Consciously chosen partnerships

Why accept defaults when they don't work for you?


Lately Joe and I have been having a lot of deep talks about our relationship. 

What it was. What it is. How it started. How it’s changed. What we want it to be. 

Of course, all this exists within the context of the institution known as marriage

I’m a big fan of marriage.

But let’s be real: there are a lot of toxic marriages in the world. That’s not the fault of the institution of marriage, really. It’s the fault of people who have toxic relationships and decide to make ‘em legally permanent. Or—more commonly—toxic marriages happen because real people, with plenty of real issues, want to form a particular kind of partnership: a romantic, fulfilling, exclusive partnership of equals. 

Marriage is a structure built to provide such partnerships, right?

Well, no. NOT AT ALL.

Here are my hot takes on what marriage-as-a-structure is built to be or provide. Feel free to disagree vehemently. 

  • Marriage as a spiritual institution is a structure for modeling archetypes (and thus demonstrating spiritual principles). In the Christian context, that’s Christ and the Church. 

  • Marriage as a religious institution is a structure for establishing (or validating) the authority of whatever-religion-you’re-in. 

  • Marriage as a political institution is a structure for validating the authority of the government and creating a set of legal boundaries that you (an autonomous, free-thinking individual) accept as a valid, even inherent part of the most personal aspects of your life. It’s kind of absurd. No, it’s really absurd. 

  • Marriage as an economic institution is a structure for combining and controlling wealth. The foundations, in this sense, are revoltingly patriarchal, and not in a tame, theoretical “man is head of house” way but in a legal and definite sense of “woman is property of man” kind of way. Gross. 

  • Marriage as a social institution is a structure for providing stability in a chaotic world and making it easier for all of us to interact with each other on the basis of commonly held and accepted social rules which we can reliably depend on so we don’t have to come up with social norms every single time we want to interact socially. Also, so it’s easier to raise our offspring into viable adulthood.

Of course that’s an incomplete list. Marriage can and does mean a lot of different things, some beautiful and some nefarious. 

But here’s my realization: 

  • When you accept something as it is, as a whole, then you accept all the implications it brings. 

Then, along the way, you may find yourself trapped in a box you don’t remember building, living in a structure that doesn’t feel good to you. 

Clearly I do not want any part of, say, the traditional economic implications of marriage. Myself as property? Of another human? I can’t even find words to express the rage this concept provokes in me.

Yet, if I don’t pause to see and define what I do want in marriage, I may end up living in an enraging, absurd patriarchal box. 

If we don’t define things for ourselves, we end up living in the default definitions. 

So that’s what Joe and I have been doing lately: defining things for ourselves.❋

We, as all people do, have grown and changed over the years. We’ve learned more about ourselves: who we are, what we want. And the “marriage box” we were living in is defined by defaults and layered with implications that don’t have a lot to do with us as we are now. 

Don’t get me wrong: we’re still married, committed, in love, gleefully together. But we’re defining our marriage in our own terms, thoughtfully, consciously. This can be (and has been, many times) a very emotional, terrifying, painful process. 

But what have we learned? Ah, yes: we have to walk through the pain to get to what we want. 


Freedom is not found in running away from what restricts you: that method simply makes you a different kind of prisoner. You’re stuck in “running away” mode, but your options are still defined by that limitation and whether you’re accepting it or avoiding it. 

Freedom comes when you face what scares you. Maybe that’s a concrete limitation. Maybe that’s a complete lack of limits. You face it, then you get to experience yourself being bigger, stronger, more powerful, just-in-general-MORE than whatever that scary thing is. 

Once you do that, you can breathe and decide what works for you.

What do you want? What kind of partnership do you want to have? What kind of structure do you want to build in your life? What implications do you accept, and which ones do you reject? What definitions work for you? Which ones need to be completely changed? 

We’re always establishing partnerships. Marriage—or really, any sort of romantic relationship—is a big one, obviously. But it’s not the only one. We establish partnerships with everyone, unspoken agreements about who we will be for each other. 

I’m learning to pay attention to these partnerships. I’m learning to think about what I want from each one. I’m learning that relying on default definitions is the easy way, the passive way, the way that almost guarantees your life will be unfulfilling in some important ways.

We don’t have to built or engage in partnerships by default. We can choose.

When we choose to think about our partnerships—with our significant others, with our children, with our parents, with our friends, with our coworkers, neighbors, community—we can consciously choose the kind of agreements we want.

We can make them meaningful. We can make them satisfying. We can make them way more fun. We can make them exactly what we want them to be.

❋I’m thankful that Joe is willing to do this work with me. Not everyone is so lucky. If you’re stuck in a partnership that isn’t working for you, and your partner isn’t interested in changing it, together, what can you do? 

You can still think about it. You can still look long at the implications you accepted. You can weigh each one and decide if you still accept it. You can still choose what you want from the partnership, what you want to offer. And once you know those fundamental things, you can communicate them and begin moving away from the defaults and into your consciously chosen definitions.