Thursday, July 2, 2009

Commit Me Already

On Sunday mornings Jeff is usually the first one out of bed. Well, actually, the first one out of bed is Camille. And Camille is hungry when she wakes up. And since waking up Mom results in a less than thrilling bowl of cold cereal, while waking up Dad results in pancakes, waffles, omelets and often, homemade biscuits…I am lucky in that I am mostly left undisturbed on Sunday mornings.

Last Sunday was no exception. Jeff had prepared some ridiculously involved and delicious breakfast for Camille using approximately every single pot, pan, spatula, skillet and spoon in our house and had then settled down to read the news on the Internet while sipping his coffee. He happened across Sandra Singh Loh’s article, entitled Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.

It struck him on several levels. First of all, we have lots of friends getting divorces. Also, I think he saw a lot of me in the author. Did this cause him to panic? Not quite. But did he did fix me a cup of coffee exactly the way I like it and bring it into the bedroom? You betcha. Gone are the days when he might have plopped down on the bed to share an article from the newspaper; instead he popped open my laptop and said, “Here. Read this. Man, are you going to divorce me or what?”

I do, indeed, have several things in common with the author. We’re about the same age, we’ve been married for about the same time, we both have kids who we attachment-parent, we’re both writers working from home, we both have traveling husbands….we both are often overwhelmed by the many tasks involved in quasi-single-parenting. Parenting with a traveling husband is HARD. I can attest to that. And most of the issues that arise in our marriage are related to this specific situation. I often don’t feel that Jeff has the slightest clue as to how much I do in his absence.

However, are we headed for a break-up? No way. But do I think the institution of marriage is outdated, as the author suggests?

Well, I must admit that since I tend to run a little counter-cultural, I was hoping to come to the conclusion that yes, it is. But I don’t really believe that. I DO believe that people have unrealistic expectations of marriage. I also believe that many people get married for the wrong reasons. And I believe that there is too much cultural and societal pressure to get married, when many people are quite happy being single. And I believe that the expectations that we will all marry are rooted in restricted sexual expression and the fact that, as a culture, even though very few people remain chaste until marriage – we still feel that sex outside of marriage is immoral. Therefore, since very few of us will take vows of celibacy – we get married.

I also believe that the institution of marriage, per say, has no bearing on my personal relationship with my partner. It is not the piece of paper or the ceremony that holds us together. And the fact that a certain percentage of the population is denied the right to marry has also affected my opinion of the institution of marriage. But really, that is a separate issue. Most of you know how I feel about it.

Statistics seem to support the author’s conclusion that marriage, as an institution, is not thriving in America.

Yet most Americans support marriage. Let me re-phrase that: They support marriage between one man and one woman. Even if the marriage is in shambles and riddled with infidelity and deception….or patriarchal abuse of power…it is still better than no marriage at all. Because marriage, or the institution of marriage, has connotations of being pure, of being a blessed and sacred union…even if it isn’t. On the other hand, just living happily in a committed relationship without the piece of paper or blessing of a representative of the church? Sinful.

Half of American marriages end in divorce. Half! If you were told you had a 50% chance of being happy with the expensive car you were looking at, or the cosmetic surgery you were contemplating…you would say, “No way!” Yet in the case of marriage, we look at the same odds and proceed in rapturous joy down the aisle in order to set up house and produce babies, both of which have a 50% chance of ending up being battled over in divorce court. And there seems to be a certain amount of mass hypocrisy involved.

The author expresses it well when she writes:
"I sense you picking up the first stone to hurl, even if you yourself may be twice or even three times divorced. Such a contradiction turns out to be uniquely American. Just because marriage didn’t work for us doesn’t mean we don’t believe in the institution. Just because our own marital track records are mixed doesn’t mean our hearts don’t lift at the sight of our daughters’ Tiffany-blue wedding invitations. After all, we can easily arrange to sit far from our exes, across the flower-bedecked aisle, so as not to roil the festive day.”

What is wrong with our expectations of marriage?

Obviously, it is a multi-faceted problem with no clear answer. Marriage is a paradox. It is the only thing I know of that is treated so seriously and so lightly at the same time.

I think that for the institution of marriage to survive it has to modernize. The old-fashioned concept of husband and wife happily taking up gender-appropriate roles is not really applicable. The old idea of marriage is a patriarchal arrangement that simply doesn’t fit, anymore. Yet, it is still the ideal that many people have in mind when they get married. And then there is the whole romantic and religious notion that a marriage is truly the physical and spiritual joining of two people. I personally do not think it is physically or spiritually possible for two people to become one.

I think the single entity thing is part of what messes up some marriages. Around mid-life, a lot of couples are quite surprised to discover that they are not, in fact, one person. And instead of accepting and embracing their individuality, they think, “Why aren’t we closer? Why don’t we have the same views and opinions on everything? Where have we failed?” They are surprised to discover that their partners have secret thoughts, hopes, ambitions…and occasionally secret lives, because they’ve been forced to hold back parts of themselves that did not fit into the mold of their perfect union.

The truth of the human state is that we often don’t know who we currently are, much less, who we’re going to be years from now. Yet, change is a scary thing. We hear over and over again, “He’s not the same person he was when I married him!” To that I say, “Thank God!” Jeff was a 22-year-old boy when I married him! If he was the same person I’d be in a lot of trouble.

