Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Splitsville, Part II

I appreciate that many of you intuited that, in my first post on Splitsville, I was talking about that kind of divorce announcement that comes unexpectedly, that hits everyone upside the noggin (including at least one of the couple), and that isn't so much about chronic misery as it is about unremitting discomfort or inconvenience, or irreconcilably different senses of how happy and comfortable one gets to be in this lifetime.

I puzzle, and I ache.

I have married over 200 couples and my overall sense is that they know that marriage is a lifetime deal; a permanent proposition through thick and thin, sickness and health, bad breath and fallen arches and wheelchairs and the final feeding tube... all the way to plots side by side in the graveyard. They recognize that they are walking into the great unknown together and they generally know that there will be rocky times. The graph of expectations, if charted, might go like this:

Great sense of compatability and sense of mutual enchantment and sexiness (highest point); stresses of living together, mutual disenchantment, establishing more realistic mutual understanding (leveling out); uh-oh -- affair or extreme weight gain and/or profligate nose hairs & lack of hygiene, incredibly tense or non-existent sex life (when one of the partners wants one), evidence of major character flaws (low point); purchase of house, child-rearing (high peaks, low valleys); occasional perfect weekends, trip to Bermuda (up again); and so on until the tombstones.

In other words, the married couples I know seem to have a sense that married life has some definite phases, and they're ready to endure them together.

I wonder, though, how much help we could give marrieds if we talked a lot more about these lesser-known and discussed phases in coupled life, such as :

The "I Really Don't Think I Even LIKE You Any More, Let Alone Am In Love With You" phase.
The "I Have a Wicked Hot Crush On My Flirtatious and Available Co-Worker" phase.
The "I Secretly Think You're a Really Lousy Parent" phase.
The "If You Repeat That Story At A Dinner Party One More Time I Will Set You On Fire" phase.
The "I Am So Bored I Could Set Myself On Fire Just To Have Something To Feel" phase.
The "I Regard You As a Professional /Domestic Failure And I've Totally Given Up Hope That You Will Ever Adequately Contribute To The Running Of A Functional Household" phase.
And the
"You're A Really Sweet And Good Person But I Don't Feel Like Being Married Anymore" phase.

I have thought for many years that marriage, like parenting, is a vocation. Romance, if romance is felt or experienced, is just so much icing on the cake.

One has to feel called to marriage and parenting not so much because one is in love and eternally delighted with the object of one's devotion and care, but because one feels that it is one's highest calling to be loyal to the relationship and role of spouse/parent, because one feels spiritually fulfilled through the daily acts of love, understanding and forebearance that such commitments require, and because one's life would be obviously and eminently poorer without such commitments.

When my unmarried Master admonished his disciples to hate our mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers (I'm paraphrasing, of course. You'll find the teaching in Luke 14:26), I think he was pointing to the radical nature of love, which is after all, not about them but about us. It is about the spiritual integrity of the one who loves, not about the object of our love, whose charms will surely ebb and flow in our eyes over the course of time, and whose very lovability is entirely subject to our own projections and dysfunctions.

In other words, and more prosaically, when I see the oldest marries in my community together I think they got that way by honoring the sacred bond of marriage over the pursuit of individual happiness. In my fondest hopes, I imagine they have learned, over the passage of many years, that individual happiness comes not from the enduring adorableness of the other, but in the daily spiritual practice of being a trustworthy, committed spouse.

Before marrying: Know Thyself.
Before divorcing: Consider whose tombstone may be next to yours, and what name shall be inscribed there.


Anonymous Philocrites said...

I'd recommend Bill Doherty's UU World essay, "Time To Commit: Unitarian Universalist support for marriage needs to extend beyond the right to marry and the right to divorce."

Anonymous martinet said...

That's lovely. I'm giving at least a few paragraphs of that to my husband, if you don't mind (the parts near the end about the commitment to the loyalty of the relationship, not necessarily the parts about the various frightening phases. I know him; he'd just get paranoid that I'm experiencing these phases even if I'm not, and I don't need to feed it by introducing some phases that he might not have even thought of yet!).

And I should say, which I didn't before, that some marriages simply have to end (possibly because they shouldn't have begun in the first place). My husband's former marriage was clearly one of those--he was married to someone very immature and emotionally abusive who brought out the worst in him, eventually, as well. I'd be curious to think where people draw the line on that. At this point, I think we both know that we're NOT going to be happy all the time (especially because we both tend to depression anyway), but where's the point when the unhappiness is too much? When does the loyalty yield to self-preservation?

Anonymous The Empirical Friend said...

How'd you get so wise, PeaceBang?

Your rundown on marriage pretty much spells-out its trajectory.

I've been with my partner going on 20 years now and while it's not been easy of course, how hard life would be without him, his support, laughter and always bossing me around.

Not to mention:

Who else could endure my family?

Who else would rescue me from a scary nurse after open-heart surgery?

Who else could the dogs love more than me and have it make me happy?

Thanks for your words.

Anonymous Oversoul said...

“I have thought for many years that marriage, like parenting, is a vocation.”

I never thought of it that way before, but I have to say that I agree. And while I cannot legally marry (at least not outside Massachusetts), my almost 7-year relationship is for all intents and purposes a marriage, so I understand the issues you highlight very very well.

“I'd be curious to think where people draw the line on that.”

Personally, I think there’s a difference between a difficult patch or issue, and an abusive relationship. If the abuse cannot be stopped (via counseling for example) then I think it’s best the relationship ends.

Anonymous Oversoul said...

One more thing-I enjoyed the UU World essay on marriage as well; I thought it highlighted some important points for UUism's attitude towards marriage. I think that UUism sometimes lacks depth, and this article points to one area in which UUism needs to be less shallow.

Anonymous Amy said...

I also read the World article on marriage and was a bit impatient with it. All these people are just only now discovering that commitment through the bad patches is essential to marriage? Oh well, better late than never.

Turning to more complex understandings, I was nodding enthusiastically all the way through martinet's comments. I went through several years of the "Oh dear, you're actually so wrapped up in your own misery that you aren't here to help me with my problems even when I beg you to be" phase and 250+ sessions of couples counseling before deciding that it was okay--no, not okay, right--to declare this marriage dead. Sometimes it is the right thing to do. As a minister, I want to know how to help people to determine when that is. When you figure it out, let the rest of us know . . .

My ex and I were deeply in love, and both deeply committed to marriage as a lifelong vocation. That commitment also has an optimum level; more is not necessarily better, but as with most things, can reach toxic levels. I was beyond "committed to" the ideal of "as long as we both shall live," and well into "unhealthily attached to" that ideal, with the result that I tolerated a bad situation long after we reached the point that the only solution was to leave.

And that, I'll wager, is almost as common a phenomenon as "eh, I'm bored, let's get divorced."


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