Friday, May 20, 2016

Partners First, Parents Second

One of the most difficult and confounding things that I have heard said about parenting is that "the kids always come first."  It's more of a theoretical idea than a practical guideline, and it doesn't actually carry much meaning when announced without context.  It also doesn't ring true to me at all.
I don't know much about building houses, but I do know this: It is important to start with a good foundation.  The foundation is what the house is built on, and the rest of the house can't be structurally sound without a solid foundation.  No matter how nice the rest of the house is, if the foundation breaks, eventually, the rest of the house will crumble.
In a family household, the partners or spouses are the foundation. They are what the family is built on.  Without a rock-solid foundation, the family will function poorly.  To build and maintain that solid foundation, it is imperative that the partners invest in their relationship: giving it priority, putting it first, not taking it for granted. 

This concept is important in ALL families, but I think it is especially important in step-families, for three main reasons:
1. The partners in a step-family don't have the benefit of years of relationship development before children.  In a step-family, the children chronologically DID come before the relationship, so there was no honeymoon period exclusively focused on relationship-building.  In the first few years of step-family formation, the foundation is being built simultaneously with child-raising.  
2. The divorce rate in step-family couples is over 70% in the first five years- substantially higher than the divorce rate for couples without kids or for couples with biological children only. Being in a step-family creates an enormous strain on a relationship.  If partners don't put each other first, focusing consistently and intentionally one each other and on the relationship, the chance of the marriage or partnership surviving is bleak.

3. Typically, one or both partners in a step-family have experienced the devolving of their first primary relationship.  Often that happens, at least in part, because of a failure to keep the foundational relationship strong. In second families, couples know firsthand what happens in a relationship in which the foundation isn't prioritized - it falls apart.  We have a second chance to form lasting love and commitment, so it's extra important for us to value and take advantage of that opportunity.  We also owe it to our children and/or step-childen, whose first model of marriage or partnership is one of brokenness and loss.

Early on in our relationship, Pete and I made a conscious commitment to put each other, and our relationship, first. So, how do we honor that commitment, practically?  It  doesn't mean we ignore the child in our family.  Pete and I engage Lucas every day that we are parenting him.  We work on homework with him. We take turns picking him up from the bus stop and reading to him before bed every night.  We sit down for dinner together every night - sometimes either Pete or I aren't home, but he has at least one parent eating with him every night.  We talk to him about his day and ask him questions about school. After dinner we play a game, go for a walk, or do something else together as a family.  Pete and I both go to parent/teacher conferences, I've volunteered in his classroom, and we communicate regularly with his teachers.  We are highly active parents with a happy, healthy, little boy who has secure attachments and increasing independence.

For Pete and me, putting each other first means being highly intentional about making time for one another.  We enforce an 8:00 pm bedtime, and at least a few nights a week, we use the remaining hours of the day as time for us to spend together.  Our parenting schedule allows us kid-free time on Thursday nights and every other weekend, and we use that time to the fullest - spending it with mutual friends, going on date nights, being out of the house as much as possible. We also utilize babysitters once a month or so - the financial impact of this is well worth the positive impact on our relationship.  Finally, we have pledged to travel together 4 times a year. These could be big trips, like our winter vacation to Puerto Rico, or small trips, like our fall road trip to the North Shore.  It's really important to us to disengage from normal life occasionally, and focus on having awesome experiences together - things we can look back on fondly and remember that we've had amazing, life-enriching, adventures.  In short, we prioritize having regular, consistent, and intentional time together as a couple.

Putting each other first also means setting boundaries with Lucas.  We have a small house, so it would be easy to allow shared space to get dominated by kids' stuff.  But, in order to preserve an adult focus in our home, the vast majority of Lucas's belongings are kept in his bedroom.  Additionally, our own bedroom is off-limits to him, except in specific instances in which he asks permission to enter.  The idea of keeping one room in the home as a kid-free "sacred space" is recommended by step-family experts, and it's been hugely sanity-preserving for us.   We also don't let Lucas interrupt us when we are talking to each other, and we make a point to hug and kiss each other first when one of us gets home.   These might seem like little things, but they are little things that add up to send a clear message to each other, and to Lucas, that we value and cherish each other.  In doing this, we're not only achieving a five-star relationship that will last, but we're modeling to Lucas what a strong relationship should look like.

