The Debrief: Choosing Marriage, or Not

Several months ago, Chanel Dubofsky asked me to do an interview with her at Jewschool. Then I asked her if we could flip things around. Today she debriefs her creation of The Marriage Project. Chanel’s writing can be found at Cosmopolitan, RH Reality Check, The Billfold, The Jewish Daily Forward, The Toast and more. She’s an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She blogs at Diverge, plus you can follow her on Twitter at @chaneldubofsky.

During and right after college I was super involved in Jewish communities, becoming more observant and simultaneously realizing that a lot about how the world was supposed to work in a traditional sense wasn’t what I wanted for myself. The idea of marriage affected my life the most when I was an active member of an organized Jewish community, or trying to be. I knew so many women who expressed this idea that the life they were currently living as “single” was not “real,” that their real lives would start when they were married. It terrified me because we are alive right now and that is real! What inspired The Marriage Project in the first place was this question of why so many women were making this choice, which, interestingly, many don’t see as a choice they consciously make. What is it about marriage that’s working for women? What do women have to say about their experiences on the marriage spectrum—engagement, separation, divorce, remarriage?

The Debrief: Choosing Marriage, or NotIt feels deeply wrong to me that we measure adulthood based on these practices that are assumed to be good for everyone. I don’t think monogamy equals morality, and I think that’s what we say when we expect people to get married and when we don’t confront traditional notions of family. I want to remove the barriers between people and them being able to live their best lives, the best versions of those lives, according to them. And with that, I think, comes interrogation of the things that are expected of us, which are based in patriarchy, capitalism, racism, etc.

I started The Marriage Project because I really wanted to know what was so attractive about marriage to people, and also because I wanted to find other women who, like myself, are deeply skeptical of the idea and the institution, and don’t want to participate in it. My parents divorced when I was 7 years old (cue the chorus of, “Oh, that’s why you’re like this!”). I wasn’t upset by the divorce; it made sense to me and it seemed like the right conclusion for two people who obviously were making each other miserable. I didn’t think about marriage very much at all after that, until I was around 13—we were playing a lot of M.A.S.H. at slumber parties that year—and saying to my English teacher, “I think I’d get married just for the dress,” and he said, “Oh, you’ll get married.” That seemed to be the thing—it would just happen to you, regardless of whether you were actually interested in it. It was an inevitable.

Marriage seemed to me like a poor deal, even then. I’ve never been into the idea of joining my life with someone else’s in a way that’s permanent. I just wanted to live alone. I wanted, and still want, as much space to write and think and imagine as I could possibly get, and, in a way, that means having many significant relationships that come in many forms and avoiding normative structures that don’t make sense for me. Realizing that has been a step in becoming truer to who I am. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make myself into someone else, into a person who wants conventional things, and it was a cruel experiment that I’m glad I’m not in anymore.

Being an unmarried female is, in some ways, a big part of my identity. Knowing what I want and don’t want, and following through with that, feels like a big step in my own revolution. I’m 35, and every year that I don’t have a kid, and don’t get married, I think, oh, I’m really doing this! I’m living a life according to my true self; I’m not falling into something or letting myself be persuaded to do something I don’t want to do.

That being said, it’s disappointing and troubling to me when people remember me as the person who doesn’t want to get married. It stands out partly because I’m female—because all women are supposed to want this; we’re supposed to be singularly and myopically directed toward finding a male partner and marrying them. I want people to remember me as the person who is asking questions, interrogating and instigating. I happen to be doing it with something—many things, really, not just marriage—that’s seen as a sacred rite of passage.

At The Marriage Project you can find over 100 interviews with female-identified folks about being married, divorced, separated, engaged, wanting to get married and not wanting to get married. The interviews are diverse in geography, age, sexuality, class and religion. Women have told me they’ve never before been asked questions like, “Why did you get married?” I want people to be able to be as honest as possible, without fearing they’ll hurt someone, so many of them are anonymous. I want to make a space where people can think out loud, and wonder. Email me if you want to participate.

I’m still the least-qualified person on earth to give advice about marriage. I’m also in a unique position where I don’t have family pressure to contend with. My general advice, however, is this: Learn how to be alone, do not be afraid of being alone, and use that space to think about what you really, really want, and why.

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