December 1, 2003
Marriage with an expiration date?
by Carla Laszewski
esterday was our eleventh wedding anniversary and I am not quite sure how I feel about it. This fact disturbs me, though not nearly as much as the fact that I know precisely how I don't feel. I am not overjoyed, nor looking forward to the next eleven, or even the next one. Gone is the anticipation of expecting and planning pleasant surprises. The confidence that I am who my husband wants has left me, and I question whether I still want to be wanted.
Instead of feasting on champagne and strawberries by candlelight, we shared pizza and chicken wings by the glare of the television. It was my idea to stay home and forgo the semblance of a celebration. Maybe without fanfare, I reasoned, we could reconnect. It didn't happen. The evening was affable and bland; it ended with me snoring on the couch while my husband watched a baseball game. Comfortable can be nice sometimes, but I often feel as though he prefers me when I'm as inanimate as the furniture. To be fair, he routinely complains that I think and feel too much, and expect him to do the same. Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it doesn't necessarily encourage growth or foster fulfillment, either.
I didn't anticipate that I would ever feel like this. Who does? Who marries envisioning a future of stagnation and apathy? I naively expected our relationship to change and grow along with me, with us; instead, it seems that the "us" is diminishingand we aren't doing anything about it. I don't think we know how to do anything about it because my husband and I don't even agree that anything needs to be done. I find myself trying to convince him of the significance of certain incidents which I fear are signaling the unraveling of our marriage.
I recall hearing, several years ago, about a more restrictive and spiritually-focused marital arrangement known as a covenant marriage. A covenant marriage limits the permissible grounds for divorce, and requires a couple to meet certain educational and counseling requirements. At the time, I was surprised that the concept was not countered by a proposal that expressly recognized marriage for what it legally isa contract that requires, for it to remain in effect, that each party agree to and abide by certain terms and conditions. Most contracts, although not marriage contracts, also contain a list of specific circumstances under which the contract can expire or be terminated; in order for a contract to serve its desired purpose, the arrangement it documents must be beneficial to both parties. For a marriage to remain viable, it too must be mutually beneficialbut without a list of deal-breakers, how can the parties ascertain the contract's continued validity? This is especially true for marriage because a relationship has a life of its own, existing separate and apart from, and sometimes in spite of, the two individuals comprising it. I have never before considered that my marriage and I might have different life expectancies, yet we do. As things stand now, I want my life to outlast my marriage.
It's not that my husband and I don't get along, or don't like being with one another, it's just that there may be somewhere else one of us would rather be, though both of us may not know itor want to admit itat any given time. We had different interests and inclinations when we met, and while a benign acceptance, dare I say admiration, of each other's respective proclivities exists, I find it an increasingly poor substitute for the ideal of sharing things with someone who appreciates my interests and invites me to join him in his, while discovering new ones together.
We still laugh, occasionally. We have sex, walk the dogs, talk about the weather and current events, and share the same cramped bathroom upstairs. Some roommates do as much. Though I recognize and respect my legally-married status, I don't feel emotionally joined to my husband. More significantly, I don't know if I want to be so joined to him. Until recently, I bemoaned the sense of separateness that he seemed to enjoy so much. Now I'm developing my own selfishness. I realize I have so much to discover for and about myself and I don't want this process of learning to be hampered by uncertainty; I don't want to waste time justifying myself or cajoling someone else.
We do not have children. If this were even one anniversary ago, I would have added "…yet." Now that I am convinced we will not conceive or adopt children, I am relieved. While this relief is accompanied by sadness and a sense of fundamental marital failure, the relief is predominant. My husband is wonderful with children, and I would love to be a mother, but I can't see us successfully parenting together, especially as it is becoming more questionable whether we can continue, and more importantly want to continue, living with each other. I married my husband with the intention of raising a family together, and the understanding that we won't be has made me confront and contemplate a larger, more fundamental issue.
How much of my concept of love exists in the present and how much merely represents habitual remnants from our shared past? I say I love my husband, but find myself wondering of late whether I truly know what I mean by that, let alone whether loving him, no matter how much, is enough. Common experiences, unrealized expectations and mutual acquaintances do not a sustainable relationship makeat least not the life-affirming, challenging, and passionate kind that I want to have.
I recently read an essay* that muses about what life might be like in the year 2050. Among the author's many hypothetical innovations was the concept of marriage with an expiration date. It's a radical notion, but it strikes me that his suggestion could have helped my husband and me address our marital problems in a pragmatic way. Rather than minimizing the significance of the commitment and the reverence of our marriage, a contractual option to renew it, if we had one, would give us an opportunity to willfully reaffirm our solemn and meaningful union, or it would force us to make a mutual and sober decision not to re-up.
I am not wistfully longing for a convenient device that would allow me to dispose of my marriage. If my husband and I, however, had begun our marriage with a common understanding of what would signal serious marital trouble, our situation might seem less irreparable today. Perhaps instead of an expiration date, or in addition to it, we could have had a "best before" clause. There are "best before" dates for all manner of perishable thingssurely a relationship with the conventional magnitude of "'til death do us part" warrants a contingency plan. The "best before" clause would provide fair warning; it would be a preemptive way to avoid a divorce. It would enumerate conditions and behaviors that would indicate to both of us that we were in danger of defaulting on the representations and warranties inherent in our marriage contract. And it would have saved us from the abrasive process of recognizing problems and arguing about whether they belong to me or the relationship.
There is no doubt in my mind that having tangible, mutually acknowledged criteria to offer up as support for my current feelings would be tremendously helpful to both of us. For example, if my "best before" list stated that our marriage would be best before displays of affection became the exception and not the rule; before we made fun of one another more often than we made love; before we spent more time with other people than with each other; and before we could no longer have meaningful conversations without digressing into accusations and recriminationsthen we would both know unequivocally that we need to work together to avoid marital expiration.
I like the idea of a "best before" clause because it recognizes that human interactions are always subject to change, and as such, are negotiable. A tenet of contract law is particularly applicable in this context: there must be a "meeting of the minds" to form a valid contract. In addition to the conventional meeting of our two hearts, having had an intellectual understanding not only of what it means generally to be married, but at least in some respects, what it would specifically mean to be married to each other, would have been invaluable information when we got marriedand especially now.
Before I married, I probably would have scoffed at the notion of a "best before" clause. Such is the apparent invincibility of love. Now that experience has replaced my idealized notion of married life, I don't think the concept is too extreme. Being in a situation that I hadn't anticipated or planned for makes me feel helpless and inactive. Inertia, in turn, encourages taking and sticking to the path of least resistance. But there comes a point when dissatisfaction and unhappiness make it more painful to do nothing as opposed to something, even if that something is divorce. I haven't reached this point yet, though there are times when I feel precipitously close. That said, being a resilient romantic and a reluctant realist, I am hopeful that I can find both a way to be myself to the fullest possible extent, and to work with my husband to redefine and reshape our life together. If we are able to do so, then our marriage's "best before" date and expiration date won't end up being one and the same.
* "Dear Nestor", William Douglass, Economist / Shell Writing Prize, 2000
Post a comment or opinion
Back to Top