Suddenly I was Engaged, like a toilet cubicle. Or would we say occupied, like a nation? And if I were Engaged, did that mean I had been Vacant before? In which case, what was it that had filled the void? Something soft and fluffy, like marshmallow? And if the Vacancy had been filled by the engagement, was I now whole, like an iced cake? Finished, like a painting? Ready to be consumed or hung prettily on a wall and covered with a fine layer of dust as the years passed?
It was the word that bothered me. You see it printed on cards with bottles of champagne and golden hearts, but when do you say it out loud? Rarely. I tried: Engaged. We are Engaged. Engorged. Endgame. In the end, we both opted for: ‘We’re getting married!’ which aroused the requisite smiles and hugs. We didn’t say: ‘We’re probably getting Civil Partnered, legal requirements permitting.’ It didn’t quite have the same ring to it.
Sometimes it was a positive word. I was Engaged! Like a rocket ready to launch, or like something from Star Trek. Scotty, engage the cloaking device! Make me stealthily invisible until W-Day, when I shall become visible again, and exit my chrysalis as a Wife. But that didn’t sound quite right either. A Wife. It conjured images of aprons, baked goods, tidiness, boredom, domesticity, loyalty, commitment, sacrifice. Although of course in the modern world that’s not what it has to mean at all. Still, history sticks. So many other words spiralled out of that one noun. Was I those things? Would I become those things? Did I have to live up to them?
It took a bit of getting used to, is all I’m saying.
December 2017. It was my birthday, the day we landed in Bangkok, the day of The Proposal. We had flown a quarter of the way around the world – Jamie wanted to ensure optimum conditions for my comfort for The Proposal (I hate the cold).
He took us to a place that served crab curry for supper – thick morsels of crab and a mild yellow sauce – then we walked until we found a bar with coloured fairy lights and a guitarist playing cheesy Americana. We sat sipping coconut milkshakes, facing the hawkers selling locusts on sticks and friendship bracelets, when he said those magic words:
‘Were you aware that civil partnerships for mixed-sex couples might become legal in the UK in the next couple of years?’
‘Yes,’ I said.
‘Would you like one?’
‘Yes,’ I said. He already knew that. We’d discussed it several times.
‘Oh good, because… I’ve ordered the ring you like.’
It took a moment to sink in, and then we hugged and kissed, somewhere during the excitement I actually said the word yes and he said I love you. It all happened in some tumbling state of disorder. And then the waiter asked us to move tables, to make room for a larger party. We moved, still smiling, to a table further from the excitement of the street; its centrepiece was a dirty metal ashtray, a cigarette still wafting grey, acrid plumes.
‘And what if civil partnerships don’t become legal for us?’ I asked.
‘Then I suppose we’ll just be married!’ He smiled.
I smiled back.
I was happy, of course I was happy, but there was another feeling, of shifting identity, of being converted or transformed against my will. The next day, Jamie noticed it. He’s perceptive like that.
‘You don’t seem particularly excited,’ he said as we walked round the reclining Buddha temple in Phra Nakhon.
‘It’s still sinking in,’ I said, stopping by a coconut stall on the pavement.’ I had a slight out-of-body experience when you proposed,’ I said, deciding these coconuts were not quite as fulsome-looking as the ones at the stall we had passed two blocks earlier, ‘and I think I’m still having it, to some extent. I just need to adjust. You knew it was coming, obviously, but for me, it was a surprise.’
He nodded and we continued our temple tour.
It wasn’t a big issue. It wasn’t major. It wouldn’t stop me from making a commitment to Jamie. It’s just that I would much rather be his partner than his wife.
It took two days, then I was back in my body again, thrilled and excited and euphoric to be marrying, or partnering, the love of my life, law depending. We bought a ring in a market for 150 baht (about 80p) and I wore it with pride, we WhatsApped a picture of it to our friends and got a little endorphin buzz every time they replied with warm congratulations. We glossed over the CP bit, and let people assume what they wanted.
But there was still a small niggly something wriggling about in my tummy. It was the W-word. WIFE. It wasn’t a big issue. It wasn’t major. It wouldn’t stop me from making a commitment to Jamie. It’s just that I would much rather be his partner than his wife.
In subsequent discussions, Jamie has explained to me that at that point, in 2017, it looked like civil partnerships were likely to be introduced for opposite-sex couples. If it hadn’t looked likely, he might have waited another year to propose. But while we both would prefer a civil partnership, his desire for one isn’t as strong as mine. He would be almost as happy, I think, with a marriage, whereas I want a partnership more than I want a marriage.
