The Ex-Files, Part III

The history of marriage as an institution is larger than any of our personal histories. And we carry its collective history as deeply as we carry our own experience, whether we know it or not.

For tens of thousands of years most people lived in tribes, in villages, and on farms, and marriage was essential to survival. It depended so little on romance that most marriages were arranged. The arrangers didn't care who loved with whom, they cared about what match was best for the survival of the clan. Married people (and all their children) needed to work together and work hard, no matter what they felt about each other. Food and shelter were impossible otherwise. This was especially true in the colder climates that birthed Euro-American culture. Married people also needed to work with everyone in the larger community. They not only worked with them, they saw everybody they knew and worked with every day of their lives. Such communities needed strict rules of behavior to contain any impulses that threatened cooperation. Necessity determined relationships. It may not have been fun, or fair, or satisfying (I wasn't there, I don't know, and I'm suspicious of people who say they do); but it worked, on its own terms if not on ours, or we wouldn't be here.

Another factor, all too easily forgotten, is that until recently people didn't expect as much as we do. With few exceptions, most of our ancestors were peasants. Peasants born a hundred or a thousand years ago knew they would be peasants all their lives -- and that their children would be peasants, and their children's children. They would never own much more than they were born with. They would never travel (the overwhelming majority of people never went more than a day's walk from home except to go to war). In their world view, they didn't work to "build a future"; they expected the future to be more or less like the present. To us, that seems like a suffocating, claustrophobic way to live. But for most of human history, no other choices were presented.

There was also the matter of life expectancy. According to present scholarship, the average life span of a Middle Eastern peasant in the time of Jesus was 29. The average life span of an American in 1900 was 44. With such short life spans, the imperative to reproduce and raise one's children was felt more strongly than we are probably capable of imagining. Most people married and began having children as soon as they were biologically able: in their early teens. They had already been working beside their parents for several years, so, in that technologically simple world, by the age of 14 they had the basic skills to make their way. In addition, our forebears were not goaded on all sides by seductive images of sexual adventure and affluence. So the overwhelming majority of human beings simply could not imagine another way of life.

These are the conditions in which the institution of marriage was created and thrived.

Even 60 years ago in America, many old ways still held. (Whether or not they were good ways is another issue). Most folks lived in small towns and on farms, and the people you were born among were people you would stay among, for the rest of your life. Relationships were fairly stable not only because the price of instability was too high, but because opportunities for instability weren't plentiful.

But advances in technology, during and after World War II, enabled individuals to survive on their own -- and the media surrounded us with improbable fantasies of how glorious life might be if we were only tough, and pretty, and rich enough. Marriage was no longer a matter of necessity, and it no longer welded one to a community, so the morality supporting marriage broke down. (Can we call it "morality," then, if it was really an adaptation to the demands of survival? I can't.) Since roughly 1945, marriage has depended almost solely on a man and a woman's feelings for one another. Feelings being volatile, marriage becomes volatile. Now that economics have changed again, and two people must work to earn what one earned in my youth, the divorce rate has stabilized. Necessity, again. But for the more or less affluent, nothing has changed. Marriage is still a choice, not a necessity -- still depends on feelings, not survival. "Getting in touch with your feelings," as our modern phrase goes, may be important, but feelings are clearly not enough to hold half our marriages together. (The divorce rate peaked at about 50 percent).

What we're left with is the need to have children without any dependable vessel to have them in, and the need for companionship and community in a technological environment that creates more and more fragmentation. What are we supposed to do with that? Nobody knows. Every day is an experiment now. Welcome to the laboratory of the 21st century. We still get married, bless our hearts, and with the best intentions. But it's a form created for a world that's gone, and nothing can change that. Our floundering, our bafflement, and our failure, should come as no surprise.

But we don't feel collectively, we feel personally, within ourselves, alone. History is a condition, not a feeling, but we are a culture of feelings (whether that's good for us or not), and each of us feels this moment of history as a personal failure. It's irrational, it's self-punishing, but it's what we feel. After the divorce, the analysis, the historical perspective, we feel failure -- failure that our love was not strong or wise or deep enough, or failure at falling for such an asshole in the first place, but failure either way. A lot of us can't bear failure very well, so we feel blame instead: somebody else failed. Fine, have it your way. But you were still enough of a jerk to let so-and-so's failure snare you, so we're back to a personal sense of failure again, even if we juice it up with the anger of blame. It's a lot to carry.

I know the history well, I know what my wife and I were up against, yet I can't help it, I still feel I failed.

What does that leave me with?

In my cupboard are two coffee cups my wife and I drank from. In my closet there's a leather jacket she bought me, and a box containing a game my boy and I used to play and that we'll never play again. In my bathroom, hanging from a hook, is a many-colored terry cloth robe she gave me. I've moved several times since the marriage, but I've never thrown this stuff out. Maybe it's nostalgia, maybe I'm punishing myself, or maybe I sometimes like to think of that year of two when just to see her walk across a room delighted me, and when nothing made either of us so happy as our boy's laughter. I drink out of the cups now and again. I wear the jacket when it's cold. I wear the robe often. They're mostly just part of my life, but every once in a while I remember where they came from.

To tell the truth, I doubt a day goes by that I don't think of my ex, and no day goes by that I don't think of my son. That hurts, but it proves something: I loved them then, and I love them still. The boy is not a boy any longer, and he has no more patience for his parents than I did at his age. I haven't seen my ex in years. We communicate now and again, and it's friendly enough, but except while the break-up was going on, we've never talked about the marriage or the divorce, and we both have our reasons. Maybe she's too proud to be my friend, and I respect pride. Maybe I'm too vulnerable to be hers, and I've learned to respect my vulnerability. Or maybe she's too vulnerable and I'm too proud. Or maybe we'll never see each other again. I don't expect to know any of these things with certainty. But it's a good jacket, a warm robe, and I know I'm not going to throw out the cups or the game, the way I know I'll never stop carrying what I carry about us. It all weighs lighter now, but there are times it comes back full force. When it does, I take a drink or take a walk or sit with a cigarette and look out my window and lose track of time. And I can't be sure whether I've finally grown up or whether I've just gotten too tired for certain kinds of foolishness.

One moment still crystallizes all the others for me: that afternoon when I walked into our living room and saw an utterly unknown face on the woman I loved, the woman I had married, the woman I thought I knew. It was quite a moment, and I wasn't up to it. History and old cups aside, I wasn't up to it. I carry that. Somehow, knowing myself better means trying not to know as much as I once thought I did -- especially when I look into a woman's eyes. I try to accept my ignorance, and go on from there. Some insights are leaps and some are retreats, but when it comes to love I try to avoid both. Because both take you out of that moment when faces reveal themselves. To be in the moment, to be present, to look at the face, however much I still fear the unknown -- that's what I ask of myself, on my good days.

On my bad days, I'm as bad as ever. But those bad days don't come often anymore, because of what I carry. I'm happy to owe that to anything, even divorce. Still, that doesn't make the past any-thing but what it was, what it is, what I carry. n

A version of this essay will appear in Men on Divorce -- The Other Side of the Story,edited by Penny Kaganoff and Susan Spano (Harcourt Brace & Co., January, 1997).

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