Dissatisfied? At Odds With Life? Dump Your Spouse.
The Personal Weblog of Edward W. Farrell   
Dissatisfied? At Odds With Life? Dump Your Spouse. Saturday, December 19, 2009
Sandra Tsing Loh wrote in the July/August 2009 Atlantic:

Sadly, and to my horror, I am divorcing. This was a 20-year partnership. My husband is a good man, though he did travel 20 weeks a year for work. I am a 47-year-old woman whose commitment to monogamy, at the very end, came unglued. This turn of events was a surprise.

I too am divorced.  I'm still sorting through the ethical pieces after ten years. The pieces are simple enough to describe: broken marriage vows, failure to live up to the sort of love that marriage demands, destruction of a family. The difficulty is getting to the inner place where they can be stated in such stark fashion, shorn of defenses and excuses.  After all, divorce is an easy thing to talk yourself into when a marriage sours because sour marriages contain the most expeditious argument for their dissolution: your spouse.  It may not be a valid argument, but it's convincing and that's usually enough. In these expeditious times, the question therefore is not 'why divorce' but rather 'why not,' and this is the question that Loh poses, followed by its inevitable corollary 'why marry.'

"Why marry?" is a good question.  The Christian ideal of marriage (more-or-less represented in traditional vows) is still our standard concept, out-of-step as it may be to the marriage-soured.  This is the standard of 'one partner of the opposite sex for life' and 'no sex outside of marriage.' The character of this standard is probably best illustrated by a contemplation of the hordes that ignore it.  Loh is part of that horde and for justification starts with some standard anthropological fare, which points to the diversity of sexual and marital practice among "humans," the general observation that marriage has most often been a property arrangement, and that as far as sex is concerned people can be observed to prefer a variety of sex partners (in or out of marriage).  This bolsters a whole class of related arguments that go something like: "Why should we be monogamous? The early Celts from the Outer Hebrides weren't."  Or "Why shouldn't I have a lover on the side?  That was a common practice among the French aristocracy of the Ancien Regime."  The nice thing about this approach is that you can always find support for your bent, no matter how unorthodox or perverse: someone, somewhere, sometime has done it with impunity.  Why shouldn't you?

But this is just a prelude to the more general assertion: monogamy isn't 'natural.'  This is a clever stroke because the assertion, once out of the bag, seems obvious to those already contemplating divorce and leaves the rest stammering.  The stammering can be flatfooted: "What do you mean not natural?" Or sarcastic: "So you're saying monogamy is unnatural--like incest?" Or even pragmatic: "But if sleeping around is natural because people do it, then can't people who are 'doing' monogamy be called natural too?"  And so on.

We don't need to go any further with this.  I'll agree that monogamy isn't natural and don't need to split hairs about it.  It's as obvious as jam on a baby's face that for every monogamous couple there are five out hunting for greener pastures come rain or shine.  And I have no problem stating categorically that marriage according to the Christian standard is a specimen found nowhere in the natural world, and is in fact in opposition to the natural world. After all, in the Christian cosmos the natural world, as presently constituted, is the devil's world.  Which gives us a hint of why marriage is preceeded by vows.  Vows are a binding promise reserved for hard undertakings that have great opportunity of reward but equally great obstacles and dangers.  The vow is a promise to stick it out to the end no matter what roadblocks are thrown your way.  This is not natural, because rather than 'going with the flow' you are pledging to go against it, if need be, and by all standards of prudence and caution, this is not usually sensible.  Consider a much more sensible promise, which is fully in accord with the normal state of affairs outside of marriage:  "I promise to stand by you until your behavior exasperates me, or I get tired of you, or someone wealthier or more attractive comes along."

