The language of marriage
April marks a year since I got married. When I reminded my sister of the anniversary she responded by saying “They say the first year is the toughest year. It should get rosier and rosier from now on”. Her words became a reminder about the messages we pass around about marriage: the language of marriage. Before we got married my partner and I went back and forth discussing the idea of marriage. Why did we want to get married? Why not live together and have a domestic partnership? We weren’t the first couple grappling with these questions. It felt as though we weren’t going into the marriage blindly and simply accepting the idea of marriage.
Many young people have questioned the need for marriage. Many are opting out or others opt in and realise while in the marriage they’ve made a bad decision and divorce. Just about everyone I know has a story about a relative or friend who had a bad experience in marriage and called it quits within a few months or years of the marriage. Even though this is the case, women are still targeted when it comes to the question of marriage and some women are still explaining why marriage is not an accomplishment. The reality is men have always been let off the hook when it comes to marriage and women are yet to be let off the hook.
Many friends have asked me why my partner and I got married. I always respond with a mixture of rolling my eyes and laughing off the question. But when I do muster enough courage the default answer is that there’s a sense that my partner and I agree that we are helpless romantics. We want our version of happily ever after. In spite of the break ups we see around us we believe we will be together forever because we got married on our terms. No white dress. No lobola. No wedding. No new surname for me. No expensive rings (we both kept the rings we bought each other when we got engaged). No pomp and ceremony. We got married on a weekday at Home Affairs with two friends as witnesses. The signing process took 15 minutes and afterwards we went to lunch with our friends and had a relaxed afternoon. We went home and watched soccer on TV. It was another day and in its simplicity it was special. When I tell people about our "wedding" they are in disbelief.
By starting the marriage on our own terms it meant that we owned the relationship. We wanted the marriage to be an extension of the relationship we already had rather than deal with the social pressure of dealing with “a new phase” in our life. After having been a part of many weddings I became aware of the language of marriage. Most of it is couched within a religious discourse whether the couple is religious or not. I haven’t been to any secular weddings yet but I’ve heard of people making a conscious effort of having a wedding but removing the religious discourse.
I had to explain to my sister why I had chosen not to take my partner’s surname and why we insisted on a Home Affairs signing. My sister had had the whole package when she got married five years prior to my getting married: dress, church, family—lots of family—the traditional wedding, the slaughtering of a sheep, the new makoti name. For her it felt like an important process so it was only natural I explain why we had opted out of this structure. It was a question of choice and feeling like I wasn’t simply being swept into the marriage because that’s what society expects of me. I also wanted to feel like I’m owning this part of my life: I’ve seen many friends being swept away by the euphoria of the wedding only to express that the wedding was the worst day of their lives because the day was hijacked by extended family who have other ideas about what a wedding should be. I also wanted to make it clear for myself that I was more interested in marriage rather than the wedding. My partner and I had time to talk about the marriage we wanted rather than discussing wedding venues and a guest list. The obsession with a wedding—which is a one day affair—often gets more attention than the marriage which is supposed to last a life time. Of course it’s possible for couples to do both: talk about marriage and a wedding.
Perhaps there’s a need to differentiate that there’s the language and performance of the wedding and there’s a language and performance for marriage. The language of the wedding is one of consumerism and about what other people will think. Weddings have nothing to do with the bride and groom but mostly they have to do with the family and extended family. It’s a show for others while couched within the sense that the wedding is about the couple. It’s a very schizophrenic expression that couples know they buy into in order to appease the families. It’s a ritual that society has decided is essential even though we all know it can be a farce.
The language of marriage is about positioning: men and women are positioned to have different roles in the relationship. The positioning also means that the rules of engagement the couple had while they were dating must change. While dating couples kept their finances separate but once they live together their finances are merged. This is a practical arrangement but when I tell my friends that my partner and I don’t have a joint account there’s visible confusion followed by “but how do you manage your finances?” Independently. Of course we have a discussion about who is responsible for which bill and thereafter we keep our savings and daily expenses separate. We both contribute towards groceries and entertainment expenses (but this is not always equal).
Another form of positioning is a result of the domestic set up. Even couples who are not married and decide to live together have to deal with how the domestic life should unfold. This too has a set of rules that people can buy into or not. The wife is the homemaker and the husband is the handyman. I don’t want to make any grand statements about this because many couples make different choices where the home life is concerned. Even though the home is a private space it can still be governed by rules created by others. The advertising industry dictates or confirms these rules: detergents and food are aimed at women while cars and gadgets are aimed at men. Of course many couples and families are open to changing the language of marriage: some choose not to have strict rules for makotis while other families choose to let the young couple live their lives without too many expectations. Other couples are comfortable with the traditional roles in marriage. The language of marriage is being contested but because the relationship is both public and private, it’s difficult to tell who is dictating the shift in the idea of marriage. Men or women?
The language of marriage extends beyond the home and into how the couple behave socially. There’s the language of “date night”, “girls night”, “boys night” and all these events are an example of how does the couple organise its social life once they have “put their lives together” (a favourite stock phrase in the language of marriage). If the couple didn’t have mutual friends before marriage this can be a crises point because there’s an assumption that as a couple you ought to have the similar circle of friends. If not this can be a problem. And this is the rub: the idea of “two become one” can create an unnecessary crises. Why should two become one? Why can’t two remain two post marriage? Organising a social life in a relationship is about time: how much time do you spend apart and how much time do you spend together? If a relationship is working then monogamy dictates that you’re probably spending a lot of time together and spending time with friends together.
By now you’ve noticed I haven’t used the word husband but partner instead. This is also a practical opting out of the language of marriage because husband and wife means positioning. These are not just words but concepts with a long history of behaviour in a marriage. By choosing partner I am making a statement that I am not a wife but rather a partner, an equal partner because the language of husband and wife is not one of equality. The value judgment on husband and wife means that the couple respond to each other differently and the world responds to them differently. By choosing partner I am saying that my partner and I are two people who happen to have made a decision to be together rather than two people who have roles in the home and in society.
The first year of my marriage has been deciding for myself whether I want to opt into the language of marriage. More importantly, I have been trying to think through what kind of marriage does one have if they reject the language of marriage? Can it even be called a marriage? Why does it matter so much that marriage should be experienced in a particular way? Surely the language of the relationship should matter more than anything. Each relationship has its rhythm and rituals. Why shouldn’t the same rhythm continue once a couple gets married?