Over forty percent of all marriages end in divorce. Does that sound high? Or is it actually quite low, given that modern society’s ideal person is constantly in flux – and that the impossible dream is for both partners in a marriage to develop at the same time and in the same direction?
My lowest point wasn’t when my husband and I were sitting in the living room and finally spoke the words out loud. It wasn’t when we gathered the children together, two days before I moved out, to tell them that their lives were about to undergo a drastic change. That it wasn’t anything to do with them, and that we would never be separated from them. None of those awful, ugly, heart-breaking, conscience-pricking moments were the worst thing about the whole sprawling process.
It was when I was standing by myself in the DIY store on the afternoon of 27 December, buying forty removal boxes. I had never felt so alone. So abandoned. So completely torn up by helplessness, anger, grief, fear, regret and love. Inside me was nothing but an endless darkness, and I still don’t get how I was able to go through with it. Buying the boxes, I mean. And the divorce.
What was it about that day and that moment? I have no idea. I really don’t know. It would be easy to fall back on a rational explanation about how the removal boxes symbolised the incarnation of all our lost hopes and dreams, which now had to be hidden away and moved out because we didn’t share them any more. Or that it was the unexpected culmination of a story that for the last eighteen years we had written together, and now all of a sudden I was standing there alone, without him to share my sorrow. Moving house, usually a joyful event, became in that moment a flight from something instead of a journey towards something new. If that was the reason then it might make sense for my low point to fall at that precise moment.
But a lack of sense and meaning is exactly what makes a divorce so unreal. And so painful.
I mean, love can’t just stop. Not real love. It doesn’t make sense for real love not to last forever. That’s what we believe in our culture. But… is that even a realistic possibility? For some people, yes. But for many others, real love has an expiration date. We change, develop, move on; we become different people with different values and different goals and different needs than when we first met. And the paradox is that in some cases the other person is one of the major reasons why we develop and move on, so the fact that we’re together and influencing each other is also the very reason why we grow apart, no longer needing what we have to give each other.
So does this mean that the love we share isn’t real? No! It can be as real as it gets. As right. As beautiful. As good. And yes, you may well fight for many years before throwing in the towel. I don’t know any couples who really wanted things to be over. But when hope is gone, most people give up. The decision brings incredible pain, and an unnecessary feeling of shame.
And this is where I think that we in the modern world face – perhaps – our greatest challenge. The idea that a marriage is only a success if it lasts until one of the partners dies. For many people this is an impossible dream, because the practical and idealistic notions don’t support the project. In fact, they do the opposite!
Our age demands of us that we change and develop constantly. As the old joke goes, if you’re not going forwards you’re going backwards. But when it comes to marriage, in many cases the exact inverse is true. When we develop, the risk that the marriage will fall apart increases dramatically. After all, how likely is it, really, that both partners will develop at the same time? And in the same direction? They may communicate well and they may try to share the same dreams, but the risk is still high that both people – or one of them, at least – will head off down a path the other person cannot follow. Or match.
Divorce hurts. I don’t believe in ‘amicable’ separations. Ours was, yet just writing this piece hurts like hell. But perhaps divorce would be less painful if we didn’t add to our sorrow about giving up on a relationship with someone who has been the most important person in our life by also telling ourselves that we’ve failed to live up to the dream of eternal love that defines our society’s notion of a successful marriage. Maybe then we wouldn’t have to cope with the thought that we’ve failed in some fundamental way because we loved not ‘until death do us part’ but until the death of our love.
Since nearly half of all marriages now end in divorce, it would be helpful for both adults and children to begin establishing new norms about what constitutes a successful marriage. It would also be beneficial to society. Not only would it get rid of the sense of shame that many people – both children and adults – experience at having to give up on a marriage and on the nuclear family, a social construct that is still considered the ‘right’ one, but you could also enter into a marriage with the clear expectation that quality rather than length is most important, and that a marriage that ‘only’ lasts a few years can actually be a huge success if it also broadens the horizons of your heart, kicks your personal development up a few notches and makes you happier than ever before.
Now that’s real love in a real marriage.