As 2016 drew to a close last month, I opened my newsfeed with dread, braced for more gloomy tidings. Sure enough, amidst the news round-ups and “best of” lists was The New York Times’ most popular article of the year: “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”
In a year when Americans voted to turn back the clock on social progress, Great Britain rejected the policy innovations of the 21st century and Syria tried to bomb its own people back into the dark ages, did we really need to get medieval about romantic relationships too?
For readers not familiar with the article, written by best-selling philosopher Alain de Botton, allow me to summarize. The author begins with the perceptive, if bleak, observation that humans are terrible at choosing good mates. We are flawed, lonely people with poor self-awareness and an even poorer grasp of what makes other people tick. We believe that we seek happiness in love, but we are actually seeking the familiar destructive patterns of our childhoods. We rebuff “balanced, mature, understanding and reliable” marriage candidates in favor of people more like our crazy relatives.
This argument begs the question: “Don’t those balanced, mature, understanding and reliable people sometimes get married too?” But it’s still a fair point. Few would argue that our wayward hearts are organs of precise discernment. Some people are lucky enough to marry their high-school sweethearts and live happily ever after, but most of us make at least one romantic choice that calls our sanity into question.
Where de Botton’s article goes wrong, however, is in its benighted conclusion that since we all make mistakes in choosing mates, we should universally abandon the ideal of romantic love. Forget marital bliss: Humans must accept the fact that we will likely end up bound to someone who, at the very least, cannot make us happy and who will, more likely, contribute substantially to our unhappiness.
Historically, when nobody had much say in the choice of a spouse, such a pessimistic philosophy was indeed warranted. Even in the face of outright cruelty, institutional patriarchy and religious rules meant that there was little point in railing against one’s marital fate. In such circumstances, it was doubtless comforting to believe that everyone else was equally miserable and the only option was to soldier on in collective unhappiness.
If such a pessimistic philosophy is still comforting today, it must mean that many of us believe at least one of the following: a) divorce is unacceptable, b) it’s worse to be single than trapped in a bad marriage, and c) a happier union is an impossibility. Very unfortunately, I would argue that our society pushes quite hard for us to believe all three of these things—despite ample evidence to the contrary.
When two bitter spouses die in a car crash in the midst of a screaming fight, our society calls that a successful marriage. Had the couple managed to file for divorce before the car accident—no matter how amicably—we would call it a failed marriage. It’s possible to have been a successful barber after changing jobs; it’s possible to have been a successful parent despite later becoming a burden to one’s offspring. But in current parlance, it’s not possible to have been a successful spouse in a previous marriage unless the other spouse died on the job.
Similarly, modern society views the choice to continue a marriage—even a bad one—as fundamentally noble. The motives of a woman who despises her husband but stays married for financial reasons are not questioned. But if the same woman were to risk financial ruin so that she and her husband could each have another chance at romantic happiness, she would likely be considered foolish, or even self-centered.
Through such language and attitudes, we communicate that divorce is shameful. It is better to quietly tolerate the consequences of our bad marital choices than risk being stigmatized.
But then, wouldn’t it be even better to avoid the mistake altogether by remaining single? Not so fast, says society. We push Cinderella stories and diamond ring fetishes onto girls and young women for a reason. Our patriarchal society wants to perpetuate the status quo, and so we label single people—especially women—as somehow defective or selfish. (The latter criticism is also leveled against people, especially women, who choose not have children.)
For those undeterred by shame and pity, society has a third trick up its sleeve—the grass-is-never-greener argument. Hollywood’s romantic comedies encourage people to ditch milquetoast boyfriends for The One, and nobody would tell a young man to stick with his high school girlfriend because he was never going to find anyone better. Yet we are absolutely adamant that if you married the milquetoast or your first girlfriend, no matter how much you might regret your mistake, it’s useless try to again with someone else. This is as good as it gets. It’s obvious that we don’t believe the grass-is-never-greener argument, because if we did, we would all marry the first person we met on Match.com. If every potential spouse is guaranteed to make us just as happy or unhappy as the next one, there’s no point in dating.
There are good reasons to stay in a bad marriage, from the spiritual to the financial. There may be hope that the marriage will get better; even great marriages have problems. Maybe it’s financially untenable to separate, or you believe your children would suffer from the change. But the argument that romantic dissatisfaction is inevitable is a terrible reason to stay in a bad marriage.
2016 was a bruising year, but giving up hope will not make life easier. Our romantic lives are bound to be imperfect, but that does not mean that they must make us miserable.