A Marriage Isn’t A Failure Just Because It Ends

Not all divorces are failures. Some are diplomas. They are evidence that we showed up, we learned something, and that now it is time to move on.

This week brought us another “failed” celebrity marriage: Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck are divorcing after 10 years of marriage. And, according to my Facebook feed, lots of people have feelings about this. Others wish we would shut up about celebrities and discuss something of importance like how much fecal bacteria is found on toothbrushes.

I read and discuss celebrity divorces for the same reason that I read obituaries. It soothes my anxiety. The difference is that while I hope to see big numbers in obituaries, I look for small numbers in divorces. I get a lovely, though completely false, sense of security if all the death notices are for people in their 80s and if the numbers in celebrity divorce notices are really tiny.

The short marriages of Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian made me feel very secure in my marriage of 15 years. But you can imagine how I responded when I read that Al and Tipper Gore had divorced after 40 years together.

My husband truly hates it when I read about celebrity couples divorcing. That is because I usually I commemorate the event by panicking and picking over my own marriage, looking for even the slightest rend in need of repair. Like everyone else, I look into the mirror of celebrity to check for suspicious moles.

I am one half of a really loving, happy and (I hope) good marriage. And I don’t take it for granted. I know how lucky we are to have found each other. Our love story feels like it was written by Nicholas Sparks but produced by The Wire’s David Simon. It tries to be all bad-ass and gritty, but it still ends up being nauseatingly schmaltzy.

I am still not quite sure that I even believe that such marriages exist. It’s incredible that some people find in each other not only the kind of acceptance and love that makes a soul feel at home, but that also transforms them for the better. A marriage that heals our deepest wounds and lifts us above our circumstances is such a rarity that we mock the very idea as a fairy tale and many of us explicitly warn our children not to spend their lives on a quest for that kind of love.

And yet it is precisely what happened for my husband and me.

Both of us came into our relationship bearing pretty profound wounds. Pete occasionally tells a story that encapsulates his childhood and haunts me. When Pete and his brother were about 5 and 7 respectively, the family’s cat gave birth to kittens. They couldn’t afford to neuter the mother, let alone keep the kittens. So Pete’s mother handled the problem the same way her family always had. Since Pete’s brother was the oldest male in residence at that moment (and apparently this is a sex-segregated job) she handed his brother a bag with the newborn kittens and told him to go out and bury the kittens alive. Pete has never forgotten his brother’s agony or his mother’s casual cruelty.

It is hardly any wonder that Pete became a bit misanthropic and a digital hermit. He was a surly guy with over-grown eyebrows who lived in a world he had shrunk to fit between the back of his chair and the screen of his computer. But all I saw was a man with infinite tenderness who needed the love of a kind heart and to live in a world where no one made him kill kittens with a shovel.

Pete has flourished in our marriage. He went from non-communicative and taciturn to being the most popular guy in his office. It hasn’t all been just my love that transformed him. He has had some good professional help, and he has fulfilled a life-long dream. He had always wanted to be a dad, but was essentially infertile. I brought children into our relationship and over the years they have enfolded him into a family where his heart and his pets are safe.

Pete is not the only one transformed by our marriage. I am embarrassed by how much our relationship has done for me. I was raised by a physically and emotionally abusive mother in a cult and denied a proper education. Not only has Pete helped me overcome physical disabilities, comforted me in bouts of PTSD, and given me every reason to trust in his good heart, he also made it possible for me to get a good education and to work as writer. Even my relationship with my children is built on the stability that Pete’s love has given me. Everything that I am proud of in my life has been made possible by his love.

By all reasonable measures, our marriage should be considered a success. We have managed to inspire each other to succeed and given each other the acceptance every human so badly needs. We have managed to bring out the good in each other, feel deeply loved and have a lot of fun along the way.

But like every marriage, ours does not come with a lifetime guarantee. And it kills me to think that if we come to a place where we decide to divorce, our marriage will not be honored as the true success, the epic love story that it actually is. It will not be remembered for all that it made possible, for the two lives it healed and the two young people it forged. It will be considered a failure simply because it ended.

My mother’s marriage of 31 years will end soon when her husband succumbs to dementia. That marriage diminished both parties and was abusive; it also brought pain and abuse into the lives of innocent bystanders. But it will be considered a success simply because it survived, no matter what that survival cost.

Earlier I mentioned Nicholas Sparks. He is another person who has arguably had a very successful marriage. Their union, which lasted more than 25 years gave him material for 17 best-selling books about epic romance. But in January of this year, he and his wife filed for divorce.

I find it outrageous that the same marriage that inspired The Notebook is branded a failure, while my parents’ marriage is considered a success. Yes, one ended and the other will imprison both until one of them croaks. But seriously, is outliving your enemy a valid measure of marital success?

Last week, the Supreme Court redefined marriage to include partners of the same sex. This is just another phase in the ongoing evolution of how we define marriage and what role it plays in our society. It has gone from a contract for procreation, power, and passing on property to being, above all, an emotional commitment.

So why is it that no matter what else changes, what seems to remain sacred is our idea of what comprises a successful marriage? Why have we clung to this one vestige of an outmoded model? Why are other agreements constantly renegotiated while we still think of marriage like the vows of the Night’s Watch?

All marriages end. It is a simple truth that we don’t like facing. It reminds us of how limited we as humans are, constrained not only by our mortality but also by our foibles. Love invariably leads to loss.

Smudging divorce with the stench of failure doesn’t make these simple but hard truths go away. So perhaps it is time to stop pretending and get real.

Not all divorces are failures. Some are diplomas. They are evidence that we showed up, we learned something, and that now it is time to move on.

Lynn Beisner writes about family, social justice issues, and the craziness of daily life. Her work can be found on Role Reboot, Alternet, and on her blog: Two Parts Smart-Ass; One Part Wisdom. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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