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The Couplehood Jubilee

From: New England Review
Volume 34, Number 1, 2013
pp. 62-77 | 10.1353/ner.2013.0053

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The figure she came up with wasn’t staggering, at least not in terms of the amount that some people might have spent, those with greater means or no fear of credit card debt. Nonetheless, it was much more than she felt comfortable with, and so much more than she had spent on travel and movies and dinners out for herself and Glen in any given year. She did her best to keep track of where her money went, hoping to discourage herself from spending three or four times more on temporary pleasures than she deposited into her retirement and rainy day savings accounts. A dense bubble of resentment began to form beneath her breastbone as she stared at the sum: $24,875. This was the amount that she had spent on friends’ bridal showers, engagement and bachelorette parties, hotels, plane tickets, dresses, and other wedding-related expenses over the past eight and a half years.

During that entire time, she had been working as a high school French teacher and had earned an average annual salary of thirty-eight thousand dollars.

Twenty-five thousand dollars: well over half of what she earned in a year. The resentment bubble threatened to asphyxiate her. Why had she allowed this to happen? And about half of the people she had shelled out so much money for were already divorced!

Eventually the bubble moved up to her head and for a few midday hours, it tried very hard to summon a migraine. At the all-day, end-of-year school meeting where she had surreptitiously added up these wedding-related expenses, she kept thinking, I haven’t even spent a quarter of that amount on my own wedding. Because, in part, she had never had a wedding, nor did she think she would have one anytime soon. Despite their interest in monogamy, she and Glen, her boyfriend of six years, were not interested in marriage nor in what seemed to be the feverish American imperative to marry everyone off, tuck them into minivans, and bring on infant-induced sleep deprivation as soon as biologically possible.

“Why don’t you want to get married?” some of Karen’s unhappily unmarried friends had asked. “Do you think that you or Glen can’t be faithful?”

“It’s not like we need to be married to cheat on each other,” she had replied.

Her friends remained doubtful. “Then what is it? Are you both holding out for someone better?”

That wasn’t it either. Their reasons were more complicated than their bemused friends and relatives suspected, but if Karen tried to explain her feelings and convictions, their eyes grew hazy with boredom and suspicion or else they argued that she was wrong, possibly egomaniacal, to resist this rite of passage that was good enough for millions of other couples.

Even so, she did not feel wrong or egomaniacal. She did not understand why she and Glen needed to buy a license and recite certain phrases in front of a judge in order to be declared a committed couple. As if, like someone who wanted a driver’s license, a couple needed to be declared fit and legal to love each other.

Karen’s parents, however, were worried about her unmarried status for other reasons. Didn’t she know that if she or Glen ever became sick and choices had to be made about medical care and money, the existence of this license was the only way that they were guaranteed the right to make these critical decisions?

“Common law,” Karen would usually reply to her parents and other critics, brandishing the phrase like garlic in front of a vampire.

“Sure,” her father said, agreeably enough, “but common law marriages don’t often hold up in court. You’re young now so you don’t care, but wait until the first time one of you has to go into the hospital for something unforeseen, and I guarantee you’ll feel differently.”

Despite his depressing predictions, she knew that her father meant well. Almost everyone meant well when they told her to march straight to the nearest courthouse or altar and marry herself off. She was thirty...



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