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Only half-married

By Helen and Peter Evans
web posted October 27, 2003

Controversy rages about same-sex marriage, but what does traditional marriage mean anymore? In his essay, "Divorce on Demand" (National Review, October 27, 2003), Dennis Powell suggests that we, as a society, need to re-examine our views on marriage.

He relates his wife's stated desire, "to be good friends but not married anymore". This notion of being "good" friends, or even friends, with their ex-spouse after divorcing them is simply a smoke screen for people who would like to appear compassionate and sincere and, of course, 'progressive' and 'mature', as long as they don't have to take responsibility for being unable or unwilling to sustain the relationship we call marriage. The unfortunate flip-side of the modern concept of "no-fault" divorce is the "no-responsibility" marriage that it implies.

We, along with many others, can speak from experience about marriage and divorce. Our previous marriages, of about twenty years, didn't end in a day or a month. It took years before the idea of divorce was even considered. During those years, dramas major and minor sprang from the waning of mutual commitment and yet, the thought still lingered that "things will work themselves out. We'll get better." Then one day it dawned that, even if all the problems could be "fixed," the commitment to the vows and the relationship it defined was no longer something we could sustain. In other words, we no longer cared enough about that other person to want to take part in their lives anymore, let alone live with them.

Yet we each found ourselves holding on to the notion that we could be "friends" with our ex-spouses. After all, didn't we hear from family and other friends that, "You can't just leave that relationship; there still has to be something there." Well of course, there was long familiar habit; there was curiosity; there was the normal concern for the well being of another person. But, "friends"? No. Could we say to them, of our new marriages, as we would to another friend, "we've never been happier in our lives" without feeling like we were gloating? Could we, with sincerity, celebrate their joys and commiserate their woes? Would we invite their opinions of our plans and ideas? We realized we would not be able to be a friend, even in conversation.

There's a deeper meaning of friendship; it means being there when the other needs you; caring about them, even if it inconveniences you. While still married, we had recognized that we didn't want to do those things. Why in the world would we want to do that after a divorce? What kind of shallow people would we be if we could break a vow or re-instate it whenever we felt like it? Yet, "Don't you care?" is the question we've heard over the years, usually from someone horrified at our supposed cold-heartedness. Apparently, it's supposed to be ever so 'sophisticated' and 'progressive' to claim to 'care' about someone while at the same time breaking a commitment to them. One is never supposed to actually admit that one doesn't love or care about another anymore; one is merely supposed to pretend that the divorce "just happened," that it was nobody's "fault." Does this make sense? Anyone who has ever been married to another human knows there's fault a-plenty. If we still cared we would have stayed to work it out. At least, that's what a friend would have done.

Now, maybe there are indeed some couples out there who remain, or become, true friends after divorce. More power to them. We just haven't met them. We've met plenty who claim they are friends, but they're really playing at being half-married. No commitment, no responsibility but, rather, living the drama of two lives, or two half lives, depending on whether or not they've married again. It's sad to watch a divorced couple re-heat the old arguments, inflame the old jealousies and claim they're being friends.

We think most of these people don't really want to be friends, but they desperately want to appear to be caring. That's the white lie they struggle to convince themselves of, but the aggregate effect on society of this dishonesty is to degrade the meaning of both marriage and friendship. Do we really want a society where vows and commitments are just words and can be shrugged off as having no more consequence than whether or not we get our usual table at our favorite restaurant?

Both friendship and marriage are (or should be) serious commitments which are not to be entered into lightly, nor dissolved at a whim. When we lament the decay of relationships, we are really speaking about the character of the people who make them what they are.

Peter and Helen Evans are a husband and wife team - international teachers, freelance writers and speakers - who teach a philosophical approach to conservatism. They are also real estate agents in the Washington, DC area.

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