The Marriage Myth

By, Michele Zehr, M.A., M.Ed. 

My partner and I recently performed music at the wedding of two dear friends who—after 17 years—were legally married. I imagine same-sex couples across the U.S. holding sacred ceremonies, honoring their commitment and love for one another, and enjoying new legal rights. I truly appreciate the tremendous amounts of energy and resources it took to secure this right for the LGBTIQ community. With that said, I want to explore the aspect of relationship that even legal marriage can’t seem to touch with a ten-foot pole—the messiness of growth.

According to the American Psychological Association, 90% of people marry by the age of 50, but 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. We’ve all heard these statistics, and same-sex couples aren’t immune to them, but somehow they have become normalized. It’s not even shocking anymore, and I’m personally not ok with just accepting this phenomenon as “normal” without digging a little deeper.

Maybe it’s that we aren’t wired psychologically to withstand a long-term relationship? If so, are we trying to force ourselves into a culturally-created institution called “marriage” that actually doesn’t work with our psychological makeup? What force exactly could be so powerful that it can undo half of committed relationships that have had the magical wand of legal marriage waved over them?

How do we explain those couples who somehow found a way to make it work for the long haul? Were they all secretly miserable and living in a state of denial (some yes), or did they discover this tiny little nugget of wisdom—that even within the sanctity of marriage there exists a myth that is often represented as fact. Taking a myth and deeming it “the truth” is a dangerous game to play and usually results in some form of suffering.  

The myth: If we’re married, it’s forever.

I hate to be Debbie Downer, but the truth is that no matter what ceremony we participate in, no matter what legal system acknowledges our relationship, no matter what vows are spoken from our lips, we still aren’t guaranteed a healthy “forever” relationship. I realize this may sound blatantly obvious at best or horribly cynical at worst, but knowing this wisdom and living this wisdom are two very different things.

Marriage, or any type of relationship “status” for that matter, was never meant to be our Lifetime Satisfaction Guarantee or Your Money Back deal. When we are taught that marriage = forever, that is the moment we turn a myth into a “truth.” Till death do we part—words that may or may not appear in everyone’s vows, but the cultural implication of “getting married” is that once we tie the knot, “we” are supposed to last “forever,” and yet up to half of marriages don’t last forever. Hmm…I spy a major disconnect.

So I ask again, what force could be so powerful that it can undo half of committed relationships? The answer leads us into the hopeful part of this exploration, and it is quite simple—growth.

Demands for growth combined with a refusal to act upon those demands is powerful enough to undo any relationship in existence. Think about who you were when you first met your partner. Have you both changed over the years? Did growth sometimes cause discomfort and conflict? Did you find a way to meet that while discovering more about your capacity to navigate life’s challenges together?  Maybe you felt the tug of growth pulling at your heart but ignored it out of fear of throwing off the equilibrium of your relationship? For what it’s worth, there is nothing wrong with any of these choices, but growth is a persistent force that is not easily ignored. It usually catches up to us at some point.  

As cliché as it sounds, the only constant in life is that everything constantly changes, even if we can’t perceive it while it’s happening. In fact, we take it for granted and become blind to this constant. Turn on your faucet and try making the water “look exactly the same” as it did 5 seconds ago. It’s impossible because it’s always changing. We are no different; we just change at a slower—yet perceivable over time—rate than running water.  

I believe marriage can serve as the most amazing ‘container’ for a full, loving, life-long relationship. However, until both people challenge the notion of “forever”—thereby debunking the myth—and instead choose to commit the energy required for meeting one another from moment-to-moment at every growth point that presents itself throughout the span of the relationship, the ‘container’ we call marriage can just as easily remain empty. We literally aren’t pouring ourselves into the process of growth, and believe me, a relationship will demand that you grow.  

Next thing we know, we wake up and ask the person sharing our bed, “Who are you?” If we can’t answer that question—or even worse—if we can’t answer, “Who am I?”, then I think we’ve just identified the birthplace of those divorce statistics. The exception is any violent or abusive relationship, which must not be confused with healthy growth.   

I think the queer community is in a unique position to offer much wisdom on this entire topic.  Until now, our reality was that nothing reinforced the bonds of our relationships other than our own personal choice to continue meeting one another at every single place where growth was asking to happen. Couples like my friends have not lasted this long because they stayed the same. They lasted this long because they continued to “show up” through all of the growth periods that were inevitably going to demand that they figure out another way to make it work.

It is our commitment to going into the messy places of growth—over and over again—that is our best hope for redefining “normal.” I personally believe the queer community is full of role models who could benefit greater society if only it were to pay attention, because we’ve sort of “been there done that” for years.

Michele Zehr, M.A., M.Ed., is the founder of We2 LLC: Women’s Experiential Empowerment. She custom-designs and facilitates empowerment workshops for a wide-range of professionals, offers one-on-one Soul Weaving coaching, teaches R.A.D. Self-Defense for Women, and gives Transformational Talks by invitation. To learn more about Michele’s other services, please visit her website at: www.we2empower.com or contact her via email at: info@we2empower.com or by phone at 434-218-2462

Justin Ayars