“’Til Death Do Us Part…” Is a Really Long Time
Imagine, if you will, this scenario:
Bob: “Dude, I just found the most amazing car ever built. It’s so perfect I can’t even believe I’ve lived without it for this long. I’m going to buy it.”
Jack: “If you dig it that much, I think you should.”
Bob [fidgeting nervously]: “Well, it sort of comes come with one little catch.”
Jack: “What’s that?”
Bob: “I can never buy another car again. This is it, my last car until I die.”
Jack: “Are you serious? That’s totally messed up. You’re not buying this car.”
Bob: “But I’m in love with it.”
Jack: “Wow, I’ve never heard you talk that way about a car before. I guess it’s okay then… as long as you can at least drive some other cars every once in a while.”
Bob: “Yeah, that’s against the rules, too. I have to sign a contract when I buy it swearing that I will never sell it or drive another car. Nobody else can ever drive it either.”
Jack: “Wait, what? What happens when it’s all dinged up and the seats rip and the dashboard cracks and they come out with a newer, sleeker, better-looking model? What if you total it or it gets stolen?”
Bob: “I will love this car and take painstaking care of it until the day I die. You’ll see.”
Jack: “Good luck with that.”
(If you have ovaries you can substitute “purse” for “car” and “Jane and Bev” for “Jack and Bob” and still get the idea.)
It’s an absurd scenario to imagine, because everyone knows that humans are a fickle bunch. Just because you love something today doesn’t mean you’ll love it two years or even two weeks from now. (Think about how badly you once wanted that pet rock/Rubik’s Cube/mood ring/Cabbage Patch Kid/Atari VCS if you don’t believe me.) People change. Tastes change. Urges and priorities and ideologies change. And yet every year in the US alone, two million, one-hundred eighteen thousand couples make the completely insane decision to forsake all others and legally bind themselves to one other person. They promise they will cook, clean, vacation, agree on how to spend and save money, raise kids, watch TV, buy and sell houses, bury pets and parents and pick out burial plots with this one person and this one person only for anywhere from two to seven decades. They stand in front of family and friends and some guy his dad once did business with and they solemnly swear that fat or thin, rich or poor, robust or on death’s doorstep, they will honor and cherish this one person (with whom they will presumably be sharing a bathroom, I’ll remind you) until the unthinkable happens. And we clap and cry and toss birdseed at their heads and buy them new toasters when they do, even though we know, statistically, that half of them will be divorced within a decade.
I don’t care how handsome or fabulous or funny the groom is, or how sweet and accommodating the bride, or vice versa. Marriage is hard. Mating for life? Totally unnatural. In fact, only about four percent of the 5,000 species of mammals on the planet even attempt it. The rest of them shack up for anywhere from a single shag up until the kids leave the nest or the den, and then it’s back to the freewheeling bachelor life. In the very small eternally committed camp you’ve got your beavers, some (but not all) bats and Kevin Kline. Oh, and geese. Talk about faithful. If half of a goose-couple dies, the surviving partner never mates again. That kind of loyalty just isn’t in our genetic makeup. But we go for it anyway—out of loneliness or fear or sometimes even honest-to-god, soul-stirring love—and then we proceed to spend the rest of our lives driving another human being crazy.
We do it, of course, because it’s what our parents did and what our friends are doing and because it’s nice to have someone who will split the rent or mortgage with you and unload the dishwasher every once in a while. We do it to make babies and for security and because we don’t want to die alone. And then we’re shocked when we wake up one day and realize that this is it; this is what it’s going to be like forever. Where are the candlelit dinners and the roses-for-no-reason and the off-the-charts orgasms? Where are the sunset strolls on the beach wearing matching white outfits like they showed in the brochures? And where the hell is the person you fell in love with?
I’m not blaming Walt Disney per se, but the fairytales most of us were weaned on always focused on the falling in part of love—that heady, lusty, romantic period that’s called the “honeymoon phase” because it’s really expensive and oh yeah, relative to the length of a marriage it lasts about five minutes. As soon as the storybook couple is officially in love, what do you get? “And they lived happily ever after THE END.” Thanks to that statement, we assumed it was all kittens and sunshine from that point forward. The half of us who are particularly disenchanted to discover that it’s not call it quits; the other half hang in there, sometimes tenuously, and try to make the best of it.
Some people say marriage is an antiquated system on its way to extinction. I disagree. I think people will always seek the comfort and familiarity of commitment, and plenty will continue to fail at it. The success stories will be the ones who understand that marriage is something that allows you to grow and evolve not because of the person you almost arbitrarily hitched yourself to, but despite them; the ones who figure out how to maintain their independence while still being strong enough to stay true to another person; the ones who enter into a marriage with the understanding that “‘til death do us part” is a really long, not always pleasant time… and the conviction that it beats the alternative.