We tend to think of marriage and divorce as being each other’s opposites. At first glance it would appear that this is purely a logical and neutral observation. Logical perhaps, but not neutral. The opposition holds a raft of qualifiers that look something like this:
marriage good, divorce bad
marriage success, divorce failure
marriage love, divorce lack of love
The list could go on.
(It is like a score card so I suggest reading it to yourself in the intonation used by the guy who reads out the league table results on a sunday afternoon)
It seems to me that the relationships of the 21st century call for a different way of thinking of marriage and divorce. We’ve outgrown the fairy tale of ‘happily ever after’. The thing is that the fairy tale always relied on a cunning sleight of hand: notice how the ‘happily ever after’ was always pronounced at the moment of wedding (preferably after the hero has saved the damsel in distress). This ruse effectively freeze frames the rest of the couple’s lives in the moment of their wedding – a continuous present moment that forbids the story from moving on. The curtain comes down and as children we were neatly fooled. But fairy tales are not just children’s stories. They plant, replant and nurture collective seeds of expectation of reality. Somewhere, long after we’ve stopped reading the Brothers Grimm, ‘happily ever after’ calls to us.
I definitely think we need new fairy tales (I’m working on it) but for now I’ll spin a different sort of yarn.
Part of the problem of operating as we do under a tyranny of coupledom is that a marriage or marriage-style partnership is held up as the ultimate success. If you are single, you must be waiting to get into a relationship. Once you start a relationship there is the idea that it progresses in a linear way – getting more serious over time. The ultimate goal is to enter a marriage or marriage style partnership – characterised by certain features such as living together, sharing life goals, etc. This type of partnership is the real life representation of the fairy tale’s ‘happily ever after’. If the marriage or partnership ends before one of the partners dies the relationship falls short of ‘happily ever after’ and stumbles ignominiously into the ‘bad/ failure/ lack of love’ category. I remember when I got my divorce someone saying sympathetically, ‘Well at least you’re young.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing – the subtext was ‘you’ve got plenty of time to find another husband’. What?? I was flabbergasted. Does that mean that people over a certain age – whatever that might be – ought not to get divorced because they have less chance of finding another partner? The assumptions that underpinned that remark are shocking but are pretty firmly embedded in our collective psyche along with the fairy tale. They are assumptions about love, sex and romance being the terrain of youth. They are assumptions about the extent to which ‘older people’ have a full right to happy, fulfilling lives. They are assumptions about the claim that ‘young people’ have on freedom and rebellion – because divorce is still a rebellion. All of this in the frieze framed moment of ‘happily ever after.’ Fortunately is seems that current trends are defying the agism of these assumptions, with divorces among people of post retirement age on the increase.
Ironically, the happily ever after approach does not mitigate against divorce and it sabotages marriage. It sabotages marriage in the sense that it only offers one option for success: till death do you part. And its an option that people increasingly opt out of – or want to opt out of, but fail to – for fear of failure. I consider my five year marriage to be a great success – partly because I allowed myself to get a divorce. As adults, if we really have outgrown fairy tales, surely we can consciously choose other options for successful relating. And people are increasingly doing just that – many couples do not live together full time, for example.
If we reframe divorce and marriage as different possible stages that a partnership might go through, something very different occurs in the field of possibility. Of course they retain a logical relationship with each other given that divorce is the dissolving of the marital state. However, taking the failure out of divorce means that romantic partnership is no longer a competitive match wherein there is one winning option and one losing one. It means that a love match is about the happiness and lives of people, and that each one will be unique – with its own needs and its own path. It also means that we can celebrate marriages irrespective of their longevity and the manner of their completion. And so, a toast to divorce and to marriage. Long may they be happy bedfellows!