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There are many set questions that I love to ask people in my marriage kit interviews. One of the most interesting is the question “What were you taught about marriage growing up?” I tend to think that most people take me a bit too literally when they try to answer this question. They usually look for specific things that people said to them or blanket observances like “if you got pregnant then you had to get married.” Don’t get me wrong; I think that these are valid observances. However, when I put this question to myself, I came up with a bunch of little incidents that I could recall over my life that gave me notions about love and marriage that I probably wouldn’t think influenced me all that much. Somehow, though, they influenced me so much.

Hopefully you won’t mind me sharing some of them with you as I psychoanalyze myself and look deeply into my heart on this. I’d like to start with a memory that explains a little bit about my stance on cohabitation vs. marriage. I give you “Ball of Confusion.”

When I was a little girl, a few of my family members lived with us at some point or another, so I got the opportunity to see quite a few family relationships up close. Even though a few of my aunts and uncles and even a lady I wasn’t the slightest bit related to by blood but was “family” had lived with us over the years for varying periods of time, I only remember us staying with a family member once.

We stayed with my aunt Chloe* when I was about eight or nine years old. I wasn’t really a fan of this, as I was an only child used to having my own room until I was eight, but I bore with my pallet on the floor and sharing a room with a cousin because I knew we would be moving out again soon.

I missed the normal timbre of our house: my stepdad playing his keyboards in the basement with me sitting on a makeshift stool of milk crates while he taught me how he played chords; my mother cooking in her big brown pot and the black caste iron skillet, swaying along to her own music on the big radio I wasn’t allowed to touch. That was the life, the home that I was used to. I was used to taking my plate on a tray to the basement to eat with my stepdad, watching Nascar (even though I didn’t understand the appeal of watching what seemed like hundreds of cars go around in a circle really fast hundreds of times) or football or basketball (my favorites) with him while he yelled to my mom that I was downstairs and wasn’t bothering him. I wasn’t allowed to hang out with the adults when his friends would come over and they would have a jam session, but I could listen by the steps. That was the music of my life–jazz in the basement, chicken frying in the kitchen, R&B in the dining room–and I couldn’t wait to hear it again.

When we finally moved out, I thought the new place was a little small. In all honesty, I don’t remember much about that house at all. It was my least favorite house of the four I lived in growing up. I remember I got roller skates and the Anne of Green Gables series for Christmas while we lived there, and that my stepdad took my mother to see Candyman for her birthday, but other than that, I only have one other memory of our time there.

At some point, my mother and stepfather had some sort of falling out that led to a brief split. Suddenly, there was no stepfather in the basement teaching me chords or explaining the thrill of Nascar. Suddenly, there was Rob.

Rob was a guy my mother had dated before my stepfather. I didn’t remember him at all, but he apparently remembered me. My stepfather was barely out the door before he started to come around. He bought me little things and talked to me like a little kid, crouched down to my level, something I hated. He drove a semi-fancy car and called me cute all the time. He bought ice cream and all of that “I’m trying to get in good with your mother” stuff, but I didn’t like him. He wasn’t my stepdad. Who does this guy think he is?

I distinctly remember he came over one day to visit my mom and stayed almost all day. It was close to my bedtime and I had to go in my room and lay down, but I didn’t feel comfortable leaving him hanging around my mom, nor did I trust him. He wanted to come and help tuck me in, but I put my foot down. I probably said something rude, too. After they went out, I propped my black and white 13-inch TV in front of the door so he couldn’t sneak in. What I thought he would do, I don’t know. I turned the volume on the TV down and watched Valley of the Dolls after I was sure my mother had shown him the door and went to bed. She may or may not have yelled “He’s gone; now cut that TV off and go to bed” on her way to her room.

When my mom and stepdad finally patched things up, I was relieved I’d never have to see Rob again (I was wrong about that one). He was a disruption in my well ordered, happy child world, an interloper who seemed to like rap more than jazz. It didn’t take too long for things to get back to normal.

Looking back, it wasn’t until this time that I realized that, unlike Pink Susie and her husband, my mom and stepdad weren’t necessarily permanent. There was nothing anywhere that said they had to stay, or even that there was anything more to be done than just leave. Not being married meant your union wasn’t secure. It was as secure or temporary as each individual chose, day by day, or even moment by moment.

After this skirmish, my stepdad and mother stayed together until his death in 2009, for a total of 22 (or 23?) years. I have a little brother who was 16 at the time. They lived and worked together to raise a family and supported each other through health issues and etc. until the end. In the end, my mother got…nothing.

That’s the other thing I learned from this whole thing. Legally, in this life you can only be three things relationship wise–single (never married), married, or divorced. No one cares about your “man” “boo thang” “baby” “hubby” (when used by singles who aren’t married to anybody), or “lover.” Common law used to help you, but they fazed that out for anyone who hasn’t been together since the sixties in just about every state. So, despite twenty-something years, (effectively) two children, and a dependence on both incomes, my mother received no insurance, social security, or anything Granddad wouldn’t have let her keep. Without your paperwork, you are just being a wife for free, working a job with no pay, no benefits, and no retirement plan. I’m not into that.

I realize that my mother and stepfather were very happy for the most part. There were mostly laughs and good times in our house, along with the struggle. I was one of those kids who didn’t realize I was poor for a very long time (ahem, little brother, ahem). I was raised to value education and strive to do better than they did. I was given just about any book that I wanted and encouraged to write. I knew I had that base of family support if I didn’t have anyone else. But legally, none of that was real.

Kids need security, and adults (or maybe just this adult) need it, too. I couldn’t feel completely comfortable without a legally (and spiritually) binding commitment. I know all marriages don’t last, but at least divorce gives you a recourse should the marriage terminate. What do you get as a single? Sometimes not even the things with which you came into the relationship.

That’s the first thing I learned about relationships that I’ll be sharing. Stay tuned…