I've spent so much time thinking about it, that I think this is going to have to be a multi-post discussion. Here's part the first: Marriage Ain't the Only Game in Town (some thoughts on our collective obsession with the ring). Coming soon to a blog near you: Red Herrings and Elephants in the Room (Legalizing gay marriage has nothing to do with marriage: discuss). And finally: Both Sides Now (well, you'll see). Without further ado:
A couple of weeks ago, a childhood friend of mine whose blog I like very much, despite what I suspect is a very wide divide between our worldviews and experiences since the days when we built impromptu boats explored abandoned buildings, wrote a piece about "happily ever after." In it, she laments that the popular imagination is enthralled with stories of courtship, but usually loses interest once the happy couple walks off into the sunset, and we rarely get to see what happens on that stroll. The gist of it is that although it's a lot less sexy to think about the ups and downs of a long-term commitment, THAT journey deserves celebration as much or more so than the happy "how we met" horseshit that most people are excited about.
I'm with her, as far as that goes. As pretty much anyone who's every interacted with other human beings, platonically or romantically, knows, infatuation is easy, but the kind of dedication, patience and, yes, love required to make a relationship work over time is exceptionally demanding and sometimes really not that fun at all. I'll suggest that it takes a lifetime of hard work just to understand, accept and appreciate our forever-changing selves. That anyone manages to do the same for and with another person is nothing short of miraculous. Raise the roof for any couple with the emotional largess to navigate time and space together for great length of time.
Where I part ways with my friend, however, is where she equates this kind of commitment exclusively with marriage. She values marriage so highly that she places cohabitation outside of marriage alongside the escalating divorce rate as lamentable conditions undermining meaningful long-term commitments. This drives me bonkers on just about a million levels. Here are some:
- As I noted in the comments section of her post, there are plenty of people who exemplify the most virtuous behaviors attributed to government-legitimized couples who are either legally excluded from or voluntarily opt out of that institution. Let's leave aside for a moment the sometimes superhuman effort demanded of gay couples who've had to negotiate their long-term relationships not just on a personal level, but on a public, political level as well (activist or not, being in an open gay relationship still reads as a bold statement to much of the public at large).
- I can cite dozens of instances where people previously married have moved on since their divorce with a new partner -- one they haven't married. More notably, they have no intention of marrying again, but these relationships have, by and large, outlasted the ones in which they pledged "'til death do us part."
- At the risk of reading too much into it, there's a subtle implication here that somehow the public proclamation of commitment is what makes it valid. In other words, it's insufficient to have a monogamous, mutually satisfying, long-term relationship. It's just playing house until you've laid your heart's intimate depths open for public acknowledgement and judgment.
We are a culture that loves the narrative of marriage as a rite of passage. For most young Americans, whether their plans for the future involve being an astronaut or a firefighter or a secretary or a ditchdigger, the plan for their personal lives is obvious: meet someone, fall in love and get married. The subtext is that this is what people do when they're grown ups. The tandem assumption (although the stigma has certainly lessened over time) is that if you don't do this, or if you divorce, you are some combination of lazy, immature, unserious, and/or morally bankrupt. I would posit, however, that the real heart of the problem is not careless, unconsidered divorce, but careless, unconsidered marriage.
If getting married is the last piece of your relationship puzzle and both parties share a vision of what that means, great. If remaining unmarried floats your boat, great. The bottom line is that we as a society benefit from happy, thoughtful people cultivating happy, thoughtful relationships (particularly is there's a shared vision of children in those relationships) and that's not something that happens because of elaborate traditional ceremonies or legal contracts. It happens when people make reasoned decisions about their life together and build that life on a foundation of trust, respect, and love.