Why I don’t believe marriage should be a binding contract
I had dinner with a friend last night. She has been happily married for 10 years — and even though she loves her husband and he is a good friend and partner, she questions the sanity of marriage. We had a long discussion about it. About what makes sense and what doesn’t. It’s an interesting topic, marriage. It’s complex — encapsulating social constructs, religious sanctity, and deeply ingrained ideology regarding the nature of love. There are many things I love about the idea of marriage: sharing life, solidarity, sexual and emotional fulfillment. But those things are all part of a connected relationship regardless of marriage. And it’s that — marriage — that I am struggling with. And here’s why:
1. Vows. I don’t believe in vows. Asking someone to make a vow is like asking a river to become a pond. How can I promise to be in love with someone forever? To cherish them? And (seriously???) obey them? I can’t even promise to love pizza forever — and it’s pizza. It never changes. But I change. The way I eat, the things that bring me joy, the way I see the world — all of it changes. And people are much more complex than pizza. I cannot possibly know who you will be in 5 years. I don’t know who I will be. We can try to grow together and hope to grow together, but promising to grow together doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s not because I think people are fickle, or incapable of real commitment. But a vow is not a magic wand and sometimes life throws curveballs that we can’t possibly see coming. Maybe that is the crux of it. I don’t like that marriage traditionally treats vows like a magical incantation — like something that by the mere repetition, can bind permanently two people who may very well grow apart. I could and would absolutely state my intention to grow with a partner, to respect their dignity, to do my best to be a friend and a lover — but the pressure to wrap that intention in something holy and permanent as religion just doesn’t seem reasonable.
2. The problem of gender roles. This is a big one. Despite the accomplishments of feminism and the growing economic independence of women, ideas regarding gender roles have not quite caught up. A man can fall in love with an independent, driven woman, fully knowing and appreciating who she is, but still struggle with how he perceives a “wife” should behave. It is the same on the other end. A woman may love that her partner is loving and sensitive but struggle with the underlying role expectation that he also be a provider and source of protection and strength. Our expectations of how life-long partners are supposed to behave are very ingrained — especially when we “put a ring on it.”
3. Obligation for the sake of obligation. I’ve heard many times that the key to marriage is simply not to leave. Okay. But what are we staying for? This is the part that confuses me. People stay in bad relationships for all kinds of reasons: the kids, economic hardship, fear of being alone. All of those reasons are compelling, but none of them, in my experience, justify the special misery that accompanies a bad match. I think it’s wonderful when people find partners that they can enjoy for a lifetime. But that kind of match is rare. There seems to be a lot of honor tied up in lasting relationships. People are applauded for “making it work” — like integrity and a lasting marriage are synonymous. I don’t agree though. How is it a display of integrity to remain in a marriage of mutual disdain? Or boredom? How is it a display of integrity to completely lose yourself in order to meet someone else’s definition of what a spouse should be?
This leads me to the next question: if I fall in love and marry someone because of a feeling that waivers, should I allow commitment to keep me tethered? When is it okay for love to be a choice? To what extent do I let that choice drive my actions? And finally, can love be authentic if it is acted on out of commitment rather than a feeling?
- I think it is important to understand that a relationship is not easy. Just because both people are “in love” does not mean their expression or experience of it will be the same. For me, I’ve come to this. If I like who I am inside of this relationship and still have respect for my partner, then I will allow the commitment to override the temporary loss of feeling. The commitment does not violate my sense of self in any way — it is merely a recognition that feelings are not sustainable all the time. Sometimes I am tired. Or sick. Or overwhelmed. Sometimes my partner is stressed, or feeling insecure, or in need of some space. This is where I understand that love, though shared, is not equal — and sometimes it is important to let commitment fill that gap.
- I let commitment drive my actions to the extent that I am not violating self. When I was in my early thirties, I dated an alcoholic. I was madly in love with him. It was one of those relationships where I felt like everything could be perfect if not for this one thing. The whole relationship was like a puzzle piece you keep thinking is going to fit. It looked like it should, so I kept trying to jam it into place. Over and over again. I remember having the epiphany that I would hate for my students to see me with him on a weekend. He would be drunk. And obnoxious. I remember thinking that none of them would want that for me. And I realized that I was committed to a love that violated my sense of who I wanted to be. I knew then, that the days in my relationship were numbered. I didn’t like myself anymore.
- Finally, can love be authentic if it is about commitment rather than a feeling? This is a tough one. Maybe it depends on the duration. I watched a movie about Stephen Hawking in which his wife talked about how he had become an obligation, merely a choice she made every day. She showed her love for him through a commitment that eventually didn’t make sense anymore — because he didn’t want it. I think a lot of marriages stay intact because of commitment rather than genuine affection. I don’t believe in that. However, I do think that there has to be a mutual understanding that there will be times when love is not the primary emotion in a relationship. At that point, it is important to assess. People drift. Have you drifted so far, it doesn’t make sense to stay together? Have you become part of a routine that doesn’t bring anyone in the partnership any joy? You can love someone by demonstrating a commitment to love for a long time. It’s an authentic and real form of love because it is unselfish. But it may not be beneficial. Maybe not to either party. And maybe that is the bigger point.
Love must be felt genuinely. It must not violate self. And it must absolutely give way to commitment when that is what is called upon. But all of that requires an understanding that it is a thing that contracts and constricts — a feeling and a choice — a thing that requires constant evaluation and communication. It is never so simple as a vow. Love and commitment work hand and hand — and cannot be sealed into place by the sanctity of marriage. Though I understand the desire to make love permanent, to seal it with something holy and binding, I don’t think it’s honest. Or for that matter, even possible.