Marriage as Another Country
Since marrying five years ago, I’ve occasionally found myself in the following situation: milling about at an “adult” party (we’re at the age in which people start replacing beer and dancing with better beer and polite chatting in order to be more age-appropriate) with people I don’t know very well who are trying to commiserate with me about the norms and foibles of married life that I, a married man, can allegedly relate to (but invariably cannot):
“So Rufus, I’m sure you know how frustrating it is when she’s got the remote control and you both want to watch different things on TV, huh?” (We don’t actually watch TV; but I’ve heard that not watching television is fine, but telling other people that you don’t watch TV is pretentious, so I reply, “Yep. Hate that”.)
“Man, wives just don’t understand how important it is for guys to have power tools, right?” (Okay, I do like to fix things, but so does she, and she uses the power tools while I avoid them because, well, there are reasons I’ve gotten stitches so many times.)
“You know how it is with wives- you got to let them do whatever they want and stay out of the way if you want to have a happy home!” (Sort of like the crazy guy on the plane that everyone avoids disturbing.)
“So, Rufus, you’re going abroad for six months? Well, don’t worry- we’ll check up on your wife and make sure she’s behaving herself while you’re gone!” (No, I do not mention at this point that our marriage is not monogamous. And that’s really a whole other post.*)
Okay, clearly, I’m not a social kind of guy. And my point here is not that my wife and I are weird, although we probably are; nor that our marriage is strange, although surely some would think so. Instead, the point is that every single marriage has its own norms and customs- everyone else’s marriage is a different country and you’re not a native- and it’s much harder than we hope (a hope guided by years of television shows, movies, and magazine articles written by hacky writers) to boil down “marriage” as such into norms that apply across the board. Sometimes I think we recognize easily that every dating relationship is unique, while imagining that we’re all married in the same way.
And I think this leads people to believe their marriage is “broken” when it doesn’t look like what they imagine a marriage to be. We’ve seen friends really second-guess themselves about issues that probably would not be problematic in a dating relationship, but which seem to fly in the face of the consensus reality about marriage.** Some of them divorce. I personally have a borderline-horror about divorce, similar to the feelings expressed by Lisa and others here, which no doubt stems from my parents’ wrenching divorce. And it seems to me that, for as frequently as people divorce because they were glib about marriage, plenty of others get married with expectations about “normal” “functionality” that no marriage can sustain. Among our friends who have gotten divorced, this was more of an issue than glibness, and it sort of made me wonder if they weren’t tricked into divorce by those hacky writers.
“So, I too identify with traditionalism, believe it or not; however, I also recognize that some people reject traditionalism not because they reject its ideals, which are often noble, but they reject how it can become a sort of snobbism.”
A secondary problem is when people forget that no marriage ever looks the same after five years, or ten years, or twenty years as it did on the wedding day. Again, people understand this about dating relationships- they change over time because people change over time- but they seem to think that being married freezes each partner and the relationship in a particular moment in time. And then when their spouse decides to change their career, or finds God, or wants to become an artist instead of a lawyer- or any of the other changes people go through- they feel that the contract has been broken, or they’ve been somehow betrayed. “I married an atheist lawyer- not a born-again painter!!” But the sort of loyalty that makes marriages last is not about living and behaving in accordance with your partner’s expectations; it’s more about honoring your love for that person, as an individual, as they change and grow, which they will.
Loyalty requires flexibility and often has little to do with personal happiness. It’s not that marriages should be unhappy, but I feel at odds with a sort of lifestyle liberalism that over-emphasizes the happiness that marriage is expected to bring. The Huffington Post, for instance, frequently tries to demystify divorce with helpful hints like, “with divorce; if you haven’t even considered it, you haven’t given yourself the full spectrum of choices for your happiness or fulfillment.” It sort of makes sense, but really minimizes the emotional trauma of, essentially, breaking up a family. Think of this sentence in terms of other familial relationships: “If you haven’t even considered putting your children in foster care, you haven’t given yourself the full spectrum of choices for your happiness and fulfillment.” Even in childless marriages, there is reason to believe- and plenty of therapists do believe- that the emotional bond is just as intense as that between a parent and a child. Divorce leaves scars. But when lifestyle liberals treat the destruction of a family as a tantalizing lifestyle choice, I think, perhaps unfairly, of J.G. Ballard’s warnings about the “death of affect” in developed societies. Happily, I also suspect the attitude is less common among people my age than among the baby boomers who write for Salon or Huffpo.
Where I really agree with Lisa is in the sense that our loyalty to others is not always or even usually rooted in the happiness they bring us. Ask yourself this: Do you love your family members? Do they always make you happy? Which of these two answers is more important to you in assessing your relationship with them? My point exactly.
It’s not just happiness or lack thereof- sometimes, marriage is downright miserable. Sometimes, it’s more painful being married to this person than it would be to leave. But if you love them, those feelings are likely not situational or conditional, so it’s generally better to slog through the muck than betray your own feelings by leaving. Besides, you’re not alone- every marriage, like every family, has its own winter months.
So, I too identify with traditionalism, believe it or not; however, I also recognize that some people reject traditionalism not because they reject its ideals, which are often noble, but they reject how it can become a sort of snobbism. The reason I accept many so-called traditional values is really just because I believe they’re healthy for humans. But, as such, I recognize that there are many different ways that people live out those values and that, again, we’re all of us outsiders when it comes to other people’s marriages. Unfortunately, some of my traditionalist relatives have a very rigid idea of what behaviors count as embodiments of those values and can, therefore, be both self-aggrandizing and overly condemnatory of strangers. They focus more on the externals than the internal values and can be insufferable to be around.
Obviously, none of these complaints apply in the slightest to Lisa or her post. But I think a lot of us are interested in how the historically unprecedented level of divorce in America can be lowered. We’ve talked about changing how society looks at divorce, and certainly I’m not throwing any “divorce parties” either. I think a secondary goal is to change the ways that society supports marriages, and to let young people who are getting married know that married life is a reality that two people create together. It’s not going to look like other people’s marriages and it’s not always going to look like your vision of marriage- and, hey, sometimes it’s going to be really terribly painful for both of you- but it’s only your place to say if you’re doing it right.
* I’m not averse to discussing non-monogamous marriage here. But I think it’s terribly impolite and awkward to tell others about your non-monogamous marriage if they didn’t ask. Also, I understand that plenty of people think that couples like us are not “really married” and didn’t want to get into that discussion in this post.
** I realize too that marriage is quite different from dating. But I think it’s healthy to remember that, in both cases, the people involved are the ones managing the relationship.