05/31/2012 12:30 pm ET Updated Jul 31, 2012

Marriage Martyrdom: Advice from the Angry and Engaged

Taking a half hour break from my marketing job, I decided to catch up with Facebook, as you do. I flipped through cute cat pictures, complaints about weather, political discussions and came across an article several buddies had posted with praise -- the rather firm-sounding "Why You're Not Married" from over a year ago.

Unsure, I read the comments from various friends, who said this was "funny and accurate" -- so I clicked and read. I mean, I have a lot of thoughts on marriage, as someone is is currently going through a divorce and is engaged on top of that. I figured I didn't need advice on getting married, as I feel like I've had my training wheel marriage and should be okay for the next one, but more data is always helpful, right?

My half hour break turned into an hour long furious writing binge.

The author, Tracy McMillan, breaks down the reasons you're not married ("you" being a woman, of course, looking to wed a man -- hail heterosexist norms!) into six easy-to-beat-yourself-up--over categories. I know I have to spend a significant amount of time finding new things to criticize myself about, because the media doesn't do enough to make me feel insufficient, so I, for one, am glad she made it so easy. I'm a busy woman after all.

Ms. McMillan tells us that there's six characteristics that make us lady folk unweddable -- in order: We're bitchy (by which she means angry), we're shallow (by which she means we value looks/resources over character), we're slutty (by which she means... actually, no, that one's pretty clear), we're liars (by which she means we're not communicating what we actually want for fear of rejection), we're selfish (by which she means we think about ourselves too much and not about the inevitable self-sacrifice of housework) and we're not good enough (by which she means that our self-esteem is crappy -- because after telling us six reasons why our crapness is why we can't get someone to commit, we're supposed to have glowing self-esteem). She proceeds to explain how marriage is about "practicing loving someone when they don't deserve it."

I read through the whole article waiting for a snarky "HAHAHA fooled you!" at the end but it didn't come, so I can only assume it was meant to be actual advice. Just call me angry, but I've broken my issues with this idea down into five main categories.

1. It's Always About Women.
And straight women, at that, because as soon as you start to not direct these kind of sweeping generalizations of what the reader should be doing strictly at straight women, you begin to see this for what it is -- patriarchal propaganda. Whoops, sorry, that's my bitchiness speaking -- I mean that thinking about articles like this critically, you begin to see that it's very much the usual agenda -- good women (and good wives/mothers) are self-sacrificing martyrs.

When I started to look at the various points in Ms. McMillan's piece, I saw some very familiar and pretty sexist bits of advice -- women are "scaring men off" by being too angry, or thinking too much about a man's attractiveness or resources instead of their character, or you're having too much sex. Which is weird, because oxytocin is released when you have an orgasm with ANYONE, so I don't quite understand why having sex with multiple people where marriage isn't in the cards would be any different than having sex with one person who isn't going to propose. It's just another article emphasizing that if you're a woman, and you're not putting someone else's happiness first, you're Doing It Wrong.

What year is it, again? Because I'm pretty sure that marriage, and partnerships generally, are about two people, working together towards a happier life. Which brings me to another point...

2. It's Rarely About Men.
I mean... where's the article about this for men? About how they'll have to stop being shallow, selfish, slutty liars in order to get married? Why aren't they included in this advice? Seems pretty difficult to get married without someone to get married to, after all.

OH RIGHT. Because men *aren't* expected to stop, necessarily. Because we consider those traits *attractive* in men -- they've "driven," "breadwinners," "charming" and "avoiding upsetting the missus." Men are often rewarded for being selfish, particularly in the workplace. In fact, it can be an expectation -- for example, we don't have paternity leave, because mothers are expected to leave their jobs and manage kids on their own, while fathers are expected to continue to climb the managerial workplace ladder. When a man is flirtatious outside of his marriage that's often waved off as "boys being boys," while a woman who does the same is slut-shamed. Lying to your female partner about where you're going is expected, because its' more important to avoid an argument than to tell the truth.

I would imagine that McMillan, who characterizes one ex-husband as being a liar and a cheater, would be very familiar with the impact of holding women to standards of ethical behaviour and not men.

3. It's Actually Easy to Get Married.
I mean, as long as you're heterosexual, cisgendered, middle class, both from the same culture/religion/apparent race or otherwise marginalized. Irish travellers are turned away from venues because of xenophobia and classism. Gay people can't get married (in most places). Trans people have to jump through hoops. But if you're not dealing with being a marginalized population/institutionalized oppression, then getting married takes a) a partner who can sign a piece of paper b) a fee c) witnesses d) filing paperwork. It's a pretty simple process when whittled down to the basics.

