Defining Marriage

The definitions of marriage have changed. But has the definition of happiness changed as well?

For a few generations, in the youths of my parents and their parents, traditional and conservative values were prioritized above all else. The man meets the woman, they court, they save themselves for marriage, she takes his last name, they move in together and he works while she bears and raises the children. It was culturally frowned upon for women to work outside the home, even as things like domestic violence were often shrugged off and overlooked. Infidelity was expected, at least at times, for men, but strictly forbidden for women. Women were property, to be dominated and owned, even as the conventions behind marriage stated that women were to be loved and cherished. Men were brought up to be strong and to seek riches and success. Women were brought up to be cultured, modest, and demure, and to seek themselves a man.

There was certainly a lot of convention. It was relatively common a few generations ago for older men in their 40s, 50s, or even 60s, to marry much younger women, even teenagers, and for them to have two or three marriages in a lifetime. It was almost unheard of for older women to marry younger men. Women were the nurturers, and men were the breadwinners, and that was simply the way of things.

And nearly anyone can recite a form of the marriage vows. “I, man, take you, woman, to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, as my lawfully wedded wife, till death do us part.” It was a transaction, a legal and binding tie that was meant to last a lifetime. The kids, the assets, the money, and the bed would be shared, and everyone would live happily ever after. And of course, a lot went wrong with these institutions, but the ideal remained. Handsome young man meets beautiful young woman and they fall in love and stay in love through decades, no matter what life throws at them. Cue every Hollywood movie ever made (well, 95 per cent of them). Cue the Notebook, and Cinderella, and Sleepless in Seattle and every feel good film that leaves you feeling like love and happiness are just around the corner if you just meet the right person.

If I’m honest, though, this describes about zero per cent of the marriages I’ve seen in my life. Both sets of my grandparents remained married until they died, but from what I know, they had years of staying loyal to each other even while not liking each other very much. There was depression, and problems with kids,  and fighting, and drinking, and the sacrifice of careers. There were extreme hard times. But they stayed together, and that was the ideal, the one we keep falling back on.

But not so much in my generation. My parents divorced. Most of my siblings divorced. I divorced. It didn’t work. The world had changed. (I mean, gay marriage is legal now.) No longer does the message seem to be to just stay together no matter what. But the ideal hadn’t changed, and thus we ended up with a generation of people feeling like they had failed, like they hadn’t done it the right way. And that sense of failure stays with you, particularly when you are connected by children. Divorce is an ugly, violent process that results, frequently, in depression and pain and bankruptcy. But also liberation, a new beginning, a fresh start, a leaving of the past and a building toward the future.

I’m 40 now, and I’ve been divorced for 8 years. And I’m noticing that the trend has shifted again. What I see now is a generation of people who are not saving themselves for marriage, who are not willing to sacrifice their happiness, or their aspirations, or sometimes even their family names. I see people who expect more out of life than to just fall in love and stay there (hopefully) for a lifetime. I see people staking their own claims. They date, and they have sex, and they pursue their careers. And they might fall in and out of love. They regret the one they loved who didn’t love them back, even as they reject others who they don’t love back. And then they turn 30 and wonder what has happened, because they didn’t achieve that ideal that they were seeking for all along: that one person they hoped to love and stay with forever. That’s right, they changed the rules about how they live their lives, and then wonder why their lives didn’t turn out like their parents did, while openly admitting that that wasn’t what they were looking for in the first place.

What I’m seeing far more frequently lately, in my personal life and in my therapy office, are single people who are angst-ing at the universe about their lack of success in relationships, and people in relationships who are angst-ing about their relationships not being what they thought they would be. For those who have partners, they seem to wrestle with depression, wondering why things haven’t turned out perfectly. Why isn’t the sex happening enough, or why is their boyfriend so quiet all the time, or why isn’t the house as clean as they thought it would be? I think they make the mistakes of assuming that relationships will be easy. On paper, in theory, they state that they are ready for the hard work that relationships will bring, that the love will be enough to see them through those tough times, but in execution, it is much harder than they realize, and they aren’t sure how or if they can make things better. The grass is always greener…

So I find myself asking others, what is the kind of relationship you are looking for? The ideal one? The one where you meet someone and fall in love and stick it out no matter what, during time of stress and pain, sickness and depression, money and trust and communication issues? Or the one where you have an independent life with personal happiness, a fulfilling career, friends, and travel, and one that you share with someone who also has an independent life? And if it is the second one, are you prepared to realize that those independent lives will not always intersect? Sex, and aspirations, and travel, and career, and goals… they won’t always be in line? Are you okay with mixing these two together and creating a new definition?

