My wife and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary this past weekend. It’s an important milestone, if for no other reason than it reminds us how long and rich our life has been together. But to be honest, we haven’t often paid much attention to our anniversary.
It’s not that we’re unhappy with our marriage – far from it. It’s more that, when we paid a visit to the courthouse in Valdosta, Georgia, on that day 25 Decembers ago, it was a wedding of convenience, a kind of formality. By that time, we had been living together in Finland for three years, cohabitating, if you will. Some would perhaps say "shacking up". And we had no special desire to change that situation.
But as it happened, during a Christmas-time visit to the States, we started thinking about making honest people of each other. The idea took root on the long drive back to Georgia from a camping trip in Big Bend National Park, on the border with Mexico.
(Big Bend, by the way, is a great place to visit in winter – warm during the day, dramatic desert scenery, and not many people when we were there back in 1985. In that more innocent age, there was even a spot on the Rio Grande across where you could pay a Mexican a dollar to row you across the river for a visit to an incredibly isolated village. I suspect that’s not the case anymore.)
As we were driving back east across Texas, with a winter storm close on our heels, it occurred to us that a marriage license would come in handy if my (then future) wife wanted to apply for a green card. As we toyed with the idea, we also realized that marrying a foreigner would be easier to arrange in the States than in more bureaucratic Finland.
When we made it to Valdosta, where we were to spend a couple of days with my sister, we got hitched at an almost Las Vegas speed. We had to wait only one day (for the results of our blood tests to affirm that neither of us was suffering from venereal disease) before showing up at the Lowndes County courthouse, where the Justice of the Peace, in the presence of my sister, pronounced us man and wife. Then, freshly wed, we promptly drove out to the Okefenokee Swamp for a day of canoeing over black water trying spot alligators (it was too cold for them to show themselves). We’ve always referred to this as our “honeymoon”.
When I’ve described the glib approach we took to our “wedding”, some friends have been a bit horrified about now “unromantic” it sounds. In a way, I suppose they’re right, but it didn’t matter to us. (More importantly, it didn’t matter to my wife – I’m a lucky man that way.)
By the time we got married we were already completely devoted and committed to each other. To us, the ten-minute ceremony at the courthouse was just a formality. And I still feel that way. Without sounding too schmaltzy (or obvious) about it, I see our marriage as the life we’ve built together. The marriage license, with its silhouette of a bride and groom right out of the 1950s and its official seal attesting to our “bond in holy matrimony”, is just a piece of paper.
And yes, for so many of those legal necessities in life it is, of course, an important piece of paper. I’m sure we would have eventually taken the step of getting married, and not only to smooth the path to legal residence in the States. (It did help my wife jump through the hoops of obtaining a green card a few years later.)
Our take-or-leave-it approach to official matrimony was not exactly groundbreaking. I’m sure lots of married couples in America – maybe even in the pious South where I’m from – have lived together for some time before finally tying the knot. But unless things have changed a lot in the last 30 years, there are huge pressures from society and family to keep such living arrangements under wraps. Not to mention religious pressures.
Finland, in keeping with its liberal Scandinavian tradition, has a much more relaxed and open attitude in these matters. When I first came to live here, I was surprised how some long-time couples I knew had gotten married only when they started having kids, if they had bothered to get married at all. The practice of delaying or forgoing marriage completely is still quite common today, with over 20% of families consisting of unmarried couples, including 18% of families with children. One thing is certain: there is no stigma attached here to couples cohabitating in a “common-law” marriage.
A telling example is the current Finnish president, Tarja Halonen, who married her long-time partner only after winning the presidential election in 2000. While she and her husband might not have been technically cohabitating (they were neighbors living in separate apartments), their 15-year relationship was a marriage in all but name and was completely public. What’s more, Halonen has a grown daughter from a previous relationship that was never consecrated by marriage.
It’s hard to imagine someone in the States being elected to the highest office in the land under those circumstances, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in Finland who really cares.
You may see this as either an enlightened attitude (I do) or an disturbing sign of moral decay, but most Finns don’t seem to give it much thought one way or the other. I would like to think Finland’s more tolerate attitude toward marriage has resulted in divorce rates much lower than the often-quoted 50% rate in the US. Sadly, that’s not the case. The rate here is not much better, nor much worse. When it comes to the regrettable tendency of some marriages to unravel while others endure, Finland and America have more in common than it might first appear.