*Phillip, a successful litigation attorney, and Mira, a stay-at-home mom with a law degree of her own–both 40-something–have been married for almost 20 years.
They live in a beautiful two story Craftsman home in Santa Monica with two dogs, two cars and take two vacations a year. Anyone who desires marriage and sees this family in public could easily admire or envy them. They’re the perfect nuclear unit.
I love Phillip and Mira (not their real names, by the way, and certain details have been altered). They are friends. But I don’t admire or envy their marriage. They are miserable.
They don’t have fun. They seldom have sex, and when they do, the experience, so they have both told me individually, ultimately leaves them yearning and empty. Most tragic, they don’t communicate with one another. As a couple, they are dying a slow, grim death at the merciless hand of a toxic marriage.
You’ve seen Phillip and Mira: at a restaurant, they sit across from one another in disconnected silence, waiting for the meal to be served, glumly looking everywhere but at each other.
Out shopping with the kids, Mira is the woman who seems perpetually exhausted and frustrated. Meanwhile, Phillip, like his wife, emotionally shut himself down years ago. Sometimes he works long hours simply to make sure Mira is asleep when he gets home.
Their ilk often approach marriage as a sacrament of sufferance, defending their daily hell with such cliches as, “We all make our choices” and “Nothing is perfect.” Their marital happiness, fake to begin with, faded fast, leaving them to stagger through life like extras from “Night of the Living Dead” or “The Stepford Wives.”
Then again, while the “Stepford Wives” couldn’t think for themselves, women like Mira consider their horrific predicament daily–that is, when she and Phillip aren’t pushing the truth down with lies or medicating themselves with alcohol, drugs, food or reckless, covert extramarital sex.
Certain cancers offer by far a better survival rate than the corrupt marriage. After all, strides have been made in battling that disease. However, the collateral damage of unholy matrimony–the stress, pain and the heartache–is an emotional cancer that devours the soul and manifests itself in real, physical ailments.
Right about here is where I am supposed to say that Phillip and Mira’s union wasn’t always like this. However, if you believe that bad marriages begin healthy and loving and just somehow derail, then you also believe in the tooth fairy and hold tight to the notion that whatever happens in Vegas, truly does stay in Vegas, instead of following you home like so much emotional excrement on the heel of your spirit.
No, the marriage of Phillip and Mira was all wrong from its very contemplation. Like the multitudes who feel that taking vows will magically repair a rotten relationship, both sought something–not from one another, but from marriage itself–that they never found, because neither quite knew what it was they themselves needed.
The trouble with marriage is not the institution; it’s us. We are a culture that views marriage as remedy to nearly everything–loneliness, low self-esteem, personal insecurity, financial status. What’s love got to do with it? We jump the broom for reasons as vapid as giving our parents grandbabbies (even when we don’t want children); because the rest of our friends or siblings are married and we’re not, or because we feel like we are at “that age.”
Mira once confided to me that she wanted to find someone who would “complete her”–as if first being whole and healthy on her own isn’t a chief prerequisite to that particular mission. Moreover, aside from a serious lack of self-discovery, I believe there are so many pained marriages because no one sits us down when we are young and instills in us just how difficult it will be for even the healthiest person to find “the one.”
If that significant detail were conveyed to us with the same fervor as the importance of, say, eating all our vegetables or getting an academic education, we wouldn’t be so eager to marry just anyone; we’d respect and value The Search. We’d marry only after we’d found someone willing to give us the respect, relentlessly open and honest communication and compassion–the love–that we’d be dedicated to bestowing in return.
Single folk are easy targets for those suffocating in tumultuous marriages. We’re fearful of taking the plunge, they say. Commitment phobic. To be sure, many of us are. However some of us, after all this time, have simply gone too many rounds to bow to another Love TKO. It’s taken some soul searching, but we know what we deserve and we won’t settle.
We also know too many couples like Phillip and Mira, and with all due respect and sympathy, we look at their lives and wonder who in their right mind would commit to that? Marriage is compromise, not martyrdom.
Thus, at the risk of being told “It’s not that easy” (yes, I know it isn’t) and “You just don’t understand” (oh, but I do), might I suggest that my friends on Death Row cease shivering at the sight your own shadow. Plan your escape and get the fuck out. Stop saying you’re in it for the kids, because the kids have long known what is up and they are hurting, too.
Stop dreading splitting up the property and the Stuff, because owning it means nothing if you abhor the one with whom you share it. Stop worrying what friends and family will say, because they’re already saying it. Stop saying you don’t want to be another divorce stat, because you currently augment a sadder stat: that of people afraid to claim their joy.
Lord knows there are quicker, more dignified ways to die. Rat poisoning, a single gunshot to the temple, listening to Maroon 5 (opt for the rat poisoning)–be brave enough to choose any of them over emotional complacency.
The universe will look out for you–when hasn’t it? You’ve got your kids, your family, your friends, your rekindled ambitions. And most intriguing, ahead of you lies the sheer adventure of getting reacquainted with someone you haven’t seen in a long while, if ever: Your dear self.
Steven Ivory, journalist and author of the essay collection Fool In Love (Simon & Schuster), has covered popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio and TV for more than 30 years. Respond to him via [email protected]