What if the ideal relationship in today’s times means a composite of these two worlds? What if you fall in love with someone who loves you, cuddles you, someone you find beautiful, someone independent and engaging, and you build something long-term, but then over time, those things change, and you with it? How does sex, career, money, family, aspirations, trust… how do all of those things change when you want the best of both, a happy you and a long-term consistent relationship? Is this the new ideal? Is this the recipe for happiness, someone to share life with even as you find your own happiness, even through major trials and struggles? Is that how it will be now? Can you remain happy and good in your own skin throughout the process of building something with someone else? Because that describes nearly every happy couple I know, at this point. that blend of baby-boomer and millennial, that solid ground assurance mixed with the murky and tenuous unknown.

Which is it you are looking for? If you are living like a millennial and looking for the baby-boomer definition of a relationship, frustration and angst are the likely results.

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Prince Henry

Yesterday on Facebook, an old friend of mine uploaded photos from nearly 20 years ago, from my first year in college.

The year was 2001. I was a newly returned missionary, age 22, and I planned on a major in social work and a minor in acting; at the time, this made a lot of sense, but later I dropped the acting. I was taking between 16 and 21 college credits per semester while also working nearly full-time. I went to my Mormon ward every Sunday, attended the temple weekly, had roommates, and dated girls. At this particular time, I was just pretending that I wasn’t gay, though deep down I had a hope that I might be able to cure it all if I could just try hard enough.

After the completion of my second semester, I stayed on campus for the summer. I was at Ricks College, an all-Mormon school in Rexburg, Idaho, and in the summertime there were less students, but the school remained a very busy place. I’d already been in the Ricks College Mens Choir, and I’d tried out for a few plays and had joined the story-telling troop. Later, I’d help found the improv comedy group on campus, and I’d form my own A Cappella group. But for this summer, while I took classes and worked, there was nothing I wanted to do more than to be in a school play, entertaining the crowds.

The play was “This Castle Needs a Good Scouring”, a silly farcical comedy version of Cinderella, designed to get big laughs from kids, and the director of the show was one of my former teachers, a warm and friendly Mormon man named Omar. Not only was Omar directing the show, he had also written it himself, and he would play one of the lead characters, the ineffectual king; Omar’s lovely wife, Laurie, would play the wicked stepmother. In the play, the king had two sons, one quite effeminate and bumbling, the other a handsome and witty rogue.

I hoped for the latter part. Instead, I was cast as the effeminate prince.

Despite my worries about being on stage in this role while also trying to hide the fact that I was gay, I quite grew to enjoy playing Prince Henry. He was loud, prone to monologues, and quite dramatic. He got jokes only several seconds after the punchline was delivered, and he responded with a loud hearty laugh. He spoke with a thick, lilting, upper register British accent, and he walked in long strides. Henry loved the idea of love. He wanted to fall in love with the most beautiful girl in the land, and he often turned toward the audience and spread his arms wide as he loudly proclaimed what love meant to him.

We rehearsed the play for weeks and I grew to lose myself in Henry. He was delightful, and I knew the audiences would simply crack up at him. Along with a few other characters (including a malicious and dreadful stepsister and a bumbling mute elf named Wolfgang), he was the show’s comic relief. In one scene, he had to sing a love song to Cinderella, and I had a nice tenor voice. The song suited me. At the end of the song, as we rehearsed the scene, I tried convincing the director that I should be able to kiss Cinderella to show my love. Inwardly, I needed this to happen. I was going on lots of dates, but I was unable thus far to kiss a girl, not for lack of opportunity, but because I was simply too scared or too grossed out; I wasn’t wired for women, but I needed to be straight. I felt like if I could kiss a girl on stage, I could finally, finally see what it was like. But Omar wanted the moment to be funny, and so, when Henry moved in for the kiss, Cinderella turned her cheek, and the kiss landed there instead. I was disappointed, but it was the right call for the play. Audiences would love it.

As the set was completed for the show, the costume designing department finished their work for the play. I was given green leggings to wear underneath a very flow royal-looking shirt. It billowed out in a skirt-like fabric. A white shirt with lace collar and sleeves was placed underneath it, and my arms would go through the holes of the outer shirts’ sleeves, which hung down to my sides. The shirt was green on the outside with a pink interior, and a pink stripe ran down the center. I wore a simple felt crown on my head. As I moved about the stage, my outer shirt would flip upward, revealing the pink beneath. One particular scene, in which I brandished a sword, I would turn my body quickly, and the shirt would billow outward like a flowing skirt, creating a bright pink slash through the air. The effect was hilarious.

Without realizing it, I was participating in a long-standing tradition of making audiences laugh at effeminate men pretending to be straight. I was the buffoon. I was the character that audiences would look at and laugh at, practically limp-wristed as I pranced about talking about women and love. I saw myself Prince Henry as a comedic character, but I never thought of him as gay.

Iw as the closeted gay Mormon kid, playing the closeted gay prince, and I didn’t think of either of them as gay.