I'm proud of the parenting that Pete and I are doing, and I'm proud of our decision to put each other first.  We have experienced a lot of trial and error during this first year as a family, and this is the model that we have found works best for us. Because of our choices, our relationship is strong, and I feel confident that down the road, we will continue to be in the 30% of successful step-family partners.

Cheers to family:  However you define it, establish it, and sustain it.  We're all different, we're all winging it, and we're all doing our best.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Who Am I? A Crisis of Identity in a Blended Family

"I don't know who I am anymore."

This is an all-too-common sentiment expressed by stepmoms, one that I have read about repeatedly in my seemingly endless quest to identify and understand my new-normal.  It's also at the very top of my list of personal issues in this phase of my life.

There is so much role ambiguity involved in stepfamily life  Articles and books on the topic, authored by stepfamily experts, offer conflicting ideas about best stepmom practices. Treat the kids as if they are your own, but don't try to be a parent.  Make it known that you're an authority in the house, but leave the disciplining to the bio parent.  You're choosing both your partner and his kids, but don't feel guilty if you don't love the kids.  The kids should always come first, but it is of utmost importance to prioritize your relationship with your partner.  It you don't speak up, you'll become resentful, but don't vent to your partner about his kids.  Be a source of support for your partner, but don't take on too many household responsibilities.  All of these well-intentioned, but contradictory, tidbits of advice make me want to scream: "Who am I? What am I doing?"

In our case, all of these ambiguities are compounded by the fact that, despite Pete only having 50% custody, Lucas's biological mother ("affectionately" abbreviated BM in the stepmom community) is basically out of the picture, and has been since before we moved in together.  Because of this, I've taken on a different role than I otherwise would.  I'm simultaneously learning how to be both a mom as well as a stepmom - all rolled into one.

And yet, legally, biologically, custodially... I'm not his mom.  I didn't conceive him, birth him, name him.  Although I routinely give up other priorities to parent him, although I outfitted him in a Halloween costume, planned his birthday party, and created a behavior/rewards system for him, although I pick him up from the bus stop and help him with homework and read to him and give him baths and fold his laundry and tuck him into bed... I have no legal custody.  Pete and I are not equals in parenting.  Although we work together to make parenting decisions, in the end they are HIS decisions, not mine.  I can't even sign a school field trip permission slip.  Worse yet, legally, another woman - a conspicuously absent, completely non-mom mom -  has 50% of that decision-making power. And, if (God forbid) something happened to Pete, I would have zero parenting rights, zero custody rights, zero visitation rights. The brutal, heart-wrenching truth is: I'm raising a child who isn't mine. 

Another factor is my actual relationship with Lucas.  We have come a long way in the nine months (less than one year!) since we first met.  In the early phase, when he saw me, he would play the "shy game" of hiding under pillows or behind Pete's leg and refusing to talk to me (spoiler alert: it was about the least fun game ever, and no one was the winner).  When we first moved in together, he tried to exclude me from family activities, and put up a fuss when I put him to bed instead of Pete.  Due to a combination of concerted effort and the passage of time, these things have changed.  He references the three of us "a family", and he occasionally reciprocates my expressions of love.  He knows that there are different types of parents, and that Pete and I are teammates in parenting him.  And yet, just last night when we were talking about this, he said, "but she [his bio mom] is my real mom."  And how can I dispute that?  Even though Lucas and I have made huge strides in our relationship, we seem to be asking each other the same questions: "Who are you and what is your role in my life?"  I'm doing all of the mom work, and getting none of the mom credit.   

