Is Marriage Dead — or Are Our Expectations of Love Too High?Monica Bielanko
I spent ten years married to a romantic. I don’t necessarily mean Serge was waiting for me every night with a drawn bath sprinkled liberally with rose petals while candles flickered — although he definitely had his moments. No, when I call him a romantic, I mean that he has romantic ideals and notions about love and marriage … ideals so lofty I don’t even know if he’s living in reality. While he may be a romantic when it comes to his thoughts on “soulmates,” I often wonder if that’s part of why he stayed married to me even when we were both miserable. Basically, his love for love kept him with me despite being really unhappy. And not only did his love for love keep him with me, but the fact that he believes that marriage should last until death no matter what made him incapable of realizing that whatever sweetness once resided within the bonds of our marriage had long since soured.
Therein lies the conundrum of marriage: We laud couples who have been together for decades, but does the celebrated longevity of a coupling often come at the expense of the happiness and personal fulfillment of those within the union? We all know couples who have years and years of marriage under their belts but can count the happy times on one hand. Is their marriage a “success” simply because they’re still together? What about a five year marriage during which a couple is satisfied and happy and quickly end it when they realize they no longer work together? Five years of happiness versus 50 years of misery? Who’s to say what’s success and failure?
If there’s one thing I learned upon publicly announcing my separation it’s how unhappy everyone else seems to be in their own marriages. Message after message pinged my inbox as women secretly confessed that they wished they could get out of their marriages but hadn’t for this reason or that reason. So I’m left to wonder, is marriage itself somehow broken? Is the current marriage model outdated? Do “soulmates” even exist?
Is it realistic to try to spend your life with one person no matter the cost? Force happiness even when two people have changed so drastically they no longer resemble the couple that exchanged vows? Or is it like my ex, Serge, says; that the concept of marriage is magical and is actually bigger and better than most modern humans can fathom today. Those of us who divorce are just wimps passing through relationships as if they’re some sort of disposable step toward our own personal happiness and fulfillment. But what’s so wrong with that? Isn’t that the goal in life? Attempt happiness while hurting as few people as possible along the way? Or is expecting happiness setting ourselves up for failure as well?
Isn’t it an awful thing we’re doing to ourselves, expecting to be married to one person for an entire lifetime? Are we so intensely focused on Happily Ever After that we feel like complete and total failures when a marriage doesn’t work out, as is more than likely to happen. Or worse, are we staying in bad marriages because we just don’t want to “fail?”
Times have changed. Women no longer have to hitch their star to some dude’s wagon in order to survive in life. On the flip side, while marriage is no longer a business arrangement between a man and a woman’s father, neither is it a Nicholas Sparks novel. And religion got its dirty hands all up in the marriage mix at some point too. So we’ve gone from marrying for survival or religion to searching for soulmates and marrying for love with Hollywood leading the charge and setting up expectations greater than Dickens. No wonder we’re all crashing and burning. But is it our expectations that are causing our marriages to fail, or is spending your life with one single person simply unreasonable in most cases?
While I don’t believe that marriage is a Nicholas Sparks novel — I’m too old and jaded for that — I don’t think you should stick it out no matter what. People change. Stuff happens. Shake hands and move on to someone who works. Is that terribly unromantic of me? No love of life/soulmate crap. Maybe it’s the most romantic notion of all. Letting go when unity is dead so that love can live on in your heart. What if your life could consist of a series of loves of your life? Maybe the ideal is a series of relationships! Or is that just a bunch of modern claptrap created by wusses like me who, if you ask my ex, apparently have no concept of heavy, hard loving for a lifetime?
Okay then. How about a compromise? If marriage started as a business arrangement, maybe we should get back to that. What if we all decide to do away with all the heavy ’til death do us part’ expectations and look at it a little more like my friend Andrea Zimmerman, who says, “I’ve always felt that relationships should work like apartment leases. Each year, you check in to see if you both want to sign on for another year. If so, awesome. If not, break the lease.” Laura Bassi agrees. “Marriage is outdated and antiquated but what does a new way look like? If people can answer that question, things can change. I believe part of the answer is making it more like a contract with intervals of renewal. If both parties know they have a renewal option, let’s say every three years, imagine the difference in social dynamics! Wouldn’t people be less likely to get complacent? To cheat? To blow all their money? Even to pool all their money — so many implications … Negative ones too, of course, but I don’t see any worse outcomes than the current system in the United States.”
While there are no easy answers to the questions I’ve posed here I do think that we need to stop letting society define marriage and realize it’s such a complex system that our expectations of it and about it should be strictly defined by each couple, therefore its parameters are unique in each case. And while I’m not a fan of this new kind of “Divorce Party” that’s popping up, I think we need to stop viewing divorce as a failure. Since separating Serge and I like each other more than ever and treat each other more respectfully than we ever did during our marriage — so how can that possibly be a failure?
In the end I think writer and friend Josette Plank sums all of the madness up best: “I just think life is hard no matter how you slice it. I think all the messages we allow in every day from a million sources muddle our heads. I think that’s the hardest part of modern life, married, divorced, single, with kids, without kids: to stop the million voices of shoulds and coulds and most of them trying to sell something. I think depending on happiness in ourselves via others is always a losing proposition, soulmate or not. I think that happiness as a goal is overrated. I think that just doing your work — whatever that is: career, volunteer, parenting, gardening — each day should be the focus, with less thought about how you “feel” about it, and not letting others sidetrack you into those “am I fulfilled?” thoughts. Work, play, be with friends, eat, sleep … don’t worry about [being a wuss] or not [being a wuss.] I hate this saying, but ‘It is what it is’ is about the truth of most matters.”
In the end, everyone’s beliefs and expectations about marriage and what it means are constantly in flux depending on where you are in life. Your opinion today is borne of your current experience which is why you’re reading an article from a woman going through a divorce called Is Marriage Dead?
So. What are your thoughts? Is it?
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