That’s not to imply any judgement for those who do want a marriage, I wish you all the best! It’s just not the right decision for us.
When we told family and friends we were engaged they were delighted, but when we told them that we wanted a civil partnership, they mostly looked puzzled, and said variations of ‘Well, what’s the difference?’ We would then say, ‘Actually there isn’t much of a difference, the legal protections are the same…’ And then the reply inevitably came: ‘Well, why not just get married then?’
‘The history, the baggage… we want a clean slate, our own version, a fresh one.’ And then, somehow, without meaning to, we were offending people with our personal choice: ‘Marriage was good enough for us, why do you object to it?’ they said. ‘You can make it your own, it’s between you as a couple, so why do you need a separate piece of paper with ever-so-slightly-different words on it?’
Why did we? I hated that our choice seemed offensive to those we cared about, the people we wanted to be happy for us. How could I rationally explain that pit-of-the-stomach feeling that a civil partnership just felt right for both of us?
I couldn’t explain, yet most people we told about it felt they were owed an explanation as to why we weren’t doing the ‘normal’ marriage – and so we did some research. We both looked at the arguments for having a civil partnership. We followed the case of Rebecca Steinfeld and Charles Keidan, the heterosexual couple campaigning for the right to a civil partnership.
Ministers spent £65,000 fighting Keidan and Steinfeld’s case. Why? To maintain patriarchal values? To push for the residual, watered-down version of religious marriage exemplified by the civil marriage? Why? Why oppose modernity and equality? Did they feel something was being lost? But what?
I remembered an old column by Lucy Mangan about how mothers were – and still are – being written out of history by the archaic tradition that only the father’s occupation be included on a marriage certificate, not the mother’s, and noted that both parents’ occupations are listed on a civil partnership certificate. The government still hasn’t got round to changing the marriage certificate to include the mothers’ professions, even though David Cameron agreed it in principle in 2014.
‘It is only a small thing,’ wrote Lucy Mangan. ‘But societies are made up of small things. And they are made up of symbols, and the absence of your mum’s name on a landmark day is a big symbol. So let’s change it.’
I also remembered Lucy’s description of her own church marriage, and how she wanted to speak traditional vows with ‘words hallowed by time’ (even if I don’t have the faith out of which they were forged) and the sense of occasion they create.
And I thought about the power and significance of those words. And the acts of hypocrisy some atheists make in order to include those words in their wedding ceremonies, because of the power of tradition. There are rules about not including hymns if you aren’t having a religious ceremony, even though everyone, God-fearing or agnostic, enjoys a rousing chant of ‘Jerusalem’. I wondered if our choice to have a civil partnership was making other people think about the compromises they made when getting married.
A civil partnership will be a new document and therefore it is scrubbed clean of those ‘words hallowed by time’, and also of the nineteenth-century ideals of romance – and associated expense – that have been foisted on it over the centuries. You don’t need a meringue dress, or thousands of roses; you just need a willingness to commit to each other, and to share your assets.
I remember reading an extract from Alain de Botton’s unsentimental 2016 book The Course of Love, which witheringly dissects and destroys the principles of the romantic ideal of love but still proposes that, on balance, it’s good for you and good for a functioning society to be in a long-term relationship. He refers to it, tongue-in-cheek, as ‘the cage’ of marriage. Although now that they are going to be made legal, he might recommend the cage of the civil partnership instead.
‘Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity,’ he writes, ‘it is the capacity to tolerate dissimilarity that is the true marker of the “right” person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.’
It’s this modern view of partnership and commitment that respects each individual as a separate entity, that doesn’t try to unite two bodies with one soul, which admits to fault, to bad days and good ones, to bad years and good ones, this pragmatic union, that doesn’t expect one personality to be subsumed into the other; this is the ideal to which Jamie and I aspire.
Interested, I explored the Botton-founded School of Life’s alternative wedding vows: a new set of ceremonial acts intended for the modern marriage or partnership ceremony. One of the suggested acts is that on their wedding day, the couple share photos of themselves as children and vow to treat each other as children when they are upset or angry – not by belittling them but by treating them with sympathy and kindness. There’s a YouTube video that demonstrates some of these new rituals. It begins with admitting you are, like all humans, ‘a failed, broken human being’. I showed it to Jamie and he burst out laughing.
It was a bit sombre, but what I liked about it was the idea of creating new traditions, free from the framework of the usual, traditional ceremony, so I signed us up for the School of Life’s ‘Make Love Last’ class, claiming to offer a practical toolkit merging philosophy and psychology to help your long-term relationship last. It was one of the most excruciatingly awkward evenings of our life together thus far. Botton’s mind is an interesting place.
