What is Marriage?

I spent today reading about the lives of women. I was searching for something. I read about the open relationship between Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, and I thought about a friend whose marriage is dissolving at this moment. And I thought about the very simple conviction that I had at six years old: “I am going to get married and have a family.” And how I have based my life and my actions towards the assumption that that conviction would become a reality.

But what is marriage? Right now, right at this moment in history. What is it? Same sex couples have won the right to marry in most states now. Against a great deal of religious backlash. The most touted reason I’ve heard in defense of same sex marriage is that it gives financial perks to the couple. But deep down I think we all know that marriage isn’t about tax breaks. So what is it?

Heterosexual couples are divorcing at alarming rates today. And whenever a marriage ends, it seems to be viewed as a failure. Mostly lawyers get involved, and the couple that once promised to be together forever ends the affair by vilifying each other in order to get the most, financially, from the proceeding, and psychologically to allow themselves to move on from what was once a serious commitment.

So what is marriage today? Is it a series of tax-breaks? Is it a moral imperative that we are no longer good enough to stand up to? Is it a temporary commitment that allows us to form a household and see to the caring for of children in a more or less joint way, but that no longer really can be expected to be a lifelong commitment because we live so much longer now and we are so much more committed to the growth of the individual, particularly the woman?

I’m 32, and I’ve never been married. I have had two four year relationships, and the question of marriage came up in both of them, but something held me back. And, at least in one of them, it wasn’t lack of love. Speaking of love: I’ve fallen in love at least half a dozen times. With both men and women. And I started young. And I’m not fickle, either. I’ve loved the same person, at least in one instance, for over a decade. Maybe a lifetime, in that case, though the person in question is no longer even the person I love, and yet. . . When I was a teen, I remember thinking: “If I can fall in love so easily, how will I know when it’s the right person.” Is there such a thing? But I do know that I left behind that possibly-life-long love when I was still a teen because I didn’t want to marry him. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life with someone who couldn’t put his arms around me, and I still believe that would have been the case.

My sister was a serial heterosexual monogamist when we were younger. Now she is a polyamorous bi-sexual. The last time she visited, she said that she didn’t think she would ever fall in love again because she’d just experienced too much. But the last time I fell in love, it was an odd experience, too, like I was watching outside myself. He was a man, a bit older, who had just divorced after a fifteen year marriage. He has two beautiful children, and he hates his ex-wife.

And there was chemistry, and sparks, and all the lovey-dovey naive feelings that one needs in order to enter into these things, but for the first time, I just didn’t fall into it. Instead, I watched. And I had a few strange thoughts. The first was that without allowing myself to fall head-first, I actually noticed the things about him that would have eventually come to drive me insane. We all have these ticks, bad-habits, personal struggles. The perk of falling in love, is that it tends to cloud our judgement enough that we overlook these things in the beloved until it’s too late, so to speak, and we’ve entered into the relationship. Then the next thought was that everyone has flaws. Besides just willfully ignoring them, how can you ever enter into a relationship with both eyes open? Then the conclusion: you can’t. People will drive you nuts. That is inevitable. The only way to be crazy enough to join your life with someone elses’ is to actually be crazy. Which is what falling in love effectively does for you.

And then, after I thought through all that, it occurred to me that “falling in love” is an insane feeling to base a lifelong commitment on. I mean, it makes sense, because it gets us out of ourselves. It overcomes our desire to be an island, enough to get us to join with another. And that is great because it insures the perpetuation of the species. Yay. But our average life-expectancy is like 80 years today. And no one stays “in love” for more than a couple years at most.

And then, in the midst of all of this philosophizing about love and marriage, an interesting and unprecedented (in my life, at least) thing happened. I met someone else. Well, no. I guess I’d met him awhile back, but I got to know him. And I didn’t fall in love with him at all. But I suddenly looked at him, and I looked at the man I was in love with. And I just suddenly wasn’t in love with that man anymore because I could see that this new man who I’d become friends with was, frankly, superior. He was a better man. Still, a very flawed man in his own unique ways, but superior, nonetheless. And I liked him a great deal. And I enjoyed his company. And his conversation.

This shook me to my foundation for reasons that are not clear to me. And I suddenly realized, like my sister, that I might never fall in love again. Because I no longer believe in falling in love. And because, despite that, somehow, miraculously, my heart seems to have found what it wants. What, in fact, it’s not willing to do without. And I don’t know why. But I looked at this new friend, and I saw that the way he approaches the world and thinks about it is so foreign to me, and so right in the direction I want to grow without ever having known it, that I just don’t want anyone but him. I won’t have anyone but him. And if he won’t have me, it turns out that I’ll have no one. And I think this must be love. And something more substantial than the other things I’ve called love before. But if it is, it comes as a complete surprise to me. And it doesn’t feel like I expected it to. And I don’t know what to do with it. And is this what marriage is about?

People have formed all sorts of liaisons with all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons. The way we live our lives is changing radically across our society right now. So what is marriage?

The Art of Discourse

Those of you who follow my blog Strong in the Broken Places will have noticed that I have not posted there in awhile. That is because my interests and pre-occupations have been broadening beyond the scope of that blog. I do not know, at this moment, if I will return to it, but here at The Forum for Discourse, I’d like to start a new kind of conversation today. I’d like to start a conversation about conversation with those of you who are brave and game enough for the venture; and I’d like to start a conversation about important issues that we face as a society and a planet.

You see, I’ve noticed that our means of near-instantaneous communication have multiplied–cell-phones, text-messages, instagram, facebook, email, linkedin, pinterest, twitter–and yet, the quality of our conversation has not kept up to pace. If anything, real, civil discussion about important matters seems to have suffered. Political people post about political topics, and those who agree with them read their posts and feel shored up and congratulate each other. Politer people refrain from posting such things in the first place. If two people of opposing viewpoints happen to start commenting on the same thing, the loudest one “wins.”

But nobody really wins, and that’s my point.

Our society is facing huge challenges today. What will we do about crippling student debt? Over-testing and failing schools? The housing crisis? Reproductive rights? Police violence against racial minorities? There are big questions that we all need to grapple with. What is Marriage? Who has the right to control who does it? What is mental illness? How do we define it? How do we interact with those who are suffering? Is there a place for faith in our society? And how do we allow faith into our daily lives while being respectful and caring towards those with different beliefs than ours?

If we all just believe what we believe and assume that “the other side” is stupid, I think we’re in trouble. But even trying to discuss these topics takes bravery, open-mindedness, and a whole slew of skills that are very tricky, and possibly–in this internet age–not yet even invented.

So today I want to ask: what makes discourse possible?

In a facebook flamewar I engaged in last night, I noticed that rudeness shuts down discussion. If you treat the other person like they are stupid, they aren’t going to share their thoughts openly. And the other side of that is that you aren’t going to really be listening to them if you think they are stupid.

Also, sometimes people don’t express themselves well, or they don’t express themselves the way you are used to. People with different perspectives often come from widely different backgrounds–socio-economic, religious, educational, regional–so we can’t expect everyone to share their ideas in the way that we would prefer. But if we really want to understand what they are saying, we will make an effort to look past those differences.

So here are my rules for discourse so far:

  1. Treat others with courtesy.
  2. Be actually open to others’ ideas.
  3. Try to understand the actual point being made.
  4. Ask clarifying questions if necessary.
  5. (via Pattie Brown) Pause before you post!

What other rules would you add? Have you had successful discussions on fraught topics? And what made them successful? I look forward to hearing from you!