In the week of the year which sees a boost in business for divorce lawyers, D H Kelly discusses our cultural reluctance to accept that some relationships must come to an end
There are many ill-effects of our belief that having a romantic partner is a necessary and sufficient condition for happiness. Most of these fall on single people, in the form of unsolicited advice, unwanted sympathy and a sense of failure in a world that treats any cheap prize in the lottery of love as a sparkling jackpot. But I think the very worst effect of our cult of coupledom falls on partnered people. Folk don’t break up nearly so often as they ought to.
This week, more people will contact solicitors about getting divorced than any other week of the year. Three out of four divorces in other-sex marriage are initiated by women, although it’s very difficult to know quite what that means: Is it that women are more likely to initiate the break-up, or is it just that women take it upon themselves – or have a more pressing need – to get things formalised, however the relationship might have ended?
The idea that good people have lasting relationsihps comes from all directions. There are social conservatives, often with religious objections to divorce, who have an inconsistent faith in romantic love. Marriage is wonderful, they argue, but marriage is extremely difficult, and what counts is that people endure it, no matter what. Such people often use statistics which demonstrate the costs of ending long-term relationships – like the fact that the children of single parents (usually women) are significantly more likely to live in poverty – with all that entails – than those living with two parents. Being single can be extremely expensive – the cost of housing is now such that some couples who break up can’t afford to live apart. But these are economic issues and don’t demonstrate any natural advantage for unhappy couples to stay together.
Yet even in the most progressive circles, there’s still this belief that staying together is what really matters. There are perfectly sound arguments for polyamory; if folks want to do it, agree the terms amongst themselves and proceed in a spirit of love, respect and openness, then they have every chance of increasing the sum of human happiness. But there’s a very bad, more evangelical, argument for polyamory I still see around, which claims that none of us are capable of authentic monogamy, that all partnered people will fall in love or want to have sex with other people and, in monogamous relationships, this means either agonising self-denial, betrayal or – heaven forbid – breaking up.
Our culture is awash with both highly romantic and deeply cynical views on romance, often tangled together in the same message. That people shouldn’t break up combines both; people shouldn’t break up because love is all about hard work and compromise; people shouldn’t break up because love is sacred and everlasting.
Arguably these ideas are enshrined in UK law, which still lacks a no fault divorce. In the eyes of the law – unless both parties are happy to wait for two years in the not-exactly-married, not-exactly-divorced limbo of separation – if a marriage ends, someone has done something wrong. The situation puts me in mind of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, where there is a constant flow of teenage couplings and decouplings but few break-ups are prompted by anything short of one party becoming supernaturally evil.
This is a culture which leads to a lot of misery. My own experience as an abuse survivor is extreme, although not uncommon. But as well as fear of what an abuser will do, people stay in abusive relationships for exaggerated versions of the reasons that people stay in more mundanely unhappy relationships. There’s fear of being alone and unloved, compounded by isolation and the sense of incompetence that’s been drummed into a person. But there are also these pseudo-moral claims. A good person (most often a good woman, a good wife) will stand by their partner no matter what. A loving emotionally-intelligent person (which is what women are supposed to be) can make a relationship work.
This emotional work women do – along with the bulk of unpaid domestic labour and childcare – may be why married men tend to be happier and healthier, while married women, on average, are not. This isn’t about individuals – it would be difficult to describe the quality of my second marriage to a man without making others both nauseous and suspicious. However, to weigh against such positive experiences and average out at zero benefit, many women must be in inequitable and unhappy relationships which are grinding them down.
Life is hard work and being involved in the lives of other people is hard work, but we easily confuse hard work and suffering. Change is also hard work, and if that’s what it takes to move from a place of suffering, then it is very much worth while.
[Image is a photograph of four old fashioned suitcases stacked on top of one another. They are different colours and sizes. The photograph is titled “Parmiter Antiques Southsea Luggage”, is by THOR and was found on Flickr. It is used under a Creative Commons License.]