There are moments when phrases strike you and you realize their interiors are waiting to be explored.
The marriage container is another.
RollercoasterRider uses both terms, and a good deal more, in recounting her own fight to save her marriage, as she responds in a comment on “Leaving to Survive.”
Pop culture is filled with romantic references to hearts – broken and otherwise – as our society spouts pro-marriage platitudes and supports them with tax (and other) policies.
But hearts and their unions are tricky and evolving organs; likewise, the institutions that govern and depend on them. People are not simple, relationships are fluid, and the structure of the culture in which we live is not navigated without confusion.
I’ve been thinking about these concepts – the broken heart, the unbroken heart, marriage as a container. I have been unable to stop the flood of impressions, emotions, and images. I am not certain they are illuminating, but I am curious for reactions.
The Broken Heart
As I interpret her meaning, RollercoasterRider takes up the idea that the Broken Heart not only won’t kill us, but may lead us to something more. She writes:
We think of a broken heart as a bad thing—as something that can bring death. The irony is that an unbroken heart is a truer death, a living death if it is with vital signs and has a greater chance of losing those vital signs at a much earlier age than those who break open their hearts to make room for other hearts.
I hear what she is saying as it applies to her story. The same could not be said for my story, personally, nor those of most of the women I’ve known who have lost a spouse to death or divorce. Death is a special case; I will set it aside for now.
When speaking of divorce, whether vital signs remain or not, perhaps it is because RollercoasterRider and her husband were able to fight through their challenges and arrive – together – at something new, or possibly “renewed,” that she is a believer in the Broken (but still beating) Heart.
That heart – capable of growing stronger again – in harmony with the same person.
Many of us are not so fortunate as to have a partner willing to share in reconstruction rather than deconstruction. In fact, as I think of the time, money and energy devoted to dismantling marriage in some instances, I wonder if with the same determination (and funds and time) – more marriages couldn’t be saved. Not saved purely for the sake of it, but improved – their health improved.
The proper beating of the heart – two hearts, a family of hearts – restored.
Is Survival Enough to Maintain a Marriage?
I did not leave my marriage, though I understand leaving to survive, though my eyes were open at the end to all that didn’t work, though I might find myself now to be “more” myself outside of the marital sphere.
My heart was open to repairing what we could. But many of us come to realize that the foundations necessary for a thriving marriage do not exist, or are so crumbled as to prevent building anything whatsoever, not even a “good divorce” on the rubble of the ongoing battlefield.
Yet we would choose to remain resident in marriage – to “survive” marriage – if it is not overtly abusive, if there are children still to raise, if we recognize that financially we will otherwise spiral down into an untenable situation.
Often, I believe, we consider the first two elements of that hypothetical, and not the third. Or rather, if our marriages end, we do not consider the possibility that the third piece of that puzzle – money – may dog us for the rest of our lives. And that is not because we “lived off” husbands, but because of the consequences of our priorities: the years of willing or necessary mommy-tracking, especially problematic if you’re older; earnings and market competitiveness sacrificed to domestic life (of no small value but uncompensated); our subsequent vulnerability when we try to re-establish footing in the post-marital work-for-pay world.
Worsened, of course, if an ex-spouse plays games with support monies.
Worsened, of course, if energy and health are siphoned off during a long drawn-out battle of wills, manipulation, legalities.
Are You Broken?
When I consider the words “an unbroken heart is a truer death” my interpretation travels a different line of thought – through the giddy, jubilant, painful, and instructive path of loving – and living through an ending. And there, I will put the emphasis on living through.
Beyond the ending, however messy and imperfect, there may be beginnings – also messy and imperfect. Opening doors to who we, ourselves, have become; opening windows to the fresh air of awareness to our own faults and need to address them; opening opportunities to solitude if we prefer it; opening of our minds and hearts to new relationships if we learn to recognize how better to identify what is suited to us, and operate with and within them.
How can we come to value the profound privilege of love that works – however imperfectly – if we haven’t felt love that clogs at every turn of the wheel, is destructive, or simply disintegrates?
I wouldn’t wish a broken heart on anyone, but I do agree that the unbroken heart is one that hasn’t (yet) lived the depths of human interaction that lead us to value another human being and ourselves, possibly in the most connective ways.
Even during the worst of my post-divorce experiences, struggling to restore some sense to the world for my little boys and myself, I knew I wasn’t broken. I may have felt broken, but that is a different matter. I believed that I was reparable – if not my woman’s heart, surely my mother’s heart and my capacity for love, because loving my children has never wavered. Loving my children got me through terrible times and towering fear.
Pain as Teacher
Most of us are bent or bruised or cracked by life, but we are not broken. We suffer pain. We cannot escape life without suffering pain.
My heart is not an unbroken heart; its fissures remain, though my heart may have expanded in other directions and grown scar tissue over the wounds. My heart knew wounds long before marriage and divorce and perhaps this is in part the source of my strength.
It doesn’t require divorce or widowhood to suffer the gutting experience of deep disappointment, of betrayal, of terrible tragedies that enter our lives or the lives of those we cherish.
