Dearest Rachel –
I was probably dealing with a little bit of overconfidence after having helped the table I had been sitting at win the Christmas trivia contest – which I really should not have had, seeing that I had also been responsible for a run of three wrong answers in a row, that had our team virtually at the bottom of the standings for an uncomfortably long stretch of the game. I was also, however, having my impression reinforced that the majority of the singles my age attending last night’s social gathering were in that particular situation due to divorce; and therefore, I might be able to impart some wisdom to the question being posed several seats down from me at the table at the ‘after party’ at a local eatery (where, ironically, very few of us were actually eating – I considered ordering something, as I wasn’t exactly full from the two slices of pizza, but neither was I actually hungry. By the time I got home, however, I concluded that I had made the right call not to).
“Can you…” I heard, followed by the phrase “…in a healthy marriage?” It sounded like a question I would be qualified to answer, and I jumped in to ask for a repeat of what was said, as I was pretty sure I missed something important in between the two phrases I managed to catch.
Indeed I had, and I wasn’t entirely prepared for the full text of the question: “Can you maintain your independence in a healthy marriage?” Clearly, the one asking the question was of a mind that a.) independence is better to have than not have, and b.) it couldn’t exist in a healthy marriage. With those two propositions firmly in place, how could I be expected to rebut that?
In hindsight, I should probably have asked for a definition of what this individual meant by ‘independence.’ Sure, you and I had spaces in our togetherness from time to time, and there were things in our lives that we didn’t bother each other with – some because the problems couldn’t be solved by the other, and there was no point in burdening each other with an intractable issue; others because deep down, we didn’t really want to solve them in the first place, and so why ask for help? – but as for being our own person, completely separate from each other, no, that really wasn’t a thing between us. We may not have necessarily joined at the hip, but I suspect that the level of togetherness we shared between ourselves (such as your insistence on accompanying me on any errand I might feel the need to go on – which I had no problem with, I need to make absolutely clear) might have had my interlocutor feeling rather uncomfortable, were they in either of our shoes.
The thing is, that’s sort of the point of marriage. From the very first instance, it’s described as the two of us becoming ‘one flesh.’ I’ll grant you, that doesn’t sound very independent, but that’s a feature, not a bug, within the whole setup. I didn’t think to ask what was meant by independence in this context, but if my questioner preferred it to, say, interdependence, then perhaps marriage just isn’t something that should be considered by them as a lifestyle choice. In fact, if I were to be particularly uncharitable, I might go so far as to suggest that this explains why this person was divorced in the first place.
There is so much about the mindset of the divorced person that I simply cannot relate to. Oh, I understand how they get themselves into the situation where it seems like a legal breakup is the best of a collection of bad alternatives, but I’ve never personally been in a situation where that would be an option worth even so much as considering. Part of it may just be a matter of upbringing; you and I were both raised to think of marriage as a permanent thing (your parents’ fears that ours would be nothing more than a ‘starter marriage’ – whatever that was – notwithstanding). The idea of saying “I do… forever,” and then later concluding that “Ehh, you know what? Maybe I don’t, after all” was anathema to us. Not everybody is raised that way any more – in fact, I’d be willing to guess that most people aren’t these days.
For my part, I find myself observing people undergoing this process, and have to suppress the urge to grab them by the collar and shake them until their teeth rattle. “Do you have any idea what you’re throwing away, you two idiots!?” But I realize this is coming from having lost a relationship that was very nearly the best thing in my life, and the idea of casting it away – often without giving it a chance to work out – is both incomprehensible and utterly stupid. You may have that awful person (who you thought at one point was the best person in your life – what the heck happened?) out of your life, but you still have all those memories, not to mention the legal bills and, in many cases, the child support; this collection of never-ending headaches is really the best course of action?
