Queen of the Nile

Goddess by Madelaine Buttini (@madbutt)

There’s a peculiar thing about weddings. For most of this one, I fought not to fidget. A part of me wants to balk at the simultaneous sobs and smiles that break out. The sobriety and sunshine compelled me to claw at my cuticles. I didn’t know the groom very well, but I knew the bride from high school. I wondered how she was and how much I’d missed. Most of my friends had fallen by the wayside and few had landed on their feet. We all came from a small town that bred small minds and even smaller opportunities. Perhaps that was what had driven most of us to try to find Prince Charming: we supplanted the small with cumbersome carnality. Followed by the traditional wedding. The grand floral settings, profligate pleasantries, and hierarchical seating that accords the bride a status we are told we can never hope to achieve elsewhere. But, what exactly are we thinking about when it comes to marriage? Moreover, why do we think it?


The institution of marriage is undermined by substantial divorce rates. Personally, I know a lot of people who have gone from starstruck to star-crossed when it comes to romance. It’s a shift I’m sure many of the wedding guests around me have suffered; the rings noticeably absent, not unlike their partners.


When the bride begins to stretch out her vows, my mind wanders to when I’d just started college. I remember declaring a major in sociology and feeling compelled to research interpersonal relationships. The key I found in my (and others’) research was that our connections to others divert from our individual interests. That is, contrary to base instincts to simply survive, interpersonal relationships prioritize the interests of someone else. Some social scientists and humanities scholars believe this shows that we are innately dependent upon intimacy, both romance and a sense of community. We retain our humanity through connecting with others. One way is marriage.


Historically, the institution of marriage was, as Esther Perel says, “a pragmatic alliance that ensured economic stability and social cohesion.” These days, it seems to be more centered on the concept of love than on expenditure and enterprise, but the underlying ideas are still the same: the performance of marriage is equally important as the institution. We have engagement parties, weddings, anniversaries, and Hallmark Holidays that bank on the desire to overtly express devotion. The act of love is anything but private. Yet, the premise of love is to declare you’re exclusive. In numerous developmental studies, including a 2017 study by Luciano and Orth in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, romantic relationships are cited as a rite of passage that catalyzes personal and interpersonal development. Love is profound and progressive. Sometimes, it’s a two-way street. We talk about soulmates as if there is just one person who will transform our lives and be the source of happiness. Sometimes, it’s more than that.


The bride begins to cry as she finishes her vows and I think about Nate’s cursive tattoo. I must have traced it a hundred times, just like the cleft in Cain’s chin. I think of how long I’ve known them, and yet how their distinctions from one another continue to amaze me.


Traditional conceptions of love encourage you to lay claim to someone, a singular object of your affection. I saw this in my own family, where people found their other halves only to become star-crossed. There were intimacies, but there were more infidelities and “irreconcilable differences.” Marriage meant sanctity and sacrifice, yet it eroded relationships and banished freedom.


I miss my family now. I think of how they had no idea I would end up adrift in academia where every study and subject reaffirmed my reluctance to commit, and yet every professor pontificated the perils of solitude and singularity.


And yet, rejection of the institutions that were once said to be the cornerstone of society is becoming increasingly visible, if not often seen as acceptable. Polygamy—the marriage of one person to multiple spouses—is used almost exclusively to refer to polygyny, the marriage of one husband to multiple wives. Polyandry, the marriage of one wife to multiple husbands, and group marriage, multiple spouses of multiple genders, are still so taboo as to be left out of the conversations altogether. While stories of polygyny become hit shows on TLC, polyandry and group marriage are met with silence.


When the groom whispers something meant only for his bride’s ears, Nate squeezes my right hand and Cain catches my left. They are far from strangers to the reservations and revelations that war within me. We’ve shared most. We’ve made peace with few. We can never make up our minds. Indecision makes it hard for us to adapt to prescribed social roles. We don’t fit the traditional mold, but we don’t fit the non-traditional mold either.


The bride and groom kiss, confirming their commitment to only each other, emulating ideals that so often end up empty and unfulfilled. Why do we want those fairy tale weddings when we seldom enjoy storybook endings?

I see myself with Nate and Cain, and I see that I don’t have to choose just one.



Did You Know?

  • 16.9 divorces per 1,000 married women age 15+ in 2016 (source)

  • 4–5 percent of Americans participate in some form of ethical non-monogamy. (source)

  • Compersion (verb): flip side of jealousy, the glee of seeing one’s lover falling in love with someone else. (source)


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Thanks to Madelaine Buttini for article graphic.