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The Accidental Marriage

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Some Contributing Factors to the Failure of Marriage

Theoretically speaking, there are two kinds of agreements: implied agreements and conscious or deliberate agreements.  Like Faust, we make implied agreements without understanding or taking responsibility for the consequences of the agreement, hoping, in a pinch, for a loophole.  With conscious agreements, we know full well the ramifications of our promise, and commit ourselves wholesale to its fulfillment.  In real life, our commitments fall somewhere in the middle most of the time.

When a man and a woman mount the altar to be married, precious few make a conscious and deliberate agreement in the process.  For starters, when we say, "I do," often we do not yet know whom or what we mean when we say, "I."  Does "I" mean our sexual chemistry, which can easily be short-circuited by stress or disability?  Is "I" the uncanny voice of the bloom of youth, which quickly fades?  When ensnared in the rosy arms of romance, we ask so few questions because the embrace feels so good.  We seem never to ask questions such as:  "What are your values, your politics?  What is the nature of your subconscious, or dark side, which I am also agreeing to have and to hold?  What is the character of your family of origin, and the family system I hereby enter into?  Do you plan to grow as a person in the next decade or two and if so, how?  What do you think about God and how will those thoughts have an impact on our lives?  What do you mean when you say you love me?" 

All too often before marriage, these questions are suppressed by the burning urge of romance, smothered over with the assumption that everything will be okay because he or she loves me -- the ultimate implied agreement!  Later, when the rocky road of marriage is traversed, these assumptions are elaborated and tested:  if you really love me, you will support me to go back to school; if you really love me, you will be this kind of father or mother.  If you really love me, you will spend more quality time with me or let me have more time to be by myself or with my friends.  How can you say you love me when you have run us into such crushing debt?  How can you say you love me when you seem married to your job, not me?

If I were Empress, I would immediately ban marriage until both candidates had reached the age of thirty.  Of course, being thirty does not guarantee wisdom, but at least a few dozen immaturities and missteps would have had the opportunity to hatch out prior to the nuptial adventure.  The couple might have a better idea of who they are and where life is leading them.  Besides, it takes a human personality longer to germinate these days.  People are hungry for more psychological savvy. Women seek that empowerment that comes from embracing their masculine side.  And as Robert Bly points out, many men are busy hewing out their corpus callosum (the connection in the gray matter that relates the right and left brain, enabling one to communicate thoughts and feelings) from a woodsy footpath to a two-lane dirt road.  Psychological issues, intellectual appetites, professional goals, spiritual experimentation have all converged in the last century to complicate the already Byzantine psychological designs of the candidate for marriage. Some maturity under the belt, some familiarity with one's internal process, in short, some self-knowledge, might buttress would-be newly-weds against the vicissitudes of the world.

Besides changing interpersonal dynamics, other forces militate against marriage. Upon graduation from high school, so many American teens are inundated with no-fee credit cards.  Often, they don't wake up from the nightmare of the consumer's American Dream until they are married, with children, and owe the debt of a small nation.  Especially young marriages seldom survive crashing upon the rocks of relentless and tedious debt servicing.

Other economic factors produce the desertification of nuptial love.  For example, shift work in the industrial Northeast has directly contributed to the soaring divorce rate there, as has the multi-national franchise's passion for being open 24 hours a day everywhere.  Corporate America has a deeply proprietary attitude toward our discretionary time:  if we are not logging in overtime to make the buck, we are dutifully out there spending the buck, with precious little time or energy left over for spouses or children.  Everything must be sacrificed on the altar of the God of Profit.  Even divorce is factored in as a permanent positive in the calculation of our GDP:  it creates jobs for lawyers, accountants, judges, court clerks, counselors, and mediators.

A friend of mine once told me a chilling story.  In the early '60's, she worked for one of the big three Madison Avenue advertising agencies, where she witnessed a dramatic shift in advertising "positioning."  During the previous decade, advertising had celebrated the image of the nuclear family -- the Ozzie and Harriet paradigm.  Then one day, some genius realized that if this couple were to divorce, they would suddenly want two of everything -- two toasters, two lawn mowers, two refrigerators.  It would galvanize a buying bonanza that would lift corporate profits off the charts!  With this realization, said advertising agency began to tout sex appeal and the chimera of the singles life-style.  Sure enough, the divorce rate went meteoric and is now tracked by NASA as well as the global economists at ground control headquarters.

A divorce client once ruefully asked me if I thought the institution of marriage was doomed.  I said, "No, I don't think so."  However, we can certainly do better in preparing young people (or even older people) for that momentous step.  Self-knowledge and self-examination are rarely taught in schools and churches -- the two institutions traditionally charged with preparing us for life.  Nor do they teach enough of rudimentary interpersonal communication skills, especially between the sexes.  So often, schools prepare us to enter the workforce, to fit ourselves into a strictly corporate niche.  And how often do priests perform the ritual of marriage counseling, with absolutely no personal experience of the daunting nature of marital complexities?  Before leaping into marriage, I would echo the Delphic oracle:  "Know Thyself," followed by the injunction, "Know your partner." 

Before marriage, talk about your life goals, your values, whether or not to have children and if so, how to raise them.  Try to have an understanding of how you will grow over the years, and how your priorities will change.  Understand that you are making a commitment to be responsible for this person.  If he or she goes on a spending spree, you are held responsible if he or she defaults.  Understand in what way this person will rely on you -- emotionally, physically, economically, and philosophically.  Discuss how to cope with difficult family members.  Have a plan about how to deal with conflict, which will inevitably arise.  In other words, do your level best to know what you are getting into before you marry.

Marriage is an odyssey into the great and deep unknowns of the human psyche. No other interpersonal relationship carries with it such a vertical learning curve.  The heights of ecstasy and achievement and the depths of despair and entrapment are unparalleled in marriage when compared to any other human institution.  We can enter a marriage with eyes wide open, equipped with the skills of the soothsayer, psychologist and statistician combined, and still marriage will ferret out some curve ball to throw us.  It would seem there is a hidden agenda embedded in the Battle of the Sexes, some eons-deep revelation we struggle blindly and poignantly toward.  Nature, being a Woman, is not beyond hoodwinking us with romance to fulfill Her own designs.  If for no other reason, because of this I think marriage will loom eternally fascinating and enticing for ages to come.