Divorce, Midlife Crisis and When Marriage Becomes an Identity Thief
“We ruined each other by being together. We destroyed each other’s dreams.”
― Kate Chisman, Run
Even before a couple reaches the end of the aisle, they have started domesticating each other. Every subsequent step is a step closer to morphing into what the world expects from the newlyweds’ newfound status. Over time, they gradually and inexorably lose their own identity, and they become more like each other. They consider this necessary if they are to live together and be best friends for half a century or more.
Losing one’s identity is a catastrophe, but few people see it that way because it happens very gradually, so gradually in fact that they don’t even notice that they have become someone else. This corruption in personality does not only happen to the weaker member of the relationship; it affects both partners. The problem is that this transformation is superficial. The partners learn to behave in a certain way that avoids friction, and over time, they begin to believe that this change in personality is part of growing up, becoming mature.
Living life as a persona generates inner conflict which forces both partners to perpetually seek their true self, who they really are. Post-divorce you hear people exclaim that they have a new lease of life, that they have found themselves etc., etc. Often the cause of the breakup is an affair, but this is only a symptom of the problem. At the root of the affair is this seeking of self. In a new relationship, the “cheater” finds that they can act like themselves again and they can shed the straitjacket that they had chosen to wear during their marriage. With the new partner, they are free from the obligation to behave like their old partner had learned to expect.
A midlife crisis is nothing more than the person waking up and realising that they are going through life as an effigy of their true self conforming to a persona that made cohabitation possible. They blame their partner for the loss of self, and they come to see the marriage as a prison and their spouse as the prison guard.
Suddenly they feel free, like themselves again and this is intoxicating. In what resembles a revolution from the bonds of behaving a certain way, they go looking for the person they used to be. This may involve buying a sports car, losing weight, joining a gym, travelling the world and in many cases abruptly and unceremoniously leaving the marriage.
The harder the couple has worked to get along, act as one and never argue, the more likely it is that pent up feelings will cause a giant rift. A person cannot act like someone else forever without the façade, eventually cracking. Against conventional wisdom, I believe that arguments are the lifeline of a couple, especially when they allow each other to retain their point of view and refuse to merge into this uniform being that is neither of them. This uniformity eventually kills the sex because it becomes masturbation rather than the passionate coupling of two individuals. Breakup sex is explosive, almost as good as early day sex because it is between two people who have become strangers or do not know each other well (yet). They are people with individual thoughts and separate incentives, sexy and mysterious.
So is there something you can do to build a relationship that will last and should you even bother doing so?
Predicating that a marriage or relationship is forever is a bad start. When two partners assume that they will be living with each other for eternity, they work towards compromising themselves to please each other. Soon, what starts as a kind and civilised gesture becomes a requirement and a ball and chain. Knowing that they have promised “till death do us part”, the partners feel secure to push each other around until they both fit in the prescribed mould. Any deviation is perceived as a betrayal to the sacred vows. Freedom to do as you please becomes a sin, an insult to your partner, to your children and society as a whole.
Imagine for a moment that when two people get together, they agree to stay together as long as they both enjoy each other’s company, and the sex is good. How would these two people behave towards each other? Would the fluid and insecure nature of such a union benefit them as individuals? Would it prevent them from curtailing each other’s freedom, of criticising their partner’s actions, habits, friends, or how they spend their money? Would they not be happier with each other because they would be happier with themselves?
From day one in a marriage, the partners start trying to domesticate each other. They pull each other apart to remove those elements that are a threat to the harmonious cohabitation of the nest or their combined social image as a couple. They strive to become the “Smiths” and the “Browns” instead of John who likes to put his feet on the coffee table and Mary who hates to cook. This is not a good thing.
What about children you may ask. How can a couple provide a stable family home if everyone does what they want, and the relationship is on ever-shifting grounds? With the stigma of divorce disappearing, currently 50% of spouses go their separate ways and kids end up growing up in a single-parent household. Would these kids not be better off if their parents had a looser, freer relationship?
And what about the women in these marriages? Many, secure in their “forever” relationship, abandon their careers and their financial freedom. As they become wives they give up their hopes and dreams and convince themselves that the only goal, they ever had was that of marriage and raising children. A broken marriage leaves them angry, bitter and broke. They say things such as “I sacrificed the best years of my life for you!”, a statement that in itself is both unfair and laughable.
Marriage is not a goal; it is a state of being. Making it a goal, never mind a “forever” goal, turns both spouses into actors in a play that is entirely dictated by social convention. Eventually, one or both will question the role and leave in search of their true self.
"I do not believe that there were more happy marriages before divorce became socially acceptable, that people tried harder, got through their rough times, and were better off. I believe that more people suffered”
― Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.