EVER—even though they tell me all about the abuse, the pain, the disappointment, the alcohol.
I hear it all. It’s what I do for a living as a feminist consultant and teacher. I hold these stories of what it is like living inside a big old system called patriarchy, and I direct folks to resources to grow, heal, and imagine better paths forward in their lives and relationships.
Certainly, there are some happily ever after stories. There are hetero marriages that hold a lot of healing and new possibilities for male-female ways of being in relation. I celebrate those relationships. I believe they are possible with lots of work and reflection by both people.
But I am also pointing out that heterosexual marriage isn’t exactly something to squeal about, either. If one enters it as a woman in this society, it is good to enter it with honesty and a measure of gravity. This is an institution historically about property rights and hetero-patriarchal rights, and in US history, it has largely been about maintaining class privilege for white folks as it excluded lots of others. We are not that evolved yet from its underpinnings. It does not work that well for that many women, even though we orbit it as the highest relational good in our society, and we actively exclude people in all kinds of ways who do not enter it.
What I think is most damaging to hetero-inclined women is not that we take the risk and enter hetero marriage. I think it is how we enter. If we enter it based on patriarchal fantasies inculcated into us at a young age—fantasies that bombard us in this culture—we won’t have the self-honesty available to us to really assess what does not work inside these relationships. Lauren Berlant calls it “cruel optimism”—the ways in which a dominant societal ideal expects us to be optimistic even though it continually disappoints, and was in fact, set up to disappoint by design.
What might disappoint? The unequal division of domestic and emotional labor. The ways in which women don’t know how to ask for what they need because we have learned to adjust to not being heard, especially when we have deep feelings to process, like sadness or disappointment. That many male partners are not able or willing to process their own wounds and ungrieved griefs, rooted in the way they were disconnected from themselves because of how patriarchy indoctrinates little boys not to fully feel anymore.
It’s all a set up for all parties to lack self-honesty.
I am not a cynic. I always believe healing is possible and it is why I do the work that I do. But it is hard to heal old historical institutions, let alone our relationships (with others, with ourselves, with the quiet crushed voice within ourselves), if we contort ourselves to try to live inside images and fantasies given to us by patriarchy. There are other ways and it is time to find them—indeed women have persisted in finding those other ways for a long time, too.