“I wonder what I’m locking myself into,” a friend shared recently when we were talking about marriage. I laughed an understanding laugh, because I got it. “Yeah! It’s hard for me to imagine seeing the same person over and over again every day and night. ‘Aw man, you again?'” I (half-jokingly) shared. A natural introvert, I annoy even myself sometimes. A partner is bound to get annoyed at me, too, and hey, that’s ok.
It’s just that the closer I get toward the possibility of marriage, the more I seem to take a step back from it. Critique it. Question it. Recognize its historical and political roots that have nothing to do with love and everything to do with legality. And I haven’t thought about marriage the same way since reading things like Commited by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which I learned about things like “coverture” for the first time.
But lately, I’m recognizing the cyncism with which I view something that’s inheritently good and beautiful, allowing myself to ponder the beauty of marriage too. I’ve been watching, studying, inspecting long-standing couples who’ve been through adversity. Who experienced beautiful things that wouldn’t have been possible had they caved when things got hard. Had they given up before seeing the redemption and beauty part of the story. Because whether a relationship ends or is unending, every story can experience the kind of resolve that makes you wander out to a lake all by yourself, sit on a log, and tear up at the thought, “I know the journey is hard. But it is good too.”
I experience that kind of beauty and resolve when I think about the first couple most of us can observe firsthand in our own lives: our parents. Of all the memories of my parents that I treasure most, the moments that stand out the most viscerally come from four weeks in October 2013 when my mom was in the ICU. She was protesting that she wanted to go home, tired of the hospital. And instead of pushing against her resistance, my dad took out a comb, sat down on her bed, and gingerly started brushing her hair. He made small talk with my sister and I while the sun shone through opened window blinds. Later on that hospital visit, he pulled out a picture of the two of them when they were engaged and showed it me. They were high school sweethearts, and their picture captured what it means to be “young and in love.” As things in the hospital worsened, my dad sat by her bedside three times a day to do nothing but simply be next to her. Those moments in the hospital are precious to me. My parents’ marriage hasn’t been easy. I do not think their story is mine to tell. But I do know that there have been many beautiful memories and laughs that didn’t seem possible in periods of challenge several years ago.
When I look at my grandmother and grandfather arm-in-arm in photos taken of them in places all across the world, I experience similar beauty when I look at their smiles. Smiles that say, “things haven’t been easy. But I am for you, and you, for me, and together, we make a choice… I. Choose. You.” I think of the last wedding I attended of two friends whose love has taken them through every shade of emotion possible. There’s just something different in these couples. Because these couples want to give out of their utmost.
Perhaps this is what I’m most amazed by. The every day choices that married couples willingly make to affirm their commitment to one another; to look someone in the eye everyday and say, unwaveringly, “I choose you.” For years, Evangelical Christians tried to tell me “a woman is supposed to submit to her husband, who is the leader of the home.” That imbalance of power always made me cringe in fear of watching my identity disappear. Some other Christians I know use the world “yield,” which sat a little better in my (very independent) heart. Because the kind of “yielding” they described was irrespective of gender. It’s one person yielding to another’s needs or requests as much as you can because you love them. Because everyday, you want to find ways to say through your actions, “I. Choose. You.” And after the arguement—the one over something stupid, and the one that really wasn’t; the one that required the two of you to make life-changing decisions—- after those kinds of fights, to return again in love: “I. still. choose. you.” The other partner does the same exact thing. It’s not tit-for-tat. It’s not some assignment where everyone gives and takes in methodic equality, each paying the other back in detailed increments like credit card statements. No. It’s more like loan forgiveness. It’s sincerely wanting to do all you can for someone you love so much. You still can have your most imminent needs be met and your preferences preferred while all the time doing this giving over and lending to and loving sacrificially.
In my dating experiences, I’ve come to find that this “yielding” is the hardest part. I’ve discovered how selfish I can be. How much I want to ensure that I, as a feminist female, am heard by my partner, a man. How reluctant I am to provide deference because I can think back to an entire history of humankind in which women have been deferential to men. And the terrible repercussions of unreciprocal deference speak for themselves. But it’s a lonely road when your only reason not to give to someone is because they’re of a gender that’s historically been the recipient of privilege. It’s a lonely road when you try to stratify independence and intimacy, instead of accepting the harmonious synergy of interdependence and partnership. A love that doesn’t bend as much as it breaks doesn’t create an inspiring story. No beauty. No real love, anyway.
Real love is found when women and men are allies. When we’re for each other, not against each other. When we forgive the thorny path of past actions and inactions throughout the centuries that both genders have done to oppress or diminish the other- because we both have. I’ve always known this in my head, but it wasn’t until my first serious relationship came and went that I realized my heart is sluggish on my contribution towards being an ally. Heck, it wasn’t until my first serious relationship that I even noticed how all this gender stuff plays itself out.
So one day, when I’ve processed this stuff, developed a framework of feminism that’s empowering for both genders-because that’s what true feminism does-, and stopped being afraid of the commitment and unknowns that marriage entails, I plan for these words to be read aloud at my wedding. More clear than any passage of scripture I’ve read, more real than any marriage book that’s been written, it encompasses to me what “I Choose You” means:
“I will give you this, my love, and I will not bargain or barter any longer. I will love you, as sure as God has loved me. I will discover what I can discover and though you remain a mystery, save God’s own knowledge, what I disclose of you I will keep in the warmest chamber of my heart, the very chamber where God has stowed Himself in me. And I will do this to my death, and to death it may bring me. I will love you like God, because of God, mighted by the power of God. I will stop expecting your love, demanding your love, trading for your love, gaming for your love. I will simply love. I am giving myself to you, and tomorrow I will do it again. I suppose the clock itself will wear thin its time before I am ended at this altar of dying and dying again. God risked Herself on me. I will risk myself on you. And together, we will learn to love, and perhaps then, and only then, understand this gravity that drew Her, unto us.” -Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz (God as female emphasis my own, not author’s)
But until that day, I’ll practice this giving over, in all of my relationships with people I love. And though at times it feels unnatural, I know there’s no other way to look someone in the eye to say “I choose you” with sincerity.