Identity and the Separated Person: How Does Maria Shriver See Herself Now?

When is marital separation a time of personal growth?

Posted May 11, 2011

Separation is the limbo of marital statuses and the Rorschach Test of personal identity. Who are you now? What - if anything - will you learn about yourself and societal "shoulds" now that you are in this place of great ambiguity, but also great potential?

It was Maria Shriver's separation from Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course, that got me thinking of this. I'm focusing on Shriver because hers was the marquee name on the 454-page document, "The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Changes Everything."

I read the whole thing. Seriously. I complained here previously that the report serves up compulsory marriage and mothering. It is a report that mostly marginalizes - when it does not ignore completely - women who are not married or do not have children.

Will Maria Shriver begin to think differently about women who are not married now that she is out on the limb of separation? Will she think any differently about herself?

Sometimes opportunities for thinking more widely and more deeply pass us right by. For more than a decade, when I lived on the East Coast, I was in a cooking club. The membership varied over the years, but a typical group included three or four couples, me and sometimes one other single person, and a "mystery guest" (or couple) invited by whomever was hosting the dinner at their home that time around. In one iteration, the mystery couple was comprised of two people I had never met before. Toward the end of the dinner, they made the kind of proposal that I mocked mercilessly in Singled Out: They (represented by the woman, who did the talking) said they wanted to have a couples dinner at their home and wanted to know whether the couples at the table were interested.

I set my dinner-party politeness aside and asked if she really meant that only the couples were invited. What could she say?

I went. It was an interesting experience. I learned that she was on her fourth marriage. So here was someone who had multiple opportunities to stop and think, and instead, apparently just sleepwalked through the expected steps: Get married. That didn't work? Get married again. Still didn't work? Go for marriage #3. Another bust? How about #4?

I'm not guessing that she made these marriage decisions mindlessly because she chose marriage over and over again, but because she seemed to have learned little from the single-person interludes in her life. On her fourth marriage, she was still inviting only couples to her home, in the presence of a single person who was part of the group that had invited her to the table.

The way you think about your life options, at times when such introspection becomes ever more likely, may depend in part on what's out there in the cultural air. In a book I just finished, I was reminded of how very differently women's options were depicted not so long ago.

Toward the end of Claire Dederer's memoir, Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, Dederer ponders the meanings of marriage and single life during her mother's era, as imagined by a genre of books published in the mid-1970s. The books included, for example, Diary of a Mad Housewife, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, and The Women's Room. Here's some of what the author said about those books:

"In these books, being a protagonist meant ending a marriage. Where the fate of every woman in a romance story is to be married, the fate of every woman in this literature is to be un-married. These books were interested in what it meant to be a woman, not a wife."

Now, matrimania rules. Divorce, though not as stigmatized as it once was, still gets demonized now and then - and the children of divorce get maligned more often than that. If you are single, often you are written right out of any script that does not involve looking to become unsingle. Perhaps this is not the most welcoming environment for the newly separated Maria Shriver. But she contributed to the marginalization of women living their lives outside of marriage. I wonder whether she will now contribute to a more enlightened perspective.