Welcome back to the gift that keeps on giving… advice! This week on Ask Pajiba (Almost) Anything, we’re doing a deep dive on one single question, because it turns out the Overlords are chock full of feelings about marriage… and men who use the phrase “my feminism” with a (presumably) straight face. And this question is a double whammy of those exact things!
(Remember: you can email us your biggest/smallest/most pointless questions at [email protected] and we might just answer you here, in a future column! Or we might not. You don’t own us.)
Ok, so — here is the question that set the Overlord Slack channel ablaze with opinions:
(Insert preamble about name we decided to change anyway). Wanted your thoughts on something my girlfriend of 3 years and I have been discussing lately. First, some background. We met working in Democratic politics. We’re both very liberal and very feminist. We split the cost of almost every meal we’ve ever had, rent, utilities, etc. We try our best to avoid patriarchal bullshit.
She wants to get married and have kids. I don’t find marriage to be all that important, partly because of its ties to patriarchy but also I just don’t care about how society views my relationship. I’ve actively committed to being in this monogamous relationship and intend on staying. To me, that should be enough. But hey, relationships are about give and take, finding common ground. So because it’s important to her I’m fine with getting married. No big deal.
But the problem is everything surrounding and leading up to the marriage. We’re all familiar with how it works. The guy spends a ridiculous amount of money on an engagement ring, plans an event where he asks her (possibly after asking permission from her father, *insert extremely exaggerated eye roll here*), and then the planning of whatever type of ceremony you can afford (which again, usually involves a ridiculous amount of money).
We both got laid off from the jobs we met at. I just recently managed to find a mediocre-paying job after 7 months of unemployment while she went back to school to become a teacher. We don’t make much money and don’t come from family money. Even if I could scrape it together, wouldn’t that money be better spent saving for a down payment on a house in the ridiculously expensive Nashville housing market (because fuck apartments)?
Putting finances aside, what bugs me the most about the engagement ring (Which, honestly, I was kind of surprised she wanted. She’s not big on jewelry and doesn’t like diamonds) and proposal is the unequal aspect of it. A foundation of our relationship is that we’re equals. So it feels wrong that I bear the burden of the proposal and ritualistic gift-giving. Am I missing arguments that justify this stuff that don’t rely on the tradition of sexism? Is it just me being selfish that I don’t want to be the only one proposing and giving gifts (why a gift at all)?
We actively talk about this stuff. This isn’t something I’ve come to you with first. But I wanted to get an outside perspective on this because I can get locked into my ideals, one of which is to not waver on something I think it very important. I don’t think I should leave my feminist ideals aside here. But I realize that even though ideals come from a good place (equality, justice) that doesn’t automatically lead to the right solution. And I realize my feminism is always a work in progress. So I’d appreciate your thoughts.
Super Chill Guy Who Totally Sounds Like An Ideal Husband In Every Way
First off, Guy — Let me just thank you for sending us your question. We’ve been getting a lot of serious, heartfelt queries which are, you know, fine I guess. But THIS? This shit right here?! This gave us something to sink our teeth into.
Our initial instinct was not to address our response to you, but to pen our advice directly to your special lady friend instead. Spoiler alert: it would have mostly centered around not getting legally and emotionally attached to someone who seems more concerned with satisfying his personal politics than seeing to the happiness of his partner. But you’re the one that took the time to write, and angry knee-jerk reactions aside, there is something valid at the root of all this: namely, can marriage ever be a process rooted in feminism and equality?
Short answer: duh, of course it can. Look, nobody needs to get married in order to have a meaningful long-term relationship. And not all marriages have to be rooted to tradition. If a couple wants to enter into a legally binding partnership for whatever reasons, they should examine the rituals and traditions and pick the ones that are most meaningful to them and mold them into something special — or discard them and make up their own. A feminist marriage is anything you decide it should be. And we’ve got loads of tips for how to have meaningful, non-traditional engagements and weddings.
