Friday, June 8, 2012

Why Not Wanting To Get Married Doesn't Make You Selfish, Shallow, Or Immature

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.


  1. Well-written and interesting, but your entire conception of love, marriage and committed relationships is so completely off-whack that I just can't take this article seriously; except for the fact that many people in society tend to agree with your viewpoint, and this is a pretty clear summation of what seems to be considered the "norm" today.

    I understand why you would be averse to committed relationships and marriages: it's because you see them as "entrapments," things that "tie you down" and "restrict your freedom." Well, you're not the only one, but you and others who think this way are - sorry to say - just plain wrong.

    Marriage is an opportunity to create an endlessly bountiful life with someone who shares your values and your goals. If you're not continually creating your marriage (or your relationship with your partner), of course it will seem stagnant. Of course nothing will be new. Of course you will feel trapped, and feel the desire for a change of pace, a fresh love, a new adventure.

    Your entire post seems based on the premise that marriage is an "achievement", a "one-and-done" accomplishment that is the high point of a relationship, after which it cannot help but to decline. Well, that exact viewpoint is, in my opinion and experience, the exact thing that's behind the decline of marriage, in the U.S. and elsewhere. People think that after they're married, that's it - the relationship has no room to grow. I mean, how could it become bigger or better than marriage? There's no "marriage plus". There's no higher level to achieve, right?

    Wrong, completely. Marriage is a step, a milestone on the road of a relationship. The committed relationship allows both parties to grow, not to feed off of each others' energy but to enhance it, to accomplish more together than they ever could alone.

    My wife and I share our goals, our victories and our losses. I know what she wants and she knows what I want. Every day, in all of our activities, we're constantly looking for ways to benefit each other. She keeps an eye out for me, aiding my career whenever and however she can, and I do the same for her. And because we've tried so much together, created so many things together, and failed so often together, we have a firm platform of things we know we should do, and things we know we should not do. We're on the same page, allowing us to write the rest of our book together.

    If our marriage ended tomorrow and I had to start over with someone else, I would be so far behind. I would be so disabled. My ability to accomplish my goals would be limited, and so would hers.

    In addition, our love has never diminished. It has never suffered the decay that you seem to assume is a given in any marriage. That's because we're both constantly doing things to enhance it. You know that period in the first couple of weeks of a relationship, where you buy your lover new things, and constantly try to think of new ways to make them happy? Well, why does that stop after those first couple of weeks. Because you stop doing it, and so do they. My wife and I are smart enough to keep doing it, and love each other enough to keep doing it. I do something new for her that I've never done before at least once a month, and have done so in all the six years we've been married. And I'm never going to stop doing that, and I'm sure she won't either.

    Again, I find your article interesting and well-written. But it starts on a false premise and takes off from there - the premise that a committed relationship must reach a high point and stagnate. It must not, it should not, and mine will not. If yours does, I could understand subscribing to the views expressed above - but understand that they are based on an inability or an unknowingness of how to actually create a relationship.

  2. Thank you for this thought provoking response. I expected this topic to be a bit controversial, and I'm certainly interested in hearing about other perspectives and viewpoints. You definitely made a lot of good points here. I actually agree with most of them.

    I do not believe that all marriages are bad. It sounds you like you have a great relationship with your wife and that's something to be proud of. However, my tendency to view marriage in negative light is largely a result of my belief that situations like yours are the exception and not the norm. If most people understood what is needed for a good relationship even half as well as you seem to, a lot of the issues I brought up would not even be relevant.

    However, you do seem to have a certain smugness about your marriage that almost seems a bit naive. You've been married such a short time. Years from now, you might find that you and/or your wife have changed in ways you never imagined. There are circumstances that are out of our control. As circumstances change, feelings can too. You are wrong in saying that I believe that diminishing love is a given. I just don't think any of us are completely immune to it.

    Thanks again for your reply! I very much enjoyed reading it!

  3. "If our marriage ended tomorrow and I had to start over with someone else, I would be so far behind. I would be so disabled. My ability to accomplish my goals would be limited, and so would hers."

    A lot of codependency right there, maybe that's why he sees your viewpoints as so "off-base"...


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