When I step back and think of all of these pieces holistically, it's not hard to understand why I'm finding myself in the middle of an identity crisis, and why my self-confidence is on shaky ground.  I don't want to lose myself in this sea of parenting ambiguity.  I don't want to lose the version of myself that I was before Pete and Lucas were my family, yet I want to be as involved as I can in life with them. This is the MOST complicated and most difficult path I have ever trotted.  My role is not one that is not well understood by most people  - and certainly not one that is well empathized.  Although I know that there are thousands of other stepmoms who have been through the same thing, I still often feel very isolated.  Although I'm trying my absolute best 100% of the time, I don't know if I'm doing a good job. I don't even know what doing a good job should look like. 

And yet - I'm still doing it.  Maybe part of how I define myself in this ambiguous life is that I am a person of perseverance and integrity, with a strong desire to create and sustain family - however I define it.  Although I don't always know who I am, or what my role in my family is, I have never let go of these fundamental qualities.  I'm going to keep going, and keep working, and keep creating.  I'm not going to do it perfectly, but I'm going to do it.  Maybe THAT is what defines who I am. Maybe that's all any of us can expect from ourselves. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Stepparenting: The Good, The Bad, and The Challenging

I've been a stepmom for a few months now; just enough time to THINK I know everything about the job while realistically still having a lot to learn. But I do know this: Entering into and becoming this kind of family comes with a unique set of good, bad, and challenging elements.  Most of them are impossible to predict before the fact, and my previous attempts to prepare myself for this new life now feel laughable - just like new parents who are adjusting to life with an infant, entering into life as a stepparent simply isn't something that one can prepare for.  There aren't enough books, articles, and other resources in the world (and by this point, I think I have read everything written on this topic) to adequately understand how life changes when a person enters into stepmotherhood.
I've had a really tough time articulating my experience over the last few months.  Friends have asked me how things are going, and the best answer I can give is "it's the hardest thing I've ever done."  And although that's true, it's not a real answer.  So here it is - my three-months-in, as balanced as possible, explanation of my experience of being a stepmom: The Good, The Bad, and The Challenging. 

The Good
1.  I think that becoming a stepmom is the greatest gift that a woman can give to her partner.  It is extremely gratifying to know that I'm helping Pete in a profound way that no one else can.  During the early stages of our relationship, I witnessed first-hand how difficult - often devastating - single parenting was on Pete.  Now that we are co-parenting, his load is lightened.  This not only means that simple time-management things are easier (e.g. one of us can fold laundry while the other puts Lucas to bed), but also that Pete has the opportunity for a more balanced life.  Unlike before, he now has adult company every night, and when he needs a break, he can take a night off to do something that fills him up, while I take over the parenting.  We all know that we're better to others when we care for ourselves first, and in his single parent days, Pete didn't have much opportunity for that.  Being Pete's partner and co-parent gives me the opportunity not only to care for him, but also to empower him to take the time to care for himself. 
2.  Stepmothering has given me the valuable opportunity to be a positive influence in Lucas's life long-term. The more caring, nurturing adults children have in their support system, the better their prospects are for success.  Pete brings a set of parenting strengths to our family, and I bring a separate set - which means Lucas gets twice as much support, structure, and love at home as he would without me. 

3. I'm learning a new skill-set.  There are a variety of ways people live out their role as stepparents, and  I’ve chosen the highly active route - I help with homework, I enforce rules and discipline, I participate in bedtime routines, I plan birthday parties and gift ideas, I initiate craft projects, I help with school drop-offs and pick-ups.  Although I never thought I would be good at this before, I've been working hard at honing these skills, and it turns out...  I'm actually not too bad.   