Before we get to all that, however, let’s take a moment to do a close reading of your email. You made it abundantly clear that you’re feminist, you’re into a very literal definition of “equality,” and you don’t like “patriarchal bullshit.” Cool. But here’s the thing, and take it from a bunch of married Overlords: perfect split-straight-down-the-middle equality is impossible in a relationship. That’s why there’s compromise! Sure, you guys share bills now. That’s great. Maybe you keep a ledger of every coffee run, and make sure you reimburse each other at the end of each month. Whatever floats your boat. But even based on your description, it sounds like you’re bringing in more money than she is, as she’s gone back to school. Are you nickel and dimeing each other, or are you working together toward a future, knowing that in the short term that means that one of you may be contributing less to the finances? And speaking of the future, you said she wants marriage AND kids. So are you going to split that whole pregnancy thing with her? Are you going to share the labor pains? Fuck no, you aren’t. You’re gonna be emotionally supportive as all hell and she’ll still be the one pushing a human being out of her body into the world, because that’s how it goddamn works. Perfect equality may be unrealistic, but compromise is key. Because if you communicate on your priorities, and are both satisfied with the divisions qualitatively, if not quantitatively, then that’s all that matters. You’re the ones who decide what your partnership is all about.
And on that whole marriage and babies thing — you said that SHE wants it. And that you’re fine with it. “No big deal.” That… is the least romantic thing I’ve ever heard. Look, nobody wants their partner to be “fine” with marriage or think that taking that step is “no big deal.” IT IS A VERY BIG DEAL. The fact that she’s asking for this means that it matters to her. So is she dragging you into this unwillingly? Are you just shrugging and going along with this because you decided to be monogamous with her, or are you doing this because you love her and want to make her happy by taking this step? And what about kids? Are you just “fine” with those too, or do you want them with her? Just flagging because even if you’re gonna shrug your way to the altar, do NOT shrug your way into fatherhood.
As far as marriage being rooted in patriarchy, let’s first acknowledge that people have been getting married far longer than feminism was even a thing. And in that grand history, there are many societal traditions from around the globe. Some of them sucked for women, true — but some didn’t. Weddings aren’t a one-size-fits-all process. They are rooted in the culture and the time period. And furthermore, people have been getting married while broke, and busy, and liberal. So there is precedent for making YOUR wedding something that fits with YOUR politics and beliefs. And as far as caring about how society views your relationship, yeah you’re right. Don’t do it for that. Do it because it seems to be important to how your girlfriend views your relationship.
Also, not for nothing, but when you said “I don’t think I should leave my feminist ideals aside here” — did you stop to think that your girlfriend, who is the actual woman in this relationship, doesn’t seem to have any conflict between HER feminist ideals and the concept of marriage? If this isn’t a problem for her feminism, why is it for yours? She would appear to have a lot more riding on the whole female empowerment thing. In all your discussions, have you addressed why this DOESN’T bother her? Because I have a feeling she knows exactly how to reconcile marriage and feminism. Just saying.
You seem concerned with the process of getting engaged and planning a wedding. Which is fair. It can be tedious and daunting. Based on your email, I’m not clear how many of your concerns are rooted in your girlfriend’s expectations or just your own concept of what “marriage” entails, but assuming she DOES actually want the whole shebang, let’s walk through it.
- The Ring
You said your girlfriend doesn’t like diamonds, so does she actually expect a diamond ring? Because the concept of the “traditional” diamond engagement ring is a fairly recent invention, but the idea of a ring in general can be lovely. Think of it an an instant heirloom, something that can be passed down through generations. It’s something to show off, and talk about. It’s symbolic — representing whatever you both want it to. And it doesn’t have to cost thousands of dollars. Buy vintage! Buy a toy ring! It can be any stone or design that is meaningful to you both. My husband bought me a pearl ring from Brilliant Earth. I dunno if it was designed as an engagement ring, but he proposed with it and now it’s MY engagement ring.
And do you know what? I gave HIM an engagement ring too. Because for MY feminism, it made me feel better to not be the only one in our relationship walking around with a ring on my finger like a giant “CLAIMED” sign. Now, in terms of cost our rings weren’t equal. I just gave him an old thumb ring of mine that had sentimental value. But he cherished it, because of the meaning behind it. Because engagement rings, like any gifts, aren’t about money or ritual. It’s the thought that counts.
If money is an issue, however, perhaps you can talk to your girlfriend about skipping the engagement ring and focusing on the wedding? You don’t need a ring to be engaged, as long as you both agree that you are, you know, engaged. You can always give her a rock to wear later, if it matters.
