You’d think it was the first time anyone’s ever gotten a divorce.
Sandra Tsing Loh’s recent admission in The Atlantic that she’s divorcing her husband after 20 years (following her own extramarital affair) has ignited a firestorm of high-minded controversy debating the pros and cons of marriage. The story was picked up nationally, with nearly all the major news outlets chiming in online, on air and in print.
The particular point of contention is Ms. Loh’s theory that perhaps the reason we have a divorce culture is because we marry too often. Citing “all the abject and swallowed misery” she observes in modern marriage, she wonders, “Why do we still insist on marriage?”
Then she really gets down to it, ending her polemic with a
“final piece of advice: avoid marriage—or you too may suffer the emotional pain, the humiliation, and the logistical difficulty, not to mention the expense, of breaking up a long-term union at midlife for something as demonstrably fleeting as love.”
Not to pick on Sandra Tsing Loh, but by saying that it’s now better to be single just because she’s getting divorced, she has succumbed to the common tendency of viewing her own personal choices as a referendum on what everyone else should be doing. And so has everyone who has joined this odd debate.
So . . . is it better to be married or single? It’s a ridiculous question, of course.
The name of the game is happiness. Fulfillment. Living an abundant life. For some people that means marriage, for others it means independence. A lucky few—married or not—manage to create committed relationships that don’t require sacrificing essential parts of themselves, or (even better) that actively support the things they value most in themselves.
Aaron Traister is a great example of someone who enjoys being married. In an article on Salon.com he says, “The years since we got married have been the most challenging and at times most frustrating years of my life. They have also been the most productive, happiest and most hilarious.” His description of his marital bliss doesn’t whitewash the daily realities: the financial problems, the demanding children, the constant home repair, the lack of romance and, inevitably, the lack of regular sex.
With all due respect, his bliss is my worst nightmare. If I were living his life I’d be torn between shooting myself or my partner. But that’s exactly the point—his marriage makes him happy. For him, it’s a source of contentment, humor, challenge, and personal growth that fulfills him on many levels.
He admits to being fed up with
“divorced people speaking as though they are oracles from the future who know how the rest of our unions will turn out. All the marriage bashing going on out there feels like a way of shedding a certain amount of personal responsibility. By telling the world the institution is flawed, or that we’ve somehow outgrown it, nobody has to own up and admit that it was their interpretation of it that was screwed up.”
Traister’s frustration with divorced marriage bashers is the reversed mirror image of the annoyance that quirkyalones often feel when the smugly coupled get on their high horses about singledom. Just because they found being single frightening, or lonely, or too non-conformist, they’ve decided that being single is a problem that needs to be solved rather than admitting that it simply wasn’t a good fit for them.
I’m not against marriage—I never have been. Like all quirkyalones, I am passionately against settling. Against making convenient choices at the expense of the things that make me truly happy. Against living an unfulfilled life.
As a serial monogamist with long stretches between relationships, I probably look more committed to being single than I really am. But I have those long stretches precisely because I take commitment so seriously. I put a lot of time and emotional energy into my relationships and I don’t give up on them easily. I’m willing to commit to maintaining a strong connection with a man whom I love, and who loves me in return.
And I am utterly unwilling to put even minimal effort into preserving a relationship that has ceased to be a source of happiness in my life.
Like Sandra Tsing Loh, most divorced people consider divorce one of the biggest failures of their lives, but I think that viewpoint misses an essential truth. I would consider a 20-year relationship a success if it had mostly contributed to my happiness, and a failure if I’d spent the majority of that time being unhappy and resentful. Likewise for a six-month relationship. Ditto for six weeks.
We live in a world of opportunity with abundant options. If we’re unhappy for any reason, we have the power to change our circumstances. We have the power to choose happiness.
So instead of arguing over whether it’s “better” to be married or single, let’s embrace happiness as a goal with its own reward—whether we create it as single people, or partnered, or married, or some personal variation that works only for us.
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