Relationships don’t look like they used to (and that's a good thing). But what does it honestly take to make a modern romance work? As part of Committed, we're exploring partnerships ranging from a textbook marriage between high-school sweethearts to a gay couple creating a life together in the conservative deep South.
At some point, most of us have heard this question from well-meaning friends or relatives. The frequency increases if you’re in a relationship, and even more so if you’re of the age that people associate with "settling down."
And why not? We’ve been primed our whole lives to think that getting married is a goal we all should achieve, lest we die alone in pathetic failure, surrounded by cats and pitied by society.
How many movies have you watched that end with a wedding, presented as the ultimate expression of happiness? How much praise and admiration have you seen women receive when they can show that they "got the ring?" In the world of dating, even when you try to take it slow and date casually, you know underneath that your ostensible goal is to find "the one." It’s easy to internalize the idea that getting married is practically a must; it’s an accomplishment, a victory. It’s demonstrable proof that you are worthy of love.
And so, when my live-in boyfriend of six years pulled out that diamond ring, of course I was thrilled. I had won the game, right? But once the initial excitement wore off, a lingering dread started to set in: Now I would have to plan a wedding and, after that, the rest of my life. Is this what I wanted for the rest of my life? Did I even know what I wanted for the rest of my life? Did it matter? I wasn’t getting any younger, and someone wanted to marry me. This was the dream, right?
In hindsight, I think this line of reasoning is why I went ahead and got hitched despite the many, many red flags indicating that I absolutely shouldn’t. In hindsight, of course my marriage spectacularly crashed and burned.
By the time I married my boyfriend, I was already having an affair with a stranger I’d met at my bachelorette party, and had to down a few glasses of champagne to force myself down the aisle. In the moment, my reasoning was that I’d already paid so much for the wedding, and everyone was already there. I kept telling myself that I had invested too much time in the relationship to back out.
The marriage lasted a whopping month and a half before he kicked me out and subsequently served me divorce papers via breakdancer (get it? I GOT SERVED). Being newly homeless, I ran off on a lark to live on a tropical island. My family was pretty mad at me, his family stopped speaking to me, and everyone thought I was crazy. It was pretty much the opposite of a happy ending. If marriage is considered a success, then failure at marriage is considered a particularly shameful failure, and mine was an epic fail.
Out of the wreckage, however, emerged an important revelation: Marriage isn’t for everyone, and it definitely isn’t for me. I don’t consider my marriage a "starter marriage," and I’m not telling myself, "The next time will work out!" The real lesson I learned is that I am not the marrying kind. It’s unfortunate that I had to get married to figure that out, but in the end, I’m just glad to know this about myself.
I’m not saying that getting married is a bad idea, or that nobody should get married, ever. Maybe you are the marrying kind. Maybe you want to share everything with one special person forever. Maybe you want to raise a family, or you hate sleeping alone, or you want to feel taken care of. Maybe solitude makes you anxious. Maybe you don’t like cats. If that’s the case, go forth and prosper! But don’t get married—or stay married—just because you think you should.
With my 20/20 hindsight, it’s easy to see that I was never going to be the marrying kind. I had always been independent, I didn’t want to have kids, living with another person and sharing financial burdens stressed me out, and I constantly fantasized about having my own place. I was bad at compromising, and had a tendency to just give in to avoid conflict, then harbor secret resentments.
Even though I had managed to stay monogamous for seven years, it was more from lack of opportunity than lack of desire; throughout my relationship, I constantly had crushes on other people. In the end, I just didn’t have the emotional energy to take care of another adult until we died. When we were just drifting along in our lives, it was easy for me to be in denial, but getting married forced me to consider whether or not I wanted this relationship to last the rest of my life. Of course, the answer was a resounding no.
As I packed up my things to be put in storage, I cried. I cried because I was losing the home I was emotionally and financially invested in and because I knew I was hurting my husband, and it always feels crappy to know you’re hurting someone, even if it’s for self-preservation. We were fighting up to the last, and since I had conceded to the "bad guy" role (the cheater is always the bad guy, right? That’s the narrative), I felt like I just had to suck it up and take all the blaming and shaming.
As I looked, red-faced and teary-eyed, out the bedroom window, I saw the phrase "Life Is Beautiful" written across the roof of my moving truck. I still believed that it was and that it would be even more. In one of our pre-divorce fights, I had told my husband, "I don’t feel like my life is my own anymore." Now, I was excited to take my life back. Underneath the feeling of mourning, there was a tickle of giddiness at the knowledge that I was about to be free.
Once I was settled in my own place, I kept waiting to miss him. Surely you can’t spend seven years with someone and not feel a void when they’re gone, right? I waited, but it never happened. I never missed him. All I could feel was relief. I felt unburdened and light, like a huge weight had been lifted off me. I could do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, without consultation or negotiation, and I wasn’t responsible for anyone’s emotions but mine.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t just go back in time seven years to when I was last single. The world had moved on: The economy had changed (my small business was in shambles), rents had gone up, opportunities had decreased, technology had advanced, and I had to reconstruct my life accordingly with no partner to fall back on.
But I started online dating (which is much more fun if you’re just trying to meet people and not looking for something serious), and I experimented with jobs and living situations. I lived alone in a cabin in Honduras and with roommates in Brooklyn. I did an artist’s residency in Mexico, worked at a pizzeria in Nebraska, and a cleaned rooms in a hotel in Florida. Through some struggles and trial and error, I gradually came to feel like my life was my own again. I was living and making choices on my own terms. Even my emotions were my own again and not being dictated by someone else who thought they knew better than me how I "should" feel.
Five years later, I’m still living happily on my own. I eventually moved to Mexico with nothing but two suitcases and my cat, and started over. Since my divorce, I haven’t felt alone or lonely. When you stop putting all your emotional expectations and dependency on one person, you learn to cultivate better and deeper relationships with everyone else in your life. My family has mostly forgiven me for my disaster marriage (although a lot of them still think I’m crazy). I’ve had friendships, flings, and romances, but I’m no longer looking for "the one." I no longer believe in the idea of "the one." In fact, I think that maybe I am my own "the one," and the idea of growing old alone, surrounded by cats, sounds pretty much like heaven.
A.V. Phibes is an artist living in Mexico with her soulmate, who is a cat.