Aug 9, 2009

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Love Like a Dog – The Second Bite

This is one of those entries that could get me in trouble so I will tread carefully and start off with the disclaimer that this is hypothesis and designed to stir debate.

I was going through some old e-mails and came across something that some one had sent me from Ode magazine.  It was a review of a book by a feminist challenging the institution of marriage.  The basic premise, not terribly new or novel, was that marriage was antiquated.  I guess what made it topical is this was coming from a women.  She argued that the institution of marriage created a prison that held a couple hostage to the dictates of a moralistic capitalistic society.  Both husband and wife were tricked into serving a life long sentence of misery premised on the obligation to maintain the mirage of marriage, lest their lives be labeled a failure. 

What I found curious is the notion that society equates divorce with failure.  The numbers seem to support the notion that modern marriage doesn’t work for the majority of people. The rate of divorce has roughly doubled since the 1960s. Half of all marriages end in divorce. And as sketchy as poll data can be, a recent Rutgers University poll found that only 38 percent of married couples describe themselves as happy.  So I the majority of marriages end in divorce how can that constitute failure?


It could be that even though marriage doesn’t seem to make Americans very happy, they keep getting married (and remarried).  It is not unlike buying a lottery ticket.  You know the odds of hitting the jackpot are against you, but you think, “oh only if I cold hit the jackpot.  I will live happily ever after”   People are enrolled in the notion of happily ever after and marriage, and children seem vital ingredients.  The essential question then is: Why?   Why do people continue to delude themselves? Why, in what seems like an age of great social freedom, would anyone willingly consent to a life of constricting monogamy? Why has marriage or as any long-term monogamous relationship remained a foundational pillar of society even as ingrained ideas about race, gender, and sexuality have been overturned?

Some, the hedonists amongst us, contend that marriage is an insidious social construct, harnessed by capitalism to get us to have kids and work harder to support them. And the price of this subordination is immense: Domestic cohabitation is a “gulag”; marriage is the rough equivalent of a credit card with zero percent APR that, upon first misstep, zooms to a punishing 30 percent and compounds daily (ask anyone who has gone trough a divorce). You feel you owe something, or you’re afraid of being alone, and so you “work” at your relationship, like a prisoner in Siberia ice-picking away.  People seem happy to confirm this dark image by being more than happy to talk about how unhappy their individual marriages are.  Yet with everyone jumping on their “marriage is hell” bandwagon people continue to think that in each case there is something wrong with the marriage—not the institution of marriage itself.

Infidelity and politics remain prime-time fodder. We wonder allowed whether a politician who was not faithful to his or her spouse could be “faithful” to the country and his or her constituents.  Yet with all these public figures falling from grace no one seems interested in asking whether marital fidelity was realistic or desirable.

Let’s face reality: The connection between sex and love, doesn’t last as long as the need for each.  The reality for most couples is it takes a lot of work, creativity and luck to sustain a heightened sexual energy through 20 years of a monogamous relationship.

It’s not impossible but here are a few thoughts.

First, one should never allow their happiness to rest upon the notion that someone else can help sustain it.  We should just look out for ourselves, perhaps mutually—more like two people gazing in the same general direction than two people expecting they want to look in each other’s eyes for the rest of their (now much longer) lives. I believe it is healthy and probably necessary for each person to have their own passion to follow and to do so without the expectation or need to have their partner share in it. 

Similarly it might be futile to try to make unhappy relationships “work.”  It might be healthier to acknowledge the “relationship” is dead and then to set out to redefine it.    It is possible to share a home, a life and a family but not necessarily a bed.  I have often found that when you remove the pressure to perform (not just sexually) performance becomes much easier.  I would like to think that if a couple honors the truth that they are no longer “in love” it opens the door for them to rekindle the emotion that first drew them to each other.

    I submit that it is possible to be committed to someone and not necessarily be sexually faithful to them.  Now I get that this is a loaded question.  I am not advocating lust filled hedonism.  But is it possible to envision committed non-monogamous heterosexual relationships?   Maybe.

First we need to recognize or that men and women may not really want the exact same sexual freedoms and probably have very different sexual and emotional needs.  However some things in marriage are consistent:  Most people don’t want to be alone at home with a cat, the adverse effects of divorce on children are well documented and real and there is some benefit to having a safe haven where you can be yourself with some one who gets you. There is an upside to the vow “until death do us part:” you have room to be vulnerable, fail and make a mistake.  The length of the rope may not be infinite but it tends to be longer for a married couple that is really committed to each other than a couple joined together for the pleasure of the moment. 

What I am saying is mistakes happen in marriage, just as they do in life.  Infidelity if viewed in this light may not have the same charge as if we view it as a statement about our own self worth.  So be forgiving of yourself, your spouse and the relationship.  Then we all might have a chance.

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