“So, when are you going to get married?”
Whether you’re in a long-term relationship or single, you’ve likely fielded this question. It’s a big question, sometimes softened with a playful nudge or wink, but can be less than fun to answer, and not just for the proverbial bachelor afraid of commitment.
The underlying assumption is that strong relationships are “going somewhere,” and involve the eventual sharing of homes, beds, names, bank accounts and, most likely, children. Marriage is a commitment, and commitment means stability, right?
But guiding someone toward a certain kind of stability might be like recommending training wheels to an experienced cyclist. These pressures can become especially complicated for those who don’t identify as straight.
“I have known from a very young age that I wanted to be a mom,” said a friend of mine — let’s call her L — who identifies as a queer woman. “It was always something I wanted for my future, and when I was younger I also thought that marriage was a prerequisite to a baby. Coming into my queer identity has helped alter the way I perceive families and family life.”
Still, L said she often got the marriage question.
“I definitely felt pressure to get married before having kids from both my mom, and my partner’s family,” she said. “I think both our families really attribute family to the typical heteronormative lifestyle.”
By now, we know all couples don’t look the same, but the paths these different couples (or triads, or quads) take are at least as varied and unpredictable.
I was talking to another friend recently, H, who identifies as pansexual. She said one of the challenges of dating across the gender spectrum is the need to constantly come out depending on where she is at in her life, who she is with or how other people might read her partner’s gender. People make heteronormative assumptions, asking her invasive questions about what her future holds. At a work meeting, H was asked “When are you going to get married or have kids?” In her family, when she dates someone who identifies as a woman, “it’s just a phase.”
H feels she is navigating and pushing back against judgement constantly. She said it is more common for her to be misunderstood than understood. At her work meeting, she wished someone had been there to “speak up and say, ‘Maybe she doesn’t want to get married or have kids.’”
My friend C rejects both labels and the “traditional” monogamous relationship structure. “We place so much merit on one-on-one relationships, and my love won’t fit with just one person. I tried to squeeze this giant love with just one other person and it just didn’t work.”
“My devotion, adoration and love is oceanic, and to me it’s so limiting to imply only one person gets to have that,” she added.
Whether one hopes to marry one day or not, the notion can be intimidating, especially when one’s proximity to marriage is closely monitored by friends, family and colleagues. Even if someone can chart the trajectory of their relationship, they might be tired of explaining or justifying this route to others.
It can be hard to relate to a relationship model with which you’re unfamiliar, but H said there’s no shortage of ways to become more familiar: “Read books, go to classes, show up.”
When in doubt, just try to keep the conversation open and inclusive, C recommends. This could mean simply saying, “I hear you, I never thought about that, do you want to talk about that more?”
These nuanced conversations can and should extend to those in the throes of wedded bliss. Spouses face their own heap of stereotypes and assumptions — the nagging wife and lazy husband tropes still have legs today, and are often shoddily projected onto same-sex couples — that seem to render sexual identity and fluidity irrelevant.
“It can be really difficult sometimes,” L said of being queer in a heteronormative-presenting marriage. “I find that having a more ‘queer’ haircut helps me feel more at ease, and dressing more edgy and/or androgynous. But also making sure I am active within my queer/LGBT communities, whether that is participating in protest or going to drag shows.”
With a husband and children, L fits a “traditional” family model, “but it was never something we deemed necessary to do to be complete in our own little family,” she said. “We were perfectly content with our relationship status. At one point I think I turned to him and said, ‘I think we should have more of a party to celebrate our love, plus we can get a tax break!’”
America loves a good wedding, but not every love story ends with one, or has a wedding at all. If you’re looking for an alternative to the marriage question, you might consider asking someone how they define family.
“I no longer see family as people who are blood-related but instead, they are the people in your arsenal,” L said, “the people who come running to support you through your failures and your triumphs. So, for me, being married had nothing to do with my partner being my family.”
Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 248.