Now, I realize that I’ve no clue of the background behind these situations; maybe there really is a point where this is the least bad option. Even last night, one of the folks I met spoke of being a victim of domestic violence, and I can get behind the need to escape that (although there’s always the question of which side in any such story is telling the truth, or at least more of the truth. Once home, and considering her story, it struck me as odd that her ex-husband – the alleged abuser – was granted custody of the kids, when divorce courts generally tend to favor the mother on that front, particularly if he is abusive, even if not to the kids, as she took pains to mention). But that seems to be (and you’ll notice I’m using this phrase, and others like it, a lot in this letter; I can’t ‘tell it like it is,’ because I really don’t know what’s going on. All I can do is ‘call it like I see it,’ and leave myself open for correction) the exception, rather than the rule, when couples break up.
It seems like, culturally speaking, this is partly we’ve been encouraged to do what we want to, when we want to, without thinking about any subsequent ramifications for the better part of the past two generations or so. I remember reading Erica Jong’s work in college, and the concept of the ‘zipless’ encounter (yes, I know she uses the f-word as the object, just to hammer home that this is purely a sexual thing, but I hardly think that’s necessary to repeat, seeing that the phrase has already been coined. We both know what she said; there’s no need to repeat it) being the absolute Holy Grail when it comes to relationships.
But the thing is, once you’ve drunk from the Holy Grail, what then? Will you ever taste anything the same again? Won’t you want to continue drinking from it, if it was so good? This one lovely-beyond-words sip becomes more like Edmund’s Turkish Delight obsession, rather the previously-agreed-upon one-time thing you thought you were getting into. That’s one of the points behind marriage, even for one who’s led around by their libido (which I will more than admit to understanding fully). One can’t have a ‘zipless’ relationship (even Ms. Jong admitted it was ‘rarer than the unicorn,’ but she didn’t seem to realize why), because if it is as wonderful as all that, one – or both – of you will want more of it. As both of you should.
Of course, there’s so much more to marriage than just that aspect of the relationship – after all, how long do two people spend in that activity, especially compared to the rest of life and living together? – but it’s one of the main reasons people make bad, snap decisions to get together in the first place. Of all of our impulses that lead to poor choices, that one is surprisingly critical. We can’t bear to be alone forever – and we weren’t meant to be – especially at night, and we sometimes find ourselves latching onto the first person who is, in the moment, willing to alleviate that emptiness, without considering whether they are good for us, or vice versa. And without bothering to set down even the most meager of foundations, we probably shouldn’t be surprised when the house we’ve built for ourselves collapses the moment a bird so much as poops on it.
At the same time, I suspect that our perspective is equally incomprehensible to those not raised in it, either. It’s been a while since I last heard about it, but I still recall one state or another being roundly mocked for its abstinence-based sex ed courses in their public schools; the objection being that there’s no way kids are ever going to not schtupp each other. To which I would say (and I’d wager you would agree), “well duh, that’s why they need to be taught how and why not to.” Virtue is not the default setting for humanity, but that’s no excuse for not teaching it to succeeding generations under the defeatist banner of “oh, well, they’re gonna do the wrong thing, anyway; might as well just teach them how to do the wrong thing the right way.”
All we’re doing with this line of thinking is setting ourselves up for more and more relationships that fall apart, after having given each other everything we can offer, physically speaking. I may feel like an amputee for having had you ripped away from me, but I have no regret about the two of us; and indeed, I’d like to find myself in another such relationship as soon as possible (although I’m slowly becoming that much more aware of how careful I need to be in reaching such an ambitious goal). Those that basically carve themselves (and their ostensible partner) apart in an effort to gain some sort of perceived ‘independence’ they hadn’t planned or wanted to surrender, are victims of a system that appears to sacrifice long-term happiness for a momentary thrill. What they see as a “happy ending” (if you’ll pardon the salacious reference to a certain illicit trade) is only the beginning of a long, sad story.
Then again, who’s to say whether this dysfunction in our world’s system isn’t an insidious feature of its own?
In any event, honey, keep an eye on me, and wish me luck. I’m going to need it.
One thought on “A Feature, Not a Bug”