Some thoughts on marriage, regrets and mediocrity
A few days ago, I was at a business lunch where one of the participants was a freshly divorced man in his forties. So it’s not a surprise that the conversation inevitably, and irretrievably, turned to the subject of marriage and what a soul-crushing burden it is. Not the divorce, mind you — that was a liberation — but marriage. The man had no specific grievances against his wife, whom he described as a normal enough human being and a good mother, nor against his kids, whom he professed to love — he just wished he hadn’t married her or had them. Instead, he disparaged marriage in very general and metaphoric terms, pretty much as Bill Maher once had, when he described a married man as a broken horse “shitting in a bucket”.
This is, of course, a very popular sentiment: that the institution of marriage is a conspiracy to stifle men by turning them into accommodating, servile beasts of burden — i.e. ideal women. To be clear — I think that marriage is becoming an increasingly outdated institution, whose benefits are often questionable. I therefore don’t generally take issue with anyone — male or female — deciding not to marry, or regretting having married. However, the idea that marriage is emasculating is bewildering to me. “How so?” I always ask when I hear that sentiment voiced, and the person voicing it always stumbles over the answer, attempting to placate me with more generalities. “But what specific forms of exclusively male self-realization does marriage prevent?” When pressed, such a person will ultimately admit that he can’t think of anything “right now”, except freedom to engage in substance abuse, ass-grabbing and sexist banter. None of which I particularly care about, except those aren’t accomplishments one is likely to be admired for in one’s middle age. Having to forego one’s painstakingly established career because of family — that elicits sympathy from me. Having to forego binge-drinking and whoring — not so much.
But what I would most like from any married, or formerly married, man who is having such thoughts, is picture the alternative. Imagine what would happen if you never immersed yourself in that lukewarm bath of sweatpants, suburban drives, diaper changes and giant plastic toys. How would your life be different? What would you have done with it? Would you have invented time travel? Colonized Alpha Centauri? Composed a dozen symphonies? Written a great novel? Found a cure for cancer? Learned to sail and spent your life drifting from one scenic Caribbean island to another, bedding beautiful women and getting into adventures and stuff? (That is, instead of getting shipwrecked, finding yourself harassed by various authorities, filling out reams of paperwork, spending months fixing the stupid boat while muttering something about “the goddamned port fees” and dying of humiliation whilst pitching fishing trips to fat cruise passengers. Remember, the gods too enjoy a good laugh.)
Well, perhaps. I will grant that technically, all these are possibilities. But in terms of likelihoods, your alternative life would probably turn out to be one of obligatory bad-boyism and a routine consisting of hard work and hard partying. The key word here is, of course, “routine” (not “partying”). As in, each day blends into the next, months and years float by with more of the same, and it seems like nothing ever happens. And once you’ve imagined it, ask yourself honestly, whether that kind of life would give you a sense of liberty and accomplishment. Not likely, if sameness, dullness and repetition is what’s wrong with marriage.
It is human nature to seek repetition and stability, whether we do it via that well-worn path of marriage and parenthood or the equally well-worn path of “living life on one’s own terms”, whatever the hell that means. We seek these things even though they bring so many of us angst and dissatisfaction. And life, as we humans construct it, isn’t designed to hand one a career of never-ending adventure, daily excitement and effortless, epiphany-style greatness. Quite the contrary: marriage or no marriage, it will inevitably incorporate small and boring, yet necessary, activities on a daily basis.
No relationship choice will, in and of itself, infuse one’s existence with meaning or a sense of fulfillment. Maybe it’s just life that’s dull and lackluster. Maybe you are.