We are allowed to change. Yet, our idea of the Institution of Marriage is that it is rock-solid (again, even though statistics show that this is far from the truth). It is unchanging, always and forever, unconditional love that is conditioned upon stagnation, or the appearance of stagnation.

Obviously, as we progress down the somewhat imaginary journey of unity, half of us choose to stay with our partners. But what does it mean to remain in a marriage? Is your marriage intact when you’re sleeping in separate beds? Is your marriage intact when you’re living in different homes? Is your marriage intact if you’re having an affair, or don’t speak to each other, or no longer love each other? Are there statistics on how many marriages exist in this sort of limbo? Possibly. But I can look around at my own circle of family, friends, and acquaintances to know that a significant portion of the 50% of successful marriages, are not really all that successful. So happily ever after as bride and groom? Not really even a 50% chance.

That doesn’t sound so great. Yet as we all sit here, we anticipate that our children will end up happily married. The statistics on marriage, as it stands, do not support our projections. Yet, what if we changed our view and understanding of what marriage is? Could long-term happiness result then?

What if we, as a society, scaled down the Break the Bank Weddings? What if we, as a society, strove to create meaningful rites of passage – where the destination is the goal, and not the party? This might seem like a small, frivolous detail – but I do truly believe that many marriages form around the wedding, itself. Eliminate the wedding; eliminate a certain percentage of divorces.

Next, what if we stopped expecting everyone to get married? What if we gave value and validation to the single lifestyle? What if staying single became a respectable option for women, even those who want to be mothers? Of course, this would involve us dealing with our sexual hang-ups. Why does divorce have to happen for so many people before they say they’re happy being single?

Finally, what if we view marriage as the friendship that it really needs to be? What if we forgave our spouses in the same way we forgive our friends? I think that one of the reasons we find it so hard to forgive spouses is because our spouse is supposed to be “ours”. My Husband. My Wife. How can something that belongs to me, hurt me? Or, even better, we’re one, right? Holy union and all that stuff? And here one of us went and did something that indicates we are not one entity!

Entering into a marriage does not transform us. It doesn’t even join us. It commits us to another person. A separate person. A person who we must acknowledge will go through ups and downs and changes that do not necessarily involve us. Entering into a marriage with a clear understanding of what it means to be an individual is what will help the survival rate; not entering into it with a dreamy idea of spiritual or holy union.

And what happens when the changes we undergo drag us too far apart? Can that happen? Sure, it can happen. It does happen. But I think it is less likely to happen if a partnership is created that respects individuality and is based on common core values, which don't tend to change all that much over time. If core values are shared, a lot of the other differences and changes and crises that occur are more likely to be tolerated well.

Of course, if I were to awaken to discover that Jeff had somehow morphed into Rush Limbaugh overnight? I would want some options.

Well, this was a long ramble. I fell in love with Jeff when I was 14. I married him when I was 21. Statistics say that, contrary to popular belief, young marriages have slightly higher success rates. Maybe because there’s less of a “blending of two lives” process? We brought nothing to the marriage but dorm room milk crates. But I also think we’re happy because Jeff is simply an easy guy to get along with. Everyone likes him and I’m no exception. The guy cannot be freaked out by anything I do. He isn’t threatened by my self-expression. He is somewhat of a loner and that gives him the natural ability to give me my space. Sometimes it is too much space, and I have to work to enclose a circle around the two of us.

We neither one feel that we need a marriage license to be the family that we are. And in fact, we have both decided that if we were to do it all over, we would poo-poo the wedding and the license and the whole bit. We would just quietly make our family without the interference of outside influences.

In 2011 it will be 25 years for us. We’ll have a big party. Jeff has suggested that we disavow our vows (which we didn’t write and which I’m sure were taken from scripture or something – the fact that we don’t even know what it is that we vowed to each other indicates the ridiculousness of it). Then we will dance to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Hard to Concentrate while our 5 kids roll their eyes. And we'll commit, again, to hanging out with each other until one of us dies or morphs into Rush Limbaugh, whichever comes first.

You’re all invited!
Signing off as a Totally Committed Sardine Mama


  1. I come at my beliefs about marriage from a different place than you do, Carol, as we both know. That said, I do agree with you on a few points.
    A) THE WEDDING. Way too much is focused on 'the big day'. I've seen friend after friend get all ini a frenzy over a few hours of their life yet only a fraction of that energy is put into preparation for the marriage itself. Then we get to the women who seem to get married more because they want to be a bride then a wife. Maybe we should start a new trend. Call them Queen for a Day Parties or something, where women who want a big party can be the center of attention and wear a rockin' dress (and tiara) and dance and party for hours without the baggage of a marriage to go with it.
    B)The friendship. It is hokey but if you aren't people who can have a good time, good laugh, good conversation comepletely outside of are in for a long hard and lonely road.

    I could write a whole lot more about marriage, my views on it, why I think it is failing, misconceptions blah, blah, blah....I won't use your comm box for that though. :D

    See ya Saturday!!

  2. Sweet God in Heaven, I will pray every day that you do not morph into Rush Limbaugh.

    But be advised, if that should happen despite my best efforts? I will probably not read your blog any more.

    And the RL comment made me totally forget what I was going to say.