What makes for a feminist marriage? It's not just about discussions around taking a different last name, or who's on garbage duty. Marriages are what you make them, and when you come back down the aisle with a ring on, you're often assailed with marital advice and expectations that have deeply sexist roots — even if nobody realizes it at the time. From beliefs about nagging and arguments to "rules" about sex and female friendships, many of the ways we conceive of marriage in the modern day carry deeply antiquated views of gender and female roles, and deserve to be more closely interrogated. There are tons of old fashioned marriage "rules" that, when you think about it, are hugely anti-feminist — but that, for some reason, we're still following today.
Many people eschew marriage because they believe it to be a patriarchal institution — I was in that boat for a long time — but ideas drawn from patriarchy and sexism can infiltrate any long-term partnership, whether it's in a homosexual or heterosexual relationship. (Gender roles are really pesky like that.) Frankly, getting past deeply ingrained ideas about what a "good" relationship looks like can be tough, particularly with the s-word, spouse, attached, but there's always scope to make a relationship more feminist and equal. And if you've been unintentionally clinging close to these ideas without realizing how they might be damaging, now's the time to sweep them out into the dust.
1. "Don't Nag"
You may have heard this one pretty recently — and it seems to have a solid basis. After all, nagging people to do things that they aren't doing is annoying (for you and the recipient of the nagging). But there's another side to this: the sexist division of emotional labor in relationships in which one partner is expected to keep track of things, from domestic tasks to dates on the calendar, and "remind" the other if they're not being done. Not to mention, of course, socially constructed gender roles make the man the forgetful one and the woman the one who has to gather everything in her mind and take charge of it. Witness: basically every sitcom ever made.
There's another sexist dimension to this, too: stereotyping opinionated women as "scolds" has been a thing since at least the Middle Ages. Women are basically punished if they don't carry the emotional labor of responsibility in a marriage, and punished if they do. In a partnership, both partners carry the responsibility for remembering tasks and commitments, both work to remind the other, and both do it respectfully.
2. "Don't Fight"
Yeah, no. 'We never fight' might seem like a badge of honor, but realistically two people living in close proximity for years at a time are going to piss each other off. And expecting things to be continually conflict-free isn't a realistic idea — particularly because it expects women to restrict their emotional reactions and needs in the pursuit of being "ladylike" or "a good wife." It's also not fair on male partners, who are often conditioned by gender roles into channelling difficult emotions into anger, or repressing them. Everybody loses out on this one.
3. "Stay Pretty"
While many of us would scoff at following 1950s marriage guides for wives, with their hints about keeping oneself "pretty" and "only wearing pink underwear with lace" (yes, that was a real piece of advice circulated at the time), women in particular still face expectations about retaining their attractiveness after they've put on a wedding ring. The implication? That a person who doesn't "keep herself cute" — or conform to societal expectations about her attractiveness — will be to blame for a partner's lack of interest. Women's sense of their own attractiveness for their partners can be empowering and delightful, but not if it comes from sexist fear that their looks are the only thing that matters.
4. "Share Everything"
Bank accounts, passwords, the names of all your past lovers: often advice on marriage and serious relationships dictates that there should be no secrets, ever, in any way, from a partner. And frankly, that doesn't leave much room for either person to have an inner life. And that's important, considering that women have historically been expected to give over their entire lives and thoughts to marriages and children. Not all thoughts and histories need to be on the table at all times; what you've experienced is yours, particularly in your life before you met them, and doesn't need to be offered up to your partner automatically.
This is obviously a judgement call — but does your current partner really need to know about your past lover's habit of buying you expensive leather jackets from France, or every detail of your (boring) struggle to write that play? Whether for their comfort or to preserve your sense of self, a small bit of discretion is fine.
5. "Don't Let Your Partner Have Female Friends"
This one is surprisingly common, even today, and I find it startlingly hilarious. And while it's often applied both ways — neither partner is "meant" to have friends that could possibly compete with, or hope to replace, their spouse — it's often particularly applied to female friends. (I've heard this one applied to lesbian marriages as well, so heterosexuality isn't to blame here.) The implication is that women can't be trusted to respect relationship boundaries, that we're fundamentally morally problematic, and that partners need to have all friendships with women curtailed because they can't be held responsible for their own actions. It's anti-feminist basically every way you cut it, which is impressive, if you think about it.
6. "Your Partner Is Always Your First Priority"
Nope. Sometimes it's yourself. This is a very hard balance to strike, even in long-term partnerships — but the reality is that life is hard, people are going to struggle, and those in marriages and relationships have to figure out an equitable division of emotional weight-lifting when both of you happen to be having a bit of a sh*t time. Women in particular often feel the pressure to flatten themselves to help their partners, because of centuries of emotional conditioning to be 'nurturing' and 'helpful' — but that can be exhausting and, without sufficient self-care, end up making things worse. Do not believe that there's a choice between caring for your partner or yourself, and that the former is the only acceptable option. There are balances, and good relationships involve talking about that.
All marriages are a matter of negotiation and discovery. That's part of the package. But there's no reason for old-fashioned rules to interfere with a feminist partnership — and no, the way to a man's heart is not actually through his stomach.