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Cultural Commitments & Marriage



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I had a few evening radio interviews last night, and, albeit unplanned, wound up spending a decent part of my Friday night arguing about marriage and how the same-sex marriage law in New York is not the fault of Archbishop Timothy Dolan not staging a sit-in at the statehouse in Albany (my piece here).

There’s a whole culture — the result of decades now — that plays a role in a moment like this. To restore traditional marriage takes a lot of work and support for just that.

Speaking a bit to this, there is a fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal today, born of continuing struggle and pain and confusion, an excerpt from an upcoming book by Susan Gregory Thomas.

She writes, in part:

To allow our own marriages to end in divorce is to live out our worst childhood fears. More horrifying, it is to inflict the unthinkable on what we most love and want to protect: our children. It is like slashing open our own wounds and turning the knife on our babies. To consider it is unbearable.

My husband and I were as obvious as points on a graph in a Generation X marriage study. We were together for nearly eight years before we got married, and even though statistics show that divorce rates are 48% higher for those who have lived together previously, we paid no heed.

We also paid no heed to his Catholic parents, who comprised one of the rare reassuringly unified couples I’d ever met, when they warned us that we should wait until we were married to live together. As they put it, being pals and roommates is different from being husband and wife. How bizarrely old-fashioned and sexist! We didn’t need anything so naïve or retro as “marriage.” Please. We were best friends.

Sociologists, anthropologists and other cultural observers tell us that members of Generation X are more emotionally invested in our spouses than previous generations were. We are best friends; our marriages are genuine partnerships. Many studies have found that Generation X family men help around the house a good deal more than their forefathers. We depend on each other and work together.

Adultery is far more devastating for us than it was for our parents or grandparents. A 2003 study by the late psychologist Shirley Glass found that the mores of sexual infidelity are undergoing a profound change. The traditional standard for men—love is love and sex is sex—is dying out. Increasingly, men and women develop serious emotional attachments with their would-be lovers long before they commit adultery. As a result, she found, infidelity today is much more likely to lead to divorce.

Call us helicopter parents, call us neurotically attached, but those of us who survived the wreckage of split families were determined never to inflict such wounds on our children. We knew better. We were doing everything differently, and the fundamental premise was simple: “Kids come first” meant that we would not divorce.

But marriages do dissolve, even among those determined never to let it happen. After nine years, my husband and I had become wretched, passive-aggressive roommates. I had given up trying to do anything in the kitchen and had not washed a dish in a year. My husband had not been able to “find time” to read the book I had written. We rarely spoke, except about logistics. We hadn’t slept in the same room for at least two years, a side effect of the nighttime musical bed routine that parents of so many young children play in semiconsciousness for years on end.

Yet I never considered divorce. It never even entered my mind. I was grateful that my babies had a perfect father, for our family meals, for the stability of our home, for neighborhood play dates.

But then, one evening, I found myself where I vowed I’d never be: miserable, in tears, telling my husband that we were like siblings who couldn’t stand each other rather than a couple, and listening as my husband said he felt as though we had never really been a couple and regretted that we hadn’t split up a decade earlier. “I’m done,” he said. It was as if a cosmic force had been unleashed; the awful finality of it roared in like an enormous black cloud blotting out the sky, over every inch of the world. It was done.

That was four years ago. Even now, I still wonder every day if there was something that I—we—could have done differently. Like many of my cohort, the circumstances of my upbringing led me to believe that I had made exactly the right choices by doing everything differently from my parents.

I had married the kindest, most stable person I’d ever known to ensure that our children would never know anything of the void of my own childhood. I nursed, loved, read to and lolled about with my babies—restructured and re-imagined my career—so that they would be secure, happy, attended to. My husband and I made the happiest, most comfy nest possible. We worked as a team; we loved our kids; we did everything right, better than right. And yet divorce came. In spite of everything.  

As I read it, she abhors divorce, but saw no other way in the end. At one point in the excerpt, now-adults of a generation raised with divorce as a norm are referred to as “war orphans.”  Parenting seems to have an odd divorce — pun intended — from marriage. She was attracted to marriage but doesn’t know how to do it — and belatedly realizes that cohabitation maybe wasn’t the best idea and she may have ignored the models of successful marriage she did have in her life. At the time, they were “old-fashioned” and even “sexist,” alas. But maybe they actually were onto something. It’s a self-conflicted essay and maybe a mirror on a cultural confusion.

This is the battle. Helping one another pursue actual happiness, ultimate goods. Not just political debates about marriage, that descend into blame games. 



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