As I struggle through the complex paperwork to finalize my second divorce, a difficult and unpleasant task at the best of times, I find myself becoming increasingly ambivalent and negative toward the notion of love and marriage. Why would anyone embark upon a legal arrangement that ends in failure almost 50% of the time? The controversial fight for gay marriage leaves me wondering the same thing. Is marriage really necessary? What is the point?
I’ve read the many research studies that claim married men live longer, that married people are happier and more successful in life, that marriage provides a stable environment to raise children. The latter, in particular, is an argument I accept – children need two parents. However, given the breakdown of the institution of marriage in virtually every community and culture, it seems we are in dire need of a re-write of the rules.
A recent article suggested that respect is the key to long marriages. The secret, apparently, is not choosing the right mate, but being the right mate (Schwartz, 2005). Two people commit to each other, for better or worse, choosing to love and honour each other through tough times, willing to accept each other’s shortcomings. While I agree with all of this, it seems to me that this can be done by two individuals regardless of a piece of paper to legalize the process. What is most important is being willing to stick together even when love and satisfaction are at their lowest point.
Love and satisfaction are not constants in a relationship, they “ebb and flow, depending on how people treat each other” (Schwartz, 2005). One researcher has found that satisfaction in a marriage drops when the first baby comes along, and is at its lowest when children are between 11 and 16 (no surprise to those of us who have lived through those turbulent years). The good news is, once children have left the nest, satisfaction rises, making the final stage of marriage the real honeymoon period (Smart Marriages, 2005). Again, I concur with this latter statement – I see my own parents, for example, thoroughly enjoying this late-in-life honeymoon, travelling together, and sharing a level of contentment that seems much higher than at any other point in their relationship.
The research that I find most interesting is that which indicates that staying together and avoiding separation or divorce has a positive end result – with people who get through the difficult times ultimately finding deep happiness and contentment. I have always believed that getting a divorce is far too simple, providing an easy out solution, a lack of incentive to try to weather the storm. There are exceptions, of course, abuse and repeated infidelity being the main ones. But for the most part, people who have managed to work through issues, even serious ones, to stay married, seem to be far happier and more successful in life than those who opted for divorce.
The cynical part of me does not believe in love as an essential marriage component. I’ve seen many marriages based on other factors – friendship, financial security, companionship. In most cases an emotional attachment develops over time that proves far more powerful than the passionate love so many base their initial marital decisions on. In the right circumstances, I believe you can grow to love your partner – and if not, you can still have a healthy relationship without love. A quasi-business relationship can flourish, providing a healthy environment for all parties, including children, without love ever entering into it. In some ways, such a relationship is even more resistant to breakup, since passion is replaced by logic and mutual need. One author pointed out that one thing people learn well in marriage is “how to hurt the other,” and she suggests that marriages that last involve the ability to “hold back from saying the very thing the other most dreads hearing” during a crisis, those moments of “sheer hatred” (Klagsbrun, 1985).
With my sceptical eye, I watched the news about Charles and Camilla’s marriage this past week. Many describe it a “love story” to finally see the plus-55 year old pair wed. As the much-maligned “other woman,” Camilla bears the burden of blame for the break up of Charles’s first marriage. As is typical in affairs of this sort, the man escapes the brunt of censure, although it is obvious that Camilla was not operating alone. But in spite of the ugliness of the affair, the divorce, and the sad aftermath of Diana’s death, the relationship between Charles and Camilla has endured. Many are happy for them, enchanted by this love story that has endured such adversity. I can’t help but wonder, however, what would have happened had Charles and Diana managed to work through things rather than divorce. An affair does not have to be the end – look at the success Bill and Hillary Clinton have managed to achieve. Although remaining together was no doubt difficult and challenging, they appear to now have a good relationship, one that has been highly beneficial for both of them. I don’t think Hillary’s presidential aspirations, or Bill’s continued public respect and goodwill, would have been possible had the marriage ended in divorce. And I’m sure Chelsea is much happier with her parents together, as would William and Harry have been. In fact, it’s likely that Charles’s mother (Queen Elizabeth) has worked through similar rough spots and infidelity in her marriage.
Can a marriage be saved after an affair? I believe so, although I certainly would not advise anyone to put up with repeated infidelity, particularly given the risks of sexually transmitted disease. I saw a news program recently that cited extremely high rates of infidelity within a marriage, by both genders, so it’s an issue that many married people will eventually confront.
A few news commentators have pointed out that after everything that has occurred, Charles really had no choice but make good on his commitment to Camilla and marry her. Perhaps it really is a love story and perhaps they really do deserve to be together after so many years and so much trouble. As much as I believe everyone has a right to happiness, however, I don’t think it should be at the expense of another. This is particularly true within a relationship. Although the divorce decision may be mutual in a few situations, in most cases, one party is the “dumper” and one is the “dumpee”, providing the potential for an incredible amount of pain and unhappiness. If it is truly the case that couples who make it through the difficult years achieve a true honeymoon period later in life, there should be a strong incentive to keep marriages together. Being able to “grow old together” and have companionship as you age is something I’m beginning to really appreciate the importance of. At the religious ceremony following the civil marriage, Charles and Camilla, before the eyes of both those in the chapel and a worldwide television audience, asked forgiveness for their sins and promised that they had ‘resolved to be faithful’ to each other in this marriage. Hopefully, they will manage to do so.
As for me, I’m far too pessimistic about the whole process to be completely objective. My solution is to resolve never to get married again and to encourage my children to be cautious – take your time before deciding to get married, and take your time before deciding to end a relationship. If, prior to getting married, everyone was required to go through the same kind of difficulty and heartache that accompanies a divorce, no doubt the institution of marriage would be considered far more valuable.
Klagsbrun, F. (1985). Married people: Staying together in the age of divorce. New York: Bantam Books.
Schwartz, S. (2005). Respect key to long marriages: Partners must commit to being the right mate. Edmonton Journal, April 8, 2005, C6.
Smart Marriages (2005). The Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. http://www.smartmarriages.com/
Smith, Diane (2005) Undressing Infidelity, Excerpts: http://msnbc.msn.com/id/6914982/