The Bad
1.  Sometimes I feel left out of my own family.  I really can't explain the sting that comes from Lucas pushing right past me to get to Pete, completely ignoring me.  Or the sting of him refusing to hug me at bedtime after I've spent my whole evening entertaining him and taking care of him.  Or the sting of not being acknowledged as a parent by other family members.  Stepmoms statistically have the worst mental health of anyone in a family, and I think a big reason for that is because we consistently receive these blows to our self-worth. Some days I feel nervous to come home because I know that I'm risking facing these blows yet again.
2.  The cliche that step-parenting is "all of the responsibility with none of the credit" could not be more true. So much of my time, energy, and resources are spent on parenting.  But yet, this work so often goes unseen and unacknowledged, both by Lucas and by others.  Bio parents often experience a similar feeling, but I think it is compounded for stepparents because our efforts are focused on a child for whom we have no legal rights, biological ties, or shared history.  We also tend to do more of the "behind the scenes" work, while our partners do the work on the "front lines".  Although Pete has been wonderful about giving me credit and building my confidence, it's still an uphill battle.
3. Although we know it's important, it's difficult for Pete and me to prioritize our relationship as #1.  Every resource I have found says that it is vital that partners in stepfamilies put their relationship first, prioritize one another, and create a strong foundation.  Without this, the family will fall apart.  This is especially important in a blended family, since the daily stresses are so much greater, divorce rates are so much higher, and the children's first model of an adult romantic relationship is one of brokenness.  That Pete and I should put each other first is a wonderful idea in theory.  But the demands of parenting and other forms of adulting stretches us so thin that sometimes it feels like we don't end up prioritizing each other to the extent that we both deserve. 

The Challenging
1. I have to be very intentional about keeping my priorities and schedule balanced.  Becoming a stepmom has been a massive life change, but it doesn't mean that my other identities and values are less important now.  As mentioned above, I work hard to keep my identity as Pete's partner at the top of my priority list, just as he does for me.  I also am trying my very best to keep up with my social calendar and my groups of friends who mean so much to me and really give me life.  I’m also trying to make time for the things that benefit my mental and physical heath. Finally, I’m still working toward finding personal meaning, interests, and direction.  Keeping all of these things balanced is challenging for many people, but managing everything in addition to being a new stepparent is extra tough.
2.  Stepmoms are constantly combating systemic cultural undervaluing.  Society does not look favorably on stepmoms as a whole, and this can have a negative impact on how we view ourselves and treat ourselves.  Some stepmoms think of themselves as "less than" bio parents, and some don't even refer to themselves as stepparents unless they are married to their partner.  I have to be very careful to avoid these self-depreciating tendencies.  Most of the time, I think I'm doing okay with this. I know that my role matters.  I'm not JUST the stepmom, I AM the stepmom.  It's something that I can be, and should be, super proud of. 

3. I'm still figuring out my role.  This is particularly true when it comes to behavioral problems and discipline.  Whichever "experts" say that disciplining should be left up to the biological parents have obviously never been in a room or a house alone with their stepchildren.  It's just not realistic.  But, as we have been combating a lot of behavioral issues during the past few months, Pete and I have to work together to decide how to, and who should, handle them.  We want Lucas to see me as a parent with authority in our home, but we don't want him to resent me, which could happen in this phase since he's still getting used to my permanency in his life.  Luckily, Pete and I are virtually always in agreement when it comes to rewards and consequences for Lucas, and this is just one of many things that we have the opportunity to work on, and learn from, together.  Having a teammate in this is invaluable.
In short: This is hard.  But what that is worthwhile ISN'T hard?  I'm sure my list of good, bad, and challenging things will change a lot as time goes on, because this is such a dynamic role that I have stepped into.  But one important thing that continues to be clear is that I have the unwavering support of my partner, who is grateful that I've stepped into this role and never lets me forget it.  That alone makes it worth all of the hard parts. And finally, even when I feel like I don't know what I'm doing - and that's most of the time - the important thing is that I AM DOING IT.  And I'm going to keep doing it, and keep working on doing it well.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Focus on the Stars

One of my favorite things to do in nature is stargazing.  Whenever I escape city life, one of the first things I do is look at the night sky, which is so bright and beautiful and unique.

True confession: I have been struggling a lot in my life recently, for a variety of reasons that are equal parts within, and outside of, my control. Many days feel so dark and clouded with negativity and tough moments, that finding the good seems harder than rocket science.  But one night recently, when I was struggling to find clarity and happiness, my partner made this analogy about my favorite nature-related activity: "When you look at the sky, you have two choices.  You can focus on the dark space, or you can focus on the stars... the way they sparkle, the designs they make, the way they light up the sky." 

