the right choice

When I was home in Virginia two years ago, my dad and I were driving around town when we drove past my friend Mitt’s* house. After his mom died and his dad remarried and moved to another town, Mitt ended up moving back into the house he grew up in. Later he bought the house from his dad, and then his long-term, out-of-town girlfriend moved in.

I asked my dad if he’d heard whether Mitt had gotten engaged yet. Marriage not only seemed like the next logical step, but like something Mitt would be good at. He’s someone people describe as “a good guy,” the kind of person everyone just likes. Because he’s friendly, uncomplicated, easy to be around. He’s kind of like my dad, actually, and maybe that’s why I can so easily imagine him married, settled and happy.

But my dad said no, Mitt was not engaged. And I made some comment about how the one time I met Nancy, I thought she was a real keeper.

“Well, what I want to know,” my dad said, “is when Reg** is going to ask you a very important question.”

This was a conversational detour I’d totally failed to see coming. My parents had never asked about me marrying Reg. And, because they’d never asked, I’d kind of assumed they were quietly waiting for things to fizzle out between us.

“Um. I hope it’s not too soon,” I said without thinking, “because I’m not sure how I’d answer any very important questions right now.”

Dad kept his eyes on the road. Then he said, “Well, honey, I’m sure you’ll make the right choice.”

And this, I think, is the problem. The idea that there is a right choice to be made about a relationship also implies that there are wrong choices, which suggests that one could make a very serious mistake with her life, which can make a person a bit panicked about love. But my dad is someone who has always inhabited a world of moral clarity. Almost anything can be labeled as right or wrong. The problem is that he’s not the only one who talks about love this way. We all do it.


I love thanksgivings and one of the very best things about being an American in Canada is celebrating two thanksgivings. This is good practice, folks, and I cannot recommend it heartily enough. Sure, Americans already have Columbus Day, but you might ought to* consider how the addition of turkey gravy would liven-up an otherwise dull weekend. The main distinction between Canadian Thanksgiving and American Thanksgiving, as far as I can tell, is that the Canadian version seems to be missing the whole Pilgrims-and-Indians backstory.

The American-Canadian difference I’m stuck on lately is a question of vocabulary. I have been in love with the same person for a decade. (a decade!) And in that time we’ve lived in the same room and on separate continents. Before I moved to Vancouver, I didn’t know anyone who’d been in a ten-year relationship and not gotten married. For my friends in Virginia, loving the person you loved at twenty and still, after a decade, not being married to him (not to mention not having yourselves a baby or two) is rare. Or unheard of.

But when we moved to Vancouver five years ago, I realized pretty quickly that “boyfriend” is a word used by teenagers, not adults who live together. Boyfriend is low-commitment. And we’d just moved to a new country together—that wasn’t low commitment. But using the word “partner” felt weird. In Virginia, referring to my partner meant I was either a business woman or a lesbian.

I think this semantic gray area–the space between dating and marriage–points out a difference in Canadian and American attitudes toward long-term relationships. Here, you can put your live-in partner on your health insurance. You can file taxes together. (All of which is independent of your gender or sexual orientation, by the way.) You get all the legal rights that come with marriage. Though I have lots of married friends, I also have plenty of friends who are in committed long-term relationships but who aren’t married. They have babies and own homes, but they don’t wear wedding rings.

That moving to another country made my boyfriend into my partner was something I wasn’t prepared for. Partner seemed to imply that I intended to spend my whole life with this person, which I wasn’t quite sure about, though I was happy to offer him the excellent dental care that came with my new job. (I’ve never known a more enthusiastic flosser!) How we talk about love matters, and when I found myself without the right words for my own relationship it stressed me out. Like Thanksgiving, Canadians seem to treat long term relationships a bit more casually than we Americans do. And while I’m perfectly content to embrace a turkey day without parades and football and elementary school pageants where kids in feather headdresses and buckled hats sit down together to an awkward dinner, I’m not so sure about this partnership thing.

After five years here, I’m still committed to the idea of commitment. Formalized commitment, that is: rings and a white dress and a red velvet cake. The modern gal in me sees wedding traditions like being “given away” as antiquated. And I can see that marriage is far from a guarantee of happiness. And I know, I know that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle. But I still make a distinction between a boyfriend, a partner, and a husband. And I still want to get married. Maybe it’s that I’ve spent my life imagining my wedding day (as we American girls are taught to do) or maybe it’s that my father wouldn’t let me quit the rec basketball team until the season was over (“when you say you’re going to do something, Mandy, you do it”), but I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully invested in a relationship without it.

So am I old fashioned? anti-feminist? way too into dresses?

*before you grammarians get upset, “might ought to” is a legit Appalachianism that has a distinct meaning which is lost when you use either “might” or “ought to” solo