The high divorce rate in the United States—there are about 50% as many divorces per capita as marriages—leads some to question the institutions of marriage and monogamy. I often see these issues conflated, and it seems better to separate them like so:
1. Exclusivity at any given point in time (the monogamy part), and
2. Commitment for life or “til death do we part” (the marriage part).
These are distinct concepts that often coincide but not necessarily so. You can be monogamist with whomever you’re with but be with a number of people over time (also known as serial monogamy), or you can be in a long-term relationship that is open or polyamorous. So let’s discusses them separately, focusing most of our time on lifelong commitment.
I’ve written about monogamy and exclusivity often (see here or at the end of this post). In short, I believe that monogamy is a choice: it may not be for everybody, and nobody should be forced or pressured into it. But if you and your partner promise each other to be faithful, you owe it to each other to be faithful. Furthermore, It shouldn’t be a matter of societal expectations or norms—it’s a choice you make as a couple, whether you’re married or not. Of course, monogamy is a “standard feature” of the traditional wedding vows (“forsaking all others”) but one that can be overridden if the partners jointly choose.
The second issue is somewhat of a non sequitur or straw man (at least in terms of most civil law). Outside certain religious traditions, marriage does not have to be defined by lifelong commitment. In countries and religions that allow relatively accessible divorce, marriage has become a formalized commitment to be in a relationship for an open-ended period of time. No one goes into marriage expecting to divorce, of course, but everyone knows, deep down, even if they won’t admit it (even to themselves), that it’s always a possibility.
Does the fact that so many marriages end in divorce imply that marriage is a dying institution? Not at all, unless you hold up “til death do we part” as the single criterion of a marriage’s success (as some do, as we’ll see later). Imagine two people who were happily married for fifty years, ten years, or even one year, and then realized they’ve grown apart. They decide to divorce to pursue other relationships or to spend some time single—who are we to call that a failure? Their marriage served its purpose for some time, and when it no longer served its purpose, the partners moved on.
Of course, not all marriages just fade out like the end of a love song—some are destroyed by an event such as adultery. But adultery is an issue with the cheating partner, not the institution of marriage itself; nor should monogamy be blamed, since the cheating partner presumably made a promise to his or her partner to be faithful. In other words, we shouldn’t blame marriage or monogamy for adultery—the blame belongs with the person that couldn’t live up to agreements he or she made. If these institutions are too demanding for some people, then perhaps they shouldn’t enter into them in the first place.
I was inspired to write this post after seeing a report defining a “stable marriage” as one that does not end in divorce, in which stability was implied to be good and instability or dissolution was taken to be bad. But we all know of horrible marriages that never end and once-great marriages that did. To me, a marriage that makes both partners happy while it lasts, and then ends if it stops making them happy, is the definition of a successful marriage. A marriage that lasts forever with one or both partners in abject misery, on the other hand, is not successful (though it is, by definition, “stable”). As writer Katerina Simms said, “Marriage shouldn’t be about grinning and bearing; to imply so is to guilt people into staying in sometimes-perilous situations.” Marriage “til death do we part” is not an end in itself, except in certain religious traditions—and some of these faiths support lifelong marriage for other reasons (such as communitarian goals).
(I can guess what some of you are thinking: what about the kids? The existence of children does change the way we look at this, of course, and it makes the issue of divorce tremendously more complicated with additional layers of emotional turmoil. But along with the potential impact on children's well-being from divorce, one should also consider the effect of an unhappy or hostile marriage on children and the impression of marriage that they will acquire going into their adult lives.)
As the comedian Louis C.K. said, “No good marriage has ever ended in divorce.” Even though it can be tremendously painful and difficult, divorce should not be regarded as a failure—instead, it's an action taken to start correcting a bad situation. (As horrible as the process of divorce sometimes is, the marriage was often even worse.) Whether your marriage ends because of betrayal, or because you and your partner have simply grown apart, divorce is the first step to a better life—even if it takes a lot more steps to get there. And divorce doesn't imply that the marriage itself was without value or worth, or that a marriage ended is a marriage forgotten. It was probably wonderful while it lasted, but divorce doesn't negate this; it may take some time, but try to remember and treasure what you had.
More generally, simply because many marriages end in divorce doesn’t mean that marriage or monogamy are outdated or irrelevant. If we’re careful how we define them and distinguish between exclusivity and commitment, then marriage and monogamy can be seen as two out of many options when choosing how to live and love.
Here are three of my other posts on the issues of marriage and monogamy:
See here for more posts on relationships, adultery, self-loathing, and other topics.