That comment stopped my tears, dead in their tracks.

Most of the night sky is dark, and we shouldn't ignore the dark. It's healthy to identify and claim our dark spaces, to know that it's okay for them to be part of our sky. But we can't stop there. We also need to identify our stars, and know that they can be as bright as we let them be.  Our view is so much more beautiful, so much more transcendent, so much more illuminated, when we choose to focus on the bright spots - our stars.

My stars are my partner Pete, and the rest of my family, both bio and chosen.  My stars are dinner parties with friends on my deck at dusk. My stars are weekend North Shore getaways; That first sip of wine at the end of a long day; The time that Lucas referenced something the three of us did "as a family"; A strong run on a crisp early fall afternoon;  Songs that instantly make me feel warm; Solving a problem at work that I've been trying to figure out for weeks.  Put together, all of my stars work together to form amazing constellations and mini-universes.  So many tiny little dots of happiness that add up to a lifetime of sparkle and brightness.

My sky includes both dark space and bright stars.  Every day is filled with a combination of both.  On the days when I'm focusing my gaze on the dark space, I'm missing out on the stars.  But on the days when my attitude is shifted to keep my eyes focused on the stars, the dark space fades away.  On those days, my stars seem brighter, bigger, and better. 

No matter how cloudy the day, no matter how dark the sky, there are always stars.  Sometimes we have to look harder to find them, but when we do, they are always visible in some capacity.  The dark space is always there, too.  Every day brings potential reasons for self-doubt, for tears and anger, for divisiveness. We can focus on those things if we want, but by doing so, we are missing out on the beauty of the stars - the part of the sky that is really worth gazing at.

Focus on the stars.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Thank-You Letter to my Ex

Two years ago when I was packing in preparation to move out of the house we bought together and shared for the previous five years, I found so many emotion-filled memories.  I wrote them down for you and told you that maybe some day I'd be able to thank you for these memories.  Two years ago, I wasn't ready to say thank you.  I was so hurt by your leaving, and was grieving the loss of a future with you that would never be known.

Today, as I am again packing up my home in preparation for the next phase of life, I am finally ready to say thank you. 

Thank you for letting me go.  You knew I was feeling trapped in our life.  I desperately needed a chance to experience the kind of freedom and self-actualization I never had before.  We'd met in our early 20s, barely post-college, certainly unequipped to make a decision about what we would want "for the rest of our lives".  For most of our marriage, I was in your shadow.  My accomplishments were your accomplishments, my identity was your identity, my pride was your pride.  Since you left, I have become me.  I have my own identity, my own name, my own interests and accomplishments.  I'm proud of who I am - not of who my husband is.  The best thing you ever did for me was leave me. 

Thank you for showing me that I didn't need you.  I thought that I did. I didn't think I knew how to be an adult without you.  But necessity showed me that I could. I've learned to do everything that I need to do - on my own, using my resources, without your help.  Some of the ways that you did things were smart, and I learned from that. Some of the ways you did things were not smart, and I learned from that too.

Thank you for not letting it drag out at the end.  Once you were done, we were done.  There was no chance for mediation, counseling, or reconciliation.  My attempts to beg you to change your mind or give me another chance were met with emotionless walls of refusal.  That hurt me at the time, but now I am grateful.  The letting-go phase was the hardest, and if it had gone on for longer, as no doubt would have been the case if you had acquiesced to my wishes, the hurt would have been greater.

Thank you for being fair.  We each took what we deserved in order to equalize, nothing more and nothing less.  There were no fights about who was owed what - we knew what the math said, and neither of us had enough animosity toward the other to try to fight for more. Having now experienced the impact of a divorce that is not fair or equitable in any way, I am extraordinarily grateful that ours was.

