Monday, February 03, 2014

Divorce is not failure

I found out last Thursday when my court date will be for my divorce. It's shudderingly soon: Friday, February 7th. On that day I will answer a few questions before a judge, and about five minutes later, a guy named Bob and I will no longer be married. I've cried a lot about this because I loved my husband very much and really enjoyed being married to him. The end of our five-year marriage is very sad and I'm grieving it.

As I've talked about it with my excellent friends and family, they've been very supportive. The most interesting thing that other women who've been divorced have said to me is that divorce feels like failure. I tell them my divorce doesn't feel like failure to me. It just feels sad the way the end of a vacation or finishing a really good book feels sad: it's a shame that it's over, but that's life. Wonderful things end and you go on.

One divorced friend insisted that I was wrong about this. Keep in mind, I often tussle with this woman as if we were bickering cousins. I'm rough with her and vice versa, but it's all in fun. This exchange might sound rude to you, but believe me, it really wasn't. 

She wrote that if my marriage is ending, it means my husband and I failed to keep our marriage going. I replied that keeping our marriage going for the rest of our lives wasn't my intention.

She wrote, "So did you want to get a divorce?"
I wrote, "I married Bob with the intention of being 100% committed to the relationship until it didn't feel right anymore. Divorce was an option from the beginning, so it doesn't feel like I failed. It just feels like the adventure is over."
She wrote, "You failed."
I wrote, "To do what?"
She wrote, "You failed in being a married woman, whatever that means!"
(At this point I think she realized her argument wasn't air tight.)
I wrote, "I also failed to stay 10 years old. You pass out of things as you grow up."
She wrote, "Yes, but marriage is something that you work on."
I wrote, "I did work on it. I gave that marriage 100% until Bob said it was over."
She wrote, "You and Bob [like other divorced couples] didn't do such a good job."
I wrote, "My purpose wasn't the same as that of other couples. I never believed in til death do us part. Not for a second.
She wrote, "Yo tampoco. But that doesn't mean it's not a failure."

I believe the basic difference in how I look at marriage is that I see it as a rite of passage in the truest sense: it's a state that you pass into and then pass out of. I see marriage as just one experience in a lifetime. The length of time it lasts doesn't matter. What matters is learning from it and leaving it behind maturely, without anger or pettiness. Bob and I were only married for five years, but I benefitted greatly from that time and so did he. Now we're ending our marriage peacefully. That feels like success to me, not failure.

It makes sense that women who look at marriage as a state that should last a lifetime, validated by double-digit anniversaries, feel like failures when their marriages end. They're measuring the value of marriage by whether or not it lasts until someone drops dead. This reduces marriage to a relationship with only one metric: length of time the union lasts. But if a requirement of marriage is til death do us part no matter what dammit, then what are we setting it up to be? We're setting it up to be either a good/tolerable experience that doesn't end or a miserable one that doesn't end. I might coin the phrase marriage of attrition to refer to unions that last purely because the partners believe marriage should last forever no matter how empty or painful the relationship becomes.

I used to look at couples celebrating 25 or 50 or 75 years of marriage and think that to be together that long, they must really love and enjoy each other. Since then I've learned that some very long marriages are also quite miserable. Length of time is no indicator of happiness. Would I rather hit those anniversary marks with a lifeless or painful marriage or would I rather sacrifice those accomplishments of attrition (yes, the word attrition again) for a happier life as a divorcee? To all women disappointed by how long their marriages didn't last: don't look at long-lasting marriages and assume those marriages are better than yours was. Length of marriage indicates nothing about the quality of a marriage or the people in it.  All it shows is that they are still agreeing to stay married.

I believe marriage has become a rite of passage in American society, but we haven't admitted it yet. At least half the time, marriages only last for a period of time. It's similar to when we outgrow a job or house or lifestyle: when that happens, it's time to move on. The end of a marriage doesn't mean the couple has failed, it means they've outgrown that relationship. There's nothing wrong with outgrowing things. 

That's why when my friend wrote to me, "You failed in being a married woman," I responded, "I also failed to stay 10 years old. You pass out of things as you grow up." Lifelong marriage attempts to cement two people together who are constantly changing. Why can't we accept that when a relationship has served its purpose, it's time to move on and that's not failure? That's just life.

I realize marriage is a timeless universal institution that anchors communities and nations, organizes property and inheritances, and harbors child-raising. For those purposes, it has been critical that marriage last until death. But we now have other ways to organize societies and more creative ways to form families and raise children. Lifelong marriage is no longer the bedrock of society or the U.S. would have fallen apart a few decades ago. Let's ease up on the stigma of divorce. We're complicated and ever-evolving and we've developed a perfectly reasonable process for ending a marriage and moving on. Pressuring everyone who marries to stay in that marriage no matter what, is cruel. You can't control or predict how a person will grow and mature. Sometimes someone gets married, the marriage stops fitting her, and she has to move on. That is not failure.


Jessica Young said...

Hey Regina,

I want you to know that I am constantly astonished by your unflinching ability to put yourself out there. It just knocks me out.
So I've heard you say this about marriage before, that it's something you pass into and out of. I wonder if your partner felt the same way. I don't feel this way about marriage, on g.p. or in my own, and it's something I discussed with my husband before we got married. If I discovered, after the fact, that my husband thought our marriage was a phase he'd eventually outgrow, I'd feel pretty betrayed, because that's not what I think or want from a partner. If you both got into your marriage imagining you'd one day outgrow the relationship, then I think you can feel like its dissolution makes sense. If each of you had different expectations, it might be harder.

Regina Rodríguez-Martin said...

Jess, Bob definitely knew I felt this way about marriage from the very beginning. I made sure I was completely honest about this.