On Tuesday night, a friend told me about her friend who was breaking up with her boyfriend of 10 years. My heart hurts a little for the woman because she has to tell people that she broke up with her boyfriend. Like any other 16-year-old girl who casually broke the heart of some pimply boy and called a new one in a week. The reality is that this woman is divorcing her partner. 10 years? That's a common-law marriage. But we don't use the language of "common-law" anymore so unless this woman wants to dredge up details to every schmoe off the street, she is doomed to miscommunicate her situation and won't get the appropriate response from misinformed people in response.
She has no heuristic that communicates rightly the spectrum of emotions she might be feeling at any given moment. If she could say that she was going through a divorce, people would say they were sorry and what could they do and would adjust their interpretations of her behavior accordingly. Probably in a more generous and forgiving way. But since she has to say that she is in the middle of a bad break-up, people say they're sorry, might ask what they can do and adjust their interpretations of her behavior in a way that expects her to pretty much function the way she always has since it's just a boyfriend, right?
Divorce is crazy-making. I remember looking up at the girl who was ringing up my purchase and realizing that she was staring at me oddly. Though I tried as hard as I could, I could not remember what I had said or done to elicit such a look, but I also couldn't remember what else I was doing in the previous two minutes so I have no doubt I said something really weird. For the two years after my divorce, I overreacted to small conflicts, cried very easily, talked endlessly about the very minute details of the proceedings and personal injustices and yelled at far too many people who didn't deserve it.
But they forgave me, often before I knew that I needed forgiving, because I was recovering from a divorce.
Would they have let me streamroll them quite as often if I were just breaking up with my boyfriend?
At a BBQ this past weekend, someone asked me what was the strangest ritual in my brother's Hindu wedding ceremony. Honestly, none of them were. Human nature is apparently so universal that everything made sense. Their hands were tied together. They walked around a fire. They fed each other something sweet. Vows of fidelity were exchanged. They threw grains for future prosperity. They gave each other flower garlands that symbolized their hearts. I was a little afraid before the wedding that I wouldn't feel like they were really married since the ritual wouldn't be familiar. But that never became an issue.Is there any doubt in your mind that these two people have just committed to spend their lives together, supporting each other when life is good and when life is really really hard?
Because a community of people witnessed this ceremony and agreed with it, there is no doubt that they are married, regardless of culture. Everyone that was there believes it. What's more, everyone who hears about the event from those witnesses believes that my brother and Meena are married. The people that hear about the event from the people that heard about the event from the people that were there will believe that my Daniel and his wife constitute a family. As an extension of this community, the government requires that institutions and organizations provide certain benefits to spouses.
Marriage is about communities. We create these elaborate and ultimately simple symbolic gestures so that the truth is indelibly written in our very visual memories. The truth is that these two people have a specific kind of relationship that has deeply spiritual consequences. The relationship is greater than the sum of its parts and what fills that gap between what it is and what it is made up of is a total mystery.
So, when something happens to a marriage - divorce, illness or death - because we, as a community, have witnessed its beginning, we can grieve its ending. We have a frame of reference for what the survivors of the tragedy might possibly be feeling. Armed with this social knowledge, we are more inclined to forgive and be generous. Our government recognizes this loss by requiring the enforcement of the original contract in the form of survivor's benefits and kin rights. If someone has just broken up with a boyfriend, we do not feel such a great loss because we do not quite believe that the relationship ever had a spiritual element to begin with. No one in the community has witnessed it.
I believe in marriage. I believe in marriage for all people, whether they love people of the opposite sex or people of the same sex. I think that when we encourage long-term committed relationships to exist without a community/governmental blessing, we are actually threatening the institution of marriage because as a society we begin to believe that there is no difference between being married and living together.
But the difference is that one couple's marriage is integrated in community and the other's isn't. Other people in the community will be able to love the individual members of the couple more fully and appropriately if they are accurately aware of the actual status of the relationship and the best way to do this is a marriage ceremony and contract, whether officiated at City Hall with two friends, a judge and a clerk for witnesses or whether in a temple with 200 people throwing flower petals.
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