Thank you for the opportunity to experience something honestly difficult.  This was the first time in my life that I was faced with a true tragedy: something that I didn't think I'd ever have to do, something that I didn't know if I could do, something that in some circles I was judged for.  It was only by going through this that I learned that I really am braver than I believe, smarter than I seem, and stronger than I think.  It was only by going through this that I'm now equipped to handle something much worse and much harder.  Everyone should have the opportunity to experience truly difficult things.  Not only do they provide a chance to prove strength, but they give the good things so much more meaning.

Truth be told, we were both just winging it, which is all anyone can ever do.  I'm so much happier now, and I believe, and hope, that you are also. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Hello, I Am: Bisexual

June is one of my favorite months of the year.  In addition to it being the month with the longest days, the prettiest sunsets, and the best running weather, one of the reasons I love June is because it's Pride month.  Pride has been special to me for different reasons every year I have celebrated it.  Today, I want to acknowledge one of the things I'm proud of this year.

I remember over a decade ago, wondering to myself if my attraction to women was just a phase, whether it was something I should pursue, whether it was abnormal. I can remember at that time feeling like I would never have the support I would need to give it a fair shot.  I remember years later, how right it felt the first time my lips touched her lips, her hand touched my waist, my fingers touched her hair.  I remember wondering how anyone would think that could be wrong.  I remember standing in the capitol rotunda minutes after the state senate voted for marriage equality, chanting "love is louder" and rejoicing knowing that regardless of the gender of the person who I would some day love, that love could be legally recognized. I remember kissing a woman in public and being approached by a man asking if he could join us. I remember walking hand in hand in a park at night, wondering if it would be safer to let go.  I remember the nervousness of coming out to my straight friends, and my family, and being met with a mixture of love, total acceptance, concern, and denial. I remember hours upon hours in talks with gay friends, interrogating them about "how they knew", and feeling almost jealous of their certainty of exclusively same-sex attraction.  Why didn't I feel so certain?

For the nearly two years that I was grappling with sexual orientation and trying to figure out where I fell on the spectrum, I almost exclusively dated women. The couple of men I went out with were unappealing, and I had absolutely no interest in them. Women were beautiful, and soft, and freeing. And complicated.  Sometimes women turned away from me upon finding out that I had a relationship history with men. Dating was a struggle, as I consistently felt like I had to prove to women - and to myself - that I was legit.

But the minute I met Pete, everything changed.  When he touched my back on the balcony before our first date, the sparks I felt were different and stronger than anything I'd felt before.  Our conversation was authentic, and barrier-free, and fun.  And five hours later when we finally kissed, after what felt like years of waiting, I knew that I never wanted to stop.  That night, I was finally able to easily answer the question that I'd been struggling with for years: I am not gay.  I am not straight. I am not confused. I'm bisexual.

One of my biggest concerns when I was in the beginning stages of a hetero-normative relationship was trying to decide how I was going to maintain my queer identity. I wasn't sure how I could still be bi when I'm living like I'm straight.  Pete has been incredibly supportive of this part of who I am, and has encouraged me to do what I can to continue to live and grow in my bisexual identity, despite being in a monogamous heterosexual relationship. He has embraced my community in a way beyond what I could have ever dreamed.  He is more comfortable with it than I would have ever expected. When he isn't sure about something, he asks me.

When I first started bringing Pete to events, there was some confusion among my wider network.  A couple of people candidly said to me, "I thought you were a lesbian".  Others assumed that he was a new gay on the scene, and weren't shy about wanting to meet him.  He took all of that in stride.   One stranger approached us at a queer event and, upon seeing that we were together, told us we "shouldn't be at a gay bar if we're straight."  We shrugged it off, knowing that everyone who really matters to us is supportive and accepting and welcoming.  Not every person needs or deserves to know our story.

For the first time in my life, I'm completely confident in my sexual identity.  I know where I stand. Discovering the truth about myself has been a long and winding road, and in some ways I think we are all constantly in a process of learning about ourselves.  But for now, I feel like I have really "arrived".   I'm proud to be bisexual; in fact, it is one of my favorite things about myself.  In the wise words of the beautiful and inspiring Mary Lambert: "I can't change, even if I tried.  Even if I wanted to."  There is no reason for me to want to change this about myself.

