What Marriage is Not

What Marriage is Not January 21, 2011

This post is part of a series on covenant marriage.

Over winter break, a controversial profile appeared in The New York Times‘s Vows column.  The NYT featured a pair of newlyweds who had left their previous spouses and broken up their original families in order to be with each other.  The article drew a lot of criticism from both sides of the culture war.  Here are some choice excerpts from the profile:

But it was hard to ignore their easy rapport. They got each other’s jokes and finished each other’s sentences. They shared a similar rhythm in the way they talked and moved. The very things one hopes to find in another person, but not when you’re married to someone else.

Ms. Riddell said she remembered crying in the shower, asking: “Why am I being punished? Why did someone throw him in my path when I can’t have him?”

…As Mr. Partilla saw it, their options were either to act on their feelings and break up their marriages or to deny their feelings and live dishonestly. “Pain or more pain,” was how he summarized it…

All they had were their feelings, which Ms. Riddell described as “unconditional and all-encompassing.”

“I came to realize it wasn’t a punishment, it was a gift,” she said. “But I had to earn it. Were we brave enough to hold hands and jump?”

Like most of the people who read who read the profile, I disapproved.  If you read the full article, you’ll notice that neither one of the remarried spouses complains of any problems in their first marriage.  There’s no mention of neglect or abuse, they don’t even claim they dislike their first spouses.  They just like the new ones better.

My freshman sociology professor would call these two “daters and raters.”   When in a relationship, they compare all other possible relationships to their current one on an essentially even playing field.  The person they’re with is not judged to be worth more if the current squeeze doesn’t make them happier than a new person would.  It’s a surprisingly common mindset, especially given how ridiculous it looks in practice.

I knew a boy who, whenever he expressed admiration for another girl’s looks, would turn guiltily to his girlfriend and quickly add something like “but not as pretty as you.”  I always thought this was ridiculous.  Presumably he wasn’t dating his girlfriend on the grounds that she was the single most attractive person in the world.  If he ran into a girl he thought was prettier, he wouldn’t have broken up with his girlfriend.

Relationships (especially marriage) do not endure because your partner is the absolutely ideal person for you to be with.  I don’t believe in soulmates; I don’t believe in having one person on Earth I am ‘meant for.’  A good relationship satisfies the goal of marriage (which I am going to discuss in more detail in the next few posts), but it is not the pursuit of the optomization of one’s partner.

In the brouhaha that followed the piece, I was surprised at how many complaints were coming from people on my side of the aisle.  When I have fights with some of my liberal friends about marriage, they tend to defend a very individual-focused idea of marriage.  The purpose of marriage is to promote happiness and satisfaction.  If someone no longer makes you happy or as happy as you could be with someone else, the marriage should be terminated, they tell me.  To my mind, that’s exactly the principle the NYT couple was following.

I’d be curious to know if my anti-marriage, pro-autonomy friends were bothered by the decisions of the couple linked above.  I don’t see how a relationship founded on ‘dater and rater’ ideas can ever be stable or satisfying.  Over the next few days, I’ll be talking about the values that seem to promote stable, beneficial relationships.

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  • Wow, I hadn't read that. I think they did a lot more damage to their children than they think, by breaking their trust bond with their first spouses. I was always very comforted by the fact that I knew my parents would never, ever get a divorce, especially when they argued. They are certainly not "ideally" matched, but there are other things that make my parents' marriage happy and stable. I know there are serious reasons why people do separate, but this was definitely not one of them.Also, Matthew Warner of Fallible Blogma just blogged on this topic too! "How Long is Marriage": http://www.fallibleblogma.com/index.php/how-long-is-a-marriage/Leah, I am definitely intrigued by this series. Great post! 🙂

  • While I wouldn't support a "date & rate" style of life, I'm not surprised. I think we're learning a lot from our animal kingdom friends about just how much of a myth monogamy really is. I a wife and two kids myself and I have no intentions of changing that! I just thought I'd add this in, though.I guess I don't know what, exactly, this adds — I just thought it would be interesting to cover in your series. Why are humans inclined toward romantic monogamy? Heck, there might even be genes for monogamy and an inclination toward cheating! Interesting findings.I by no means think genes = predetermination. My genes would have me hoard fat (especially) and sugar because historically they were more likely to benefit survival… with gas stations and supermarkets on every block, to "obey" those genes (if you call it that) will actually Darwin-award me out of the population. So… genes aren't everything, but it's still interesting to contemplate. I at least think we shouldn't read stories like this and be immediately repulsed — changing it up may be more "human" than we think.Does any of this sound coherent? I realize it might seem like I'm shifting back and forth a lot and making my stance unclear — I both am a fan/liver of monogamy but suppose my point is that we may be more predisposed against it historically/biologically than we admit.And to pendulum swing one more time… no one forced these two to get married in the first place.

  • I wonder if this couple, in breaking their marriages and starting a new relationship, thought for a second that they might find themselves in precisely the same situation a few years down the road: Mr. Right no longer seems like Mr. Right anymore, and vice versa. What will they do then, repeat the whole exercise with new partners?I also wonder if they paused to reflect on how they felt years previously when they had just entered into their original marriages. Were they really less happy and optimistic as newlyweds then than they are now?

  • @Julie and Keith, I'm in agreement with both of you. I don't see any evidence in the article that the couple have any definition of loving relationships that would exclude their first spouses but include their new ones. @Hendy, I'm going to respond to your question in more detail tomorrow.

  • Marriage is a legal contract between (at present) two consenting adults. To give it more import than your cell phone contract is irrational.Having said that, there is evidence that children from divorced parents statistically do worse at school and in later life. But that could be symptomatic of the stigma that goes with being divorced or being from a 'broken home'. We won't be able to tell until there is no stigma attached to it!I look forward to your posts on covenant marriage, I anticipate disagreeing with you completely, but I'm open to being convinced if your arguments are good enough.

  • How long til someone else comes along? How long til one (or both) of them becomes the third wheel in an awkward love triangle?