What's a lot harder is having a healthy, functional, committed relationship with someone who is a good partner for you and for whom you can be a good partner back. And that doesn't necessarily lead just to getting married -- it can mean moving in together, or being in a civil partnership or dating longterm. Marriage is not the end point or goal of all relationships -- it's not some "level up" stage. It's really just one method of legally binding your resources together.

4. Martyrdom is Unhealthy.
My relationship with my first husband, a transgender man from London, was characterized by initially sacrificing a lot of things to try to be a more giving partner. I spent time at his place, far from my friends and life, bored out of my skull but trying hard to smile and be friendly to his mates. I bit my tongue at his occasionally wildly offensive politics. I would spend hours talking to him when we were apart to help him feel cared about. I listened to his issues and stood by him even when I thought he was being a jackass. By the time we got married, our love had fizzled into a practicality, where we did it so I could stay in the country. And once he had the power to prevent me from getting a visa, however, he refused to help with the paperwork, refused to help me divorce him, made it difficult to leave or stay. It was hugely codependent, and that codependency made the divorce long and ugly.

Or my ex-girlfriend. I spent a good amount of time in our relationship trying not to be selfish, trying to please her. She felt I wasn't giving her enough sex, so despite my lack of desire to have more, I put an inordinate amount of energy into increasing our sexual interactions. I said yes to sex I didn't want to have because I wanted to please her and I didn't want an argument. I made myself available to spend time with her often, and my work suffered from my lack of dedication to it. I accepted that she would never apologize for anything she did to me. I allowed myself to be emotionally blackmailed and abused, and in the end discovered she had been lying to me all along. I got angry, finally, and told her all the ways I wanted my needs met, how what she was doing was upsetting to me and not okay. Her response was to dump me. More interested in control than in me, my assertion of agency meant I was no longer useful to her. In the end she left me as dispassionately as she bedded me -- like I wasn't even there. I don't think she ever mourned us.

I realized that if I had not tiptoed around their issues, we probably would've broken up long before. I found that while initially I tried not to be angry or selfish, I was feeling my autonomy vanish within the relationship, and any assertion of agency was a battle. While I didn't want to lie about my feelings, I began to in order to cling to the last shreds of love between us, even to our detriment. Each time I looked back and realized what seemed like a rocky patch in a loving relationship was actually emotional abuse.

There's a word for "loving someone even when they don't deserve it". It's codependency.

5. Some People Like "Selfish Bitches."
Part of what works between my fiancé Mike and I is that I am very, very driven. We agreed pretty early on that I would be the primary breadwinner and he would be chained to the stove... at least once he gets to be a better cook. While I want to make sure that he always has space and time to pursue his goals, I am further along the career track and my job is one that will likely continue to pay me well enough to take care of us both. He supports my ambition and helps me to achieve my goals. My focus on my work is something he admires about me, not resents me for.

I'm also pretty angry. I'm known for doing direct action activism, for yelling at rallies, for telling off catcallers, for writing long frustrated pieces like this one. My fiancé loves me for that too (and sometimes in spite of it, when it's directed at him). I know plenty of angry women who ARE married, and happily so. I don't think there's many men who actually want a "yes" woman around the house who smiles and nods and makes vapid small talk.

If you're looking for a compatible relationship, find someone who respects you and what's important to you -- if anger is a part of that, or putting career as a priority, you need a partner who admires that about you, not who's scared of it. Contrary to what Ms. McMillan says, you don't need to tiptoe around a partner's ego issues, and as I said before, doing so is probably more indicative of codependency than love.

That's really important to mention. We have an expectation that advocating for your needs is selfish, and that's a Bad Thing. I think that not communicating honestly about your needs is much, much worse. I've tried Ms. McMillan's way, and have broken relationships behind me to prove it. So no. Don't make yourself a marriage martyr. Don't get married because "well, we've been together for a while, might as well." That's not what we're fighting for equal marriage rights for -- the equal opportunity to sink into unhealthy "let's stay together for the house/the visa/the kids" for everyone.

Here's some advice that might be more helpful for being a good partner. Learn to communicate. Set healthy boundaries and check in about them regularly. Figure out the best ways you argue, and how to take care of yourselves so you have space to be mad and space to work things out. Know what your needs are and what you desire, and figure out a few ways your partner can try to meet those needs. Try to be flexible, sure, and try to compromise (non-violent communication is great too), but don't stifle yourself to please another. Be with someone who loves you in all your complexity.

And it's totally okay to want a life partner who's got a great ass to match their great personality.