- Planning an event to ask her to marry you
Um, it’s not like you’re really popping the question here. She’s kinda already asked you. If you wanna surprise her because you’re genuinely on board with proposing to her and taking it seriously, again — do something meaningful. Cook her dinner. Walk in the park. Whatever. Not all engagements involve hot air balloon rides and flash mobs dancing in the streets. Set aside your expectations of what’s “traditional” and think about what is meaningful to you and your girlfriend. The only person you need to impress is her. And honestly — is it un-feminist to want to hear the person we love tell us that they want to spend the rest of their lives with us? If THAT feels like too much of a one-way street, have her propose to you as well. But honestly, if you can’t be bothered to do even that much then I’d question just how in love with this woman you really are.
- Asking her father for permission
Yeah, that tradition can feel uncomfortable. But if it’s important to your girlfriend and her family, try to think of it as a courtesy. We all know your girlfriend is capable of deciding for herself whom she should marry, but if you DO get married, her parents will be your in-laws. Asking permission isn’t about a transfer of ownership, it’s about treating the family you’re going to be entering with respect. If it helps, speak to both her parents, or the whole family if you want. Maybe that will feel less patriarchal to you.
- Planning that big wedding
The amount of time, effort and money people invest on a single event in their lives is insane. But are you sure your girlfriend actually wants a big, costly to-do? Because while it CAN be pricey, getting married doesn’t have to cost the same as the down payment on a house. Go to city hall! Elope! Get your friend to become a justice of the peace and do the ceremony in a park! There are so many options. Not to sound like a broken record, but again: IT ALL COMES DOWN TO WHAT IS IMPORTANT TO YOU BOTH. You wouldn’t be the first people to get married while broke AF.
And if buying a house is important, work together on a savings plan to accomplish both. Set targets to work toward, and timelines. Compromise is about aligning your priorities so you both are on the same page. A dollar in the wedding account, a dollar in the house account. Or do a civil ceremony on the cheap, and re-affirm your vows on your own lawn with a big party once that house is purchased.
If you’re talking with her so much about this, you’ll know just how seriously she wants to take these traditions. Now you need to examine your own feelings, rooted as they are in your feminism and those ideals you don’t want to set aside, and see how you could approach marriage in a way that feels meaningful to you. Don’t worry about history or society. Think of it as a symbolic way of affirming your commitment to each other. The starting base to build a future on. Focus on that future that you both want, and then you can start to really work with her on a compromise that will make you both happy as you make that future a reality. In fact, Kristy recommended you both read The Conscious Bride: Women Unveil Their True Feelings about Getting Hitched to help with your conversations.
And yes, Mr. “I can get locked into my ideals” — you will probably have to make some sacrifices. Maybe you get her that ring. Maybe you rent a tux. Maybe she doesn’t take your last name, or you call her “lady husband” instead of wife (a thing that one Overlord did!). And maybe you get her to wait until after you own your own home. Just make sure that there are elements to the proceedings that are meaningful to you, and your ideals, and how you want to move into the future with this woman. And remember that even the things you don’t agree with, you’re doing for a good cause: because they’re important to the person you love. Sometimes that’s all it takes. And if you focus on that? The things that are important to her may start to be important to you too.
Because the thing is, marriage WILL alter your relationship. It’s easy to think it won’t. To imagine that being committed is the same regardless of rings or licenses or vows. But there is something powerful about affirming that commitment, in front of your loved ones, or a judge, or a fucking sea boat captain. There is something powerful about knowing that once you sign that paper, only a lawyer can end your relationship. It just feels more permanent. It makes you accountable. And it means that you put each other’s needs first. It means you think “we” before “me.”
It sounds like she’s ready for that — but are you?
I have to wonder if you’re getting so hung up on your objections to the “rituals” and costs of marriage because, deep down, it’s the larger meaning that might be upsetting you. Are you using your politics as a smoke screen? That may be part of the self-examination you need to go through. But if there truly is nothing about the institution of marriage that in any way speaks to you and you’d only be doing it for her — just don’t do it. Because that way leads to resentment. If you can’t come to a compromise about getting married, or not getting married, then don’t force it. Free her to find a man who will marry her with a smile on his face, and find someone for yourself who doesn’t see the point of marriage either.
*Image courtesy of my own damn wedding, because we paid for those fucking pictures and may as well use them for something, amirite?