Always a Bridesmaid
by Madlyn McAuliffe
As with many things in my life, I am constantly at war with expectation. My parents, who owned a book titled Raising Your Spirited Child, will confirm my favorite word growing up was “why.” Even today, I constantly am questioning. As an adult, my tendency to reject “givens” has manifested in my railings against the status quo. Tradition be damned. Give me a reason for why we do what we do.
In that vein, I have been known to openly admit to friends, family, and people on the internet that I harbor no desire to get married. As you may guess, reactions are mixed — at best. At this point, I can run the list of replies, ranging from well-intentioned to unkind, like a theatrical monologue.
“You haven’t met ‘the one’ yet.” I won’t hold my breath.
“Don’t you want children?” As if that necessitates marriage.
“You’ll change your mind when the ‘perfect guy’ shows up.” For the record, I like to keep my options open when it comes to gender. But unless Outlander’s Jamie Fraser himself shows up clad in a kilt on my doorstep, I’m certain I’ll be sticking to my guns.
It’s not my intention to set people on edge. Yet on this issue and that of children, I find the general public tends to raise its hackles when the norm is challenged. Similarly, I bristle each time I am asked when it will be “my turn.” Is there a polite way to respond to that question from a complete stranger?
It’s not that I see marriage as bad. If that is the path you choose, go forth. Rather, it’s a combination of factors - including the misogynistic roots of the institution and the myriad expectations with which women must wrestle as brides and spouses - that have soured me against embracing the notion of blissful matrimony for myself. Add to that pressure cooker my healthy skepticism of normativity, deep distrust of the $72-billion (in the U.S.) Wedding Industrial Complex, and utter dissatisfaction with the Disney-fied, throw-pillow culture ideal of “forever and always.” After all, what if forever isn’t forever?
That being said, I love a good wedding. They’re one of the precious few events during which I will weep openly. In fact, I was such a blubbering mess at my best friend’s wedding just this May, I thought I was going to destroy my makeup. I’ve been in two weddings since graduating from college and will have the chance to stand with friends who feel as close as family at another next year. I’ve bought the dresses and accepted that alterations will need to be made. I’ve attended bachelorette parties and showers. I’ve devoted care to choosing gifts. I’ve dedicated time to penning best wishes and hopes on cards streaked with my own joyful tears. All of this I do with zeal because I adore these exceptional people who have colored my world in vibrant brushstrokes. I desire their genuine happiness — as individuals and as couples.
But if I’m being absolutely transparent, sometimes a gnarled pit forms in my stomach as wedding season approaches each year. It’s not envy. It’s fear — fear that my desires in life will not coincide with those of a potential partner. I’m terrified and preemptively frustrated that the person I choose to spend at least part of my life with may not share my vision of romantic partnership. That they may one day want someone who dreamed of a beach ceremony at sunset, who was engaged to her kindergarten boyfriend (unless that’s only a sitcom kid thing), who has been adding to a Pinterest board full of white tulle dresses she began in high school, who does not chafe at the thought of relinquishing her surname, and who does see children in her future.
I suppose even I am still fighting my own deeply-ingrained beliefs about marriage in the desperate hope that I can see myself as normal, rather than odd, for thinking the way I do.
In a recent conversation with a friend, I realized there are some who are struggling with what marriage means for them even as they settle into married life. After fighting to retain autonomy over the ceremony and reception, she and her now-husband eloped. Perhaps they wouldn’t be together forever, but they would be, as she called it, “forever for now.” “I know that doesn’t sound very romantic,” she told me. I disagreed. That — their devotion to each other manifested in their spontaneity and their declaration of independence as both individuals and a couple — is very romantic.
My thoughts about marriage remain complicated. I know I’m certainly not helping sort anything out when I bask in the mind jacuzzi that is The Bachelorette. I still have no current desire to be a wife, nor can I see myself planning a wedding or walking steadily down an aisle. Yet I do see the value of an outward declarations and celebrations of love, partnership, and family, especially in an increasingly chaotic world.
I also see opportunities for greater inclusivity and expansion of our understanding of partnership to better reflect that no love is like any other. Your declaration could be a grand ceremony or a few simple, private words. Your celebration could be a wild shindig or a casual evening like any other. You could wear a satin gown, a sleek tux, or a sparkly miniskirt. You could uphold a long-standing tradition, or you could create your own. As long as it’s you. That’s an expectation I can get behind.