Monday, September 16, 2013

"Dearly beloved, divorce is an honorable estate..."

"... and is not to be taken in hand lightly, inadvisably, or wantonly to satisfy men's carnal lusts - although that's a pretty good reason."

-The Divorce Service, performed by Rowan Atkinson.

Two friends, married to each other for ten years, announced over the weekend that with the coming of a court appearance today, their divorce has become final. They had no big revelation, as the various hints had been gradually appearing over months -- when the relationship status is set to "single," it's not done because you're trying to keep things on the down-low. They seem to have put their two children first and foremost, so having taken care of that part, I wish them both well on their respective directions.

It did put me in mind of all of my other friends who have been in long (and not so long) term relationships. Some of them stay together, some of them break it off. Some of them should have broken things off years ago, some should never have gotten together, and some -- bless them -- just keep chugging along even though every circumstance tells them to break up ("they're so happy, they don't know how miserable they are!").

But divorce is a special class of status. It is the nullification of one of the BIG PROMISES that we humans have allowed ourselves to be able to make. That promise is the one that every married couple makes in front of an officer of the state in which they live, regardless of which faith they belong. It says (in one form or another) that you vow to love and take care of each other, in front of these assembled witnesses.

Divorce is simply the cessation of that promise. Again, both parties stand in front of witnesses and officers of the state and say, "We have agreed that this is no longer valid." And the court makes a note of it in your permanent record (just when you thought your grades from elementary didn't matter!) and sends you on your way. Unless there are complications...

And everything is always complicated. It just is.

Personally, I have no particular negativity associated with divorce. The particular religion I follow (The Most Revered Church of Be Nice to Each Other and Mind Your Own Business) doesn't place a stigma upon it. The strongest emotion I tend to associate with it is a sort of disappointment-by-proxy. "Oh, that should have worked really well. But I guess it didn't. And they would know best, seeing as how they were there."

Of course, all bets are off should one of the people turn out to be culpable. Mental and physical abuse is sadly not unknown among my friends. I've been involved in evacuations of belongings and (rarely) people from homes that have turned into torture chambers. It is not a thing I care to do often, but it is a thing I will do at drop of a hat. Or a text message, as is more common nowadays.

At least in my experience, that's a minority of occasions. Most divorces tidily (though perhaps not amiably) happen out of the public eye, as is the right of people who have private lives. Nobody really needs to know the what or why, which is one of the reasons I like California's "irreconcilable differences" citation. Whatever the issue, it wasn't resolvable. End of story. Unless someone writes a memoir.

We have a strange collision of integrity and flexibility in our culture nowadays. Our politicians are expected to be utterly consistent in their political views (such that a single vote in opposition can haunt forever). But our entire political system is founded on the idea of compromise: the idea that we should be flexible enough to get part of what we want because the other side has good arguments in good faith.

Divorce has this in spades. Traditionally, marriage has been an inviolate path that doesn't suffer alteration easily. Divorce is the epitome of "on second thought, no." People change as they age, but the standard marriage model has always been that once coupled, couples should try harder when facing adversity from within.

Do I think that some couples should try harder? Certainly. Do I think that some divorcing couples have given all the thought required? Of course. Part of having the certainty of free will as citizens is the ability to make stupid decisions. Marriages for hours or days, marriages to manifestly mismatched individuals: these are the price of having an at-will system.

Some couples just haven't spent the time to know each other before deciding to get married. It's one of the reasons why engagements have been getting longer and why cohabitation occurs extensively. Folks are trying on the trappings of marriage. Because to many people, the BIG PROMISE still matters. To them, the promise matters more than the other issues of sexual purity, wife as property, or preserving a power structure. They want to be sure that they make the promise with as much force and conviction as they are able to, regardless of how people in other cultures or generations defined the parameters of a "successful promise."

I have a friend who's getting married this fall. They've been engaged for a few months and she's young, in my eyes. But she's an older bride than many of her rural Kansas friends, who have been married away since as early as 16. She's known her fiance less than a year. Will they be happy and last until death part them? Or will they have a realization at some point down the line and dissolve into two? I don't know.

But I do know that she belongs to a religion and a family that excessively proscribes divorce. And in my experience, that makes it more likely.

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