Everything is Going to Change: Marriage Without the Wedding in a Pandemic

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Weddings used to mark the beginning of a marriage. Now, more and more, they serve as the confirmation of a relationship already in progress.

At the end of Bridesmaids, Maya Rudolph’s character Lillian semi-disappears on the day of her wedding. Her hot mess of a former maid-of-honor verging on former best friend, Annie (Kristin Wiig) finds her in her apartment, hiding under her comforter. After Lillian apologizes to Annie and confesses that her replacement MOH has crafted a wedding that the father of the bride can’t afford — she admits that what really led her back to her own bed the night before her wedding was the monumentality of losing her own bed — her own apartment — her own bathtub. Her own. “Everything’s going to change,” she says.

Today was supposed to be my wedding day. One of them, at least. And if my fiance and I had spent the last night before our wedding in ‘our own apartments’ it would have been the same place. If he had picked me up and carried me across the threshold of our new married home, it would have been the same place still. And when we woke up the next morning as husband and wife, nothing would have changed except the amount of metal on our respective fingers and our tax-filing status.

We’re in that apartment now for the foreseeable future. Confined to three and a half rooms in Central Harlem for the same reason that we’re resigned to check the ‘single box’ indefinitely — a global pandemic the likes of which the world hasn’t seen for over a century.

Cancelling our wedding didn’t shake the earth either. Instead of going to sleep in our shared apartment, waking up together and heading to City Hall, committing to spend the rest of our lives together, binding ourselves to one another as a legal entity until death, and then heading home to sleep in the same bed as we planned; we just woke up in the same bed in our shared apartment where we’ll do our jobs from home, mope a little, and then go to sleep tonight after some wine and 30Rock.

I’ve always liked the idea of clean breaks. The theatre kid in me needs a good closing night; the ritual of taking in the preparations you once took for granted — of imbuing each minor task and tradition with the weight of finality. But for me, putting such a definitive barrier between single and married life is a false construction — letting legal minutiae get in the way of a relational truth.

This is not to say, of course, that marriage is not a big deal. That committing your life to someone else — choosing the person who will raise your hypothetical kids, share all your future homes, and hold your dying hand or die holding yours — does not warrant the emotional ferocity of a sea change. And for some people, maybe, that decision — that step — feels like it has to happen in a specific order with the rest of a shared life’s logistics.

But in some ways, this pandemic has revealed to those of us who weren’t aware — that there are definitive, separate stages of life that actually exist and there are ones that we create for clarity, closure, and celebration. From one second to the next a person can go from a non-parent to parent, from a daughter to an orphan, without any space in between breaths. These are separate stages of life. Moments that happen, often without our control or express consent, that we must adjust to regardless of whether or not we are ready.

Then there are the gradual transformations that we look to punctuate. A commencement ceremony does not make someone a college graduate, years of coursework in a chosen field does. A birthday is not so much a celebration of a single day as much as an acknowledgement of the other 364.

And sitting somewhere in between is the eternal vow we make to another person — a life we decide to let into our own, to fuse with our own. Here, weddings are the lynchpin. They are the peek into and participation in the most intimate relationships of people we love. We want to say that we were there at the moment when they went from two single people in love to one committed couple. That before the moment they slipped rings on one another’s fingers, they were different. That we were with them as they transitioned from one phase to the next.

Growing up in a world with this kind of messaging drove me to constantly ask myself if I was ‘ready’ to be married. I ran perpetual evaluations of whether or not my single self was complete enough to cross the threshold into shared oneness. Was I confident enough? Was I in love enough? Was I financially stable enough? Was I informed enough? Had I been clear in my demands and expectations? Were my fears adequately assuaged? What were my fears? I read on twitter that you know on the first date with someone the reason why you’re going to break up. Did I know? Was it right? Could I survive a divorce? If I’m thinking about divorce at all should I not get married in the first place? But it’s okay because I’m not thinking of my divorce just divorce in general. What else am I not thinking of? That I’ll look back on in 20 years and say ‘I was so young, I didn’t know any better’? Is 27 so young? Everything is going to change?

Is it?

My partner and I decided to get married after we had committed ourselves to one another for the long haul. After we shared a lease and a bank account and Visa expenses, after we had ‘a way’ that we divided up holidays between our families, after he was my designed healthcare proxy heading into cancer surgery, after we couldn’t tell who had bought which books in our house. We decided to get married because my life would be easier with health insurance which marriage to him could provide me — and his life would be easier with a green card which marriage to me could provide him. And after three years spent trying to improve the lives of the person we loved — signing a paper that promised to keep doing it seemed obvious rather than momentous.

I don’t think marriage is stupid. I don’t think it’s a waste of time or just a way for the wedding industrial complex to make money or the government to weasel its way further into our lives. I think it’s nice and comforting to say ‘I choose you so strongly that I am going to affirm it in a way that is very hard, painful, and costly to take back’ — and it feels good and safe to have it said to you.

But I also think my marriage is more like a graduation than parenthood. A confirmation of a person I have grown into — an acknowledgment of milestones that felt like stepping stones at the time. An opportunity to celebrate the things I left behind because the future was too exciting to turn back from. To acknowledge the moments I remember not because I was told that they were to be the best ones of my life — but because I knew that they were. And to say that the life I’ve been living beside this person is the life I’d most like to live.

In the three years we’ve spent together, our shared world has been upended with equal parts joy and violence. We’ve had our plans shattered by job loss and biopsy results. We’ve had our futures blown wide open with dream jobs and successful surgeries. We’ve watched family members graduate, move, and move again. We’ve seen a world shut its doors in the hopes of keeping itself alive. And still we have preferred, on the calm days and the cataclysms, to be with one another.

So on that undetermined day in the future when we do sign that paper and say those words and agree that the life we have built together is the one that we’d both like to keep.

The fact that Everything’s Going To Change will not be the catch.

It will be the point.

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