Marriage Isn’t the Only Plot for Love
Reading Briallen Hopper and Rethinking Love
I was about a week into being engaged—not yet reflecting on my qualms over our culture’s tendency to reward marriage over other kinds of commitment—when I started reading Briallen Hopper’s Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions. In Hard to Love, Hopper explores love outside of romantic attachment, giving relationships with friends, siblings, even objects in a storage unit their due. Hopper’s essays make the case that our love for others doesn’t have to be circumscribed into one primary relationship (in my case, my soon-to-be marriage)—our loves can be multiple and multiply nurturing.
It’s a message that can be difficult to find in our culture, wherein the marriage plot is still the prescribed narrative for love. My fiancé Robby and I have dated for five years and lived together for four, but until we performatively say our vows, our relationship will not receive the stamp of seriousness that only marriage can bestow. Now we’re checking off items on a list written by our society, which will reward us by cradling us and lifting us up once we are wed. We will benefit financially when we can mark “married filing jointly” on IRS forms. As an adjunct professor and freelancer, I will benefit by joining Robby’s employer-sponsored health insurance rather than paying for an increasingly expensive marketplace plan. If one of us ends up in a hospital, the other will be able to visit and make decisions as next-of-kin.
As Robby and I plan our very Brooklyn millennial wedding, we are reminded at every turn of the breadth of the wedding industrial complex that our capitalist culture has built to further this narrative. Every day I get served dozens of online ads for gowns (so many gowns!), bands engraved with our wedding date, wedding venues to book (“Our sophisticated venue is the perfect backdrop for your wedding”), items for our registry (“Dinner in with your forever date is better with Lenox®”), stores to register at (“You’ve found the person of your dreams. Now create the home of your dreams when you register with Williams Sonoma”). These ads push a specific vision of the wedding dream in which you must spend more and more money (or encourage your guests to spend it on you) to achieve the perfect reflection of your love.
Hopper writes in an essay titled “On Spinsters”: “in our culture, marriage is a choice, but it also isn’t. It’s a rom-com ending and a party with a cake, but it’s also a systemic mechanism that separates the enfranchised from the disenfranchised.” The marriage-related American dream was legally out of reach for certain communities for far too long: interracial couples have only been federally allowed to marry since 1967, and same-sex couples since 2015. For the black community, Hopper writes, “marriage has been made simultaneously compulsory and unattainable,” from “the cruelty of slavery to the callous ‘marriage cure’ of the George W. Bush administration.” And marriage has recently become more of a mark of socioeconomic and educational privilege, declining among poor and working-class people without college degrees, whereas in 1990, “51 percent of poor adults, 57 percent of working-class adults and 65 percent of middle- and upper-class adults were married,” according to research from think tanks American Enterprise Institute and Opportunity America.
In the midst of all this, our culture is starting to rewrite the marriage plot, making it less of a given—or, at least, a given that we’re pushing back against and pushing off. Older millennials like me are getting married later—the average age for marrying in 2017 was 29.2 for women and 30.2 for men, according to The Knot’s Real Weddings Study. We’re pushing marriage back for a variety of reasons: wanting to spend more time getting to know one another before the commitment, feeling financially unprepared for marriage (because of our record levels of student debt, lower levels of assets and income than previous generations, and the aftershocks of coming of age in the aftermath of the Great Recession), and wanting to focus on building our careers first.
In Hard to Love, Hopper side-steps the marriage plot entirely—it’s not for her. But that doesn’t mean that she’s closing herself off to love, or even the creation of a family. While other recent books like Kayleen Schaefer’s Text Me When You Get Home have spotlighted the value of female friendships in a new way, Hopper’s personal essays are love letters, not just to the women with whom she celebrates “Galentine’s Day”, but the chosen family she has created and the series of commitments and responsibilities she has taken on to sustain her. Hopper has fostered a love-filled life that doesn’t include any romantic attachments, and Hard to Love is a testament to that life’s fullness.
In “Lean On,” the opening essay of Hard to Love, Hopper articulates the two options for supportive love that our culture presents: either you have it in marriage, or you’re on your own. “Sometimes it seems like there are two American creeds, self-reliance and marriage, and neither of them is mine,” she writes.
Self-reliance is the bootstrapping American way. Hopper points out that dependence is “despised in our culture,” down to our language: “‘Codependence’ is a beautiful word that could mean mutual support but instead means mutual harm . . . ’Depend’ is an adult diaper brand that provides an essential product but also reinforces the connections between dependence, weakness, and public shame.”
The only kinds of dependence that seem “socially sanctioned” are “romantic partnerships,” specifically marriage. Hopper, who attended Yale Divinity School, writes, “marriage, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, ‘was ordained for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other.’” That’s the way I see my relationship with Robby: we each listen so that we can unburden our swimming minds, we each take care of cooking, dishes, and dog walking so that the other doesn’t have to, we scratch each other’s backs and throw out each other’s snotty tissues. Of course, the “mutual society” of marriage was also established for reasons beyond love: furthering the patriarchy, guaranteeing heirs and the exchange and inheritance of property, essentially selling the bodies of women.
