On marriage and family and partnership

I am 29 years old and unpartnered. I use unpartnered as a stand-in term for ‘single’ or ‘unmarried’. Some folks balk at the word “partner”, thinking it automatically implies a same-sex relationship. I used to think the same, but as my network of relationships grew beyond Christian churched folks, I came to understand the word “partner” as a way to be more inclusive regarding the varied ways adults make romantic commitments to one another. Partner includes a husband and a wife – your spouse is your partner. Partner includes a man and a woman who live under the same roof in a committed romantic relationship though they may not be married – your live-in boy/girlfriend is your partner. Partner includes a man and a man, or a woman and a woman who, up until a few weeks ago, were unable to marry in a majority of states – your same-sex domestic partner is your partner. And partner includes a man and a woman and a man in a polyamorous relationship, whose concept of love is more expansive than monogamous folks – who’s to say that your love and commitment to one person precludes your ability to love and be committed to another person? That scenario is a little less common, a little less understood, including by myself, but if it nurtures a sense of safety, wholeness, and well-being for the folks who choose it, why should we not honor and respect this form of partnership?

So now we have marriage equality, and my desire is to celebrate this as an unequivocally good thing. Because it is, for those people who desire marriage and have access to it. Keep in mind that marriage means a lot of things. For a lot of religious folks, marriage means a covenant relationship between two people, a relationship set apart from the others in your life, a commitment before your god to live and love your partner sacrificially. Great. But legally and politically, in the eyes of the state, marriage means a whole other thing, and the more I learn, the more I think about it, the more I can only see this as a web of privileges and benefits available to some and not to others. Most of us have heard these arguments by now: same-sex couples deserve access to marriage to enjoy the financial benefits of filing joint taxes, the health benefits of sharing an insurance plan and having decision-making power if one partner faces terminal illness, to protect the well-being of children raised in same-sex households, so that two people living in the same household, parenting the same child, can both have legal guardianship of that child, whether or not they are related biologically. The list goes on, with other concrete benefits that in and of themselves are good things to have, because they improve your quality of life; nice things to have, because they grant you access to economic power, social privilege. Marriage equality was the safest and clearest objective for LGBTQ rights, because it is essentially about respectability. It is about deconstructing the perception of gayness or queerness as deviant. “We’re just like you!” This is what same-sex marriage says. “We are not a threat to the status quo! Everything about the way relationships are defined and the way social benefits are conferred in this country is great just as it is. Don’t change a thing. We want to assimilate into this marriage-based society, and uphold this social institution that shuts others out.”

This is where I get a little sloppy with my principles. I know all of this, and as an unpartnered person, I am acutely aware of the social and economic benefits that I cannot access because I am not married. And yet my ideal vision for my future still includes a long-term commitment to a partner, and likely includes formalizing that commitment through marriage. Because it is the language and structure I know, that I have been taught to desire. Because the benefits and status that come with marriage are attractive enough that if given the opportunity, I would participate in this institution that advantages some at the expense of others. If I were in a different emotional state, and more committed to my principles, I would stand in total agreement with Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, one of my many black feminist icons, and claim “I am an unapologetic marriage abolitionist, which means that I believe that the financial and legalized structural advantages currently attached to the institution of marriage in this country should not be linked to the practice of marriage as such, but should be available to all people who want to collaborate on home, family, support and love on their own terms. It also means that I am committed to actively generating multiple powerful forms of love in my life and in my communities.”

Home. Family. Support. Love. Isn’t that what partnership, or marriage is about? But then again, isn’t that what being human and living in community is about?

As an unpartnered person who expected to be partnered long before now, I have been wrestling with what this means for my vision of my ideal future. When I envision what I want my life to be about, I could separate it into three categories: the personal, the interpersonal, and the societal/global. In the third category, I want my vocation, my intellect, my skills and passion to contribute to positive social change in our world. I want to make a difference, I want to uproot systems of oppression, and plant in their place seeds of authentic love, justice, and equality of opportunity. In the first category, I want to be a whole and healthy person, who loves and cares for herself so that she may love and care for others, but also simply because she is a person worthy of self-love. In the second category, the interpersonal… I want those four things. Home. Family. Support. Love. And I have always assumed that the pursuit of those things will be founded upon a commitment to one other person. A husband, a spouse, or a partner. For most folks that I know, that is in fact the foundation. Most of my friends are married or partnered, some of my friends own the physical structure that is their home, and a few of my friends have begun expanding their families, having babies, raising children.

There’s nothing wrong with that being the foundation, except that if partnership is the only means by which we can pursue home, family, support, and love, then we cannot have them until we are partnered. This is why I have spent so many years of my twenties feeling lonely, afraid, feeling as though I am falling behind my peers, feeling as though I have to wait until I find my person before I can begin pursuing and creating the life I want to live.

This is the part where folks interject with, “Twenty-nine?! C’mon! You’re young. You’ve got time. You could meet your person tomorrow.” I know, I totally could. Or, I totally might not, and either way, I want those things, I deserve those things, today. Home. Family. Support. Love.

I am arriving at a point where I can proclaim this with greater certainty. I deserve all the things that partnered people have. My needs are just as worthy of being met, even if I do not have a romantic partner to participate in meeting them. I have the same amount of love to give, and everyday I must remind myself not to wait to start giving it. I used to look upon my perpetual state of singleness as a painful burden, a source of insecurity, proof of my deepest fear that I am not good enough. And sometimes singleness still is those things for me. But in the last few years, it has become something else. Now it is also a gift, in that it has forced me to place more stock in my friend-relationships. Because I have the same needs and desires for belonging that partnered folks have, because I am an ISTJ who craves the company of a few people who know me and with whom I feel safe, because my instinct is to be loyal and committed to the people whom I call family. Because of all these things, being single has forced me to embrace the idea of chosen family.

My chosen family is the people I do life with. I call them my “friends” because I don’t have another word to use, but they are more to me than that. They are the people who celebrate with me and mourn with me. They are the people that help me make hard decisions, because they know me and share my core values. They are the people I choose to be close to geographically. My chosen family is the reason I live in Durham, and the reason I prioritize trips to San Diego, even when I am unemployed and shouldn’t be buying plane tickets. What’s difficult and scary about this reliance I have on my chosen family is this: I am certain I need them, but I am not always certain they need me. I am aware of the ways in which I make decisions in my life around them, such as where I live, and how I plan my weekday evenings, but it is unclear whether they make similar decisions around me. Because marriage and partnership say that like Noah’s Ark, we should go two by two. And we should make certain sacrifices for our partners, our families, but not for others.

I don’t want it to be this way. I don’t want to feel that until I am part of a pair, I am shut out of home, and family, and commitment. I want to be able to talk openly with the members of my chosen family about our commitment to one another. I want to tell them how much I want to participate in loving and raising their children. And I want them to be people I can call on for help potting houseplants, or changing tires, or doing home repairs.

I hate the word “single.” I don’t know why, but to me it feels synonymous with doing life alone. Just like the word partner allows us to expand our ideas of what love and commitment can look like beyond the confining boundaries of marriage, I want there to be space in our language to include individuals like me, who are unpartnered, who do not have “a person”, but are still committed to “their people,” still worthy and deserving of home, family, support, and love.

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