“I promise that I love you in this precise moment and I will reevaluate that love constantly based on your behaviour towards me.” (Images by Tina Tiller)
“I promise that I love you in this precise moment and I will reevaluate that love constantly based on your behaviour towards me.” (Images by Tina Tiller)

SocietyApril 26, 2024

Dreaming of my not-wedding day

“I promise that I love you in this precise moment and I will reevaluate that love constantly based on your behaviour towards me.” (Images by Tina Tiller)
“I promise that I love you in this precise moment and I will reevaluate that love constantly based on your behaviour towards me.” (Images by Tina Tiller)

What does a forever relationship look like when you don’t believe in marriage? And how do you celebrate it?

This essay is part of our Sunday Essay series, made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

I’m going to do it, right now. I’m going to say it. 

look down at the plate on my lap: two sausages left with just the right amount of ketchup, lettuce strips floating on a stream, cells of oil in vinegar. Thom is sitting on the other side of the room, leaning against the wall, nodding his head to a song as he pierces a roast potato and puts the whole thing in his mouth. 

Eight housemates sit between us. Six of our best friends, two of their children. Our chosen whānau. We all sit on the floor. When we first moved in, we constructed a huge dining table, big enough for all of us. But its sharp corners had been too risky for the kids, so we got rid of it and haven’t looked back. Sitting on unmatching cushions, a picnic rug with scattered condiments between us, we eat here together most evenings.  

And this is the time I have chosen. In front of them, right now, I am going to ask Thom to marry me. And he is going to say yes. And it will be the story we tell when people ask. I’ll say I looked across the room, the room of all our friends, and there he was. 

I open my mouth, nerves fizzing. Hey Thom, I’m going to say, any second now. I’ll say Hey Thom, and he’ll look over at me. And I’ll pause until everyone looks at me, and then I’ll say it.

The words don’t come. What if he says no? What if he crushes me, in front of everyone? Our whānau who loves us, believes in us, in our ability to thrive as a couple. Will it make them think we don’t have what it takes to be together? That we’re not a good enough match, the woman who asked for more and the man who said no, for all of them to see? I eat my dinner and keep an eye on him, the swell of courage rising in me sporadically. But still, I don’t ask.

After dinner the two of us stand on our deck overlooking the ocean. From behind, he wraps his body around mine, and for a quiet moment we watch the sunset break the sky into miracles. And then I say it. Not exactly it, because, I realise, it’s not exactly marriage I’m proposing. But I ask him: now that we’ve been together almost five years, if he wants something more, the next step, an honouring, a ceremony, not a traditional white dress patriarchal wedding, of course, but something. He turns me around to face him and I lean into his chest so that he won’t see my face if he rejects me. 

He says yes.


To me. 

To us.

And I can’t stop the flood. All at once, I can feel a gaping, aching wound that I’ve never felt before, and in the same instant, I can feel it being filled, a sense of coming home, a rush of warmth that makes me feel like I might faint. Weeping and laughing uncontrollably,  I squeeze him tightly, trying to catch my breath, and he hugs me back, but his grip is loose. I pull back to see his face, an expression of mild trepidation.

Shall we tell everyone? I ask, pretending I haven’t noticed. 

Tell them what? he replies, and my heart starts to sink.

One housemate comes outside and sees me, still involuntarily giggling as tears stream down my face, and asks what’s happening. 

Me and Thom are getting married! I blurt out before I can stop myself. My housemate screams with delight, runs a lap of the deck and flashes their breasts at the ocean. The housemates inside hear this and look out, asking what’s going on. I look at Thom, hoping we’ll say it together this time, but he’s not with me, he’s nowhere near me. I sink deeper as everything starts to feel cold. I dip my head, walk back inside towards the kitchen, trying to avoid everyone. But they’re all watching me, waiting. The one who flashed their breasts is looking confused and a little betrayed.

Oh, it’s nothing, I start. Just, Thom and I were talking about, well, not a wedding, but a something, we want a something in the future. 

Oh… that’s cool, one says politely.

Being in this century sucks! I say too loudly, faking a laugh and trying to make light of the fact that we have no way to honour our love other than a religious ceremony based on my becoming Thom’s property. My housemates carry on with what they were doing; playing with the kids, picking up the plates from dinner. I look at Thom for one last shred of warmth, he rolls his eyes at me.

