Marriage is the greatest of all human experiments—so is there anything to learn about staying together in a disposable age? Jeremy McKeen explores the vows we take and what that means for humanity writ large.
Some of you should not be married. You know who you are, possibly. It’s hard to tell unless you get married and then realize, at some point, that it isn’t for you—or that it was at one point, and is no longer (possibly when you were young and your brain wasn’t fully formed), especially when it’s supposed to be forever. The funny thing about that is that “forever” is a time-sensitive concept for mortals who usually die before their 100s, but the sentiment is nice. If marriage really meant you’d be married forever, even after death, possibly while populating planets for all of eternity, then it might change the conversation.
But that’s not marriage, that’s a sci-fi concept most people fear.
The idea for couples is supposed to be “until death do you part,” but it seems that, like most young people who don’t know yet that they aren’t invincible, death is a far-off concept, and not at all considered by the very ones who should be considering it. So death, then. Or, you know, until something better or less boring comes along. Or until the kids are a little older. Or until that final fight to end all fights, and you need someone new.
It’s hard not to be cynical about marriage in an age where our heroes and culture constantly celebrate and—at the same time—dismiss the very real and personal choice to enter into wedded bliss.
Most marriages end the same way “best friends forever” relationships end: they were, for a time, relevant. Then something happened, and then the couple realized that their time was up sooner than death or forever. The statistics are enough to make the most hopeful of matchmakers quit their day jobs: marriage is a crumbly institution, even on the second and third take, and most married people (up to 70% for both genders in some studies) cheat on their spouses at some point. Federal studies have shown that “one-third of new marriages among younger people will end in divorce within 10 years and 43 percent within 15 years” (Source: National Center for Health Statistics).
Yikes on bikes built for two.
1. Don’t get married. Just don’t do it. Unless…
Before you know it, you’ll be married and eating pizza and wings on your couch with your beloved, staring at the next seven to eight decades of your life. It’s going to happen. But why? It seems that most humans gravitate towards marriage or at least domestic partnership, so we’re talking about a deep, human tradition that doesn’t have to require a license and rings. But most people spring for the legal side of it, changing last names and throwing a big party with cake and a DJ (or, if they’re really good, a house band).
But marriage, while practiced by almost every adult, shouldn’t be. This is evident in the divorce rates for first and second-time spouses, which show us that more than 40% of us just aren’t good at staying married and faithful (if you’re the kind of person who wants a faithful spouse). And 90% of us won’t take on that second marriage until its mortal end.
What we’re good at is getting married because, well, why not? Contrary to statistics, it makes sense to become domesticated and want to be with that someone forever.
2. You must first like the person you’re marrying
Soon, as a married couple, you will be (or be near) old, fat, balding, and without any of the charm you might have had once. It happens. You’re going to live and suffer through life with one person who is supposed to be magically matched to your personality.
So you should like that person.
Yes, love is important. Some would say it’s all you need, but they were wrong. You must like the person you’re going to suffer through life with. And I use the word “suffer” in all of its meaning, from the light stuff to the heavy: changing jobs, having kids, losing loved ones to death and distance, and the never-ending money problems (if you’re alive and have a bank account, then you will have money problems at some point, and sharing a bank account is just as a risky experiment as marriage itself).
So you have to like the person, and want to be with them all the time. Now you can’t make yourself like someone, so right here we have one of the reasons divorce is so popular: hordes of marriers who just stopped liking the person they pledged their life to.
Before marrying I had a number of girlfriends who I liked and loved. But there was always an indication that I needed to get out of the relationship before I stayed too long at the party. This inner navigation, or “voice” usually spoke to me along the lines of “oh no, you don’t like her any more—get out now,” and luckily I listened, every time, even when I had played too long.
But with my wife, I never had that voice. I’m in love with my wife, of course. But I really like my wife, and that counts for so much more. She and I have built a world that I really like, and look forward to every day of my life. Love is easy. But the hardest thing in the world is to get someone to like something—or someone—they just don’t.
3. Don’t cheat—Don’t fucking do it
Think about this: up until the last hundred years or so (and still, today, in many parts of the world), we’ve had, over hundreds of thousands of years of human culture and tradition, multiple versions of marriage. From legally bound and slave wives, sister wives, and child brides to polygamy and same-sex marriage, “the institution of marriage” is a prodigiously layered creature.
But in the First World, we’ve accepted “monogamy until death” as the majoritive and legal norm, and have come up with many variations of cheating as to define the things that draw us away from that one legally bound person.
Whether it’s an emotional affair or harmless flirting, the best thing is to a) identify the attractive element that leads you to stray, b) call it what it is, and c) fucking walk away from it. But most people don’t and never will do that. In fact, most people seek a secret freedom within their marriage where they hope they will be able to betray their spouse and have the best of both worlds.
Only one world includes someone who will be made a fool out of, and the other usually ends abruptly or embarrassingly so. And the relief that comes from the end of a cheating relationship is never worth the pain it causes all parties.
But what’s so great about both worlds when each is incomplete at some point? Some marriages or committed relationships start with infidelity, and end up lasting. There’s no judgment here. There are better ways to end a partnership than humiliating your best friend and then going broke to pay people to legally separate you from the very same old best friend.
4. If it works (and it’s healthy), then it works
Some people are so miserable in their marriages and it’s not the fault of the marriage or spouse, it is just the certain time period they are stuck in. Those who marry young or marry because of a child on the way, or those who marry because religious doctrine demands it, might just make it and stay married until death. Or not. There’s no prescription for how long or how happy a marriage should be except that it should be healthy and work. Some marriages only work for a few years, and the individuals involved are smart enough to call it quits. Some marriages work here and there, and last decades, even lifetimes. And some people do very well going from relationship to relationship and never marry.
Think about it: more of us in our 30s and 40s are marrying later in life because we’ve had several relationships that didn’t end in marriage, and this taught us what to look for in a first marriage. There shouldn’t be any shame in divorce nor should there be in not getting married. Finding someone who works and is healthy for you is the only thing that matters, especially if you’re going to have children. But there is no perfect narrative except the one you’re working on, and hopefully building with the person who is right—and healthy—for you.
5. There is no fairy tale ending, unless there is
Our way of life, from multimedia storytelling to tabloid culture and news coverage is consumed with pairing—the tragedy and comedy of it, the minutiae of it, and the never-ending lead-up and break-apart of it. It is what fuels us. Kids will come and grow, careers will sprout and break, and we’ll still be flirting in the nursing homes and wrap-around decks of our houses in retirement.
The spouse who leaves a marriage for a better life, with or without another spouse, might just create that fairy tale ending. The reality, however, is that an ending doesn’t last from the age of the divorcee at the time of the divorce until death. An ending is an ending, with a strong rising action, turning point, and years of falling actions and revelations leading up to it. Our problem is that we’re too damn young and think life is cemented for us each decade; we should know better now that we’re living longer, and look forward to each year as a regrouping of our sensibilities about life and our choices with our spouse.
Most people just want someone who loves and accepts them, and will keep their spot free on the couch after a long day. We want to belong to someone amazing and build a small tribe to carry on that legacy. Or something like that.
And, for the record, if I could stay with my wife forever, even after death, and just host and go to afterlife parties for all of eternity with her as my date, then I’d be just as happy as I am sharing the couch with her after the kids go to bed in the here and now, and on until retirement, and then until my final breath. I really like her, like like her. More than all the others in the world.