This post originally appeared on my first blog, Constructive Compulsion on November 7, 2011. Some posts still live there, so please stop by and visit them.
In the wake of all the same-sex marriage debates going on today, I began to think about why so many people support an institution for which we seem to have so little respect. We want to give everyone the right to get married. But do we even know how to be married? I remembered having this very same question when I wrote this post.
In the past several weeks, I have learned more than enough stories about trouble and deception in marriages among couples I know. Some of these marriages are only a few years old; others, decades. And as I hear stories of infidelity, betrayals, cruelty, accusations, and even crimes committed by one of the spouses, I am left with a feeling that I can’t quite put my finger on. What makes it worse is all of the couples appeared to be in very happy, very solid relationships. If they were rocky, or relationships where they seemed to be simply tolerating one another, it would be different, and not nearly as shocking. But these are couples who, whether after years or decades, (superficially) stand for “happily ever after.”
I am not so illogical as to swing wildly in either direction on the ideas of love and marriage. I do not think my own very new relationship is somehow impervious to such damage, that the two of us are such morally lofty people that we might never hurt each other. Nor do I believe that we are guaranteed to somehow destroy our relationship and each other. In fact, I don’t think about this particular topic in terms of my own relationship’s future at all. Because I don’t have a crystal ball. Today, we’re good. Tomorrow, we’ll likely be good, too. Beyond that, it’s a crapshoot. And that’s reality. I won’t doom us (in either direction) via speculation and internalization of other people’s actions.
This issue provokes more of a bigger-picture, society-as-a-whole question: Are we somehow unrealistic in what we present as happy marriage? Do people do this stuff to each other more often than we think, and because it’s so “wrong,” we react with lynch-mob mentality, because it’s too uncomfortable to face the truth? Perhaps this is a psychological question rather than a moral one. We know what’s morally right and wrong. But we do these things anyway. We’re driven by emotion. Psychologically, we want what we want, and we hope the moral center of the brain will kick in and make us see the light, but sometimes want kicks right’s ass, and someone winds up in bed with someone else, or accuses his/her spouse of the same. Or any variety of crimes against matrimony.
I wonder if we are really unrealistic about what marriage really is. Or, at the very least, that there’s a dark side to things, too. And maybe technology and our sudden and very recent desire to take our lives so public is just shedding light on the dark corners. I find it absolutely impossible to believe that infidelity (in its various forms) has become exponentially more common; maybe it’s just become easier.
Assuming this is true leads me to another question: Why are we pretending? Why do we pretend that marriage can be this flawless thing? We are comfortable acknowledging some of the flaws in marriages: husbands expecting their wives’ servitude; wives frustrating husbands because they shop too much. But these are benign in the grand scheme of what really is apparently going on. If we are more realistic about human nature, about the darkness inside us, will this change the way we view marriage? Will it improve it? Or will it destroy it altogether?
I attended a wedding this weekend, and I won’t lie: Part of it gave me anxiety. Here’s this young couple, she’s all beautiful and they’re all hopeful that they are going to have this happily ever after future. My aunt and I were saying we “just hope they stay married.” But is that an unrealistic expectation? I couldn’t hold my own marriage together. We made all the same promises. I was all sparkly and beautiful and hopeful on my wedding day. We were married 13 months. And we do this, over and over, because the afore-mentioned people, the beacons of happiness, make us believe that it can happen for us.
And then we find out the dark, ugly truth. We find out that people lead double lives, that one spouse has absolutely no idea that the other is carrying on a full-blown relationship with another person; we hear about people who betray their spouses in other ways, by making false accusations, by indulging in other proclivities, by putting everything on the line by committing a crime… After literally decades of marriage.
It boggles my mind. And it makes me wonder if we aren’t doing all the new, young couples a complete disservice by not being realistic with them. Or maybe we hope they will be the ones to change thousands of years of behavior. That’s a tall order.