The wince registers on many levels I’m sure. In part it registers an abiding sense of failure on my part, particularly with my second marriage. I have two sons, now ages ten and twelve, from that marriage, and I share custody with their mother. As I watch the boys go back and forth, with their own adaptive grace and resilience, I still think this is not the life I wanted for them and experience a sense of failure in not giving them the family life which I had hoped for them and which I worry, and sense, that they miss.
And yet the wince is also that kind of knee-jerk reaction one has when witnessing something painful, like a car crash, and turns away cringingly. I know this thought is not a pleasant one, and to write it publicly does not flatter me. I don’t want to put a curse on anyone’s happiness or predict an ill fate to the blessed unions I had generously been invited to witness and share in. The wince, in this regard, makes me something of a party pooper, perhaps. I wish them a good life and a long happy marriage. My own parents have celebrated over fifty years of marriage, and I have to say I find something admirable and impressive about that. At times, I envy those couples who have long, successful marriages.
But let me speak my truth a bit. And let me say first that I am not writing a piece here about the impracticality of monogamy. Rather, I am thinking about what I want to model for my sons in terms of how they seek and enjoy love throughout their lives and also how they think about and relate to themselves.
I have gained much from each of my marriages. I can’t call them mistakes; and if I think rationally about them, I’m not sure it is fair to see myself or the marriages as failures. I entered my first marriage at the age of twenty-two as I headed off for graduate school. It lasted eight years and ended, in my view, because as my first ex-wife and I embarked on our post-graduate lives we discovered we wanted very different lives. People can change quite a bit between the ages of twenty-two and thirty. My second marriage, which lasted twelve years, ended more messily and its end took longer. Some time ago I behaved badly. We stayed together and worked things out for several years after that, and then she decided she wanted something else. While the end was painful and difficult, I have since come to realize I wasn’t getting what I needed in the marriage either. But I can’t really call it a failure or a mistake. The two sons I had with my second wife are the loves of my life, and fatherhood brings me much joy.
My point is that each of these marriages gave me much, and I am happy to have had them both as moments in my evolution. They both helped me learn and evolve and made my life better.
A good deal of the pain and difficulty of ending these marriages, though, I believe, is a product of the expectations set by the institution of marriage. The ceremonial ritual of marriage asks us to make a pledge to stay together for better or worse and til death do us part, even though statistics tell us more than half of marriages these days end in divorce. I know with each marriage I came out of, my self-esteem took a big hit. I felt bad about myself on some level because I was breaking a promise. To leave a marriage was an erosion of one’s integrity, a breaking of a promise, a welching on a commitment. The judgment from others, from society at large, is clearly felt.
But what if we didn’t have all of the expectations around marriage being for life—not to mention all the legal entanglements? We might be able to weave narratives of lives of loving that more flexibly and faithfully accounted for who we are and what we need as human beings, that anticipated, expected, our evolution and imagined that our evolving selves might require we engage in relationships with different people as we grow, change, and seek transformative experiences and content in our lives.
The current love of my life, who also recently divorced after twenty seven years of marriage, likes to quote a friend who says, “What? Is marriage supposed to be an endurance race?”
More to the point, perhaps, are the words of a friend of mine I quoted in my last blog on love and skateboarding. This friend, in counseling me through my second divorce, suggested I think about how lucky I am that I had the experience of falling in love with great intensity—and fairly good longevity—twice in my life.
These words really struck me, and they came from someone who is now in her third marriage and has a great relationship with her now adult daughter from a previous marriage. Far from judging her, I admire the heck out of her.
And when I think about her words and watch her live her own life with grace, brilliance, self-confidence, and love, I see what I want for my own children. I want them always to have love in their lives, to be in a position to give and express it and to receive and be nourished by it. I want the love they experience to fuel them in all they do, to carry them to a greater sense of fulfillment of who they are and want to be. I want for them to be, in Neil Young’s words, miners for a heart of gold. As they live out the narratives of their lives of loving, I want them to have available to them forms through which to evolve as they love, whether that be in a monogamous, life-long relationship or whether their evolutions take them on journeys with multiple partners—or other forms I can’t even imagine.
While I have gone through personal struggles in my marriages and divorces, I try to model for them how to move on and find love. I am now in a relationship in which I am experiencing a love I never thought I could know. I find myself saying to myself and to her, “So this is love? This is what love is supposed to be. I have never felt this before.”
Her children are adults and have been having, seemingly, a harder time adjusting to her divorce. My children, who were eight and ten at the time of my divorce, have adapted rather resiliently and almost seamlessly. Perhaps, at the younger age, their sense of reality and understanding of the social forms through which we live our lives are more malleable and fluid, in the process of being formed. They do not yet have a clear sense of a “norm,” or they are getting it from me.
I know they watch me. I know they learn from me and even critically evaluate how I live. So I want to show them how to love and be loved, as I try to figure it out for myself. They are part of the process of forming a new and different kind of family. We are inventing our own environment of love.
The wedding I went to last October I attended with my current love, who is once divorced, and a friend who is once divorced and now re-married to a woman in her third marriage. The friend also had a reaction like mine to the couple’s pledge to be wed for life, which I found validating.
And yet here we were, three people finding happiness and more love as we evolve and grow through life.
It would be hard to imagine not having the experience I am having with the woman I am with now and with whom I want to spend the rest of my life (if that’s not too ironic to say in the context of this blog).
Luckily, I don’t have to imagine that scenario. Instead, I would like to leave a legacy for my sons that allows them, gives them permission, to re-imagine themselves endlessly and to move through life lovingly and with love, recognizing that giving love and being love, in whatever form, is the way to live life with most integrity.