Last week’s Hitched column was all about the “myth of the happily married woman,” challenging the idea that marriage is some kind of natural state of being for women, who are biologically and culturally destined to need a man to complete their happiness.
Whether you believe in the Man Jesus or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, it is a cruel supreme being, indeed, who would create women to be destined for lovey-dovey hearts-and-rainbows partnership, and create ramblin’ men only to burp and drink beer and stick their penises in the closest convenient hole.
Reality is, of course, more nuanced than that—but don’t tell the Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus crowd, because human nuance isn’t their strong suit. Why anyone would think it makes sense for women to “naturally” desire only one type of romantic relationship and to have men “naturally” desire the exact opposite of that (see: the Reluctant Groom), I don’t know.
Well, no, I do know, because it boils down to the same old shit: if you believe people (specifically: women) are the sum of their sex organs and little else, it gets a lot easier to oppress and marginalize them, and also to pressure them into conforming to socially acceptable life tracks.
But if you talk to people about their actual lived experiences? Things are much, much murkier. I asked happily divorced folks—via social media, via list-servs, via friends and friends-of-friends—to contact me if they wanted to talk about their experiences. Men were free to respond, though none did—I imagine it’s a result of where and how I was asking, more than anything else. But input from women was eye-opening.
What I learned: marriage turns out not to be a guarantee of life-long happiness for all vagina-having people so much as a learning experience that works out for some people and doesn’t for others. Just like any other decision people make, marriage comes out of complicated motives and desires, from a complex web of personal, social and cultural imperatives. (I’m using folks’ initials to preserve their privacy.)
Writes V., a 20-year-old bride:
“I decided to get married because I wanted to live with my fiance while attending college, but my parents were against that and insisted we get married.”
Writes P., an early-twentysomething bride:
“The timing of getting married was primarily pragmatic. He had enlisted in the Army … given that he would receive housing benefits if we got married, it made more financial sense to get married then for me to try to find my own place and make a career in human services.”
Writes S., a 26-year-old bride:
“I followed him into an exclusive relationship, I followed him over 800 miles up the eastern seaboard to our new home, and I followed him into marriage. I decided to get married because he asked, and following him as I was, I didn’t see a reason to say no.”
Writes R, an early thirtysomething bride:
“I had been living alone and focused on my career and then I started to feel the biological clock ticking. I knew I wanted to get married and have a family, so I started dating a bit more and then I met my husband …. I hadn’t had a serious relationship in a long time, I’d made a good life for myself, but I was ready to meet someone.”
All these reasons to marry! Having kids, pleasing parents, not wanting to upset the status quo, making your life easier from a pragmatic point of view!
I then asked these women if they saw any red flags about their relationships that they either missed or ignored.
“I was very stubborn and didn’t listen to the people who said we were too young to get married (he was only a year older than me). Looking back, I realize I was too young and I had a lot of growing up to do (as did he).”
“Not only were there warning signs (some I tried to address, most I ignored, and I think he would say the same) there were at least two clear moments when I thought ‘This is why people get divorced” but didn’t carry the thought process all the way through to ‘maybe I want to get a divorce.’”
“Absolutely …. we were fighting like cats and dogs, and we carried on like that throughout our marriage. He consistently and very rationally explained to me that relationships were hard work, and that I had to work on myself and my behaviors in order to better our relationship.”
“Yes, there were warning signs. I thought my husband was more in touch with his emotions because he was very articulate about himself and he’d been in therapy forever. But in truth, his therapy hadn’t helped him much and he was self-absorbed. I started to realize that really once we got married and he didn’t have to ‘try’ so hard.”
I asked women to talk about red flags because I think the “Can single women be happy?” question plays a part in making people feel bad for not having the perfect marriage once they’ve tied the knot. If we stopped telling people that marriage was a cure-all for sadness, would people be so dedicated to the practice of prolonging bad marriages in the name of trying to “fix” something? Or would more people heed those red flags and feel freer to disentangle themselves from bad relationships?
Of course, leaving a bad relationship is still a fraught process, no matter how difficult life in that relationship is. There’s guilt that comes from failing at something you stood up in front of your whole world and promised you would do; there’s frustration with not seeing warning signs. But there’s also relief.
How did the women I interviewed feel when their relationships ended?
“I was relieved. We had both been unhappy for a very long time and had difficulty communicating with each other.”
“There was no fight left, no part of me wanted to continue our relationship but still my initial emotion was anger– like throwing plates, slashing tires angry (neither of which I did) then I felt stupid (I really knew better, I should have never gotten married, I’m a fool.) I also felt deep regret, sadness, and at loose ends. I felt like a walking cliche– oh about to turn 40? Time for a divorce! At the same time, and this may seem contradictory, I was very clear that something better was around the corner for me so I dealt with the initial trauma, picked myself up, and moved on.”
“I felt a paradigm shift. I felt a switch go off. I felt shocked. I felt relief. We had gotten into yet another fight, and he told me that our problems were still the same problems as when we first got together …. I always said I wouldn’t give up until I knew I had done everything I could for that relationship, and at that point, I knew I had done it all. It might have been all in vain from his perspective, but I was stronger, healthier, and more empowered.”
“… elation, fear, sadness, loss, anger, relief, freedom, excitement, but mostly – overall it was a deep sense of loss and fear. I lost everything that was important to me at once … It was a very very stressful time and I was filled with grief. A year and a half later, I started to feel better and now three years later, I feel much better. I’m still working at re-establishing myself with work and income, so that’s a stresser, but basically I am much, much happier and feel great relief, like a toxic cloud was lifted.”
So these women are damaged forever, right? They failed at the one thing women are supposed to want—long-term heterosexual partnership—and now they’re just spinning their wheels, right? Of course not. There is life after divorce.
My next questions: Are you happier after your divorce? Do you measure your happiness differently than you did as a single person?
“I am currently remarried and am very happy. I feel like this is the first mature adult relationship I’ve ever had. I have never been single for very long, but not because I feel the need to be in a relationship…it’s simply the way the chips fall. I happened to reach out to my current husband (who is also divorced) during my divorce proceedings and we bonded during that time.”
“YES! YES! YES!! So much happier than in my marriage although I am partnered now to someone else (but not married). I continued therapy with the therapist who saw me and my ex together and this was the biggest investment I could have made in my well being and happiness as a person.”
“Yes, I feel much happier, but then I was happy at times when I was married. I just had men friends (no affairs) and women who gave me lots of emotional support. I got very little from my ex, but I made a good life for myself. I guess in some ways I do measure it the same as a single person, but now I am not so focused on what I’m not getting – and I’m focused on finding pleasure and joy every day and not feeling so angry for the lack of love I had.”
“Oh, yes! I am exponentially happier, and everyone can tell. My parents were in udder shock and denial when they found out (from him, no less) that I was getting divorced. They kept saying that maybe our separation would bring us closer together. Not even a month after my divorce was finalized, my father sent me an article titled “When Divorce IS Happily Ever After.” He noticed almost immediately how much lighter and more joyful I was. Rather than measure my happiness by how happy my partner is, I now measure my happiness by how I feel with myself, based on my personal goals for my own life.”
Marriage isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience; neither is divorce. Of the women I interviewed, some are partnered and remarried, and others are single. Some have kids, some don’t. It doesn’t take a whole lot—asking just a few people about one common experience—to see that asking “Can single women be happy?” is a completely reductive exercise.
People who want to take the temperature of “women’s unhappiness” only seem to want to prove that whatever women do that isn’t the marriage-and-mommy track isn’t worth their time. Treating women like humans is a far more complicated endeavor—but a far more worthwhile one.