Monday, April 9, 2012

Mondays Musings: Why Marriage Scares the $%#& out of Me

Daybreak in the Grand Canyon
It's a feeling somewhat akin to looking over the edge of the Grand Canyon and imagining jumping off

I do apologize for the slight vulgarity. But, honestly, that's my general sentiment when I think about marriage. It's absolutely terrifying. I know it's wonderful and incredibly rewarding and worth it and all of those things. But thinking about it often ignites this feeling in the pit of my stomach that just feels like pure terror. I've had issues with marriage for a while actually. My solution to my problems with marriage, though, was to simply put it off and declare that I wasn't getting married till I was 26 or so and had my life figured out. Realization: I don't think there will ever be a point when I have my life figured out. So it's time to get to the bottom of this: Why does marriage feel so utterly terrifying?

First, I love being single. I love the freedom it provides to be spontaneous and do crazy things. I can make plans without consulting anyone. I'm not really tied down to anything. I can travel wherever and whenever I want (within reason). My prospects after college are wide open: grad school, work, moving overseas... I don't need to know where I'm going. And if things don't go well, I'm the only one I have to worry about. There's much less responsibility, less risk, and more flexibility. I have control over my own life, and no one has to pay for my choices but me. Control is a big part of it actually. I have a generalized anxiety disorder, and I cope with that by controlling my surroundings and managing risk. My mantra when making decisions is "it's not permanent." If I move somewhere and hate it, I can move again. If I start studying something and find it's not that interesting, I can change fields. If I don't like my school, I can transfer. If I hate my job, I can find a new one. Now all of the things do take some time and coordination. I might be stuck with something I don't like for a few years. But overall, it's not permanent.

But marriage is permanent, at least for me. Divorce isn't an option. I'm choosing to commit to someone for the rest of my life. For better or for worse, in sickness and health, for richer or poorer. And it's a commitment I take very seriously and that I'm not going to back down on. I am committing to love and care for and support my partner to the best of my abilities for as long as we both live. And that is very very scary. (Honestly, if I didn't find that slightly terrifying, I might be worried I wasn't taking this seriously enough.)

Marriage is also terrifying because of the expectations that come with it, expectations that I'm not sure I can meet, or don't really want to meet. I've talked about my fear of disappointing people before, and on the topic of marriage, this fear gets amplified to the nth degree. I'm afraid that my boyfriend secretly has expectations of his future wife that he hasn't told me, or maybe doesn't even realize himself, that won't come out until we tie the knot, and then we'll be in trouble. I'm afraid of expectations concerning marriage in my circles of faith. Does being married mean that I have to give up on all my career plans? Do I have to stay home and clean the house and raise children? Do I have to give up on my intellectual pursuits?

One of the reasons why I planned to be single for a while in the first place was because of my career choices. I've felt called to a career in research and political analysis, particularly regarding Chechnya. I've found what I love in writing my thesis and studying and writing policy papers. And I want to keep doing this, to pursue a career in this. But there's something in me that fears that in this culture, I can't do this as a married woman. Single women are the ones who can be independent and a little crazy and pursue big goals and dreams and careers. If I get married now, I can't do that any more. Getting married, especially as a woman, means that I am going to be at the mercy of my husband's decisions and that I can say goodbye to my independent life where I can choose to do things that I want to do and pursue my dreams. Getting married means giving up all these things that I hold so dear, it means sacrificing all of my goals and plans and dreams, it means giving up the opportunities to use the gifts and talents I've been given. 

Marriage feels a little bit like the death of who I am and what I love about my life and my identity. It also feels a bit like a betrayal. I've run in rather feminist circles with female friends who are all for women being successful, strong, and independent. We're going to have careers and go places and change the world. We're smart and talented: we can take care of ourselves. Does getting married mean I'm a sell-out?

All of these fears have been rushing around in my head for the last weeks and months. And they are completely justified. Marriage is terrifying, and it should be terrifying. It is an enormous decision, and not one to be rushed into lightly. Though at first I feared I was over-exaggerating in some of my fears, as I've reflected further, I think I'm spot on in a lot of my analyses.  Marriage is like death. It's the death of my single, selfish self, my self that is not accountable to another. When I commit to marrying someone, I am committing to love them. And love is not self-seeking. Love is self-sacrificing. It means sacrificing my desires daily. Not in the martyr/doormat way, but in a conscious, every day seeking of my partner's best. If I decide to get married, I am going to have to make hard decisions.

One of my most frequent "what if" scenarios has concerned our future plans. What if he gets into a medical school on the West Coast and I get into my dream school on the East Coast? What would we choose?  But I realized when considering this, that if I really love him, the choice wouldn't actually be that hard. Medicine is such a huge and defining passion for him that denying him that opportunity would crush him and so much of what I love about him. Why would I want to take away what he is most passionate about? Loving him means accepting this and being willing to sacrifice.  This doesn't mean that I have to give up on any aspirations and goals that I have. He knows what I am passionate about and what makes me tick, and love works both ways. We will figure out a way to make it work. It may require some delays, some postponing, some finagling of schedules. But if we're both trying to seek the other's best, I would hope we could figure something out.

A week or so ago, I was talking this over with a friend, and she helped me see it this way: if this dilemma between marriage and career is as binary as I first made it out to be, then by choosing one option, I am choosing to give up the other. I don't want to get married because I don't want to give up my career opportunities. But this relationship I'm in has to go somewhere, so if I choose the career track (in the binary option world), I am forfeiting this relationship I have. And honestly, I don't want that either, even though at times it seems much more socially acceptable. When did we decide that career success is more valuable than a healthy, supportive relationship?

I'm hoping for a middle road. There should be some way that I can get married and still research and write and analyze conflicts. I will probably have to give up some of my ambitions, but I'm okay with that. I don't think my pipedream ambitions are worth the cost of losing this awesome relationship I have. And from what I've heard and seen, marriage can even be a boost to some of those pipedreams. It isn't all loss and sacrifice- I'd be gaining a partner too. 

All in all, I still have a ways to go before I'm ready to get married. My boyfriend and I have things to work out and address. There are a lot of things to take into account before jumping into this. As much as love is self-sacrificing, whenever I do get married, my partner and I are going to have a lot of selfish moments when we are quite self-seeking and not loving. And that needs to be worked on and some contingency plans for handling that probably need to be put into place. And I'm sure there's other issues I haven't even though of yet. Like I said before, marriage is an enormous decision and not one to be taken lightly.  But at the end of this long post, here's where I'm at. I think I'm slightly more okay with marriage and the thought of getting married. I still have a ways to go, but that's why they have things like counseling and wise older people to consult with. I'm definitely not getting married tomorrow. But I don't have to wait till I'm 26 or so and have my life figured out. (Because again, there's no way I'm going to have my life figured out by then.) So...we'll see where things go and pray lots. Whatever happens, I do know this: I have a God who loves me perfectly and seeks my best always. So I think I'll be okay. 

Photo taken by Kara Haberstock, March 2009, all rights reserved