What I Wish I’d Known Before I Got Married…Twice

Despite two failed marriages, Emily Rapp still believes in love and the “magic” that is marriage, whether or not it’s legally sanctioned.

Here is what two failed marriages have NOT done for me:

1. Made me financially or emotionally secure. Marriage tax breaks? Negligible. Lifelong guarantee of not being alone? Impossible.

2. Made me happy or complete in any way. Neither did publishing a book, having a baby, losing five pounds, experiencing career success, or getting my re-touched photograph printed in a glossy magazine. Nope.

3. Made me not believe in marriage. To my great shock and mild horror, I still have romantic dreams about and believe in the notion of marriage. I know it’s an idea, which is to say it’s an idealization, a form of fantasy, the beauty of which is not quantifiable or readily accessible in surveys or statistics; there exists no rock solid empirical evidence to categorically prove the benefits of a committed union. Marriage is a strange synthesis of mystery and magic, not a formula for happiness. If I’d fully understood this earlier in my life, I would have been less susceptible to the lies told in numbers one and two, the lies that society tells us—in subtle and not-so-subtle ways—are undeniably true.

What exactly does it mean to have a “failed” marriage? I know plenty of people who are married—and outwardly appear to be happy—but inside the relationship exist dirty corners full of serious, soul-choking dust, as well as periods of loneliness and despair. In both of my now-dissolved legal unions, I learned some central, life-changing truths that have helped me make more conscious (although not necessarily “better”) decisions in my life:

1. That happiness and fulfillment are possible with or without a husband, a boyfriend, a friend-with-benefits, a late night/occasional booty call, or any other person I might expect to usher me through my life, make me feel good about myself, or provide reassurance that my physical presence on the planet is appreciated, desired, and/or required.

2. As is true in all good literature, the best moments in any relationship are the tiny ones—so small that they seem, at first glance, almost inconsequential. If marriage is the “goal” of any “successful” relationship, as all the stupid talk show hosts and vapid magazine “love advice” articles would have us believe, then how do you move together through the crucible of life experience that would indicate that the joining of two particular, peculiar, and always changing lives is a smart decision, even if you know that the outcome cannot be predicted or controlled? Does marriage carry with it an expectation to simply lose all personal momentum in the interest of “the team”? And how do you make these decisions when you’re older and aware of the fact that there’s less total time available to you? How do you reconcile what you want when the right to marry is denied you? It’s so bewildering. And in the last instance, deeply unfair.

3. The yogis were right. No achievement or acquisition or relationship will save us. We cannot be saved. We only have moments. One moment and then another. Repeat (for a while).

I also learned pieces of these lessons from former boyfriends, but I never feel sheepish when I talk about them the way I do when I talk about the end of two unions that were legally acknowledged. Despite my forward thinking and quite modern ways of living and being in the world, I grew up believing that marriage was forever (my parents have been married for 45 years), that marriage was good for people (my parents have a happy marriage, which meant that they did not hide the rough patches from my brother and me), and that I would choose my partner wisely because I’m an intelligent person. The last assumption has been a bit trickier to maneuver, but the so-called failure of two marriages to thrive has often been less about the quality of the person and more about those “curveballs” that life throws and that people are always bringing up in sappy wedding speeches, promising that commitment helps you catch them.

But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes a curveball or a fastball or just a particularly nasty slowly rolling ball knocks one or both people to the ground and they land on opposite sides of the field, weeping and rubbing dirt from their eyes. Sometimes people switch team loyalty in the middle of the final inning, and sometimes that’s just fine. Every couple can be taken down by some tragedy, argument, moment. Love is fragile. But early in life I made the equation that marriage=happiness, which implied a kind of security, a resting place, and not many people were willing to debunk this erroneous emotional algebra. Woops.

During this next stage of my life, I just want to be happy. I no longer care what it looks like. I hope I’ve resolved the equation, although arguably it never had a solution and I’ve never been any good at math. I certainly understand that there is no, and never will be, safe resting place. Not for anyone.

In a year, my son Ronan will be dead because he has a shitty terminal illness that nobody can fix and his time is running out. There is no stopping this, and at first, to my great dismay, this triggered a fuselage of fantasy and forward thinking, which in turn made me think about marriage in particular, especially since my son’s diagnosis also resulted in the end of my second marriage. I go to therapy, chant, run, do yoga, meditate, occasionally get drunk in the bathtub and smoke too many cigarettes—anything to try and manage what is truly an unmanageable task: watching a child die.

And yet I recently said aloud, “Man, I really love trying on wedding dresses. They’re like so white and fluffy and fairy-tale. Whoa! Sooooo pretty!” I was shocked at how gooey my voice became and even more horrified that I’d said such a thing after barking out to someone else how totally bunk I thought marriage was now that my second one was dissolving. When I knew, without a moment’s hesitation, that I’d throw myself or Ronan’s father or anyone else in front of a bus if it would save my child. Grief is brutal; it tells the absolute truth, and this changes every assumption about any relationship with anyone.

We know (but don’t want to admit) that marriage is a risk, just as we know (but don’t want to imagine) that we will die, as will everyone we love eventually. We know that circumstances can shave away the edges of any relationship, just as love constantly carves new boundaries and possibilities in us as individuals. Perhaps this is how it should be. If every person is a teacher (which seems to be the running therapeutic advice, New Age and otherwise), then why do people feel like such assholes when their marriages don’t turn out like the scene from a Sears Christmas advertisement?

A beloved friend of mine has always said to me when we talk about love relationships: “There really are no rules. You’re just human. You’re a great big beautiful human mess.” Is it possible to lean into the messy magic of being human, of being capable of love in the midst of grief and fear? I hope so. But I’ve given up trying to know what this should or will look like. Nobody knows anyway, so soliciting advice is patently useless; in fact, it always has been.

Another friend recently wrote to me that the single goal we all share is “to live without terror and selfishness and dishonesty.” This felt achingly true to me; I thought: That’s the way I’d like to love in the future. Fearless without being reckless; trusting without being gullible; attached without being clingy; instead, a relationship that blooms and lives in the here and now, without a jet-powered rocket-catapult adventure into the future or a rickety backward trolley ride into the past. That would be a marriage, with or without legal sanction.

Perhaps this is what makes a true marriage—not the kind that’s advertised or fantasized about, not the polished, stress-free love portrayed in commercials and in disturbing romantic comedies, but a movement through the world of two people trying to make it better for one another and for other people—interesting. And messy. Difficult to do, but also worth doing, which is why everyone should be allowed to do it.

It seems to me that at its best and most complicated, marriage is a constant crucible; and like so many other relationships that change and shape you, it’s not about rigid categories of success or failure. It’s irrational and erratic. It’s about timing and luck (that slippery word) and unpredictable personalities and histories and hope and impossible-to-orchestrate chemistry. In a word: magic.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir (BloomsburyUSA, 2007) and The Still Point of the Turning World (forthcoming from Penguin Press, March 2013). She is professor of creative writing and literature at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Related Links: