Til Death Do Us Part: How Modern Marriage Has Failed

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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.

Chapter.2 Family Reunion

Daniel watched as the window’s cold early light crept across his bed covers. He imagined it as some hungry beast, consuming his body. First his legs, then his chest. Given time, it would devour him completely. Kate stirred in the bed that sat next to him, rolled over, but never woke. She could always sleep longer than him. Sharing the room with her irked him. He hated giving up his privacy. In their previous home, before the court case, he’d had all the necessities: walk in closet, walk in shower and king sized bed. A home so big he could actually go the whole day without ever having to see anyone. Although he only ever avoided Grant.

Tossing off the covers, he grimaced as his bare feet touched the cold wooden floor boards. Add another thing to the list of past comforts gone. No more heated floors. On his parents list of prerequisites for their new place they’d written only two: cheap and can we move in now? Looking around his room, he was sure they’d succeeded in checking off both. The previous tenants, swiftly ejected for defaulting on rent, must have dreamt of turning this room into a nursery, but they’d succeeded in only half accomplishing the project. One wall showcased an amateurish collage of farm animals. A happy smiling cow stood next to a tree in a green field. At its feet, a family of six happy smiling yellow blobs marched in a line. Or, chicks maybe, he couldn’t tell. Above, in a too blue sky, a happy smiling bird with no eyes flew over their heads. Everything happy. The other three walls they’d not even started. They retained the colour chosen by the tenants before them. Black.

He remembered standing in the room with his mom when they’d first come to look at it with the building manager. Daniel was certain, listening to the two women talk, he’d never heard the word potential used so many times. At least it came with the two steel frame beds and a large dresser with a mirror. They needed anything they could get after Grant had sold all the furnishings in their last home to cover as much of the debt as possible. He hated how Grant always called it that, the debt. As though he, his mom and Kate had all together racked up the additional costs that sank them so badly after people first started getting sick. He’d bought it all: fancy cars, business trips to warm places, endless designer clothing, and always for the same reason. Grant would say there was a certain lifestyle expected of him. He had to keep up appearances. From a young age Daniel always wondered, how when he grew up, would he afford all the appearances? Turned out the answer to that question is most people can’t, unless by fraud.

After an insufferable shower where the water took two minutes before it heated up, Daniel got dressed and made his way downstairs. In the kitchen, Kate, his mom and Grant, all sat around a square table with round metal legs. A plastic stapled-on table-cloth decorated with oranges covered its surface. Leftovers again from the previous tenants, the table and the cloth.

“Hi, honey, did you sleep well?” His mom beamed with a smile that put the farm animals to shame.

“Still a little tired actually.” He pulled out the last remaining chair next to his sister and sat down.

“What’s for breakfast?”

“Just the basics I’m afraid: toast and fruit,” she chimed, pushing her chair back on her way to the kitchen. “But I can go shopping today. I want to take a look around the neighbourhood anyways.”

“It’s alright, Mom. I like toast.”

“Liar,” said Kate. She’d spoken with her head down. Eyebrows furrowed, focused on her e-reader. Swiping intermittently from right to left to turn the page.

“What are you talking about? I’ve always loved toast.”

“You love toast so long as it provides a medium for peanut butter. You love peanut butter, not toast.”

“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.” After a pregnant silence, Daniel added, “Do we have any peanut butter…?”

His mother, slicing an apple, answered from the kitchen. “Well no, honey, that’s on the list for today. We have butter though. You like that don’t you?”

“Oh, yeah sure, no problem.” Daniel smiled at his mom, crushing the despondent feelings welling up that would prove his sister right. He attempted to ignore the smug expression she now wore while reading her book. “I really don’t mind you kn-” The doorbell rang.

Dropping off Daniel’s plate of toast and sliced apple in front of him, his mom stepped lightly by the kitchen table. “I wonder who that could be?” she said, her voice irritatingly coloured with a timbre that hinted she already knew the answer.