I smile a big smile at no one in particular, turn to the sink and do a few dishes to prove I’m fine about what’s just happened. When the conversation has officially moved on, I slip downstairs, grab my shoes and run out the door. I walk towards the sunset, holding in my tears. If this was a few years ago, I realise, I would stay out until he phoned to check I was OK, even if it meant staying out all night. But I’m mature now, in a mature relationship, so I decide that I’ll stay out until the sun is fully set. Just a little bit of time for him to worry about me being out in the dark, I think to myself, maturely.

I thud the pavement, trying to not get distracted by the sky which is getting more beautiful every minute, its deep orange rays singing against the water. The beach is full of families – swimming, eating chips, catching the last of the light.

I stomp along, kicking sand with each step, feeling something solidifying in my gut. The creatures inside me are scrambling to pull the cover back over the gaping wound that opened on the deck. I feel the weight of it, and find safety in a plan to never let it open again.

I decide that I will leave, I will leave our home, I will leave Thom. I decide I need to be with someone who, when I suggest spending my entire life with him, doesn’t roll his eyes at me. It doesn’t matter that I love him, that I still get excited when I hear his footsteps coming home from work. It doesn’t matter that I feel happier and safer with him than I’ve ever felt with someone before. It’s not enough. I want something real, I want something that is forever. 

Growing up, I didn’t imagine I’d get married. My parents weren’t married and they’ve been separated my whole life. But I’m acutely aware that I can’t watch a wedding on TV or in a film without sobbing. Crying, maybe, for what happens when someone loves you so much they want to keep you for their whole life.

I find a secluded spot, thud myself down against some driftwood and start to cry. I allow the tantrum in me to rise. I snap sticks and throw rocks that slap into the wet sand in front of me. The cover over the wound solidifies further as I remember: I am alone in this life. I always have been, always will be. It’s time to admit it, to stop pretending. I have saved up enough money to buy a piece of land, to build a hut in the woods somewhere. I can become the hermit I have always promised myself I could be, and finally live a life small enough to keep me safe. 

But as the tantrum dissipates, a quiet truth starts to creep in; whispering, poisoning my absolutist and stoic state. I can’t deny it once it’s there: the quiet knowledge that, if Thom had proposed a traditional wedding and marriage, that even though I would have wept and leapt and said an absolute yes, a thousand times yes, I wouldn’t have meant it. That, much as the lonely wound in me wants and needs someone who will love me for my whole life, I know for sure that marriage isn’t the thing that’s going to guarantee that for me. 

My ringtone chimes, making me jump. It’s him, the little icon of his face smiling out at me.

Can you come home? Can we talk about it?

What’s happening? he asks when I get back to our room. 

I’m just embarrassed, I mumble, kicking off my shoes, trying to avoid his eye. He smiles, walks to me, pulls me close. I want him to be shocked by how cold I am, to feel guilty. But he holds my hands and doesn’t mention it. We make tea, we sit down.

It’s not that I don’t want to be with you, there’s just nothing about marriage that I believe in. 

I was a 90s child, raised on and by 90s sitcoms. So of course I assume he’s making excuses to get out of committing to me. I gear up, prepare myself to tell him about the hut in the woods. That I’m leaving not only him but society, and the concept of being loved in general. But then he keeps speaking. 

I just really don’t like how weddings come with this idea of like, “from this day forth, we are now properly together, now we really love each other.” I wouldn’t love you any more after our wedding day than I do now, and I shouldn’t. Some part of it doesn’t feel honest or real. People stand together and promise to love each other and always be together, but if over half of marriages end in divorce, then it means, if we did that, it’s more likely we’d be lying to each other than telling the truth. 

I nod slowly, grip at the cup in my hands, letting it burn my skin. 

I do want something with you. A way to celebrate and honour us. But I would rather celebrate our five years and what we’ve built together than promise each other a future we can’t see. 

My heart is trying to stay broken, my bottom lip trying to keep itself pouted. But I know he’s right. A wedding captures a moment in time, it does not accurately signal what’s to come. I don’t believe in it either: to make a promise now about how we’ll feel about each other forever. Because I’ve said those words before. Not at a wedding, but I’ve told ex-partners I will always love them, that I will fight for them, stay with them through everything. And at the time, I meant it, every time. And now I can barely remember their surnames; I have to squint to picture what their faces looked like. 

