When two people decide to “tie the knot” the decision is typically followed by elaborate celebrations and being enthusiastically congratulated by about everyone they know. All of this can be rather annoying to those who do not view marriage as essential or even particularly desirable. It is not that marriage isn’t a wonderful thing for many people, but that the alternative life of choosing to pass on being in a long term committed relationship is very much misunderstood. Many people associate a lack of desire to marry or commit to a long term relationship with a fear of getting hurt, selfishness and/or shallowness, or eventual unfulfillment. Perhaps in some cases this is true, but many times this is a very false assessment.
If you remain single by choice, perhaps even after a long line of lovers have tried to persuade you into loving ‘til death do us part’, often times family and friends will say to each other, “I think he/she is afraid of getting hurt.” They imagine that you’ve been burned so badly in the past, had your heart crushed so severely, or lost someone so important to you, that just the thought of loving someone new is terrifying. But it’s not always about an unwillingness to get close to someone, to open your heart, to make yourself vulnerable enough to fall madly in love. Sometimes it’s about a desire to simply embrace that love in the moment without trying to control the future.
Doesn’t this often make you more vulnerable to pain and suffering instead of less? You are willing to allow the people you love the most to leave you whenever they feel like it. You are willing to accept the intense loneliness and longings such goodbyes might bring, the kind of loneliness lifetime partners will likely never have to feel. You are choosing to the forfeit the security of a committed relationship in spite of the risks, but why? Maybe it is because, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh once said, "Him that I love, I wish to be free-even from me." Maybe you just don’t believe that true love and chains can live in the same place.
Maybe American Psychologist James Hillman was right when he said, “Loving in safety is the smaller part of loving.” Many people can commit themselves to a relationship that they think or hope will end in “happily ever after,” but it takes an entirely different type of courage to pour your heart into something that you acknowledge you’ll eventually be forced to let go of.
Perhaps it’s not that you fear intimacy, but that you refuse to ignore the reality that as life and people change love does too. It takes courage to admit that people can grow out of things, even each other. For some people, the comfort and safety of marriage is just not worth the possibility of being forced to eventually live a lie. Marriage can be an illusion in the sense that it forces you to make and believe in promises that humans do not always have the power to keep. As writer Michael Ventura once stated in one of his columns, “We can promise to want to love someone for the rest of our lives, but we can’t control falling out of love any more than we can control falling in love. We’re all aware of this terrible uncertainty whether or not we admit it, so our promises are no more than good intentions and (as promises) they ring hollow.”
Sometimes two people can start out in love and eventually find themselves in a situation where they only bring out the worst in each other. You can find yourself in a spot in a relationship where you try and try and try but find yourself somehow incapable of not continuing to hurt the other person. In Derek Cianfrance’s movie Blue Valentine, a couple struggle with this exact situation, and in one scene the woman (Cindy) says to her husband during a fight, “I can’t stop this … I can’t stop what’s happening … can you?” As painful a reality as it is, sometimes the best people can do is put their hands up at the scene of wreckage and walk away. You just don’t want spend years of your life trying to fix something that is permanently broken. As Will Grayson says in the John Greene book of the same name, “When things break, it’s not the actual breaking that prevents them from getting back together again. It’s because a little piece gets lost-the two remaining ends couldn’t fit together even if they wanted to. The whole shape has changed”
One of the greatest misconceptions of marriage is that it is the only way to achieve a certain type of fulfillment. But the problem is people like to talk about the joy and fulfillment of finding someone that you can spend forever with, without considering the cost. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “For everything you have missed, you have gained something else; and for everything you gain you lose something.” This is absolutely true of a long term committed relationship; the price of this so called “fulfillment” does not come without a steep cost.
The cost isn’t just about being able to do whatever you want and be a sloppy, drunk, slut on the weekends if you feel like it. It’s easy to see one could grow weary of that lifestyle, and the weariness is exactly why many people settle down. It’s about all the people you will miss out on, and what they could teach you about yourself, that your mate never will. It’s about playing the same roles your entire life. It’s about never again experiencing the joy of when you first fall in love with someone. Or even the joy of leaving someone and then coming back to them and falling in love all over again. Not to mention the fact that marriage often does not lead to the fulfillment we thought it would anyway.
But what about this thing called faithfulness? So many people have been taught to idolize faithfulness. I love the quote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde that says, “Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect-simply a confession of failures. Faithfulness, I must analyze it someday. The passion for property is in it. There are many things that we would throw away if we were not afraid that others might pick them up.” The demand for faithfulness is a need to claim a part of another person. Why do so many people rush to be someone else’s property? I believe in freedom, especially the freedom to give yourself in love.
“Non-marrying” types are also often accused of being shallow, selfish, and/or immature. But maybe the people who chose to only love once in their lives are really the shallow people. Perhaps there is more selfishness in fidelity, in choosing to only share yourself with one person, in tying someone else down so that you never have to worry about experiencing the sharp pangs of jealousy or the reality that not only is there someone else that could take your place, but it might be better for everyone but you if they did. Maybe it is more immature to want to cling to a relationship. If you’re not clingy, jealous, or insecure, fidelity just seems rather silly.
Part of the argument that “non-committers” are selfish is that they hurt and disappoint so many people by leaving. But within marriages don’t people hurt and disappoint each other every day? And if someone stops loving you, is it really a terribly selfish thing to want to be with someone that you can make happy? Vows are great and all but deep down don’t most of us just want to be with someone that stills laughs at our jokes, smiles when they see us, and kisses us in the rain?
Similar to the fulfillment theory is the soul mate theory. People love to say, “You just haven’t met the right person yet.” But even if we were to meet our soul mate, and I do think one can have multiple soul mates in a lifetime, why do we need to live with them forever? As Elizabeth Gilbert says in her book Eat Pray Love, “A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then leave.” You can love someone forever without being with them forever. I wish we could stop celebrating marriages so that when they end we no longer have to call them failures. As Patrick McBride said, “The end of a relationship is not a failure any more than the end of a book is a failure.” Even the greatest love stories have to end eventually.
I guess in the end people have to do what’s right for them. It’s easy to criticize people for being delusional but in many cases, a relationship, as many lies as it might be based on, is the best shot they have at happiness. People are afraid of not believing in monogamy because they like resolutions. The want the false illusion of security, they want to believe that promising something has the power to make it happen, and they want to think that they won’t die alone. They want to think that maturity will bring stability. Like the people who look for patterns in the lottery numbers, they love to downplay the impact of chance on our lives. Once again, this is not an argument against marriage. Last night, I watched the movie When Harry Met Sally where throughout the film there are elderly couples talking about their lives together. It is hard not to see that “growing old together” can bring joy. But some of us are born to love strangeness and get bored with familiarity. There is a quote from the tagline of the movie Closer that states, “When you believe in love at first sight you never stop looking.” Some of us don’t really want to fall in love just once but over and over again. We are addicted to the magic of the ability to love someone before we even know their mysteries, or perhaps because of the mysteries. To us, there is more beauty in strangeness, and as said in "The Zoo Where You’re Fed to God" by Michael Ventura, “All paths cause pain, so to choosing the safe over the audacious will not give you less pain only less beauty.” And we want to soak up as much beauty as we can during our brief time on this earth. So romance or security, what shall we choose? We can’t always have both.