This year is the 41st year of my parents’ marriage. They met in the easiest, yet random, way possible – my mom showed up at my dad’s apartment one day thanks to a mutual acquaintance.
If someone asked him what the key was to a long marriage he would likely say you should marry someone you not just love, but like. Outside of that, he doesn’t have much advice since he had no clue the strange, pretty lady at his door would be the mother of his children. Let alone that it would last.
He tells me these things knowing that they won’t solve my or anyone else’s anxiety about getting married, which is why I wrote the chapter “The Problem With Marriage” for Gil L. Robertson’s new book of essays on black love, “Where Did Our Love Go.”
In the chapter I write how many of our expectations of a 40-year marriage don’t match the reality.
Namely, some of us aren’t cut out for going the distance.
From “The Problem With Marriage”:
If you are honest, truly honest with yourself, you already know if you’re suited for marriage. And you probably figured out a long time ago you’d be bad at the forever-and-ever-amen brand of it. Yet that is the brand your success and failure is judged by, so you have internalized all the angst and frustration that goes with trying to cram square pegs into round holes. You have accepted failure in marriage because you are not the marrying kind. But you are still expected to marry (and eventually fail) over and over, growing to loathe and disdain yourself and pity your way of life.
But I would argue that you are not alone. There is a plurality of people who suck at this version of marriage and always have, but before there was no way out of marriage that wasn’t grueling, deadly or complicated as, historically, marriages were like iron-clad contracts sent down by God and the Catholic Church and your parents and the legal system to make you miserable.
The problem is both an old one and new.
First, we wait later to get married, which means we grow into ourselves and find ourselves on our own, not part of a couple because we married at 16 like my grandmother. Because of this we get set in our ways. We get our bathrooms looking just the way we like. We get used to sleeping alone. We get used to managing our own money and careers without input from anyone else. But marriage is built on constant negotiation and compromise for the betterment of the couple. It’s hard to go from doing what you want when you want to having to have your own version of the Camp David Accords just to find out where you’ll live.
Second, even if we make it through those Camp David Accords, there’s the reality that you may have a partner who can’t go the distance. Perhaps they’re not capable of fidelity and you don’t want an open marriage. Perhaps they lose their job and their mind right along with it and are no longer the same person you married.
Which brings us to our third issue – people change.
You may find that how you are at 25 is not how you are at 35 and is definitely not who you are at 45 and is unrecognizable at 55. Or, even if you don’t change much, your spouse could change. But the greatest threat is that the type of person who was ideal to date and marry in our 20s or 30s might not be the person we need when we’re in our 40s or 50s.
This is how you can be a 40-year couple like former Vice President Al Gore and his wife, Tipper, and go “deuces.” It’s not that you don’t “love” each other, but you might not “like” each other. And as my father said, liking someone is important. After the newness is gone, all that is left is the two of you and whatever your damage is. If you like the looks and the sex, but not the conversation you might have a problem on your hands when menopause hits.
So what’s the solution?
Not worrying about this and living your life.
I know some of you badly want to get married and many of you actually will. But many of you will also get divorced. And some of you will live with someone. And others will have kids, but not be married to the father. And you will feel guilty because you failed at finding “forever” with a “soul-mate.” But that is the wrong way of thinking.
Love can be for a reason and a season.
Serial monogamy – aka “The George Clooney” – has its merits. You can have the perfect (or imperfect) love for you at 25, but then later find the person you want to grow old with when you’re 47. You can marry or not, but create loving, honest and meaningful relationships. And the key is that honesty. If you aren’t cut out for forever and ever marriage, don’t do it. Don’t pretend like you can do it. And don’t feel guilty for not being able to do it. It simply isn’t for everyone.
Because of my parents’ marriage, I desire what they have. I want a love that lasts forever. But in waiting for that love, I’m often lonely. Only time will tell if I’m better served by dating and waiting versus going through a series of love affairs and relationships and letting things go as they may. But if the serial monogamists and those not capable of faithfulness or those who want open marriages can be true to what they want, we can stop hurting each other – at least in that way. We can look our partners in the eye and know what we’re getting into, for better or worse, and plan accordingly.
If you want to go the distance, look for someone who honestly wants that, too, and work at it.
But if it’s not for you, that’s fine, too.