The lofty Christian intent of wedding vows is commonly co-opted for lower-altitude goals.  For marriage as a property transaction, for instance, the vows serve to "seal" the expectation that property will transfer via marriage in accordance with the wishes of the sponsoring families.  And for romantic love, the vows ride well with the passions.  As short lived as romantic love may be, when it's hot we want it to last forever, and are quite happy to make vows we may later regret. But the contemporary attitude towards vows is merely mercenary, and amounts to: 'if all that stands between you and something you want is a vow, then by all means take the vow but keep it only at your convenience.'  There was a good example of this in a discussion I had recently in which one of the participants was agonizing over taking a loyalty oath which she loathed but which was a condition of employment for a job she badly wanted.  Among the advice she received was "Sign it with your fingers crossed behind your back," and "Sign it, ignore it, and work like hell to depose the busybodies who came up with it."

Following this contemporary attitude, the notion of vows becomes positively absurd when coupled with the increasingly common view that people are creatures almost wholly determined by genetic, social, and other circumstances.  The language Loh uses to describe herself is typically revealing here:

"...to my horror, I am divorcing."  This evokes the odd picture of the divorce happening to someone else, leaving Loh a bystander who can only observe with horror. A person of free will and accountability, on the other hand, having caught themselves in a horrible act, might simply stop.    

"I am a 47-year-old woman whose commitment to monogamy, at the very end, came unglued."  Who could be accountable for something becoming unglued?  Especially since we only glue things together that do not stick of their own accord. And this thing unglued, this 'committment to monogamy': is it something like a committment to your spouse?  Not at all. Unlike a spouse, monagamy is an abstraction.  In the weaselish logic of today's interpersonal newspeak, no one should cry if you can repackage their betrayal in such abstract, impersonal terms.  

It is easy to look at this rich, multifaceted erosion of the Christian marriage ideal and conclude that not only are vows absurd but the ideal itself is out of touch with more realistic views of humans and their foibles.  But this is a misunderstanding of our mercenary age. In fact, Christian marriage deals specifically with those realities.  It regards them as you might regard a gang of con men so persuasive that you don't mind being robbed.  Regarding them so and knowing their persuasiveness, it nevertheless attempts to fight, subdue, and ultimately supplant them with love of a very radical character.  This "radical" character lies in the categorical dismissal of any self-gratifying infatuations or liasons that steal the air breathed by the unconditional love for one's spouse.  Extra-marital sex is pre-eminently singled out here, and no account is taken of the various sexual behaviours of Celts, Frenchmen, Aztecs, or Esquimaux.

Is Christian marriage merely some aborted evolutionary twig: a dry bud that never blooms but scratches all who pass that way? It's hard to get the right perspective here, living as we do among the up-ended shards of the great tradition that grew from the gospels.  C. S. Lewis manages to speak to the jist of it in secular terms for jaded moderns:

People get from books and plays and the cinema that if you have married the right person you may expect to go on "being in love" for ever.  As a result, when they find they are not, they think this proves they have made a mistake and are entitled to a change - not realising that, when they have changed, the glamour will presently go out of the new love just as it went out of the old one.  In this department of life, as in every other, thrills come at the beginning and do not last. The thrill you feel on first seeing some delightful place dies away when you really go to live there.  Does this mean it would be better not to live in the beautiful place?  By no means.  If you go through with it, the dying away of the first thrill will be compensated for by a quieter and more lasting kind of interest.  What is more, it is just the people who are ready to submit to the loss of the thrill and settle down to the sober interest, who are then most likely to meet new thrills in some quite different direction.

This is, I think, one little part of what Christ meant by saying that a thing will not really live unless it first dies.  It is simply no good trying to keep any thrill:  that is the very worst thing you can do.  Let the thrill go - let it die away - go on through that period of death into the quieter interest and happiness that follow - and you will find you are living in a world of new thrills all the time.  But if you decide to make thrills your regular diet and try to prolong them artificially, they will all get weaker and weaker, and fewer and fewer, and you will be a bored, disillusioned person for the rest of your life.  It is because so few people understand this that you find many middle-aged men and women maundering about their lost youth, at the very age when new horizons ought to be appearing and new doors opening all round them.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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