What’s in a vow?

As I’ve mentioned before, I like to read the Vows section of the Sunday New York Times.

Today I read an article about a recently married couple who met while they were married to other people.  They fell in love while still married and managed to separate from their respective spouses before making the relationship physical.  

“Sucks to be the respective spouses,” I thought, “but what else could this couple do?”

I encourage all of you to read the short article before continuing.

When reading the comments I was struck by how scathing the majority of the comments were!  The most common word used to describe the featured couple was “selfish,” and many of the readers lamented their poor children who would grow up in broken homes.  These readers assumed a few things:

  1. The children would be traumatized and irrevocably damaged
  2. The newly married couple was chasing a fleeting, hot passion
  3. Marriage should be valued in and of itself

I was caught off guard by the comments and realized that I didn’t agree with any of those assumptions. Maybe so many people reacted this voraciously to the article because it threatened their own marriages. The story is, after all, the realization of one of the worst fears we have.

I discussed the article in depth with friends and coworkers. For people who are very statistically similar to me, I had no idea that we could have such different ideas about marriage.

One of my coworkers, whose religiosity affects her views on this issue, believes that marriage should based on logic. He can provide for my family, he’d be a good father, he is laid-back while I am uptight, etc, etc.  The following comment by username “Edwards” pretty much sums up my coworker’s opinion: I hope that my legacy to my son will be that I was a man of honor and decency. I have no doubt that there are better fits for my wife than me. I also have no doubt that there are better fits for me than my wife. But I can live with that. Life is not perfect. We rejoice in the good things we do have, deal with the shortcomings we must endure, and seek to leave a good name to our son. My son needs to see faithfulness modeled. In good times and bad times. In sweet times, in sour times. What sort of message would I send to my son if I would so deeply hurt his mother (or she me) just so I could have selfish desires that may fade with time? No, I’ll keep on loving my wife, even if the “right one” moves in next door. There’s more at stake in this world than my own Hollywood ending…

You see through this comment that the marriage itself–the covenant between husband and wife–is more sacred than the individual. It is ‘honorable’ to stay true to that commitment come rain or shine and ‘selfish’ to sacrifice that commitment for the ‘right one.’

I don’t think this perspective is wrong; it just isn’t my own. This perspective is more practical. Marriages aren’t entered with the intention of being abandoned, and this way, they aren’t.

But I have to ask what value marriage has if it leaves its subscribers emotionally/spiritually wanting. Why do we value this institution in and of itself regardless of the happiness it brings? Why is selfishness all that bad?

“LA” from Minnesota wrote: Actually, in the absence of domestic abuse, kids don’t care all that much whether their parents are happy or not. They want an intact family most of all. And they deserve one.

Leaving aside the fact that LA’s comment may not actually be true, while we hold children so precious in our society, can’t they suck it up and deal? Life isn’t easy, it isn’t fair, and I don’t believe that a person should sacrifice his/her own happiness in order to give his/her children the illusion of an intact family. Think about day after day after day of knowing that you aren’t happy. Why aren’t we asking the children to make a sacrifice for the parents?

I’m not married and I don’t have children. Clearly it is impossible for me to fully understand. But my friends with divorced parents seem to be ok.  In the case of Carol Anne and John in the article, they taught their children that they value being happy but that that doesn’t justify infidelity.

You can’t always promise to love someone forever, but they did stay physically faithful. I don’t think that should be overlooked. The whole thing was probably the most difficult thing they’ve ever done in their lives–but they chose happiness, they chose honesty, and they chose love.  Doesn’t our society value those just as much as marriage?

Here is what reader “Dick Mulliken” wrote: I know some couples who have wonderful companionate marriages without the lightning. I know others who muddle through more or less successfully in spite of serious compatibility problems. And certainly that first electric moment of having found a soul mate is far from the best predictor of happiness. But 25 years ago my wife to be and I (both involved with others at the time) “looked across the crowded room” and KNEW. We have had 25 years of bliss and even ecstasy together. I still catch my breath when she walks in the room.

Is this too much to ask for?  I want what Dick Mulliken has. And if I expend all my energy on trying to make it work, if I go to therapy, if I take up a hobby and I still can’t get it, I’m not settling.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “What’s in a vow?

