During my Splitopia book tour New York City leg, I was so grateful for the great turnout at the independent book store Book Culture, near Columbia University. My friend and colleague journalist Abby Ellin lead the Q&A, which turned into an animated discussion about divorce and marriage. Another friend, the writer and medical ethicist Harriet Washington, author most recently of Infectious Madness, brought up this point:
Is marriage, as we think of it, an obsolete idea?
To paraphrase: What do we actually need from marriage? Should we be having feelings of guilt or failure if a marriage ends, given that we live such long lives, and marriage itself no longer plays the once-fundamental, life-or-death role it did for centuries of human history?
If this point were a song lyric, it might be, Marriage: what is it good for?
I'm a big fan of marriage—as are most people—or at least of some form of intimate pair bonding. Is the idea of marriage for life due only to our Judeo-Christian religious heritage? Or is it more biological, psychological—a species-wide desire to feel that someone has our back forever? As Harriet pointed out, people in all cultures make lifelong commitments, even those who do not practice a theistic religion.
What do we want from our intimate relationships? So many divorced people I speak to say that they didn't have the same vision of marriage as their once-spouse. As a culture, we don't have a widespread agreement on what we hope to gain or give in the state.
If we marry at 27 and live to 97, is it realistic to hope that the same person will be our primary emotional, physical and residential partner for 70 years? Should we take on more of an Encore Marriage idea? Much like the Encore Career movement, which proposes that we think of our working lives as not as one career but two or more that we pursue and flourish in sequentially, as our needs change and what we have to offer matures.
I love the idea of an Encore Marriage. And also, of learning more about marriage in general. We may spend a year planning a wedding. What if we spent as much time planning for—and learning about—how to be married?
This one conversation I hope Splitopia will encourage more of us to have.
*A version of this post originally appeared on Wendy Paris's website, wendyparis.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.