Most people enter marriage full of ideals of mutual love and respect "until death do us part" and happy, smart and cooperative children. Life, however, is not quite so tidy and organized, so it often faces us with challenges, as if saying, "Really? Well, let's see how you cope with this?"
Almost everybody who is in a long-term relationship or marriage, sooner or later feels tempted to end that relationship and perhaps start a new one. This is a situation that often (and with good reason) causes arguments. On one hand, people who feel a stable, long-term relationship as an important life value, might perceive their own (and others') youthful decision in an overly absolute way, and judge themselves or others if they don't stick to a badly informed decision to the end of their lives.
Religious people in particular can find themselves in a deep conflict between their values that require preservation of marriage, and the conclusion that they are married to an incompatible person, that they are not happy and they are not likely to ever be happy. Personally, I think it's almost insane to expect young, inexperienced people, strongly influenced by hormones and romantic dreams (not to mention transference), to make a choice they could stick to until the end of their lives. In every other area of life, reasonable adults expect young people to make mistakes and learn from them; mistakes are the fastest and the most efficient way to learn. And yet, young people are often expected to choose the most important person in their lives correctly from the first attempt, or to hold on to an uninformed, less-than-thoughtful decision forever.
On the other hand, it's fairly common that people end potentially great relationships and marriages because they are not ready to invest effort in them, or they expect the other person to make them happy without giving much in return. Besides, children are often involved, as well as the question of financial security (which is less important from an ethical perspective, but might be greatly relevant from the practical point of view).
As for compatibility, in theory most people can be compatible, if they both show tolerance, respect, responsibility and healthy communication. In reality, no matter how strongly they declare their love, people rarely give up their behavioral patterns, immature reactions, even simple habits. Love is obviously not enough for developing partnership skills. Add to this unrealistic expectations, childish emotions and biology (which is an immensely complex influence all by itself), and we get the kind of chaos that few people manage to skillfully navigate.
Well-informed readers might say: why even defend the concept of marriage? Marriage was historically founded as an economic contract that controls people so that a family can increase material wealth and control who inherits it. Still, a stable family makes raising children easier, and many people do want to create a long-term relationship in which understanding, trust and respect would grow with time, rather than superficial short-term ones. When I talk about marriage, I have in mind such a quality long-term relationship, regardless if it's "legalized" or not.
The purpose of this article is not to create some final conclusion, as I don't believe in simplifying life and forcing everyone into a same box. Yet I think it's important to approach this question from different points of view, so that some people might be helped in their decision making - or, even better, in preventing disappointments.
Love is a particularly abstract word. It can include a variety of feelings, some superficial and based on hormones and projections, some based on one's relationship with parents, and some deeper and more realistic. The concept if love is often twisted and manipulated in many ways. Most types of love include some kind of need or yearning, a pleasant expectation of receiving something that was missing in our lives. Such love usually dissipates with time.
All the confusion and disappointment involved makes some people adopt a philosophical approach to love, which is based on the idea that love is a conscious choice, reflected in day-to-day effort and behavior. This philosophy sometimes includes the idea that we should stay with one person, no matter what temptations and circumstances might occur, dedicate our lives to that relationship even when we are unhappy and frustrated. The idea is that unhappiness and frustration are likely to happen in any relationship; if we stay with one person we at least have the chance to constantly deepen and improve that relationship, find new levels of learning and trusting; actively create happiness rather than search for it in the world around us.
This is all beautiful and true - in some circumstances and for some people. Usually in ideal circumstances, when both people are at least moderately compatible, considerate and well-meaning. If a relationship is basically good, people can suppress and reject superficial desires and urges in favor of more important values their primary relationship fulfills. But what if such a choice demands suppression of deep, essential needs and values? What if all that effort and investment results in disappointment over and over again? With time, this will result in either depression, or bitterness, occasional explosions, or physical disease. Sometimes accumulated frustration can be expressed in indirect ways, for example towards children.
Love could be described as a feeling of fulfillment, happiness, integrity, or perhaps as a desire for the other person to be happy. The latter is actually one of the better definitions, but countless testimonies I've heard show that you cannot really make another person happy and healthy, if they don't take that responsibility in their own hands, and especially if you do it at the expense of your own integrity and values. That would mean taking a parental role towards your partner, which damages not just the giver, but the receiver too. You cannot learn people's lessons instead of them.
If it was so easy to love someone just because we choose so, then, in theory, we should be able to be happy with most randomly chosen passers-by. Even if we ignore biology, hormones and early childhood impressions (we fight those influences most of the time anyway) there is still the question of compatibility: compatibility of intellect, emotions, desires, needs and values. Even small incompatibilities and disappointments can accumulate and simmer inside given many years; how could we not expect it with significant incompatibility?
Even biological incompatibility can be detrimental to a relationship: some people might be anxious and sensitive to stress while others seek excitement and risk; some people might be very physical while others live in their minds, some people can be emotionally sensitive and very empathetic, while others can lack either or both. Deep understanding and companionship is very difficult to achieve in such circumstances. And we didn't even start on all the emotional and behavioral patterns people learn in childhood.
True, emotions are volatile and short-lived, influenced by biology and childhood memories (which are much more powerful than most people realize). Can we choose our emotions? Considering that emotions are created in the subconscious mind, I'd say that you don't choose what you feel; what you can choose is how you will respond to your emotions and what you will do with them. My suggestion is to seek balance, not extremes; explore what each of your inner voices is saying and why, and which of those is worth following; what do you want in the long term, not just temporarily.
Reality is rarely so poetic and inspired as idealism, but in the end few people manage to escape it. It's rare that people give up on such a long-term effort such as marriage for no good reason. In the background of divorce there are usually years of suffering and sacrifice that an external observer wouldn't notice.
The nice philosophy I described in the beginning of this section presumes maturity, responsibility and effort from both sides. Reality is often different, and many people are immature and unwilling to cooperate and change. Our choices and our efforts do not automatically deepen a relationship, but the sense of fulfillment when the partner appreciates that and responds in similar ways does. If a relationship does not deepen and grow, can we still call it love?
Besides, why would stability be more important than compatibility? Why would a relationship have to be "poisoned" with the idea that perhaps it won't last? Why should we have to bond someone to us till the end of our lives? There are relationships that can grow till the end of the couple's lives, and there are those who cannot last that long, but can be deep and fulfilling for some time. Why not end them with love and respect while we still can? The quality of a relationship is not necessarily measured by how long it lasts. People are different, and life is complex.
To go back to integrity and important life values: if our essential values and needs are not fulfilled within a relationship, what can claim more importance? For some people, religious values can have priority over personal values. This is OK if you so choose, but it doesn't mean that different values are less respectable. Some people choose their values not on the basis of religion, but years of experience, thought, exploration and observing consequences.
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