Friday, March 16, 2012

An Open Letter to Celebrities Who Refer to Marriage as "Just a Piece of Paper"

This morning, I was reading an excerpt from a recent Jon Hamm interview with Elle UK (via Celebitchy), and in it he talks about a lot of things, like his 15-year relationship with Jennifer Westfeldt:

"Having a piece of paper serves to remind you of your commitment, but we do a pretty good job of reminding each other."

The statement isn't all that controversial or original. Celebrities in long-term relationships who choose not to marry are regularly faced with questions about why they aren't married, and the "it's just a piece of paper" argument is their go-to defense. I guess since my own wedding anniversary is this weekend, the comment hit a little close to home. I thought, A piece of paper? What, like the marriage license, or the marriage certificate, because I think the marriage license is on file in the county courthouse. I guess he means marriage certificate. I wonder where my marriage certificate is? Crap. I hope I didn't lose it in the move. No way. I put it somewhere safe, for sure. I think it's in my special "memory box" where I keep a lock of my son's hair and a poem my vet gave me when he put my dog to sleep about how I'll see my dog again at the Rainbow Bridge when I get to Heaven. Yeah, I'm sure that's where it is. Whew.
The blogger and her husband on their wedding day, signing the church marriage record.

Yeah, the piece of paper. That's totally why I got married.

During our six years of marriage, whenever we've had a dispute, one of us has waved that piece of paper to remind the other of our times. In fact, it's interviews like Jon Hamm's that serve to remind me that I even have a piece of paper. 

I guess The Hamm is marginalizing marriage as "a piece of paper", because if it were more meaningful than that, he should have done it already. I don't think that people who subscribe to that belief realize that it can be a little offensive to those of us who are married, and who consider marriage much more significant than the paper on which the legal record is printed. Then again, it's not the job of the unmarried to validate my life choice. Isn't it the role of the married people to make those who chose the "alternative lifestyle" of remaining unmarried to feel inadequate or like they need to explain themselves? No, but these sorts of magazine interviews, like Jon Hamm's in Elle UK, and countless others before it perpetuate this. 

I considered this further, while taking my son for a stroll through the neighborhood. What if Steve and I hadn't gotten married? I don't mean what if we hadn't stayed together. Ha. We were always going to be together. We're like Ross and Rachel. Hmm...comparing us to Ross and Rachel ages me a bit, yes? Friends ended eight years ago. What TV couple do youngsters reference nowadays when talking about a couple who breaks apart then reunites, because everyone knows they're meant to be together? I guess we're like Leonard and Penny.

So, if I were to postulate an alternate universe, wherein Steve and I share a home and a life and a child, everything that comes with being married, except we did not stand up in a chapel in a white dress and a tux in front of friends and family and make a solemn vow to God that we will stay together until we die, would our life in this alternate universe be any different from our real life, save for the legal document that serves as evidence that a wedding ceremony took place?

Well, for starters, I would have a bare wall where my wedding photos are hung...

But beyond that, what else? In most love stories, marriage is the grand finale. And they lived happily ever after. As a married couple. I mean, what if Ali and Noah never got married in The Notebook?
What if, instead of Noah's famous "So it's not gonna be easy" speech, he proposed an alternate lifestyle? It might have gone something like this:

Noah: I wanna cohabitate with you indefinitely. I don't know if that means we can file a joint tax return, or if we'll still have to file separately, but I wanna merge all of our assets. I'd even cosign on a loan with you. That's how serious I am. And maybe someday we'll have a baby. Your Memaw will disapprove of our child-out-of-wedlock, because it goes against her religious beliefs, but after awhile she'll only grumble about it at family get-togethers. And it's always going to be a pain in the ass when there's a new teacher at daycare, and you have to explain why you and our baby don't have the same last name so they don't think you're trying to kidnap your own child, but they'll get used to it. We'll have a joint checking account, and become so financially immeshed that even if we wanted to break up, years from now, it would take a team of skilled lawyers to sort out the tangled wreckage of what they'll call a "common-law marriage", despite the great lengths we will have gone to avoid such titles. Are we gonna fight? Sure. Ours is a stormy love. But we'll stay together forever, and not because of a piece of paper! Because we choose to stay together! Every day!

Isn't that the most romantic prose you've ever read? So, without the marriage certificate, would old-man Noah have gone to visit old-lady Ali in the long-term care facility every day as her health was failing? I hope so. Is "not needing a piece of paper" really the best reason cohabitating monogamous couples can offer for not marrying? Can they offer a reason that doesn't involve business or finance? I can't answer that, nor can I say whether the life and the relationship shared between two monogamous, cohabitating people is more or less satisfying or meaningful than that of a married couple*, so I asked myself why I think people get married. 

I think that the decision to marry is a sign of optimism. I think it is a bold declaration to the world, that you intend to make a permanent commitment. More than legal, it's formal; it's public. Also, it's pretty sweet and romantic. And for many, it's traditional, and has much to do with the couple's religious upbringing and beliefs.   To those who dismiss the institution of marriage as merely a piece of paper, I'll give them a pass. But those of us who are happy to be married, well, we know better, don't we?

*Blogger's Note: I can say that I've had a front row seat for the break-up of one of these unmarried, cohabitating couples, and it's every bit as messy and painful as a divorce. In fact, in a lot of ways it was worse, because dividing the assets and responsibilities was ambiguous, as there were no divorce proceedings to sort things out. Break-ups are hard for everybody. 


  1. Damn, I had a nice long comment and lost it. I humbly request you open this to anonymous comments so I can make my own witty sarcastic comments in ease. Sure you might get some spam, but I think we can all agree that we need more nigerean bank scams.

    Ill just say this I'm not sure Ross and Rachel WERE meant to be together, how about that? They seemed largerly uncompatiable in realty. (we own all 10 seaons on DVD, my knowledge is NOT in question). The better couple on the show clearly was Monica and Chandler. If I had to compare Leah and I to a couple on friends it'd cleary be them and reading the funny convos random convos between you and your husband I also feel it'd be the better comparison. I feel a full retraction is in order re: the friends reference.

  2. I agree with you, I see marriage as an exciting part of my future and I appreciate everything you said in this post!