The door opened inwards and blocked Daniel from seeing who his mother spoke with. Grant, who’d been muttering angrily behind his newspaper, lowered it. Even Kate, whose attention could be no more ripped from a book than a sword from a stone, looked up in curiosity. It wasn’t possible. Daniel’s heart raced. Grant had told him it was necessary. He’d even said goodbye. But there was no mistaking that hopeful jingle of metal. That happy panting behind the door. He ran from his seat nearly knocking his mother over. “Lincoln!” he exclaimed, elated. The black lab stood outside the door. Upon seeing Daniel he wagged his tail so hard it bowed his whole body back and forth. Taking the leash from his mother as she scratched a signature on the delivery man’s paper, he led the dog inside. “Can you believe it?” he said, wrestling the dog to the floor behind the door while it licked his face and nipped him affectionately.

“No, I can’t,” said his sister, sounding worried, looking at Grant.

“That makes two of us.” The anger evident in Grant’s voice was barely contained. The happy reunion ended as soon as the door closed. “Beth, what the fuck did you do!” The pleased-with-herself expression slid from her face as though she’d never known it.

“I thought we could afford it, Grant? Lincoln’s a part of the family. We kept the Lexus. I thought we could keep Lincoln,” she offered with wounded hope, “for the children?”

“I need the Lexus, Beth, for appearances. That dog is useless. It’s just gonna cost us money we don’t have.”

“Lincoln’s more useful than you,” said Daniel, jumping up to stand protectively in front of his pet. The dog cowered behind him, confused and worried by the raised voices.

Grant stood up. He slammed his hand on the table, rocking the glasses set out for breakfast. “You spoiled little shit. I got that dog for you.”

“So you could give him away, because you got caught for approving bad drugs. That’s crueler than ever having him.”

“How dare you. I put food on this table. You owe everything you’ve ever had to me.”

“Grant, please.” Beth stepped between the two. “We can make it work.”

Grant moved threateningly from the table towards the door. Standing in front of his wife he held up his index finger inches from her face. “No, we can’t, Beth. We can’t make it work. You’ve fucked us. Now we’re even more screwed if I don’t find a job this month. Get out of my way.” Beth stood aside, back to the door with her head down, hands clasped in front of her. “Now I’m going to get changed and go out to look for a job, so this family can continue to eat. When I get back downstairs you kids better be gone for school. It’s enough you’re ungrateful; I’m not gonna raise idiots.”

Daniel stepped forward confronting Grant’s anger. Blocking his way up the stairs. “You think you’re tough, because you yell, because you can make people feel horrible.” He jabbed a finger into his face, as Grant had to his mother. “You’re just a coward, a coward with a loud-”

Grant slapped the hand out of his face and grabbed Daniel by his neck slamming him backwards into the wall.

Beth screamed.

“No, you little idiot,” said Grant, choking his son and forcing him down the wall. “I’m tough, because I’m bigger and stronger than you. You better be gone when I get downstairs.” Grant released his grip and stood up. “Or I swear to God…” With his path clear, he stomped up the stairs.

“Excited for school?” asked Kate from the table.

Daniel, rubbing his raw neck, hunched over on the floor, looked at Kate. She sat with her face propped between balled fists. The ghost of a wan smile on her lips.

Safe Walls

I walk down the halls check all of the rooms
Everything in its right place clean sharp corners to sleep
No one’s getting round my eye on my keep
It took so many years to get it right
Each timber a flight from some new life

I made it safe I made it sound
Safe walls that rose from solid ground
I wonder though am I afraid these walls that surround of mortal clay
They keep everything out except what I’ve let in
The cast is growing smaller patience growing thin

These hands were good these hands held strong
How quickly they built a mocking bird’s song
I’ve got a castle now fill it with all my pets of prey
They are the only ones I can count on not to come back at the end of the day

I made it safe I made it sound
Safe walls that rose from solid ground
I wonder though am I afraid these walls that surround of mortal clay
They keep everything out except what I’ve let in
The cast is growing smaller patience growing thin

To build a home is a sacred thing
They say build it in your heart where you can be king
But what of your heart its state and its place
Making decisions in the dark hidden from the light of days
The perfect sanctuary respite reprieve
Who knows behind a darkling gate what we come to believe

I made it safe I made it sound
Safe walls that rose from solid ground
I wonder though am I afraid these walls that surround of mortal clay
They keep everything out except what I’ve let in
The cast is growing smaller patience growing thin