special excerpt

Merri Lisa Johnson

Summer 2002

An excerpt from Jane Sexes It Up: True Confessions of Feminist Desire, edited by Merri Lisa Johnson, Four Walls Eight Windows, 2002.


Wanting Him Anyhow: Third Wave Feminism & the Problem of Romance

“Denouncing male oppression clashes with wanting him anyhow.”
Katie Roiphe, The Morning After: Sex, Fear, and Feminism

I spent the last four years trying to convince a particular man to marry me. (“Think what you will! Shock, shock!”) You could say we broke up in August of 2000, you could even say we broke up over the marriage issue, but the truer thing to say is that our relationship modulated from marriage track to something less well defined but infinitely more pleasant. I met this man at a time when he was turning decidedly away from marriage, during the emotionally intense period between unofficial separation and legal divorce—not, most experts would say, the best time for forging new relationships, and he would have agreed. I, on the other hand, having been divorced for several years, and having recently extracted myself from a terribly mismatched couplehood formed in the desperate wake of my own divorce, was ready for my second husband, and he was going to be it. Long story short, we fell madly in love despite all the odds and reveled in our passion for a long time and from very long distances. We rendez voused in Vegas and Buenos Aires. I hung an old poster on my bedroom wall from a play called Love Rides the Rails to commemorate our unconventional affair and dedicated myself to becoming the new New Woman—independent, unpossessive, self-sufficient, supportive. I would learn to love lightly, in May Sarton’s phrase, to be passionate without being desperate. And indeed I did develop a more mature sense of self and of relationships through the interlocking processes of wooing him and getting over my need to be wooed, but the bottom line is, I also wanted him to marry me. To prove I was good enough. I wanted to win the prize, be the bride. Ever since my disastrous first run for beauty queen in sixth grade, I had longed deeply and stoically for the trophy and the glory. He wouldn’t give me either. And in my quiet reflective moments, I didn’t want him to. But something about the machinery of the relationship, with all the weight of heterosexual history bearing down on me, usurped my best feminist intentions, pressing my desires for companionship into cookie-cutter shapes—hard edged, straight, inflexible—and I ended up channeling some chick from the fifties, complete with hope chest and china pattern. Worse, I became a Whitney Houston song: “Hold me. Marry me. Love me forever and make me feel safe.” Pitching idea after idea—“Marriage doesn’t have to be that way. It can be whatever we (read: you) want”—I debated and finagled, strung long threads of philosophy, drew his attention to relevant movie plots.

Me: Don’t you love me enough to make me your wife?

Him: I love you too much to make you something that small.

Me: You’re right, you’re right, I know you’re right.

I stalked around my house like a cat making a fat tail, thinking this is crazy! Women have way more to lose than men by getting married. If anyone should be holding back, I huffed, it should be me. I knew about (and believed) feminist critiques of marriage, and truth be told, I wasn’t sure I could revise it to please us both. All that notwithstanding, I wanted to marry him anyway. Part of me still does. There is no clear moral to this story. In the time since we “broke up,” I have liked myself better, liked him better, and liked us better (on the occasional phone call or email message). I don’t know how long something like this, without a name or any rules, can be sustained before it collapses into the available paths of Exes or Getting Back Together, but it feels like there’s a clue or seed of relationship revolution in the dynamics passing between us now. Outside the prison house of our capital “R” Relationship, we are free to go about the business of enjoying each other once more. Now that I’ve given up the project of convincing him to marry me, I have less to lose by admitting in public that I don’t know how to be a girlfriend or wife and maintain that space between us, that connection without clutching.

I can own up to the noteworthy fact that I’ve never felt as relaxed in a room with a man as I feel right now—alone after midnight, drinking coffee, and working at my computer. Solitude gets sexier and sexier the more I relax into it—like an herbal tea bath—let myself steep.

Reprinted with permission from Four Walls Eight Windows.


Lisa Johnson ljohnson@westga.edu Visiting Assistant Prof. State U of W. Ga.

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