Bowling with the Gutter Guards Up
Wedding vows are maddeningly unspecific. We promise to love each other in good times and bad, in sickness and in health, until death has its ugly way with us. What never seems to be referenced — perhaps for fear of a spike in at-the-altar reassessments — are the piles of dishes, the changes in plans, the well-intentioned miscommunications, the confusing feelings of continued attraction to other people, and the sweeping apathy that comes when the drudgery of day-to-day life holds you tight in its embrace.
To be clear, it’s definitely not my intent to bash marriage — gay or straight, legal or implied. When I speak of marriage, what I really mean is any lifelong commitment to fidelity (For the moment, I’m not particularly interested in the legalities of marriage — though I am fully an advocate for equal rights). With fidelity comes opportunities for amazing emotional range, for making shared memories, and for learning important lessons about life, love, humility, and sacrificing for another person. Marriage is a great way in which to explore these lessons, though it is certainly not the only one.
Why do we find it necessary to make these commitments? What are we looking for? Are we buying into the fairytales? In reality, marriage is not about finding that one special someone; I’m not Adam and I’m not missing a rib. Please don’t buy the shitty dialogue that Jerry is trying to sell us. We are all looking to gain something different from our matrimonial arrangements; we just have off-base presumptions. When we jump into marriage because we anticipate somehow being made complete, it sounds like we are looking for a savior more than a partner. The biggest compliment I can give to my wife is to let her know that I don’t complement her at all. She is her own person. A complete and utterly beautiful individual all by herself. She doesn’t need me to make her whole. We are not parties in some mutually-beneficial, negotiated agreement.
We were not meant to be together as if we had no choice. We choose each and every day to stay together, to work hard, to carve out time in our insane schedules to sit and drink tea and watch old sitcoms on Netflix.
Many of my married friends, particularly those who come from from a religious background, would say that divorce is not really an option for them. There is nothing that they could experience that they would not be able to work through. If there were such a situation, their commitment to their concept of marriage would supercede their desire for divorce. There are potentially a lot of great concepts here: commitment, integrity, sacrifice. A good therapist could reframe this all day long.
Keeping divorce off the table is like bowling with the gutter guards up. You will score some points. You’ll make it to the end of the game. Your success is guaranteed in one sense and utterly invalidated in another. Your scorecard may be completely respectable and not reflect the cold, hard truth that you absolutely suck as a bowler.
When divorce is surfaced as an option, it brings with it a sense of finality and fragility. It brings a sense that the relationship requires nuture and caring. Marriage has value because it is something that can be lost if it not invested in.
As you inch closer and closer to the rim of the grand canyon, there’s more and more you can do to keep from falling in. Awareness of the precipice brings attention and correction and considertion. Do I take one more step or am I ready to turn and head back to safety?
Back at the bowling alley, after tossing a few gutter balls, we start to change up our technique. We may not initially know what we are doing, but we at least try something different. Eventually, we get the right spin — the right trajectory — and we nail it. None of us are professional bowlers here; we’re always going to throw a gutter ball or two. But if we have the opportunity to fail, we also have the opportunity to make corrections — to improve.
To be committed to fidelity is to be committed to work, to feedback, and to partnership. It is about honoring and sacrificing — to seeing the world through another person’s eyes. It is about being accommodating and passionate and loving. And, it is about knowing there could be — will be, in some sense — and end. It is the end that gives meaning and defines value; it gives validity to commitment. It is the end that makes the process worthwhile.