We muddle through, we make advances, we circle back, we muddle through again. Some of us are fortunate enough to put real distance between pain and the progress in our journeys.
But pain is a teacher. We learn from these experiences if we are attentive. We learn to protect ourselves and our families; we relearn – tentatively – how to be vulnerable.
The Container of Marriage
As for the “container of marriage,” RollercoasterRider writes:
Part of what we were to learn was how to follow our bliss without losing each other; to embrace our bliss within the container of our marriage.
And I would like to mention my own words above relative to new relationships – “how to operate with and within them.”
A relationship, a marriage in particular, can be viewed as a sort of container, though the very word sends a ripple up the back of my spine striking a suffocating chord in me, too close to the notion of being trapped, enclosed, able to see out through plastic or the glass of a jar but nonetheless captive.
I wonder if the word “framework” would provoke such a negative visceral response.
I don’t think so.
I am certain he word “vessel” would not, as I picture a sort of container that is open and cradling, more like a pair off cupped hands or a worn piece of pottery that nonetheless continues to do its job of holding.
Not trapping. Holding. Allowing for whatever is held to evaporate, to escape, to seep out if it must, and something more to fill the space again – naturally. It is this image, this metaphor, this less than hermetically sealed alternative that feels viable to me. Less frightening. Less suffocating.
Mingled, mixed, together, but free.
What is Marriage – to You?
And so I find myself winding my way through these words (and my reactions to them) and arriving at marriage, remarriage, and freedom which is, in this case, too vague a word for my intent but I haven’t another to substitute at the moment.
I felt no particular need to marry; I entered marriage late, as a place of synergy and familial welcome. I had no idea of the significance of a ring, unaware of the exclusive club that existed on the other side of that threshold, and painfully aware of being banished from its affectionate embrace once I was divorced.
I entered marriage believing it to be a haven, a living organism, not a trap nor a container, and certainly not characterized by dwindling possibilities but rather, the opposite – with the idea that two people committed to one another were stronger together than on their own.
But in my marriage, I was wrong.
My spouse was stronger. I was not.
He was free. I was not.
Opportunities did not come with the support of two people encouraging each other; my opportunities, my dreams, my “me” was shrinking; my responsibilities were growing exponentially. I am not saying that his did not expand as well, but I was trapped and realized it only years later. I don’t believe that was the case for the man I married.
I did some of this to myself. Some, I did not.
That was our marriage, and only that. But given the rugged years that followed, that image of entrapment, containment, suffocation, chains – and the impossibility of ever feeling truly “free” again if married are the legacy of our union, and even more so, the years following divorce.
None of this is to say there weren’t joys – most notably – our sons.
Does Divorce Break Something in Us?
But marriage can become a trap and all the more so because the expectations we paint in popular culture are unrealistic and do not stack up to the reality. Not even close. We are foolish, I believe, to perpetuate the myth of marriage, and to allow marriage to take place so easily. Should it not be at least a fraction as difficult to engage in as divorce?
I have thought of the next logical steps that so many expect from me because I am in a relationship. Any relationship that endures a certain amount of time kicks off the “when are you getting married” question. It’s a reasonable question (in our society) because it is the norm. It becomes more reasonable because it is (theoretically) less expensive, and potentially a path to social benefits that are not otherwise available if you aren’t in an employment relationship. That is another discussion but one that is no small topic and yet, perhaps, one more way in which a conservative society uses governmental policy to push its social agenda.
And while I am not broken, and I have seen marriages that thrive, my own experience of marriage and divorce have broken many of my belief systems.
Why Marry? Why Remarry?
I look around at those who have remarried – some are doing well. Others, after a year, three years, five years, are wistfully wishing themselves free once again.
Perhaps they succumbed to the “grass is always greener” syndrome, and jumped into something without heeding or healing. Perhaps they chose unwisely, perhaps they were unlucky, perhaps circumstances they never anticipated brought more challenges than they could weather together.
I believe our stories of marriage are private, personal, mysterious even – and to reduce them to simplistic formulas rarely approaches the complex realities we live, and our own evolving and movable truths.
Each couple is unique. Timing matters. Lessons learned – or not – are hugely influential in the successful functioning of partnership. Yet I am not convinced that most of us bring our wiser, albeit once broken and hopefully healing hearts to the undertaking of a new, committed relationship. And as long as the only way we view (and socially support) committed unions resides within the framework of containment, personally, I feel as if the very relationship I would honor and treasure is threatened.
Still, I tell myself “never say never.”
That leap of faith, that seemingly small and simultaneously monumental act of officially and legally binding oneself to another – with loosely tied ribbons rather than chains – is a powerful dream. I believe it to encapsulate a vow that proclaims “I make you my family” – which is perhaps why the breakup of marriage is, for some of us, deadly.
Yet there is beauty in so profound a commitment, at least in concept, which to me – must be allowed to breathe. What I cannot ascertain is the extent to which most of us can respect and act on the daily practice necessary to keep that precious awareness of beauty alive and flourishing.