Marriage is a play in three acts. At its best, it is a comedy romance full of lively conversation, intimacy, joy and laughter. People watching from the outside applaud and celebrate the union and from the inside it is light, effortless, intuitive and giving. For most people though, it is closer to a tragi-comedy — the humour sustains it, if it can, and the tragedy is supplied by the dull concourse of chores, petty jealousies, grudges, money worries and all of life’s other sorrows.
For other less fortunate couples, it is a play that starts with consuming passion and ends in consumptive violence and an addiction to drama. To borrow a much used Shakespearean quotation from Romeo and Juliet:
“These violent delights have violent ends And in their triumph die, like fire and powder, Which, as they kiss, consume.”
From an audience perspective, these are everyday fodder for gossip and for ever after, media headlines involving betrayal(s), a violent, messy divorce, and in the worst instance, a crime of passion otherwise known as murder.
If you have ever been married, you will be familiar with the first act — full of longing, passion, great sex and a seemingly endless candy lane of dopamine-stuffed experiences. Some people get hooked on the first act and become serial monogamists.
Others just cut to the chase and hang in the Tinder slipstream to twist and spin until their market currency fades or they simply retire from the chase. I personally missed this phase of human dating evolution but from the outside, it looks like a gamified toxic social media by product — cocaine turned crack or opium turned fentanyl.
Without wishing to sound nostalgic, despite the difficulty of finding partners back in the day (ie before online dating), when you did find someone it always felt like a revelation, like stumbling upon a jewel in a sea of pebbles. These days it looks like flicking through a catalogue of heartbreak Hotel California hopefuls — most wanting to check in, if only for one night or two, while others ‘less fortunate’ are kept permanently in the left side swipe lobby.
Without the halo effect of being out and about in a group of more attractive companions, most who are less blessed by symmetry, the glow of youth or the line of beauty must simply over project, shave off inconvenient birthdates or filter. It all seems a bit desperate (but tell me otherwise, if I am painting devils on the wall). Anecdotally, I know of people who have got to the three act play through Tinder gates but these are the exception, rather than the rule.
But back to the three part play, act two. Now the players are either full time occupied with the dance or like cage fighters warily starting to circle each other knowing that combat is inevitable.
As a fringe Generation X’er, I don’t envy the young knowing, as they do, that the game is fully rigged against them. Without the bank of mum and dad, they are consigned seemingly permanently to a life of rent and debt. And money can’t buy you out of a collapsing ecosystem, the consequences of an exploding world population or unstoppable climate change. Money can’t buy you love either — as many a collapsed celebrity or society union will attest.
For many, travelling light and for the most part alone, is a pragmatic choice.
I came across one of those persistently annoying FB memes the other day which asked in bold type ‘What is the one thing teenagers need the most?’ and the answer in my mind pinged clearly and quickly — ‘a future’.
Aside from our biological drivers to reproduce and raise offspring, there seems little incentive for young people to pair bond for any length of time. We’ve been sold on the idea that monogamy is a good thing and societally, I suppose it is so if conditions in society support that, but when they don’t, the social contract is broken.
Taking the cue of monogamy from nature, only three to five percent of mammals actually bond for life and without cultural constructs to interrupt the flow, this has become an evolutionary success factor for carrying forward the next generation. Certainly, we are mammals too but complex ones nevertheless.
For humans, being multiply abundant on the planet and aware of the complexities of history and an increasingly bleak view of the near future, there seems little reason to commit to anyone or anything. Just like the post pandemic period at the tail end of a grim war a little over a century ago, both of which killed the young in vast numbers, a decade of hedonism was the order of the day. And this was in the context of societies still largely in thrall to religion, tradition and customs, much of which we have increasingly outlived in the present day.
I’m interested to know what happens societally with the institution of marriage, particularly in the second act where we establish the ties that bind. A quick look at the stats in Europe at least suggest that ‘the number of marriages per 1 000 persons decreased within the EU-27 in recent decades, while the number of divorces increased with an increase in the proportion of children who are born to unmarried couples together with a decrease of children born inside marriage.’
I’m not sure hedonism is the answer but at least in the third act of marriage, there is also evidence that those who have made it that far are also abandoning the institution in increasingly large numbers — the so-called ‘grey divorce tempted by the siren song of change and an unwillingness to accept a prescribed fate.
Once you have fulfilled your reproductive duties and successfully launched a new generation of taxpayers, I’m sure many couples sit slumped in opposing corners of the marital cage, too tired to fight, surveying each other’s careworn faces, nursing old grievances while looking at the end game written in the contract ’til death do us part’ with equal parts dread and loathing. Old couples are good at finishing each others’ sentences, but many do so these days with a divorce.
Of course, there are many couples who take the third act all the way to the end and from an audience perspective these are still celebrated for their exemplary qualities — marriage is also an endurance sport but achieving peaceful coexistence requires patience, time and tolerance.
There is a beauty in old things as the famous Yeats poem (and a personal favorite of mine) attests:
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;
How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;
And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.
I’m not convinced that marriage as we recognize it in the West will exist into the next century it because it does not take into account all the factors that make up modern life, including our increasing longevity. Marriage was instituted as a legal contract at a time when organized religion had the power to dictate the terms, but no more. Maybe it will be a Brave New World for our children and theirs — marriage is essentially for optimists and a look down the road gives little ground for hope but we should never renounce the power of the human spirit to endure.