Marriage: Is it better if you wait? Is it better if you never do it in the first place? Should it be changed to a two-year contract, subject to renewal? Or should divorce simply be embraced, since it’s inevitable for so many? New option: Be brutally realistic about what it’s actually like up front.
There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about what leads to greater marital happiness and longevity, but at the core of all these questions and ponderings is one notion: Society has changed — why hasn’t marriage? Isn’t there a better way to do this thing? We’ve certainly toyed with ideas about changing the institution itself, from treating it like a short-term contract subject to renewal (every two years, or five, or 10, or 20) to treating like more of an actual contract, and spelling out, say, who will do what chores, or how many children will be had, to how much sex each partner “expects.”
Two recent pieces on the state of marriage offer an intriguing other suggestion: Changing the narrative to reflect that marriage is hard, and great marriages are rare, and to alter the wedding vows accordingly. Less “I promise to love you forever” and more “I promise to love you as long as you don’t fall in love with my best friend.” (No, this isn’t another “Shadow Wedding.”)
In a piece over at Quartz exploring this idea, Danielle Teller acknowledges the problem: We marry for love now, but our social narratives have simply not caught up. We still feed children stories of happily ever after, and many of us believe them, too, but we all know married couples who aren’t happy, and what is to be done? Teller asks:
How should we, as a society, react to married people who feel that they have not found happily-ever-after? We could stick with our original narrative and tell them, “That’s a bummer that you haven’t found your true love yet. You should try again.” That would lead to a lot more divorces, however, and we don’t like divorces.
She concludes that while it isn’t exactly the cheeriest notion to slap on a wedding invite, something like this might be a better societal message about marriage:
The painful truth is that really great marriages exist, but they are rare. What we as a society should probably be telling married people is, “If you have love, passion, companionship and equality in your marriage, you are wealthy beyond words. If you don’t, you have two choices. You can decide that your marriage is the best you’re going to get and try to be content. Alternatively, you can leave your marriage to play the lottery of finding that perfect partner, accepting that you are unlikely to win and may have to stay single for the rest of your life.”
Or a good third option I think would be to fake your own death try to problem-solve your way to a better relationship. But honestly, even the notion of a great marriage is a complex thing. Take Charles and Ray Eames. He was an architect; she was a painter. They were both designers, and artists, and they made that famous chair, and as this documentary explores, they spent their lives working and archiving and building and dreaming and making, and they seemed to not only genuinely enjoy each other’s company, but actually worked, and lived, and breathed, and ate and tirelessly did all the things together. While married! Like, constantly! Later on, he totes cheated on her though. Is that marriage “great” or not? You tell me. Helluva chair, though!
In a separate piece on marriage vows, Teller explores what it would be like for vows to better reflect this complexity:
If the modern wedding contract states or implies undying love, how do we reconcile that with the reality of our relationships? Nobody would ever sign an employment contract that said, “I not only promise never to leave this job, but I promise to be equally enthusiastic about working here for the rest of my life, no matter how this job evolves and no matter how much I change as a person.” Yet this is more or less what most of us do when we get married. We promise that we are going to continue to feel the way we do today in perpetuity, even though experience teaches us that our feelings about most things change over time.
How does one love another forever if they’ve lost that loving feeling? What if, she asks, vows read more like this:
“I, ____________________, do promise to act as though I love you, __________________, for as long as I shall live. I promise not to leave you under any circumstance, no matter how miserable it makes me to stay with you.”
A smidge unrealistic. How about:
“I, ____________________, do promise to do my utmost to love you, __________________, for as long as we are married. I promise that if a time comes when I do not love you, I will do everything in my power to try to rekindle that love. If I become convinced that I cannot regain my love for you, I will tell you promptly and end our marriage as elegantly as I can.”
But why stop there? More pragmatic wedding vows could address a variety of realistic, commonly experienced issues that crop up in the best of marriages:
I Promise to Fight With You As Needed
I’m shocked by the sheer number of people who think conflict is innately bad, a do-not-pass-go verdict on the state of a relationship. Not only is it boring to always get along, but also boring? Look, if you’re one of those people who found a relationship where you literally never disagree and it’s not masking some weirder, pent-up hostilities, I’m really happy for you. But for everyone else with a human head, fighting is OK. It just shouldn’t be all the time. And you should have a healthy, productive way of resolving it, k?
When You’re Super on My Nerves I’ll Totes Try to Remember Why We Got Married
The honeymoon is over, and here is this gargoyle person you married, with their steaming gargoyle ways. Good thing to promise here is that at one point you thought this person was the opposite of a gargoyle (whatever that is? A spirit of light?) and recall that fact. Also, key point for humility: Sometimes, that gargoyle is you (deep!).
I Promise to Tell You How You Really Are and Expect the Same
Relationships should be mirrors: They should hold up your reflection back at you and force you to deal with what you’re really like, i.e., you have to be able to tell someone else how they are being/acting. But not constantly. It shouldn’t be a funhouse of mirrors, a terrifying deep dive into the darkness of your soul. Or at least, not every Friday night. In reality, you gotta be willing to let someone reflect you back at you, even if you don’t like what you see. Otherwise, you’re just going to stay the same, and I don’t even know you, but I can tell you right now with unassailable confidence that the answer to that is #nope.
I Promise to Change, and Let You Change
I never understood why people are like “He’s/she’s not the person I married.” If you are the same person you were when you got married, that is gross. People should change and grow and all that crap, and other people should let them. It’s not like a small dog you can just freeze at max cuteness, which is also not a thing either. This is probably always going to be terrifying on some level, because what if they grow into really liking Dave Matthews Band? But look at your choices: You can give someone the space to become a new or different person that you’re still willing to be into, or you can deal with being married to someone who only knows how to cook chicken tenders forever. Helluva chicken tender, though!
I Promise to Love You Forever As Long As You Make a Modest Effort to Be Lovable
Right? I mean, right guys? Seriously, right? Amirite? Tell me I’m not right.
Image by Jim Cooke