I’ve been contemplating marriage. Not actually getting married, mind you, since that’s just not on the radar. But since my divorce, I’ve thought about marriage: what it means, whether I’d enter one again, and why I feel so conflicted about it.
So why write about it now? A good friend recently remarried. She’s utterly, completely in love. Both that love and the service were lovely to witness. Her wedding was the first I’ve attended since my separation (4.5 years ago) and divorce (3 years ago), and the months before it and the actual event brought me to wonder a bit more about marriage and whether I’d ever enter one again. I was surprised at how much my friend’s wedding caused my mind to tumble.
I was married fifteen years, spanning from the too-young twenty-five to a far-more-mature forty. Some of those years were happy. Some were not. I entered that marriage with the hope and confidence that typifies youth. When it finally ended, I walked away from the courtroom with sadness at what could not be and relief that what was had finally ended, I was also older and wiser and somewhat jaded. I left wondering about trust, lasting love, the fallibility of humans, the messes that result when our loving selves get lost to fear, and whether I could ever risk my heart again.
Sure, I’ve pondered the what ifs. What if I’d waited until I was older? What if I’d not seen marriage as bridge to be crossed to the world of adulthood? What if I’d entered it more certain of myself and with some years living alone (and not college-dorm-room alone)? But during that wondering, I’ve never desired to turn back the clock. That marriage brought me my children, after all. Beyond that, it was during the worst parts of that marriage and the time that came after that I learned about me and how my head works. I learned how much strength I had and what I truly valued. I learned I could go through what was unthinkable (divorce) and come out, well, better.
So with those positive outcomes from my first marriage’s end, why the sour expression when thinking about ever entering it again? The trite answer would be along the lines of “once burned, twice shy,” but that really doesn’t touch the tender heart of the issue. It’s not because I don’t trust men or because I wonder about my ability to judge character and suitability. It’s not because I’m waiting for marriage equity — when all are free to marry then I would partake. And it’s not because I’m a commitment phobe or prefer to live alone. (Or at least as the only adult in the house, although that does have some advantages. The empty side of the bed holds plenty of books and my iPad.)
Some of it is a bit of cynicism. Marriage, Catholic marriage as sacrament with plenty of forethought and a bit of counseling, didn’t safe-guard my relationship with my then-husband. The words said that day, the paper signed, turned out to be just words and paper. Human frailty set us asunder, and an expensive legal system undid the paper end. Now, as the child of divorced parents, I wasn’t naive enough to think that words, a priest, and a signature would guarantee happily ever after, but I did think that the intention that went into those words and those signatures would persist through the hard times. But for a myriad of reasons, sometimes that isn’t so. And sometimes, it’s better that way.
But as my father says, all marriages end. Whether by divorce or death, this human construct consummates in separation. And, generally, a fair amount of sadness, at least. I’ve led a fairly easy life, void of death of those close to me and blissfully full of an abundance of friends, food, and good fortune. Those years before and during the end of my marriage were miserable, frightening, painfully sad ones. The sense of loss was only buffered by the presence of my children and the intervention of friends, and the hurt the former suffered created a pain in me I’d never known before and hope to never know again.
But back to marriage. Our culture holds high expectations for a spouse: lover, best friend, housemate, nurse, cook, cleaning crew, parenting partner, confidant, and more. It’s a tall order. Marriage is no longer simply a pairing based on logical arrangements and tangible benefits to a family. I’m not advocating the return to the purely utilitarian marriage, although there are days that my first criteria for a partner would be a willingness to clean the insect carcasses out of the porch light and a dedication to shower cleaning. I’m just wondering what the right balance of expectations looks like.
Truth be told, I’d like to partner again, even if that person didn’t clean bugs out of lights or scrub showers more often than I. My father often reminds me that we’re social animals, and the desire to pair extends beyond the biological end of procreation. (And there will be no more of that, mind you!)
Our culture seems to carry conflicting messages about partnering. On the one hand, it tells us that pairing is essential. Consider the number of articles on and off-line about how to find and keep a partner. Look at movies and TV, many which focus on partner acquisition even while hunting down the bad guy. Find someone who “completes” you, who is your soulmate, and all will be well. Being alone? That’s a situation to be fixed, preferably as soon as possible.
Countering that is what I’ll call the “whole people are happy alone” maxim. As a society, we also value independence and the individual over the group (politics and sports aside), whether that be the group at work or the group that is a committed couple. Saying one is lonely is viewed as weakness, with admonitions to know one’s self and be comfortable in being alone. I’d wholly agree that being comfortable in time alone is part of being a healthy human. Being able to sit with the self without restlessly searching to fill the void of other indicates a level of acceptance of one’s nature and being. But one can be quite comfortable being alone and yet feel still lonely. Heck, one can be inches from one’s spouse and still feel lonely. I’ve been to both those places.
So where does that leave me with the institution that is marriage. It’s not a magic-maker nor a guarantee. It’s not the answer to loneliness or lights filled with bugs. It isn’t a protection against pain and hardship. It is in part a piece of paper that comes with legal protections and social acceptance (and it should be open to all, regardless of the gender pairing, but that’s another essay). At its best, it should be a commitment of love, friendship, and deep compassion.
Perhaps its the pain of ending part that has me stuck. Perhaps it’s doubt that I could do a better job at my part, despite knowing myself better and seriously working on the parts of me that did nothing to help as my marriage unwound. Perhaps a bit of it is about trust, as much as I like to think it’s not. I just don’t know. That’s not much of a conclusion, but today it’s all I have. I’m open to thoughts about marriage, good or bad. Share away.