I look back at Prince Henry with affection. I adored playing him for that summer. But as I see these photos now, of me in pink and green, prancing about the stage in tights, I marvel at how deep the programming was back then. Being gay simply wasn’t an option. Were I to view myself in this production as an audience member, I would find the character hilarious, and I would immediately realize the actor was gay. I would embrace him exactly as he was, and never try to change him.

I smile at these photos, but they also make me sad. Cause this guy, who disliked himself so much back then, had another ten years to spend in the closet before he came out of the closet. He needed a lot of love back then.

I downloaded these photos, showed them to my boyfriend, and said “Look how masculine and heterosexual I was back in college! I could sword fight! I was surrounded by women! And I was so confident in my masculinity, I could wear pink and green!” He laughed then, and so did I.

 

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Fairy Tale Fears

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I grew up expecting a bit of fear in my stories. All stories would be boring without a sense of anticipation and adventure. And every ounce of that tension was completely worth it because I absolutely knew that there was a payoff in the end, a happy ending. The heroes would definitely triumph, the villains would definitely be defeated (and sometimes killed).

When the giant chased Jack down the beanstalk, Jack chopped it down and the giant perished. The Big Bad Wolf was burned in the chimney, Goldilocks was sent running, Cinderella got the prince, and Frodo threw the ring into the pit. I loved these adventure stories and from my youngest possible age, I began writing my own. I’d plan sequels to my favorite movies, and I knew immediately, as young as ages 2 and 3, that every good hero needed a great villain to face.

I saw these same elements in the scriptures we read together as a family every week. The stories were sometimes deadly, sometimes gruesome, but they always ended with the people of God winning, after periods when it seemed all was lost. Nephi cut off the head of Laban to get the brass plates, and he constantly overcame the terrible things his brothers did to him. Even though no one listened to Noah as he preached to the wicked people, he built the ark and saved the animals and God killed every other human outside Noah’s family with floods. Abraham almost killed Isaac with that knife, but God stopped him at the last possible second, just to teach him the lesson.

And so, as I grew, I saw the world in black and white, in terms of hero versus villain. There were no shades of grey present. I was the hero. My family were the heroes. Mormons and our leaders and those in our history were the heroes. And the villains were bullies and criminals and those who stood against the things of God. It was Jesus on one side, Satan on the other.

But those terms of hero and villain, they applied inwardly as well. When I was good, following the commandments and the things of God, I was the hero, following Jesus. And when I was bad, not listening to the carefully established rules or allowing myself to be tempted, I was bad, there was something wrong with me, and Satan and his followers had a bit of a hold on me. God expected nothing less than perfection, and I realized very early on that that was going to be a big, big problem moving forward.

Even in early childhood, I began to realize that I was not like the kids around me. And it made me… well, afraid. Afraid that I would never be good. And that would mean I would have to pretend to appear good always, even though on the inside I knew I wasn’t. The evidence was all around me. My dad was sad all the time, my mom was stressed all the time. My brother was a bully and sometimes he locked the door of my room and… did things to me. My back hurt every day. I didn’t like the things that other boys did, like sports, instead I liked writing stories, reading, and creating things. And while other boys had crushes on girls, I had crushes on boys, and that, I knew, was the worst thing of all.

So if I was born broken, what did that mean? Was I a villain? Was I a flawed hero? Was I inherently bad and trying to be good, or was I so good that God saw it to give me extra challenges so that I could prove to him how good I really was? Could it be possible that I was both, hero and villain, even though since I was born Mormon I was supposed to be just the hero?

It was only later that I realized, perhaps in my late teens, that early childhood was supposed to be consistently about play, and learning about the world with curiosity. I was supposed to learn independence, answer questions about what I wanted to be when I grow up, and to begin learning. Instead, all of those childhood things happened, but under the weight of learning how to hide, how to keep secrets, how to feel broken, and while consistently wondering if I was good, or if I was bad.

As I look back, I realize how much the suspense of stories I was reading, those with the heroes and villains I sometimes hated to love or loved to hate, they allowed me escape. They let me out of my life and into an interior world of fantasy, imagination, and wonder that let me be free, be someone else. The heroes weren’t so complicated, and the villains were easy to identify. In time, that would turn into a deep and abiding long-term love affair with comic books, one that would bring me well into adulthood. Childhood story books turned into Saturday morning cartoons, and those turned into action figures and kids adventure stories.  As a teenager, I developed a love for drama, stories more about human relationships, parenting, and working through trauma. We are always adapting what we love, what we pay attention to, but they all represent escape, full of complex emotions that are not our own.

And all of them full of fear and suspense. But nothing like the fear that I was turning inward on a more constant basis, the fear that I would never be whole, never be healed, never be like the other boys. And it would take me a long time to realize that those very traits, the things that made me me, made me different, those are the very traits that would make me a hero. First, I had a lot of years of feeling like I was the villain.

First, I had to get very good at feeling afraid.