Hopper might not fit into either the marriage plot or the independence myth, but she—like me, like all of us—is a “leaner.” She leans unapologetically, eager to fit her life into the crooks of others’. I found myself nodding along as I read Hopper’s “declaration of dependence”: “I experience myself as someone formed and sustained by others’ love and patience, by student loans and stipends . . . I believe we are all obviously a part of one another, elements in one ecosystem, members of one body, all of us at the mercy of capitalism, weather, genes, and fate.”
For love, Hopper finds a third way, a choice outside of the two American creeds: spreading out her dependence across friendships. She puts in work to keep her friendships sturdy: “I bake gingerbread for my friends in the winter and shortcake in the summer . . . across years and oceans, my distant friends and I co-create structure of togetherness through group texts and phone dates and regular reunions.”
As the collection progresses and Hopper writes about those she leans on in essays that reference everything from Cheers to A Fault in Our Stars, she makes clear that these third way relationships are not effortless or easy—they can be as vexed and vexing as any romantic love. Each essay sparked new reflections for me, making me reconsider the meaningfulness and centrality of commitment outside of marriage, and why those commitments are worth their cost.
“Dear Octopus,” in which Hopper discusses her relationship with her brother and J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey, was the essay that had my mind firing off questions about commitment and what we owe to one another.
Hopper grew up in an evangelical, hippie household with “hordes of siblings” but just one brother, with whom arguing was a form of affection. As a teenager, Hopper saw her and her brother’s debates reflected in Franny and Zooey’s conversations: “I recognized our posture and purposes, our inflections and allusion,” especially in the “insistently Christian” language.
The problems came when Hopper left home and stopped sharing a religious language, or “a sense of the truth,” with her brother: “To engage with [my brother] open-mindedly would have required me to make my right to love and work and take communion into something precarious and contingent and up for debate.” Similarly, she now looks at Franny and Zooey as representative of “a particular kind of harsh language and gendered judgment I needed to guard against.” Still, Hopper acknowledges that “families of blood and law” have a “visceral centripetal force” that draws us back. She writes: “I don’t believe that the sibling soul-mingling of youth can ever be undone . . . But that doesn’t mean it can be sustained.”Hopper might not fit into either the marriage plot or the independence myth, but she—like me, like all of us—is a “leaner.” She leans unapologetically, eager to fit her life into the crooks of others’.
My sibling soul-mingling must be sustained. Unlike Hopper, I grew up with one sibling: my brother, John, who is three years older than me. Reading “Dear Octopus,” I thought about how my relationship with John is one that needs to mean a lot: we’re the only immediate family either of us have left. Our parents died when I was a young teen and John was an older one, and that forged us together—our “sense of the truth” lies in an understanding of the depths of loss. After Mom and Dad died, John and I transitioned into taking care of one another—we feel that we owe it to each other to do so.
But after reading “Dear Octopus,” I thought about the times I haven’t paid enough mind to our relationship. I thought about when Robby and I first moved in together—how John calmed me down when I lost the keys to the apartment I was leaving and how he carried box upon box of books up flights of stairs for me and how I was so wrapped up in cementing my romantic love by signing a joint lease that I missed for months how deep John had been sinking into a depression. I thought about the conversation I had with Robby in which I confessed my guilt and shame over my blindness to my brother’s needs. I thought about the resolve I made to myself then to never let my side of the rope go slack, and how Robby has helped me pull it taut—they have forged their own strong friendship—and how that’s part of why I’m marrying Robby: he is merging into my pre-existing ecosystem and I into his.
Friendships are different than sibling-ships—they aren’t predicated on the same depth of shared experience that growing up under the same roof can provide—and they can be undone. I have lost many friends, not to animosity but to lack of effort. While it’s easy for me to make friends when thrown into shared circumstances, I can’t always bring myself to consistently reach out and respond to being reached out to once we’re thrown back into our “real lives.” I find it difficult to make the shift from talking in person every day in, say, an office to texting or calling when that common space is no longer uniting us.
Hopper is a much more effortful friend. Many of the friendships she writes about in Hard to Love are ones that have gone through trials more complicated than living apart. In “Young Adult Cancer Story,” Hopper writes about her friendship with Ash, who has Stage IV esophageal cancer; Hopper is part of her care team. In “Hoarding,” she writes in part about moving in with her friend Cathy, who was “a tenure-track professor with a husband and a kid and a four-bedroom house” when Hopper was “a single, childless, broke divinity student.”
Each of these friendships benefits from an empathy that requires pushing past feeling understood and validated in experiences we share. Though “most of Ash’s experiences with cancer can’t be shared,” Hopper finds ways—like reading and watching A Fault in Our Stars—to understand. In “Hoarding,” Hopper puts in the sort of work that can be uncomfortable in a friendship that feels like it’s not working like it used to: retrospecting on ourselves, and what our actions must look and feel like to the people we love. We owe anyone we lean on that kind of empathy and care, and we are damn lucky if we can live in a robust network of love that doesn’t start and end at marriage. As I get ready to wed, I am resolving to keep the lines that tie my ecosystem together alive, to reach out and pull friends and family in, to offer “mutual society, help, and comfort” to my loves outside my spouse.