Notes on The Abolition of Marriage
I’m currently reading The Abolition of Marriage by Maggie Gallagher. I started it a few days ago, and I’m only about 30 pages in so far, but these 30-ish pages have been phenomenal. I am also continuously surprised at how relevant and up-to-date this book reads, since it was written in 1996. But anyway, here are a couple of excerpts that I thought were particularly telling.
The marriage bond is in one sense the closest human tie. Husbands and wives are bound up with each other’s lives, become “one flesh” more intimately than even mothers and children—for mothers know and the children will eventually discover that most of life will necessarily be spend elsewhere and with someone else.
Yet in another sense, the marriage tie is the family’s weakest link: a radical attempt to make “one flesh” out of what are intractably, unbearably two different and unrelated people. Marriage is the daring attempt to transform a biological stranger into your closest family member.
The paradox of marriage, and the source of constant cultural tension, is that “one flesh” is both a deep reality and a social fiction. Or, to put it more accurately, it is a cultural aspiration, a lie that individuals and society conspire to make true. Precisely because husbands and wives are not actually members of the same biological family, marriage is everywhere surrounded by ritual, constraint, and support. Tremendous social energy goes into making that aspirations of the marrying couple a reality.
Marriage is a powerful narrative of erotic triumph: of faith over doubt, of love over fear. The marriage plot affirms the potency of love, for from one’s love springs a whole new creation, a new universe, a new family. In making a marriage, we make love real; out of our love we make something important indisputably happen. Because we dare to say “I do,” the world is changed forever.
Or maybe not.
For the spouse who leaves, there is a new narrative to replace this lost love story. For the divorce winners, the marriage plot is superseded by the divorce quest: The lone individual who against great odds triumphs over adversity to achieve his (or her) passion. The great man who does not allow himself to be bound by society’s petty conventions (such as the marriage contract) but who relentlessly pursues authentic experience wherever it takes him. The ugly duckling flowering into a swan. The peasant who becomes a prince.
But for the person who is being discarded (and very few divorces are truly mutual decisions), divorce is no quest. The spouse who left is not an actor in a new narrative because, for the spouse who is left, divorce is not an act at all—it is something that happens to him, something over which he has no control. Divorce transforms him into an object that is acted upon, a disagreeable bit player in someone else’s story: a spear carrier or at best a villain.
It is an unbearable position. This is why so many people who passionately opposed their spouse’s decision to divorce will, five years later, tell you, “It was the best thing that ever happened to me.” The alternative is to remain a failed story line, to declare oneself a permanent loser. And, in America, nobody loves a loser.