The first round of divorces hit our social community this year, prompting questions from our seven-year old daughter: "Will you and Daddy get ever get divorced?" and "Is Sally sad because she misses her mom?" To be honest, I think we adults were more shocked: these were not couples who fought or seemed mismatched in any way; in fact, they seemed to have very amicable partnerships. (I am starting to agree with a friend who once remarked of a particularly acrimonious couple, "Fighting is the glue that keeps them together."). It is a truism that any couple’s divorce threatens the stability of the marriages around them. I don’t know if this is empirically true or not, but I think that our friends’ divorces force us to confront the unimaginable: that the family we’ve built might not last forever.
According to Pamela Haag’s controversial new book, Marriage Confidential : the Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Undersexed Spouses and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules, most divorces happen in "semi-happy, low-conflict, low-stress" marriages. Haag argues (borrowing heavily from Stephanie Coontz work) that we are in a "post-romantic" age that values stability, compatibility and "sticking it out" over passion, both in our marriages and in our lives. She offers a provocative analysis of what is lost when we attempt to “balance” marriage, parenthood, careers, fitness, etc.: “The opposite of balance isn’t imbalance, necessarily, but passion.” However, as she herself points out, the things that allow children to thrive are not necessarily the elements that allow adults to feel the most fulfilled, challenged, or passionate. There’s the rub. Yet perhaps those of us raised by 70s parents who were too busy finding themselves to provide stable homes fetishize our own children’s stability. For example, I would love to live in Africa for a year, but that would mean taking my daughter out of her beloved school and subjecting her to a greater threat of disease; plus, she’d hate me. While one could argue that this might well be a life-changing experience for her, too, the point is that I would be making the decision based on what I want, not on what I think is best for her. Has this become absolutely taboo? If so, what are the consequences for us all?
Haag’s book forced me to consider what makes a “real marriage” — is it children? Longevity? Monogamy? Even those who accept (to use a presumptuous term!) pre-marital sex, childless unions, or gay marriage, monogamy seems to be the biggest deal-breaker, yet (according to research cited by Haag) almost 50 percent of married men and 40 to 45 percent of married women cheat. These statistics, coupled with current divorce rates, makes it difficult to hear marriage vows without any cynicism. Or, as Thomas Hardy wrote in 1895: “And so, standing before the aforesaid officiator, the two swore that at every other time of their lives till death took them, they would assuredlyâ€¨believe, feel, and desire precisely as they had believed, felt, andâ€¨desired during the few preceding weeks. What was as remarkableâ€¨as the undertaking itself was the fact that nobody seemed at allâ€¨surprised at what they swore.
Haag’s book offers no solutions, but does provide examples of ways that some couples have worked to find alternatives within marriage, to reject the dichotomy of divorce or stick-it-out: co-housing communities, in which couples refuse to be isolated within nuclear family bubbles; polyamorous relationships that practice honest non-monogamy; downward-mobility marriages that eschew materialism in favor of more time and freedom; living separately while married.
I’ll be honest, some of these options sound appealing to me, while some are absolutely unthinkable. What about you?