the marriage jar

on dating and mindfulness

“He’s so cute, I can’t even handle it.”

“You should probably marry him—oh, shit.”

“Ooh, you have to put money in the jar!”

Above is a typical conversation my roommates and I might have had last year. Realizing we had a bad habit, we implemented a swear jar system in which the offender had to contribute as a deterrent from committing the offending behavior. Our jar was directed at a concept even more difficult to eradicate from our vocabularies than swear words—marriage.

I don’t know when it started, but during my first year of college, marriage became the go-to encouragement option. If things were going well during a friend’s relationship—or, more typically, if they were admiring a cute stranger from afar—my usual response was, “Oh, you should probably marry him/her/phe.” It started out innocent and turned ominous, a casual joke that became ingrained.

You may think I’m exaggerating, and I probably am. But I did find it weird to so frequently reference something that, in my mind, is ten years away at least. As a twenty-year old human who has never been in a serious relationship, marriage should have been the last thing on my mind, but instead it often seemed to be the first. The idea of me getting married is so foreign that it borders on fantastical. What I am familiar with is getting way ahead of myself, especially when it comes to relationships.

The first time I remember it happening was seventh grade. I was in love with a boy in the way that seventh graders fall in love with other seventh graders (meaning, I mostly just stared at him a lot in geography class, and when I did talk to him, I was mostly mean, because that’s how I thought flirting worked). Because we didn’t really talk, it was difficult for any kind of relationship to begin, and the problem was compounded by the fact that I was an exceedingly shy middle-schooler (and remained that way until I matured into the only moderately shy college student that I am today). Instead, I spent a lot of time imagining what our relationship would someday be like.

I didn’t know how to get over the hump of actually, like, expressing interest in another human, but I could very easily picture us several months into our perfect relationship, talking and laughing and holding hands in the hallway on the way to class, or whatever it is that middle school couples did. Barring that—because even I admitted it was unrealistic to imagine dating someone I could barely look at without blushing—I would imagine how I would get up the courage to ask this kid to eighth grade formal, the big dance at the end of middle school. I had it all planned out—I’d stop him after math league practice (did I mention I was a nerd in middle school?) and simply ask, “Do you want to go to formal with me?” And—because this was my imagination—he said yes. And then we would start dating, fall in love, get married, and so on.

Even after realizing how silly it was to have planned all this out before we had so much as made eye contact, it’s a pattern I’ve repeated throughout middle school, high school, and now in college. In the early stages of a crush, I skip past the awkward part—talking to them, getting to know them, flirting, confessing feelings—instead imagining what it’ll be like once we get past all the weird and confusing early parts of a relationship. The parts where you have to put yourself out there and be brave and, like, talk about your feelings—those are not my strong suits. I’m much happier to skip ahead to the comfortable fantasy, but I worry that this reliance on fantasy means I’ll never get to experience it in real life.

These concerns are what prompted me to suggest the “marriage jar” to my roommates. There were a lot of discussions about technicalities—will we be penalized for talking about weddings? (Fantasy weddings, ourselves to other people—yes. Real weddings—no.) What about if we’re discussing marriage in class or an academic context? (Allowed—and a very necessary exception, considering that two of us took a class called “Love and Hate” in the spring. We would have gone broke.) At first, we slipped up a lot—and we were all eagle-eared, eager to catch another in the act and gleefully force them to pay up. But as time went on, we put money in the jar less and less frequently—though I don’t know if it was because we’d started thinking about marriage less, or we’d started censoring ourselves more.

You’re probably wondering what I discovered. Mainly it just made me hyper-focused on what would prompt me to suggest marriage. If I saw a cute human, I would leap to “Marry him!” and then I would dial it back. “Well, don’t marry him, you don’t even know him yet. Date him? You don’t even know his name. Maybe talking to him would be a good first step.” Did I always (or ever) follow through on these dialed back possibilities? Maybe not. But thinking more seriously about the small steps on the path to real commitment was helpful. Marriage has always seemed so impossible to me—I can barely imagine what it takes to get from meeting someone for the first time to spending the rest of your life with them. But if I do ever want to make it to that point, I have to take a deep breath, walk up to a cute human, and say “hello,” because if I get too far ahead of myself, I’ll end up nowhere at all.