I often ponder the question ‘Why does marriage have to be forever?
The thought of falling in love with a partner and spending a life time of blissful happiness is irresistible. It appeals to the romantic in us all and is held as a signal of success in most cultures.
But statistics from across the globe, bear out that divorce is on the rise, and marriage is on the decline. While both social trends can be attributed to a range of complex factors, I’d like to talk about the reality of what happens when the WHO you signed up for, is no longer the WHO you’re signed up with.
All early relationships enjoy a ‘blush’ of attraction that makes you think your partner is pretty much the best thing since sliced bread. If you have, or ever get the chance to, read The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley, you’ll understand a little more about the physiological drive of attraction.
Simply – it’s all quite primal and encourages us to mate and protect the species.
Sadly, unlike the animal kingdom who have a fairly simple model – they mate, sometimes hang around to raise their young for a while and then head for splitsville – us humans have been conditioned to believe that we should get married, procreate, and then stick it out. No matter what.
A recent article by Alain de Botton – Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person – has taken a good deal of my thinking time of late and been the catalyst for many conversations about the ups and downs of marriage – especially the aspect of staying in a relationship that’s broken. Building on that, discussions have led to the the question of why does marriage, as a relationship, carry so much expectation and pressure?
The thrust of de Botton’s observation is that marrying a person who remains desirable to you is difficult because a common feature of all long term relationships is that the people in it change. And as we all know sometimes people change for the better, and sometimes for the worse – the tricky part is that this ‘better’ or ‘worse’ is judged by the other person (or people) in the relationship, who might be going through their own changes, that don’t always sync with the changes the other person is going through….. are you following?
People do change over time, or sometimes they change quickly. I have two close friends who have both experienced husbands who changed significantly from the person they initially married. For one it was mere weeks after the wedding, for the other it was 20 years into the marriage. Neither change process left the marriage in tact and I’m sure we all have friends who have experienced this situation.
But what happens when the ‘dream’ you signed up for, the promised version of this other person, the ideal life you planned for is interrupted by your legally bound partner choosing to do something different or becoming vastly different to the person you shared that magical day with?
Australian site Mamamia recently shared disappointments partners voiced about their partner – ‘What I wish I’d known about my partner before we got married’. While rather entertaining, the tidbits shared provide an honest insight into the real issue that you don’t always know what you are signing up for when you marry.
When it comes to the complex management of a marriage relationship, de Botton so eloquently explains:
Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.
I’ve written before about the book and site, The New “I Do” that challenges what a ‘traditional’ marriage is. The book offers a range of different types of marriages, busting the myth that the only type is one in which the partners are doe-eyed in love with each other and sailing through life in a state of bliss (or near to) and eternal happiness. (God bless the couples who can manage to do that, but it’s a tall order.) What I love about The New “I Do” is that it is seeking to present a more practical view of marriage that might actually suit people more than the ‘romantic love’ model as unfortunately we are slaves to the model du jour, which is romantic love, lots of great sex and being legally bound to your ‘best friend’ for ever.
My question du jour is “What’s wrong with changing and then deciding something you signed up to X years ago doesn’t work any more?” I know we all say ’till death do us part’, and ‘for better or worse’, but can anyone REALLY know what they are signing up for when they utter those words in front of a few or a few hundred people.
I’m not pretending that when there are kids and complex family situations involved in a marriage, it’s a different set of responsibilities and not so easy to pack up and walk away. The point I’m making is that if you are unhappy because there’s been a shift in you or in your partner, which means you no longer ‘align’, why is it such a catastrophe? (To be honest, why is it even a surprise?).
AND REALLY…. we are humans. We change. Things change us. Experiences change us. Good things change us. Terrible events change us. Illness changes us.
Change is one our unavoidable human conditions.
But yet, because some couples choose to take vows and sign legal documents, this seems to mean that if married, the expectation is that the participants have to ‘suck it up’ for the sake of powering through and compromising for changes either or both don’t like in their partner.
Of course, one of the changes that can happen is the whole sleeping in the same bed issue and it’s the reason I’ve been thinking deeply about this whole “you signed up for marriage so suck it up” scenario.
The main prompt was two emails from women whose husbands are being beyond awful about letting them sleep separately.
I share parts from each email.
“I lived sleep deprived for many years due to an inconsiderate partner. When I attempted to sleep on the couch, he would get hurt/angry and demand I return to bed. He refused to participate in a sleep study, stating he would not use a CPAP machine anyway so it was pointless. He refused to see a doctor. He refused to attempt to lose weight (a factor that contributes to his snoring). He got angry when I woke him when his sleeping position constricted his airway causing loud snores. He obtained but refused to use a jaw aligning mouth guard. He refused to even wear the Breathe Right strips I bought. The CPAP mask, the mouth piece, or the strips might create discomfort that would interfere with HIS sleep. I was met consistently with the excuse, “I can’t help it.” Why should I have to bear the discomfort of earplugs or headphones in order to sleep? They didn’t do any good anyway. I once recorded him snoring while he slept and played it for him the next day so he could hear for himself that I was not exaggerating how disruptive it was. He got very angry at me for doing so. He was completely unmoved and unapologetic when I was literally reduced to tears repeatedly from being sleep deprived. I finally moved out of the bedroom; he accused me of having an affair and didn’t speak to me for a year.”
“I separated from my husband because of his snoring and the fact he would not let or accept me sleep anywhere else. Ear plugs etc only go so far, when the vibrations from snoring you awake. Any how after two years separated and him having a sleep test and getting a sleep machine for sleep apnea I moved back. I found that listening to an iPod through earphones I could sleep well with the sound of the machine. But the trouble is I still can’t get a good sleep because of his sleep habits and the fact he tosses and turns all night. He just can’t accept sleeping separately, even after he said he would if I needed to when I came back.”
I’ll bet that both marriages started well. Most likely they started with two couples in love, fresh faced, open hearted, full of optimism for the future, and domestic behaviours aligned.
Then someone changed. Someone started to snore, someone else became a light sleeper, someone cared less because they’d carved themselves a power position over the years, someone else cared less because the romance had given way to the tedium of domestic life.
And yet…….. we think they should stay together because that’s what good married couples do.
I’m really starting to think – why? Who wins? Who’s happy? And by staying together, does a couple deprive each other of the chance to re-calibrate and start again with another partner who may be more suited at this stage or phase of life?
It’s not often I find myself admiring Gwyneth Paltrow. (I just find her a little earnest and too perfect) However, when her and Chris Martin separated in 2014, as much as they were pilloried for their term ‘conscious uncoupling’, to me it made sense. And when you read the explanation behind it on the aforesaid Goop site, there’s a whole load of sense in the explanation – not too dissimilar to what de Botton talks about in terms of the challenges of growing old together as a couple.
I think it would be rare (but not impossible) for a person to start a marriage intending to mislead and deceive. Humans are designed with too much goodness.
The optimist in me believes we all sign up and proudly take those vows because we love each other and believe we’ve found ‘the one’.
The realist in me though believes that we should be allowed to call ‘end’ on a relationship that’s not working anymore without social judgement and the label of ‘failure’.
I finish with more words from de Botton “though we believe ourselves to be seeking happiness in marriage, it isn’t that simple. What we really seek is familiarity — which may well complicate any plans we might have had for happiness.”