  1. Hannah

    I’m glad you wrote about this, as I think we agreed in many ways. I, too, felt frustrated by the negative comments — so judgmental! It is very hard to imagine what a marriage SHOULD be like, but if there is a knowledge between two people, a recognition that they should be together, I think it is very hard to ignore or dismiss. Many people do get married to people who are right for them at a time but maybe not for all time.

    If anything this story makes me realize that it’s about timing — not some strange idea of soulmates. Had this article’s couple met earlier, they probably would have married each other and they would have avoided those other marriages. On the other hand (and this is why I don’t believe in soulmates), there might be someone else out there that could have the same effect on them, that could finished each other’s sentences. They just don’t know those other people because they could be living in Stockholm or 3 blocks away and happen to be 10 years younger. Who knows, but worth further exploration. I’ll let you know when I get married.

  2. Sarah

    I completely agree with you. I had been in a relationship for almost 5 years, engaged, and while we weren’t exactly happy or compatible, we did make sense. We balanced each other out. I thought that was enough. Then I met my (now) husband. I realized it almost immediately that I would end up falling completely in love with him, and in all likelihood, marry him. And I was engaged to another man. So I sat down with my ex and pointed out that we were not kids anymore and that maybe we should stop beating around the bush. We both discussed after our extremely amicable breakup that things changed for us when we hit a bump after only 9 months! And we were together for almost 5 years!

    Now, I am in a very happy, very healthy marriage. My husband makes me laugh everyday, I feel loved and thought of, and we both do little things for each other because it’s makes US feel good to do them, not because the other asks or because we feel like we have to. I’ve heard some people say that marriage is a lot of work, and maybe in 20 years I’ll agree, but we’ve been going strong for almost 2 years now, and the honeymoon bliss has not faded.

    Was it selfish of me to break up with my ex the moment I realized that my heart was feeling something genuine? He’s in another relationship now, very happy and we’re still friends. That doesn’t sound to me like either of us made a mistake, and sometimes you have to follow your heart. If I hadn’t, I’d probably be drowning in bills, in a job I hate, and feeling completely alone like I did before. For the first time in many years, I have hope for my future.

    Additionally, my parents separated when I was 3 and finalized their divorce (after an extremely nasty custody battle) when I was 6 or so. My brother and I lived with our father and only a few years later my mother died. My father never dated (aside from 1 woman when I was 6ish), and therefore never remarried. I can’t begin to express how much I would have loved to see my father happy again, but in my 19 years of knowing him before he died, I cannot recall a single time where he was truly happy in that aspect of his life. My earliest memories were of a problem marriage. And yet, despite all of that, I think I turned out okay. I struggled a bit, sure, but that had more to do with my mother being dead. Kids are cruel and I was teased constantly with, “At least I have a mom!” And even then, even after how damaging that felt, I still turned out okay.

    I hate that people jump to the conclusion that if two parents aren’t together that they cannot successfully raise a child. I feel that, as long as both parties put in the time and effort, and can be adult enough to be in a room together without filling it with negative BS, that there is nothing that says that a child will be detrimentally affected.

  3. Talya

    A few comments:

    (1) I think that the impact a divorce has on a kid is a product of (a) the kid’s individual personality and (b) the way the divorcing parents behave. I know people who weren’t negatively impacted by their parents’ divorce, and I also know people who were so negatively impacted by it that it contributed to their failures in their own marriages. So, I don’t think there can be a “one size fits all” answer to whether a couple such as the one in the NY Times article did rightly or wrongly–but if we knew more of the details perhaps we could make a more accurate judgment. I would like to mention two factors that no one else seems to have touched on.

    The first is that, except in wealthy families, children almost invariably suffer from even the most amicable of divorces in their standard of living. A divorce doesn’t magically bring in more income, and it takes a lot more money to support two separate households than one (this is the principle behind people being roommates to save money). Divorces are also extremely expensive, even when amicable, and can easily eat up $100K+ in legal expenses from the divorcing couple’s shared assets. Therefore, divorce usually results in less expendable income for children’s education and activities, and, in some cases, for their more basic necessities. When divorce does coincide with an increase in income, it is usually because a previously stay-at-home parent (or one who worked part time) goes back to work full time, which also comes at the price of the children spending less time with either parent.

