It’s amusing how often the loudest opponents of marriage, those criticizing lifelong matrimony as an unnatural religious imposition, point to the sex lives of prairie voles and your dog as rationale for why. They are also some of the same people who consider owning a dog the apex of adult responsibility. Their Facebook and Instragram pages are excruciatingly detailed chronicles of their perceived maturity.
I knew a woman who, by her own words, ‘would be dead before she would be married’. She had no tolerance for the formalities and legal limitations traditional marriage demanded. Furthermore she held no confidence that men and women, but particularly men, had the moral constitution to remain faithful for life. Marriage, she believed, inflicted too heavy a physical, emotional, and mental burden. So why put herself in such a position? Yet for all her reasons, these were secondary considerations to the distraction she believed marriage would cause between her and her ‘baby’.
As with anyone nearing forty and never married, she was a control freak at a nosebleed altitude. The slightest inconvenience or routine life imbalance sent her into a hysterical tailspin. She ordered her life, as she did her one bedroom apartment, with oppressive precision. This made it the more astonishing that she would choose to suffer the slings and arrows of dog ownership.
Her ‘baby’ was a miniature schnauzer. Epically cute and true to its name, but not withstanding its charm and size, it proved exasperating. This puppy, like every puppy since the Ark, found an inexplicable joy in capriciously pooping and peeing indoors anywhere and everywhere. This quickly proved more than she could endure. To solve the problem she invested in puppy pampers – the look a feel of diapers, but for your dog. This, she believed, was the only solution allowing her to keep the animal, her carpets, and her sanity.
When I last saw the poor creature, it was pouncing around her apartment looking like a cruel joke played by evil children. A black rat swaddled in Huggies. I didn’t know which to feel sorrier for, the dog or her. What baffled me most was the measure she took to keep a pet she had no temperament for. Why all the effort? Why the insistence? I kept wondering if she was trying to prove something by all this. But as I considered her unwavering opinion of marriage, I assumed that was the case.
I believe the human infatuation with our pets, and by pets I particularly mean dogs, lies is this fact. They show us love without any real sacrifice on our part. They love us the way we want, on our terms, in our way. Our dogs know what make us happy and they do so at our command, unlike the unpredictable feline or moody human. Dogs respond quickly to our stress, magically know when we need more affection, are always happy, and easily managed without intense emotional strain. What we sacrifice in return for that love is, however, superficial and trivial. And most importantly perhaps, loving a dog doesn’t demand we place our hearts on the line, like loving a person does. Yet, this ‘giving of ourselves’ provides a similar conviction of sacrifice and responsibility, in some of the same ways as marriage or children. This is why most refer to their pets, specially dogs, as ‘kids’. In other words, owning a dog makes us feel grown up.
And this is what I believe she was trying to prove. She had reached a crisis point. The dog became her fallback to the realization that in the midpoint of her life she still didn’t feel like a grown up. She was immature and self-absorbed and the ‘baby’ provided a sense of responsibility and sacrifice that she was so unwilling to accept or endure in marriage. That little dog became a peeing and pooping symbol of her maturity; the brilliant triumph that she could sacrifice for someone, or in this case something, other than herself. And her failure to successfully do so would be a bright light on the dark reality that she would never and could never grow up. Understanding this I came to see why she took such extremes to keep the poor thing.
But any sense of sacrifice or responsibility we get in owning a dog can never replace that of being another’s spouse. Marriage demands maturity that simply can’t be duplicated by taking a dog out for a walk, even in bad weather. Marriage comes with demands that are deep and wide and means regularly putting other’s needs ahead our own. It will regularly ask us to abandon our own wants for those of another with nothing in return. Marriage demands a level of sacrifice and maturity that owning a kennel of dogs would never come close to.
So when someone says they’re not ‘ready for marriage’ or ‘ever getting married’, what they actually mean is they aren’t mature enough for marriage. They aren’t grown up, yet. They may endure pee stained carpets and early morning walks in the snow, but they aren’t adult enough to accept the meaningful and necessary sacrifices inherent to successful matrimony.
While it sounds cliché to say that marriage demands sacrifice, we never fully appreciate that truism until we are the ones asked to sacrifice something. Only when we must surrender our wants and desires – our independence – for another is the weight of marriage fully realized.
And therein lies a critical component of marriage that has been nearly forgotten in our Me, Me, Me culture. We can’t keep our independence and have a happy marriage at the same time. The two are completely incompatible.
I can’t maintain the financial independence of a single man, answerable to no one about my money, and expect to have a happy lasting marriage with the Queen. I can’t come and go as I please and not foresee relationship blowback. Such autonomy in a marriage is disastrous. Because the reality is, to remain independent necessitates a certain level of secrecy, and secrets destroy marriages. But transparency gives way to honesty. Honesty allows for accountability. If I am honest with you I am accountable to you. And one ingredient in every successful marriage is a spouse wholly accountable to the other spouse.
Is it any wonder then that her desire to keep that dog, going to such extremes, was viewed as the preferable alternative to even considering something greater? In the vacuum of her abstaining from marriage at all costs, she inserted a scaled down version, literally and figuratively, of the same thing. Only now she can remain wholly independent and unaccountable to her ‘baby’. I don’t have to explain my spending habits or tell my Dalmatian where I’ve been. Yet that dog demanded just enough from her to make her feel like she was sacrificing for something. Or put another way, that dog made her feel in some way grown up.
Marriage isn’t for the self-absorbed and immature. Marriage isn’t for someone who will not to see beyond their own wants and desires. Marriage isn’t for those who need independence above all things. For those people, there are dogs. Marriage is for those who understand the importance of sacrifice; who appreciate the need for honesty and accountability; who accept that life is best lived when done for something greater than themselves. In other words, marriage is for real grown ups.