However you identify, in whatever aspect of your life, I hope you feel confident in that identity. And if you're not sure about an aspect of who you are, I can tell you from experience:  the process of self-discovery takes effort, but it is well worth it to come out on the other side being truly proud of who are.

Happy Pride month!!!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

What Marriage Isn't

My boyfriend and I have been talking about marriage.

Don't freak out.  I'm not dumb enough to agree, or ask, to marry someone I've only been dating for a few months.  Only a naive, inexperienced, overly excitable child (i.e. me at age 23) would do something that ridiculous.  Pete and are I aren't talking about getting married ourselves.  Honestly, right now we are a lot more concerned about getting him un-married, which has been a a tenuous, frustrating, and seemingly never-ending process.  But through this experience, and through thinking about my own experience of marriage and divorce, I've come up with a list of my values about what marriage is... or rather, maybe more importantly, what it is NOT. This list is a work in progress.  It's silly to think that one's ideas about any big topic, marriage included, will remain constant from one season of life to the next.  This list almost completely contradicts what 23 year-old Kate believed, and 43 year-old Kate will likely have yet another very different lens. But, in the present moment, this is what I know to be true.:

Marriage is not necessary.  Just because a couple is in a long-term relationship does not mean that they are required to get married.  It's one option, but it is not the only way to be committed and to demonstrate that commitment.

Marriage is not a status symbol.  A married person is not in any way superior to a single person, despite what mainstream culture might subtly suggest. Being married does not mean that a person is more stable, more mature, more desirable, or happier. 

Marriage does not increase commitment.  A couple's level of commitment to one another should not change upon getting married.  Marriage is a symbol of commitment, but it does not create greater commitment. 

Marriage is not gender specific.  Marriage is an equal opportunity institution, for either same or different gendered couples.  Minnesota proclaimed this loud and clear two years ago.  36 other state governments agree.  Churches and other faith communities across the nation agree.  I don't think this could be more obvious and fundamentally true.

Marriage is not an antidote to loneliness.  Some of the times I  felt the most alone were when I was married, and some of the times I felt the most included and in community with others were when I was single.  Too many people get married because they believe it will create permanent company and companionship.  It won't.

Marriage does not mean a loss of individual identity.  I was recently at a wedding where the couple lit a unity candle:  They each took separate candles, representative of their individual selves, and from those flames lit a third candle, representative of their relationship.  After lighting the unity candle, the bride and groom were then instructed by the pastor to blow out their individual candles, leaving only the joint candle to burn.  This struck me as the wrong foundation for a marriage. Being married is not a reason to extinguish one's own flame.

Marriage should not equate to starting a new life together.  By the time a couple gets married, their life together should already be created and well-established. They should know each other inside and out. They should have gotten into fights about taking out the trash or loading the dishwasher.  They should be used to falling asleep to the rhythms of one another's breathing.  There should be no post-wedding surprises or big life changes upon getting married.

Marriage does not have to be boring.  Married couples do not have to follow the traditional, Norman Rockwell American Family format.  They don't have to buy a house in the suburbs, have a dog and 2.5 children, and settle into a routine.  There is no standard rulebook for a great marriage, and every couple should be able to create for themselves what they want from their life together.  "Settling in" is not an unavoidable part of marriage.

Marriage does not come with a lifetime guarantee.  This is a hard one to swallow, because what couple ever wants to consider that their marriage may not last until death parts them?  But it's true - and recognizing and understanding that is realistic and healthy.

None of these assertions meant to undermine the importance or relevance of marriage, either at the individual or societal level. Rather, they are meant to challenge some of the perceived qualities about marriage that many people, for a variety of reasons, might believe going in.  This list is simply what I have arrived at as a result of experiences (both what I have witnessed in others, and what I have lived myself), personal beliefs, and values.  If you are married, if you have been married, or if you might someday consider getting married - I challenge you to thoughtfully come up with your own list of what marriage does or does not mean to you.