Tuesday, October 25, 2011

on marriage

Almost a year ago, I wrote about my divorce.  In that post, I said that my divorce shaped my thinking on marriage.  In other posts, I've referenced the fact that Kathy and I are not married, and that one reason for this is that she is presently engaged in what very well may be the most drawn out divorce in history.  It has literally been going on for years.  And so, I find that it's not just my divorce that has shaped my thinking on marriage -- it's also hers. 

So, what does it mean to have a view of marriage that is shaped by divorce?  For one thing, I am under no illusions that divorce is the quick or easy out for a marriage that doesn't work.  When you don't have kids, divorce scrapes you so emotionally raw that it can take years to recover.  When you do have kids, it's not just you that is scraped raw -- it's also the small beings entrusted to your care.  Not to mention the fact that almost everyone I know who has gone through a messy divorce has emerged with no savings.  None.  Divorce is a lot of things.  But "quick" and "easy" it is not.

Although these experiences with divorce might have made me bitter, jaded, or cynical about marriage, nothing could be further from the truth.  I am a romantic, underneath it all.  As Kathy's divorce slowly draws to a close, there are some marriage-minded people in my life (and in my house).  So, I've decided to take this opportunity to think about my definition of marriage, and why I would want to give it another try. 

One caveat, though:  this is what marriage means to me.  It probably isn't the same as what marriage is to you.  In fact, I would be kind of freaked out if there is someone out there with the exact same definition of marriage. 
1.  Marriage is forever.  This doesn't mean that if it doesn't work, you should just stay in it.  But when I get married, I will need to believe deep inside that it can last.  Forever.  Or, if not forever, at least until one of us dies.  It's not a matter of getting a quick and easy divorce if things don't work out (see above!).  So when I get married again, I will need to believe with all I have that I am not going to have to go through another divorce.

2.  Marriage is universal.  Almost every culture has some kind of marriage-like concept.  Sometimes it's property related, sometimes it's related to having children, sometimes it doesn't really seem to be related to anything except oppressing women.  Sometimes, it's about love.  But it's there, all over the place.  In fact, I only said "almost" because I don't know of all the cultures, not being an anthropologist, and I am sure that there are cultures out there with no concept of marriage.  But I don't know of any.  This universality gives me a sense that by entering into a marriage, by making that commitment, I am entering into something bigger than myself, bigger even than my partner and me, and our newly-enlarged family.

3.  Marriage is unique.  Maybe this would be better phrased as a marriage is unique.  Everyone has their own definition of marriage.  Some marriages involve two people, some involve more.  Some involve monogamy, some don't.  Some are a joining of individuals, some are a joining of families, some are a joining of farmland.  Some require weddings, some don't.  Etc., etc.  I love that, despite the universality of marriage, I get to define what it means to me.  My marriage is (or will be) mine.

4.  Marriage is hard work.  People in a close relationship are going to have conflict.  They are going to fight, about everything from towels to money to child-rearing.  That means working through it.  But it's not really the fights that are the hardest thing.  It's the growing.  People grow, and growing means changing.  The hard part is not just loving the person you marry, but loving who you are married to, when they become a different version of that person. 

5.  But not that much hard work.  When it comes to relationships, you actually can force a square peg into a round hole.  But when it is right, you find that you don't have to.  It is work, but it is also easy.  This is one of the great paradoxes of relationships. 

Finally, I guess I should mention one thing that marriage is not.  It's not a wedding.  Don't get me wrong, I think a wedding will be fun, and that there is value in getting up in front of everyone and declaring your commitment.  There is also value in having a kick-ass party, full of people who support you, as you embark upon a big adventure.  But it's not the important part.  The important part, the part I can't wait for, is the reason for the wedding.  The important part is the marriage.


  1. I know you said it's your definition... so does that mean you don't welcome a discussion? ;) My take is it's NOT easy. Marriage does allow a breathable space because of trust and mutual respect. That space allows for growth and change, but it is not easy in my opinion.

    One of the best pieces of advice I heard about marriage was at a wedding ceremony of friends of M that I had never met. It was some kind of Lutheran mass. Turns out M wasn't even listening to the homily and missed this great gem. Anyhow, the priest said that every decision you make in a marriage is either one that brings you closer together, or one that takes you further apart. I think of that often.

  2. Haha. Of course it doesn't mean I don't welcome discussion. Really what I meant to do was weed out the "how dare you say marriage is _____, that is the most ridiculous thing ever." and instead, direct the conversation toward, "well, that's interesting, in my experience marriage is ____." Guess it sounded a little defensive?

    Anyway, I also like that thought, that each decision will either bring you closer together or move you apart. Even seemingly small decisions, like unwillingness to pick up ones clothes off the bedroom floor (ahem, one of the things I do that irritates Kathy, but which I am working on) build up over time into an environment of disrespect, which will drive you apart.

    I suppose what I meant by easy, though, is that in past relationships, every day has felt like a struggle. Maintaining a sense of self in the midst of the relationship, resisting the urge to roll over and accommodate the other person's needs all the time, setting boundaries, fighting well, all was a struggle. That left me feeling like there was a low hum of effort, effort, effort, all the time.

    I am surprised at how, in this relationship, there is instead a low hum of joy. The sense of ease, I guess, comes from the feeling of freedom to be who I am without apology (which is not the same thing as allowing yourself not to work through issues - it is a fine line). She is actually amused by my occasional sour moods and the fact that I am emotionally rather high-maintenance. She once said she loves it when I get so cranky, because it makes her feel fond of me. That is not the reaction I typically get to my cranky moods. That kind of easy. Like I am a square peg, but she is a square hole, so it's okay, I don't need to try to round the edges.