A few weeks ago, Ada Calhoun published an article in the NY Times with the provocative title, The Wedding Toast I’ll Never Give. Based on the title, I thought the article would condemn marriage as an institution, and encourage people who are in love to just enjoy being in love, free from any binding certificate or law (how Zen!). Having almost given such a controversial speech just a few weeks earlier at my best friend’s wedding, I was comforted to think that someone else would feel the same way. Then I read the article.
“…Part of what marriage means,” Calhoun says, is “sometimes hating this other person but staying together because you promised you would.” Yes! I thought, and what sort of reason is that?! This author gets it! Then came the next sentence: “And then, days or weeks later, waking up and loving him again, loving him still.”
Really?! This is the edgy sentiment that you wouldn’t dare say at a wedding?? Marriage is hard and you won’t always be pleased with each other, but overall, you’ll be glad you did it? What happens if you wake up, days or weeks later, and the love doesn’t come back? What if you wake up and realize that, for the past 5 years (or even one year!), your marriage has brought you more pain than joy? Should you hold out another few weeks, months, years, and trust that these feelings will pass because you heard marriage has its ups and downs?
My dad was married and divorced before he married my mom. I would not have a sister, had it not been for his first marriage; I would not exist, had it not been for his divorce. My parents would not have had the relationship they did, were it not for my father’s first marriage, divorce, and the things he learned because of them. They entered their marriage aware that it could end, despite the lawful contract. I believe this awareness made their relationship stronger.
Through all our relationships – friendships and romances – we learn what we like and what we don’t, what is helpful and what is not, what works and what doesn’t; and when things don’t work, we are generally encouraged to move on. In all my yoga classes, I encourage my students to listen to their instincts, and to respect that their needs – physical, emotional, spiritual – might be very different today than they were yesterday. I remind them that “instinct” should not be confused with “habit.” But when a marriage doesn’t seem to be working, society (including our family and friends) reminds us that we made a promise – to each other, to the government, to our god or gods – that even when the going got tough, we wouldn’t walk away; we would make it work.
Is this not the opposite of self-growth? Should we not allow ourselves continually to evolve, free from the expectations of others? Should we not allow our actions, circumstances, and environments to reflect our evolving needs?
Say you have a job that you suddenly realize you hate. Sure, it gives you benefits, a hearty salary, a clean office, and, perhaps most notably, stability. But the job itself it mind-numbing. You took the job decades ago, thinking you’d love it forever – and for years, you did. But this year, on this day, you sit down at your desk, open your thousandth word document, respond to your millionth email, return your billionth phone call, and all at once it hits you: you could be doing something else. What you once saw as creative and energizing now makes you want to throw your computer (or, perhaps on bad days, yourself) in front of an oncoming Mack truck. Maybe it’s time for a change, you tell yourself. So you write your resignation letter, even though you promised your boss you’d stay with the company until you retired. When you tell your friends about it, everyone applauds you. “Good for you!” one says. “You’ll find a new job in no time, what with your experience!” another says. “I’ve been wanting to leave my job for years,” says a third, “but just haven’t worked up the courage – you inspire me!”
But if this happens with a marriage? No one is there to congratulate you. Instead of applause, you receive pity. And instead of looking at your past experience and thinking about how marketable you are, you look in the mirror and think, “I’m too old for this game.”
Most of us recognize that a job is not forever, that it corresponds to a certain phase of life, dependent on experience, maturity, needs and wants. But when it comes to relationships, we’re encouraged to stick with one person – the same person – through all our adult stages. Once we’re old enough to “know what we want,” we should find it, then stay with it. The fallacy in this, of course, is that it implies “what we want” never changes – or, if it does, that the partner we’ve chosen should be so in sync with us that he or she will evolve in the same ways at the same pace. Adults do not stop maturing. We continue to go through phases, to grow, to change, to seek. If it so happens that we remain in love with the same person through these phases, lovely. But more likely, we won’t.
In her 1914 essay Marriage and Love, Emma Goldman writes: “Love needs no protection; it is its own protection.” In his poem, Desiderata, Max Ehrmann (1927) urges the listener to “Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.” And according to Rohit Mehta’s (1999) The Call of the Upanishads, “[Love] exists as long as the experience of Love lasts… It is a union without any inducement” (p. 203). None of these writers implies that love cannot fade. Neither do they imply that when love fades, it is lost. Indeed, love will return, somewhere, with someone else.
In my 29 years, I’ve fallen in love three times – which is, incidentally, the same number of times I’ve fallen out of love. I didn’t fall out of love because I suddenly discovered something about my partner that I didn’t know before; I fell out of love because I discovered something about myself. My needs and wants changed, and I no longer wanted to be with my partner, romantically. Knowing that relationships are not forever, that they are fragile, that they can end if one or both parties want them to, to me, makes them more precious.
Love, like energy, cannot be created nor destroyed; like energy, it will change form. We cannot choose to be in love with our partners, but we can choose to care for them, to offer them love. We can also choose to leave them, to seek out new relationships, and to offer our love elsewhere. Either way, we are allowed to change our minds, to change where and how we open our hearts. We do not have to think in terms of “forever,” because nothing is forever, and that is okay.
I do not mean to condemn marriage (I’ll leave that to Emma Goldman). I do not mean to sound cynical about love (I hear you, Max Ehermann!). I mean only to say that to be in love is not a choice. To get married is. And to anyone who chooses to get married: remember that you don’t have to be, that your partner doesn’t have to be either. Stay married as long as it brings you (a lot) more joy than pain, and no longer than that. Respect that your partner can do the same. Falling out of love with someone does not mean you have failed, or that your love is gone – it means only that this love has faded, and will resurface somewhere else.
This is the wedding toast I did not give.