Marriage, the word is a demonstration of our language’s ability to evoke and provoke some of the strongest emotions possible. These range from the worshipful to cynical. It is simultaneously sought after and hated, not uncommonly by the same person. Is it broken? Was it ever right? I’ve been thinking about these questions a lot lately. I find myself at that time in my life (early thirties) where those inevitable questions start to arise, as though I perceive a door slowly closing. It’s my conclusion, after a good deal of thought, that I’ve been fooled, we’ve all been bamboozled, tricked, whatever you want to call it, into thinking that the oft referred to (holy) institution of marriage is something we should care and obsess over.
Let’s dig into this where I enjoy it most: its history. Marriage has not always been interpreted through its current incarnation. Now what do I mean by that exactly? Well most obviously would be this idea of marriage for eternal love. This modern consideration is an incredibly recent advent. Marriage in the not so distant past was carried out pragmatically: for family interests. The mewling protests of those involved, should there be any, were silenced quickly as selfish prattle that had better shut the hell up, or risk the wrath of their elders, and when I think about it, rightly so. Life and survival are difficult enough in an old world without youth bemoaning that they don’t get to love the person they are with. We’d have been far better off if marriage were actually referred to for what it was at its inception: duty.
But we are a forward thinking species. How dare the wisdom of the old be inflicted on the young. Better we let them decide who they should marry, and then divorce shortly after. This has led us to marriage’s current state. The mass majority of marriages end, it’s indefensible to suggest otherwise. Growing up my parents were in the absolute minority that they remained together through my youth. Their staying together was the exception not the rule.
Which leads me to my next point: the language of modern marriage in its aftermath. Having moved away from the more ancient form of marriage, we have landed ourselves in an existential hell. We’ve exchanged the mild grumbling of a couple learning to be with each other for the impossible ideal of eternal love. We even hold this lofty standard so high above our heads that if a marriage were to fail in this context we have no shortage of cruel descriptors for it: broken home and failed marriage leap to mind. We describe something so obviously natural—the falling out of love of those together for an extended period of time—as something abhorrent, hateful, and shameful. This I believe is madness.
Life in the last hundred years has changed so rapidly when compared to the previous it has left our older social constructs outdated and staggered, barely able to bear the weight of keeping up. I think fondly on my father’s joking description of the problem, “When they said till death do us part, that’s what it used to mean!” This albeit dark humour summarizes what I am trying to say. A progressive step was needed to reinvent the dated survival-style of marriage, but caught up in our solipsist view of the world we failed to see that we’d set out for ourselves an impossible standard. Couples rejoiced at the idea of marriage for eternal love, but soon found the reality was not quite what they imagined. It never is.
Now I’m not suggesting a return to the old style. We do live in a time when choosing who we wish to partner with is a luxury we can more or less afford. What I am suggesting is that we face a more difficult reality: we live long enough to have deep meaningful relationships with multiple people, and should allow ourselves to do so.
I’ll anticipate the soft soul’s argument who will cry, “What about the children? You blind fool,” and say this: we can, and already do, leave behind marriages with children yet to grow. All I’m suggesting is if we do so, let’s do away with all the weight of this crazy guilt. Good parents exist, lots of them, who are not in “wedlock,” another great term I enjoy. As long-lived human beings whose lifespans are continually stretching we must throw off the shackles that the ideal of eternal love has bound us in. We need a new love renaissance, one that correctly acknowledges both our strengths and weaknesses: Yes we can love, yes we fall out of love, there is no one single love of your life, there are many.
I cannot help but relate this to a series of books written by one of my favourite authors ‘Peter F. Hamilton.’ In his wild sci-fi imaginings he’s created a world wherein people can potentially live forever. Not only that, he considers the profound social repercussions of this world. The obvious question that comes about from eternal life is: do I eternally marry? He would suggest no. Instead, people spend as much time as they want with each other. Some raise children, some don’t. The norm of the citizens that inhabit his world is to marry many over the hundreds of years that they are alive. This to me seems natural.
And before those dissenters start screeching at the computer screen, allow me to clarify what I mean by natural. Natural is the world we have grown up in. I’ll borrow from ‘Aubrey de Grey’ to clarify what I mean. When people object to his suggestion—that we should be able to live forever—and say it is unnatural to have such long life-spans, he immediately counters with a very sound argument. When you say natural, whose natural do you mean? If you had grown up in the colonial era a natural life-span was far less than it is now. Eighty to a hundred is the natural life-span if you were born in recent memory. To cement what I am saying vicariously through Aubrey’s point: “natural” changes depending on where you are looking at it from. In effect, it is always changing given your perspective. And that is now what we need for marriage and the way we pursue it. A new perspective.