The longest five minutes of my life involve listening to a man tell me that his sexual fantasy involved actually having sex with his wife
While conventional, religious pre-marriage counselling might encourage you to make sure you were on the same page with each other regarding your future, establishing mutual hopes and goals, the School of Life’s class focuses on your petty arguments, sexual fantasies and ‘how to not sulk’.
The class was led not by Botton but by the School of Life’s content editor, and the most bizarre part of this group session was her telling us to share our sexual fantasies with another stranger. The longest five minutes of my life involve listening to a man tell me that his sexual fantasy involved actually having sex with his wife, just straightforward hanky panky, with his wife, because they hadn’t done it for a long, long, long time. ‘We have kids, two young boys,’ he said with a sad shrug. His wife was sat next to him, facing in the opposite direction and telling her stranger her own sexual fantasy, which probably wasn’t too dissimilar to his. Aware of this, his confession came in a hushed, despairing whimper. Why was confessing to a stranger conducive to establishing a healthy relationship with his wife? Or establishing an enduring relationship between me and Jamie? I have no idea.
So the School of Life wedding style wasn’t right for us either. But there’s no avoiding the fact that the historical symbolic meaning of the marriage ceremony treats a woman as a possession, passed from her father to her new husband.
There’s a white virginal dress, the veil shrouding the bride’s face, the ‘giving away’ – where the father literally hands over the financial burden of the bride to another man who will take on ownership of her. To some people, that doesn’t matter one jot, and that’s wonderful for them – go for it! I personally love attending a traditional wedding and seeing the same theatre that’s played out in hundreds of rom-coms come to life before your eyes – but the more Jamie and I looked into it, the more we disliked it for us. The weight of that history of subjugation and misogyny pressed heavily on us. We didn’t want to be associated with it. Time for a new ceremony, a new, more equal ceremony.
But in the end, we decided our CP ceremony and vows won’t be too radically different from the norm. The format works well, why mess with it? There will be dancing, cake, lots of food and plenty of booze. But we have tweaked it: I won’t be escorted down the aisle, instead we’ll meet at the top of the aisle, my dress will be off-white, without any constricting bodice and no puffy encumbrances, so that I can walk, dance and breathe freely. I will give a speech, we will keep our own names. We will both wear a wedding ring. In fact, Jamie also wears an engagement ring now as well.
I didn’t want a veil, until my mum pulled out her old veil from her first marriage, from before she married my dad. It had been stored lovingly in the loft for a future daughter: me, if I ever materialised. I wanted that thread of connection to my mother, who married, hopeful, aged just twenty-one, and I wanted to carry that hope that she had then – even though life has proved that with the best will in the world, life and relationships don’t always turn out as planned – into my ceremony. But we agreed (me and my mum) that I won’t wear it over my face and I’ll remove it after the ceremony.
I always find it interesting that some white, Western, vocal opponents of the Muslim hijab chose to wear, or their other halves wore, a veil at their wedding. The symbolic meaning of both types of veil is pretty similar: the adult wearer is preserving themselves for just one man – their husband – and the veil, in both cultures, implies virginity, purity, modesty, piety and devotion to tradition. Surely if you wore one for your wedding you at least begin to understand the reasons for a woman choosing to wear the hijab?
Aside from me wearing my mother’s veil, everything in our ceremony will be as fair and equal and balanced as possible, as a symbol of our future intention to treat each other as equal partners: a team.
That’s not to say I would judge anyone who did want all the traditional, conventional elements and who is excited about becoming husband and wife. Partnership is just our choice, it’s what feels right for us.
When we told some friends about our CP ceremony plans, they cooed sweetly, ‘But a marriage ceremony is traditional, isn’t it? It’s niiice,’ Others said, more bluntly, ‘Why can’t you just do it properly?’ And others, perhaps more assertively, more loudly, said, ‘Of course you don’t have to do any of that traditional stuff. You can wear polka dots! Make up your own vows! Change as much as you like! That’s what we did! But we still had a marriage!’
But then, if you’re changing every single aspect of the ceremony to suit your own tastes, why not go one step further and actually disengage from that ceremony altogether? And instead choose a ceremony that is actually more aligned with your beliefs?
The rights and protections for both marriage and civil partnerships are the same; the difference is in the language.
I return to reading Peter Brook’s The Empty Space, a seminal text on theatre. After all, the ceremony is a performance, of sorts.