    The second factor is that individuals making a similar choice to the Times couple cannot control how the “rejected” spouses’ responses will impact their children. That is, however much the “newly in love” spouse takes action to make the divorce amicable for the children’s sake, it only takes one divorcing spouse to make it un-amicable. It understandably might be a lot harder for the rejected spouse to take the divorce in stride and thus make it the relative non-event for the children that his/her former spouse desires. This leads to the second point:

    (2) It is very important that a married couple be on the same page about their approach to marriage. If you share the view that the marriage should end (irrespective of children) if either party meets someone “better,” then the divorce will probably go a lot more smoothly if/when the occasion arises. However, an amicable divorce (and therefore minimal impact on the kids) is a lot less likely if the rejected spouse does not share this view and was never informed that this was his/her partner’s view until the occasion arose. Unfortunately, this mis-match of outlooks probably also means the couple was not as compatible in the first place (and the chances of staying together amicably even less likely)…which is why it is so important to be open and honest about one’s approach to marriage BEFORE getting married.

    (3) The new husband and wife in the NY Times probably right now think they could never possibly fall in love with someone else in the future, but they may have felt that way with their first marriages, too. If the occasion for extra-marital love arises for one of them in the future, should the other spouse be as understanding as he/she would have wanted his/her spouse to be? Logical consistency would argue yes. But, if such a phenomenon does happen again (and again), it may just be evidence that a person isn’t capable of staying in love and maybe shouldn’t be getting married at all (except perhaps to partners who won’t take it personally when he/she moves on to the next supposed “soulmate.”)

  4. Chelsea

    I have two comments:
    1) Ariela, you said, “But I have to ask what value marriage has if it leaves its subscribers emotionally/spiritually wanting.” I think that the value and meaning of marriage is much too subjective, and this reflects this in that you imply that marriage ought to be an emotionally and spiritually fulfilling union. Honestly, I think that is a tall order in any case, and a lot of pressure for someone to fit that bill. It’s really each to their own interpretation though.

    In my mind, this is where cultural and religious factors come in greatly.

    In a collectivistic cultural setting, the wants and desires of the individual are not valued as high as the needs of the family or community so a marriage prospect was treated as the most sound economic decision in benefit of that community.

    Religiously/spiritually, I think people have much different paths to follow. I do not have a religious background, but my spiritual upbringing would emphasize the relationship between myself and God. Maybe not so sexy, but I would see my potential partner as having emotional value, but beyond that, I see them as a “life partner” – someone to share my life with. I care about their emotional health, and what their core values are. I would not want to marry the man that I feel I have a soul connection with, but I wouldn’t know whether they could pick up the kids while I’m on a doctor’s appointment! Pragmatic yes, but the well-being of my family (and my sanity!) would be some of my first priorities. Of course I want what Dick Mulliken has, but I also don’t know how long I would want to wait for that, or if the opportunity exists for everybody.

    This also (for me) begs a question: Many of us are deserving of love, but have a hard time with relationships due to life’s setbacks; what does life have in store for us then?

    2) I agree with “Edwards” comment:

    I will be the first to admit that I have always seen love as something that happens to you, and that love bond should be enough to withstand anything if it is meant to be.

    In more recent years, I have come to see the fragility of it, and then need to tend to it like a sensitive plant in a foreign environment. The (sorry, I hate to sound like this! but) stimuli and fast-paced world we live in today make it really difficult to have time to nurture and care for an intimate relationship. It’s no wonder that people under the same roof grow apart with how much time is spent away from each other, or under adverse conditions.

    As annoying as she can be, Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love,) in last year’s book, Committed: A skeptic makes peace with marriage, does make fantastical points on this subject. She is one to admit being the victim to many passionate affairs before realizing how much could be managed and mitigated.

    She makes the point that a marriage can be like a house. You may be able to let people peer in time to time, but you keep the matters of your home (intimacy) behind closed doors. The degree to which you let in other people (namely: people of the opposite sex respectively), is the degree for which you are responsible at putting your relationship at risk.

    That being said, I think this would be much harder to appreciate if you are a die-hard romantic that absolutely believes in one true love/soulmate/etc. Please don’t take me as judging; most of my friends (who I respect deeply) fall into this category. I think the way I see things is a little bit sad. However, optimistically I think that these are comforting thoughts if maintaining a current marriage is important. It makes me feel that the risks are more manageable, and that I am not at-risk as I thought to the ravages of a new, burning passion 😉

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