Friday, February 4, 2011

'Til Death Do We Part ... Unless We Kill Each Other First

We're completing a unit on "Marriage and Family in America" in my basic comp course, reading selections in the textbook about marriage and divorce; common marital difficulties (eg, juggling work, romance, and children); the history of marriage, and the like. Last spring when we did this unit, there was a student in my class going through a divorce, so he contributed some interesting thoughts about the realities of a marriage vs. our ideals about marriage.

And, you know, when you read statistics that show half of marriages wind up in divorce, you do have to wonder what on earth is going on. The "easy" (read: simple-minded) answers tend to blame the feminist movement, gay people, and the general moral decline of the country, but this kind of blaming tends to come from the same people who cling to the idea that there is actually something called "traditional marriage"--meaning marriage has ALWAYS been, since the dawn of humankind, between one man and one woman. Of course that isn't so, at least not from the long view of history. We forget that marrying for love is a fairly recent idea--many marriages used to be arranged, to unite families or to gain wealth (hence dowries); husbands quite often took more than one wife; in some cultures, incest was the norm (Cleopatra, for instance, was married to her brother); the ancient Greeks celebrated the love between men as superior to that between husband and wife; in Rome, husbands and wives basically united to have children but sexual relations outside the marriage were normal and expected; and the list goes on. Let's not forget that even interracial marriage was illegal in this country until not very long ago, and there are still folks among us who think that is unnatural, immoral, and non-traditional.

The truth, of course, is this: our definition of and ideas about marriage evolve and change as our culture evolves and changes. Still, it seems fair to say that marriage and some sort of family unit or structure is the most common way we organize ourselves in society; and most of us aspire to marry at some point in our lives.

So why all the divorces and broken marriages and single-parent households and so forth? The answer will depend on each individual situation. But in my almost 49 years and in learning from my own partnerships and in observing what happens in those of my own friends and family, I can say that almost always, when a relationship doesn't work out, it's because (1) there was infidelity or (2) there were conflicting expectations along with poor communication about what those expectations were or (3) both. Actually, (1) doesn't normally happen without (2), anyway. The biggest areas of conflict tend to arise over money, sex, sex role expectations, and the division of household labor.

Honestly? The biggest culprit leading to a failed partnership is failed expectations. Some people view marriage through grossly idealistic lens. And it's not their fault, because society pushes that ideal on us, over and over. Here's how marriage is supposed to work: you meet, you fall in love, you marry, you always get along well, you stay passionately attracted to each other, and so you never break up. Here's the reality: you're not always going to get along well, and you won't always stay passionately attracted to each other. In fact, you may find yourself intensely attracted to some other person who comes along at some point. This can throw a person off. (It used to freak me out. My first thought would always be: "OMG, I have the hots for so-and-so! This must mean I don't love my partner anymore.") Well, that's hogwash. Just because you're attracted to someone else, that doesn't mean you don't love your spouse anymore. All it means is: I have a feeling. Do I want to act on this feeling, yes or no? What would be the consequences?

I thought it might be interesting over the course of the next few weeks to blog a little about what arises from our class discussions. I have an interesting mix of students: some are just your average young adult, but I've got a divorced mom with 6 kids; a married male veteran (Marines); a bright Russian woman with some radical ideas; a female student who has vowed to never marry; and a student who proudly states her mother is the primary breadwinner of their family. And I, the instructor, am a married gay woman.

I have no idea where our discussions will lead us, but this is what will make the process fun.


Lucia Olson said...

It sounds interesting, Joyce. I hope you do blog about the discussions (with their permission of course). We have such idealism about marriage in our society (American, at least) and our culture tells us to put all of our emotional weight on this one other person who is fallible and, um, human!

Joyce said...

Well, I wouldn't identify students by name anyway, nor give away anything recognizable to anyone outside of the class. Very personal stuff I wouldn't bring up at all, unless it were my own stuff. I do that as a general rule of thumb on this blog anyway ... sometimes to my own detriment on a few rare occasions when someone has thought I'm talking about them when I had somebody else entirely in mind! LOL

One thing we all had a chuckle over today was that whole Jerry McGuire idea of "you complete me." Who wants to marry half a person? ;-)