‘We mustn’t allow ourselves to become the dupes of nostalgia,’ he writes in his chapters on ‘Holy Theatre’, or the ‘invisible made visible’: ‘The best of the romantic theatre, the civilized pleasures of the opera and the ballet were in any event gross reductions of an art sacred in its origins. Over the centuries the Orphic Rites turned into the Gala Performance – slowly and imperceptibly the wine was adulterated drop by drop.’
Our feeling was that marriage was a re-enactment of half-remembered, old-fashioned traditions; it was what Brook might call ‘deadly theatre’ – a faded facsimile of what it originally meant, lacking in relevance to modern relationships.
Like Peter Brook, I believe in the power of ceremonies. I believe in the symbolic power of standing up in front of a gathering of your friends and family and declaring a lifelong commitment to another person. I also believe in words and symbols and want the words and symbols that we use and say to be as honest and true to what we really mean to each other.
The most difficult discussion about our choice was with very close friends of ours, a same-sex male couple who chose to get married once it was made legal for them to do so. Their choice, aside from being what felt right for them, was a celebration of social and legal equality with heterosexual couples. While some same-sex couples didn’t want marriage because of its patriarchal connotations, for them it was the right choice. They wanted a marriage.
The civil partnership was originally introduced as a halfway house in the UK before marriage was made legal for gay couples. Marriage still holds status in our society, and offering gay couples the CP but not marriage was considered by some members of the LGBTQ community as a way of diminishing their relationships in the eyes of wider society.
When those friends discovered we wanted a CP they couldn’t understand why. They had got married in a very wonderful, modern way and ‘created their own’ version of a marriage, so why couldn’t we?
The only argument I could think of to try to explain our perspective was that Jamie and I are different genders, not the same gender, and so assumptions about our roles within a marriage, even a civil marriage, are assumed to conform to gender norms, whereas by being of the same gender, that was not a hurdle they had to face.
But even as I said it I felt as though we were somehow ignoring their struggle, and the decades of fighting that the LGBTQ community at large had undergone in order to finally achieve marriage equality.
As someone who cares about the power of words, the difference between those two words – marriage and partnership – matters a great deal
When we made our choice to have a CP, we didn’t even know if the law definitely would change. This was before Theresa May announced that opposite-gender civil partnerships will be made legal in the UK, so that heterosexual couples will have the same options as gay couples under the law. At that point we were offending people by arguing for something that we might not even end up being legally allowed to do. It was a strange position to be in, but the more we came up against these conflicts with friends – and strangers – the more it helped clarify our stance.
So what’s the big deal? It isn’t a big deal. There are more important things happening in the world. Marriage is just a word, at the end of the day. So is partnership. But as someone who cares about the power of words and who makes a modest living from using the right words in the right place, the difference between those two words – marriage and partnership – matters a great deal.
I believe words influence thought and thought influences behaviour and I’d rather speak the words that are the right ones for me and Jamie than hack a difficult path through a forest of words we don’t believe in.
In linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf’s 1950 essay ‘Science and Linguistics’, he says, ‘All observers are not led by the same physical evidence to the same picture of the universe, unless their linguistic backgrounds are similar.’ In many ways this is bollocks. You can conceive that there are ten different words for snow in the Inuit language even if you don’t actually know what they are.
But then you can also understand how a society that doesn’t have a word for ‘I’ might make for less egocentric communities.
Words have power. Ceremonies have power. Rituals and objects and incantations all have power.
‘A Happening is a powerful invention,’ writes Brook. ‘It destroys at one blow many deadly forms, like the dreariness of theatre buildings, and the charmless trappings of curtain, usherette, cloakroom, programme, bar. A Happening can be anywhere, any time, of any duration: nothing is required, nothing is taboo. A Happening may be spontaneous, it may be formal, it may be anarchistic, it can generate intoxicating energy. Behind the Happening is the shout “Wake up!”‘
When we really dig down, into the dark swamp of the soul, perhaps the real reason why I don’t want a marriage isn’t to do with my belief in fairness and equality, but more an instinct that I’ve tried to intellectualise.
I think it might be to do with seeing my parents successfully navigate their marriage, while knowing they only married after years of cohabiting because they wanted a child and they felt it was the ‘right’ thing to do back then.
My dad says he understands why we want a partnership. My mum is supportive, but she doesn’t understand it. I try to explain to her: a CP is a tabula rasa, you can etch a new beginning onto it. We will have the same protections of a marriage, but without the patriarchal associations of a marriage.
‘But why not just get married?’ she says. And in the end I say, ‘I don’t know. It just feels like the right choice.’