Whenever someone says something like, “My grandparents have been married 68 years,” my first question–and sometimes I’m stupid enough to say it out loud–is, “Happily?”
What I mean when I say/think “Happily?” is,
1. “Are they the kind of people who believe marriage is forever, no matter how miserable they make each other?”
If so, the way they saw it, they had no choice. Should they be congratulated or pitied?
2. “Do they still share a sappy or otherwise private smile across the room and consider themselves best friends?”
If so, rather than any feelings of congratulations, I think, “I love it! So beautiful!”
When decades upon decades of marriage are celebrated not as “Yay, love!” but more as an amazing feat of will, it emphasizes how attached we are to upholding social mores simply for the sake of upholding social mores. If a never-married couple were celebrating 68 years together, the first assumption we’d likely make would be that they love each other, that they stayed together because they genuinely wanted to. Yay, love!
We wouldn’t congratulate them for “sticking it out” because they’d signed a contract.
. . .
A little less than a year into my first marriage, I started privately fantasizing about being in a relationship with someone else. Someone specific. Someone I knew.
Many people suspect there’s someone out there who’s right for them, someone they’ll enjoy being with much more than they enjoy being with the current “good enough” partner, but they’ll never pursue the possibility. They’re usually warned off about doing anything that might destroy their existing relationship. Responses usually include,
“Oh, that’s just what you’re feeling now, but ‘the grass is always greener on the other side,’ as they say. As soon as you get over there to that other grass, you’ll see your grass was perfect the whole time.” Or,
“Yeah, I once went after the one that got away, but that turned out awful. You’re best just sticking with what you have.” Or,
“No relationship is perfect. If you leave your spouse for someone else, you’re just going to end up having the same problems with a different person.”
For the longest time, I didn’t get why people are made so nervous by the idea of other people breaking up or divorcing if their current partner isn’t the right fit. “What if it doesn’t work out with the new person!?” is the standard hesitation. “Then you’ll be alone! You’ll have dumped someone who’s so/so and you’ll never get to experience so/so relationship happiness again!”
I think I started to understand the “tsk”-ing and judgment directed at people who want to leave a relationship–particularly a marriage–for a better one, or even for the promise or hope of a better one, the more familiar I became with people’s aversion to women not having children.
I think they don’t like it in part because it’s just not what people DO. And doing what people just don’t do is scary. We’re “supposed to” couple up. We’re “supposed to” stay married forever always no matter what no divorcies! We’re “supposed to” reproduce.
But why are we supposed to? Why does not doing what we’re supposed to do make people so nuts?
Fear, I think. Insecurity.
Happily uncoupled women are strangely confident, and a threat to both men and women of a certain type. (“Why doesn’t she need a man? What makes her so special? Her independence intimidates me.”) A single, independent, confident woman is also one who’s available, and therefore a potential, and exceptionally attractive (that confidence!), threat to someone else’s marriage.
Women who don’t have children if they don’t want them are also strangely “different,” confident enough to reject norms, not in need of a mate again, and therefore also threatening. And, too, what about all the women who’ve already had children when they either didn’t think about it beforehand or didn’t even really want them? What does that say about what they’ve done with their own futures and happiness? Why do the women who chose no children get to get away with not having them? Not fair.
And you don’t DIVORCE someone to be with someone you might be happier with, because what…what…what does that mean for other people’s marriages? “If that person could leave, that means MY person could leave ME for someone they like better!”
If tradition and socially constructed norms can’t be counted on to keep people in line, how the hell is anyone supposed to feel better about their own choices, safe in their marriages, comfortable in their decisions?
. . .
“You’ll regret not having children” is something you hear just about as frequently as “You’ll regret leaving your spouse–the other person won’t be any better.”
But what if there is no regret?
And what if the other person is better?
In my case, the other person was better–for me. My first husband and I were a terrible fit, but there are people who would argue that because we got married, we should still be together now, twenty-five years later. TWENTY-FIVE YEARS with the wrong person, which would have meant missing out on the last 18 years with the right one.
Had my first husband and I had the child he wanted, the child certain types of people think I should have simply because I’m a woman, I’d have been a reluctant and resentful mother (assuming we didn’t divorce & give my ex custody, which society says a woman would be evil to do) for at least twenty years, rather than having had the jobs I wanted to have, gone to school when it felt like the time was finally right, done the writing I wanted to do…
And for what? “Because that’s what people do”?
“Well, just because!” fear has been used to justify so much unhappiness, as well as so much judgment. It has to make you wonder how fragile the hold is on a person’s own choices, how fragile the hold on their own life, if their only avenue for control is one that has them trying to control the lives and decisions of others.
We get one life.
The good news is that it’s OURS.
And greener (natural, clover-and-weed-flower-filled) grass is so worth exploring, even if it goes wrong. Because it could also go right.
Kristen Tsetsi is the author of the novel The Age of the Child, in which “Tsetsi asks provocative questions: first, what would happen if all forms of contraception were illegal? And then, what if those of us who want to be parents had to get a license to do it?” – Elizabeth Marro, author of Casualties