For several years after my marriage, which I lawyered my way out of 15 years ago with a book called “Do-it-Yourself Divorce,” I couldn’t stomach any friend’s wedding without ducking out before the reception. At one, I felt compelled to bolt before the ceremony began. I’ve since apologized to my friend, and she was very cool about it, but I can still recall the visceral feeling that I shouldn’t be there, of needing to throw up. Also, this friend is now working like mad for her divorce.
That aversion to marriage—mine or anyone else’s—is rooted in this acquired belief: When two people marry, they’re wagering they’ll grow compatibly through the rest of their lives.
It’s a sucker’s bet.
While half of all marriages end in divorce, at least half of those that don’t, from my vantage, should. We all know these couples—disconnected, dysfunctional, resentful or miserable, perhaps mired in dishonesty—people who have drifted past the point of no return but can’t find their way through finances, family obligations or fear to separate and, as individuals, start anew.
Don’t mistake this as a critique of committed relationships or the work it takes to build their foundations. I’m all for healthy, rewarding relationships that last as long as they’re meant to last—be it months, years or many decades—and the meaning and fulfillment that come with shared lives and experiences. I just don’t believe this must happen, or even should, within the legal confines of marriage.
The person you are in your 20s or 30s isn’t going to be the same person you see in the mirror in your 40s or 50s. Priorities and interests evolve, your sense of self becomes more layered and complex. Attractions shift and change. What are the odds that the person you married 10 or 20 years ago will be right for you today? Why do people shackle themselves to a legal construct that doesn’t have escape clauses for personal evolution?
I spent much of 2011 and 2012 working to defeat the proposal in Minnesota to discriminate against gay and lesbian couples, and I rejoiced a few weeks ago when Minnesota legalized marriage as an option for any couple. Championing equality, though, is different than endorsing marriage for marriage’s sake.
Through the final push to legislative victory, I sensed something larger than the drive for equality—that marriage is the ultimate, preferred destination for any committed relationship. No wonder so many same-gender couples are running to the altar in states where they can. It’s like crossing a finish line. Of course, many of them have longed to marry and now can. But they’re also responding to a cultural discrimination that paints unmarried couples (straight or gay) as lacking the standing (legal or societal) of married couples. And both trump the chronically single. This bias creates pressure on any couple, at some point, to make it legal—and this is just as responsible for our high divorce rate as the mismatched individuals involved.
While marriage can strengthen the resolve of healthy couples to work through tougher struggles, rather than cave into them, it discourages mismatched couples from parting. Nobody wants to feel like a failure. Most divorces are long, costly and brutal—often, one determined spouse can make it hell and next to impossible for the other to move on with his/her life.
The arguments that marriage is better for children don’t hold when you consider the countless gay and lesbian couples, previously unable to marry, who have raised amazing and wonderfully adjusted children. Indeed, many children are subjected to abject stress by parents who, rather than separate or divorce, remain married and together “for the kids.”
So why is marriage—or the ideal of it—such a societal bedrock? Similar to organized religion, marriage helps create senses of order, calm, cohesion and security—both for the couple and those around them. Few couples want others to know what’s really going on—or not going on—behind their closed doors. If you can’t live the picture of harmony, you’re motivated to present the illusion of it. Anything less stirs unrest in a couple’s immediate circle.
Despite this cynicism, through my advocacy for equality, I’ve come to a much deeper understanding of the richness of strong marriages. I marvel at these marriages and sometimes envy the seeming rightness of them. I don’t begrudge anyone’s marriage. I can now attend, applaud and eat cake at any friend’s wedding, in full joy, without nausea, and I wonder whether my own mistakes and hard lessons have prepared me to hold up my end of a rest-of-my-life relationship—without doing so under the bounds of marriage. I just wish that, in the push for equality, we could have stripped our cultural romance with marriage from the conversation and not treated it as a utopian destination.
Marriage isn’t a destination. Those who sprint to that supposed finish line will find they’ve unwittingly just committed to running a marathon laced with minefields. Nobody ever talked about that in the run-up to this civil rights fight. For those who take the leap and eventually feel compelled to step off the track, I have a book to recommend.