I wonder, I say, If somewhere in the world, there are extremely rationalist weddings happening. With partners wearing practical clothing and vowing: “I promise that I love you in this precise moment and I will reevaluate that love constantly based on your behaviour towards me.”

Thom smiles. Yeah, and then the non-denominational official says, “And you, do you promise that you intend to be in an intimate relationship with this person for as long as you feel it is serving you?”

– I do. 

– And then they kiss. 

– But only if they want to.

We laugh, breaking the tension. And with a fleeting, freeing feeling, I begin to imagine it. If we could get everyone who loves us and knows us best in one place for a whole day, could we really do anything we want?

Big discussions require big paper, so I pull out my A3 pad and pack of Sharpies and we start writing down some ideas. If a wedding is supposed to be a day which solidifies our relationship, we realise we don’t want to look back on a day where the main sentiment from our friends and families was “best wishes”, as though they were waving goodbye to us from the land as we huddled together on a sheet of ice, slowly drifting from their shore. 

What if we gather those who love us and ask them to tell us the strengths they see in us, so that when things are hard, we can remember their words? We can say, We don’t know how to get through this, but remember that day, remember when our community told us we could? Maybe we could look back on the day and remember all of the reasons we’re together, all the specific ways we make each other strong. 

What if we ask them to share the moments their relationships almost didn’t make it through, but then did, and how they did that, what they learned from it? What if they tell us about the moments of heartbreak in their lives, and how we might avoid doing those things to each other?

What if we asked them what they fear for us? Imagine knowing what all your friends think will be the likely downfall of your relationship, long before any of it has the chance to unfold. 

In this moment I remember a story I once read about an African tribe in which, when a couple is fighting, they begin to physically take apart their home. They will pull the fronds off their roof and dismantle what they can, so that everyone else in the village sees that they are struggling and goes over to offer help. What if our not-wedding day is a day to show our community exactly what our home looks like, so they will know when it’s in disrepair? 

What if, rather than our issues being a secret held between us – the two people most invested, most emotionally heightened and least likely to be able to solve them in any given moment – what if the holding was spread across each of the hands that reached out to us? What if those hands could interlock, becoming a safety net which could catch us and offer us a place to rest, to love us in moments we’re unable to love each other? Surely if we’re looking for a way to secure our relationship’s future, that would be the way.

And what if, we add with a giggle, there was a sexual component? The highest honour the couple’s sex life usually gets at a wedding is a drunken joke in the best man’s speech. What if we, and each of our consenting guests, head off to our separate rooms for sex, and return later to debrief all together? To speak openly about connection, attraction, discomfort? Could we just be honest about all of it – about how hard it might be to feel continuously erotic within the coming years of dish washing and clothes folding and calendar wrangling and dinners with the in-laws? Could we lay everything out on the table, and ask the people who love us for their help and their ideas?

And why not? What makes any of this any more strange than traditional weddings, with their roots grown in toxic soils? 

As we’re talking and planning this imaginary day, I’m becoming more and more relaxed. I realise that every word out of Thom’s mouth is a step towards me. He is not trying to leave me, he is not trying to bypass committing to me in case he needs an easy way out. He is busting a gut to find something that will actually be meaningful for us, that will sustain us over time. He’s reaching his hand out and trying to find mine, across centuries of rituals being colonised, diluted, destroyed.

I don’t need to marry him, I realise, I just need to know that he’s here. My moment of exhilaration on the deck, when I dipped my toe gently into the waters of the rest of his life, wasn’t because I want a husband. It’s because I want a forever love. I want someone to promise me I won’t be alone.

So I consider for the first time what forever could actually mean. If we accept that who we are now is not who we will be forever, that the relationship between us might change over time, could we love each other, even then? 

What if, instead of using a wedding day to solidify the never-changing shape of us, we instead create a base for our relationship where we can admit to each other our flawed humanity, our uncertainty, our ever-changing selves? What if we could admit when we’re finding it difficult to care about each other, if we could talk about it when one of us finds someone else attractive? Could we make it there? After lifetimes of adjusting ourselves for the convenience and protection of others, could we reveal ourselves to each other completely? Imagine not having to deny any parts of yourself to be invited to the party. The party which is happening every day in your house, your kitchen, your lounge, your bedroom. Imagine being welcome in your own home. 

Keep going!