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?

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2 thoughts on “What is Marriage?

  1. So I’m just going to riff on a few ideas, some you have mentioned already.

    This notion of marriage as a love-match is relatively new, and relatively Western cultured. See: Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz (and many other books on the subject, but hers I find the most interesting). I’m somewhat convinced that marrying for romantic love is a mistake, as is our whole obsession with personal happiness. (That didn’t stop me from doing it, but I realize the perils. That’s got to count for something.)

    It is a myth that heteros are getting divorced at an alarming rate. See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/02/upshot/the-divorce-surge-is-over-but-the-myth-lives-on.html
    And even if they were, much of that is because women have more legal rights and the ability to support themselves without having to marry. (2/3rd of divorces are initiated by women.) Not a bad thing, right? So nothing wrong with a little well-placed divorce, imo. I would much rather a good divorce than a bad marriage.

    I find myself comparing your six year old affirmation to my childhood one, which was that I would never marry, but instead have a lover who lived at least an hour away from me and could visit on weekends. Of course, now, I feel bereft when my husband misses dinnertime. (My parents have been married for almost 60 years. I blame them for my early ambivalence.)

    As for what is love? Real love is not a feeling you have, it is a thing you do. It is an active verb. It is sacrifice and compromise. Thankfully, it is also shared jokes and entwined bodies and summer afternoons doing nothing, together. Love does not hit you like a lightning bolt. (That’s lust – physical and spiritual.) Love is forged, day in and day out. To me, that’s the kind of love that makes relationships. The other kind is ego and desire, noise and biology. It has it’s place, but it’s place is not in a marriage.

    YMMV.

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  2. Well, it’s interesting that–that love as the foundation of marriage is relatively new. Because there is nothing besides love compelling folks to marry these days, is there? We’re allowed to have sex with whoever we please, whenever we please. We don’t have arranged marriages. What besides love would compel you to make a decision to spend the rest of your life with another person?

    Also, it’s interesting that women are initiating divorces because they don’t need the support of men anymore. Is the old-fashioned view of marriage what it is? Men financially supporting women while women take care of the home and family? Or is it joint finances? Or what else?

    It’s always seemed to me like marriage was the person you chose to be your family. But if you can unmake that choice so easily, then it’s not real family, is it? It’s like eternally provisional family. Or maybe what family is and means is at question here, too. Maybe the nature of family is shifting right now, too.

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