Irreconcilable Differences Pt. II

Untying the knots America created: Can the marriage institution be saved?

Untying the knots America created: Can the marriage institution be saved?

You know how when one of your friends does something big—like having a baby or getting a divorce—it can get you thinking about your own life?

The introduction of legislation in Mexico City that would allow couples to specify on their marriage license application how many years the marriage will last is causing us to finally take a good, hard look at the institution of marriage here in this country. And things don’t look so pretty.

With one in two marriages ending in divorce, it’s hard to deny that there are some big problems. In this Irreconcilable Differences series we are trying to figure out if there is a way to set things right between us and the institution of marriage. It’s like three sessions of intense therapy to determine if we can patch things up or if we just need to call it quits.

Because the developments in Mexico are what put us in therapy, we spent the first session examining why Mexico, ever the traditionalist, seemed to be more open minded in its relationship with marriage that we are here in the U.S. That news hit us hard, since we always assumed Mexico was happy with the old school rules of marriage. That session proved once again that you never really know what’s going on inside someone else’s relationship.

In this session, we’ll take a look inside our own house. Where did we go wrong in our relationship with marriage? Were we ever really all that happy? And if so, when did that change?

The honeymoon

Marriage for life used to make a lot of sense. In days of yore, trades were passed down from generation to generation. Tailors and cobblers taught their crafts to their sons who eventually took over their fathers' businesses. Farms were kept within families for decades, or even centuries.

With this system, a partner for life was a necessity. The husband was responsible for tending to the chores associated with either growing the food or earning the money with which to buy the food. The wife was tasked with the upkeep of the house. If all went according to plan, the partnership would yield a crop of children and the additional hands would in turn lighten the load.

A husband and wife who split up could not only disrupt the family business model, jeopardizing the production and distribution of food and goods, but by extension threaten the stability of the entire community. Back then, marriage for life was generally good for everyone (although admittedly better for some than others).

You've changed

We've come a long way, baby. Today, people get to choose, rather than inherit, their professions and women now comprise nearly 50 percent of the American workforce. But even though practically every aspect of our working lives has changed, the way we formalize our adult relationships has acted like an intractable spouse, refusing to budge no matter what.

Sure, divorces are now easier to get, but the relative ease with which one can divorce doesn't constitute progress. Rather, it's simply more evidence that a lifelong marriage doesn't make sense for at least half of those who enter into it. Relationships that presumably started out positively end up in divorce court, with couples spending huge amounts of money untangling their assets, dividing up their property and debt, and worst of all, fighting over the kids.  

One step forward, two steps back

We seemed pretty happy and open-minded in 2008 when we elected President Obama.  We were ready to usher in a new era, and appeared to be up to the challenge of tackling thorny issues. While the debate about marriage centered around whether the institution should be open to same sex couples, there wasn't any rule that limited us to considering only that angle. If we could talk about making marriage available to couples for whom it had been previously foreclosed, it seemed logical that we could also broach the topic of adding some flexibility to the institution in order to make it work better for the fifty percent of folks who could marry, but whose marriages ended in divorce.  

By the summer of 2010, however, the feel-good buzz of hope and change had worn off, leaving us with a massive national migraine. The Tea Party was on the rise and people were turning out in droves at events all over the country to scream their opposition to any attempt to reform our healthcare system. Judging from their rage, you’d think their Denny’s Grand Slam Breakfast order had been a complete strike out. Things were definitely not sunny side up. 

In the midterm elections that fall, the Democrats took what President Obama called a “shellacking” and a bumper crop of Tea Party Republicans were voted into office. That’s when the longest political temper tantrum in U.S. history began. It initially seemed that Tea Partiers had predominantly Libertarian ideals, meaning they wanted government's role to be as limited as possible.  And while those ideals were at odds with an increased role of government in healthcare, those same ideals would comfortably allow for evolution in policy on a variety of issues including the institution of marriage. 

But the Libertarian voices in the Tea Party were quickly drowned out by fundamentalist Christian crusaders who sought to turn back the hands of time and reclaim what they called “their America.” “Their America” appeared to refer to the first one hundred and seventy-five years, give or take, when white Christian men called all the shots, and everyone else was relegated to a supporting role—or simply marginalized altogether.

I don’t even know who you are anymore...

Tea Partiers immediately began working to implement their vision of America and there was nothing kind or gentle about it. Like Rick Perry when he crosses paths with a coyote while out for a jog, Tea Partiers took laser-sighted aim at illegal immigrants, women’s reproductive rights, programs that form the fabric of our social safety net, and anything that seemed at odds with conservative Christian culture. 

In a phenomenon that defies the rules of basic math, Tea Party Republicans enjoy way more power than they should based on their numbers. Moderate Republicans are afraid to cross them, and Democrats are powerless to stop them. Tea Partiers seem to oppose evolution of every kind, from allowing schools to teach it, to permitting institutions to undergo it. 

To be fair, the Tea Party wasn’t the first group to hold the institution of marriage hostage. Conservative Christians have barred the door to progress for decades now. But the Tea Party has swept up these conservatives into its morality funnel cloud, and together they have morphed like The Hulk into a hypocritical and mean Mr. Clean.

In “their America,” Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh can marry and divorce as many times as they want, each time promising to stay with that current wife forever, and each time breaking that promise. But the rest of us can’t have an institution that will realistically work for us—an institution designed to help us treat our significant other with fairness, dignity, and respect and succeed in keeping our word. That hardly seems fair or moral. 

Institutions that do not grow and adapt will eventually lose relevance, wither and die. (U.S. Post Office, I’m looking at you.) Clearly some things are going to have to change if our country's relationship with marriage is going to make it.

But don’t worry. I have a plan. Meet me back here next week and I’ll unveil the details.

Austin Photo Set: News_Christina Pesoli_marriage part 2_Nov 2011_vintage wedding photo
Marriage for life used to make a lot of sense. If all went according to plan, the partnership would yield a crop of children who would provide additional hands to help lighten the load.