Marriage And Remarriage: When Two Halves Don't Make A Whole
Following is an abridged and revised excerpt from Mel’s book Stepfamilies, which the BBC recently asked her to debate on the Richard Bacon show. In previous posts, the inference has been that unless the two people embarking on a second (or subsequent) marriage get it right, there is little chance of tackling other blended family issues, such as step-parenting.
Most marriages don’t add two people together. They subtract one from the other.
From: Diamonds are Forever, by Ian Fleming
The inference behind this cynical view of marriage is that we’d all be better off unmarried; that marriage diminishes our lives in some way; and that when married, we end up becoming less of a person. Ironically, this would appear, at first sight, to be endorsed by married couples. Traditionally they often refer to one another as ‘my other half’, or even ‘my better half’. These references, of course, are intended as light-hearted sarcasm, humour, or endearment.
However, this disparaging outlook on marriage is not universal. On the contrary, the implication in society at large is that singleness is the culprit of ‘half personhood’. Traditionalists are often of the opinion that the addition of a partner is required to make each of us ‘whole’.
DOES MARRIAGE MAKE YOU WHOLE?
The concept of marriage as a means of achieving completion, or fulfilling our potential might be anathema to Post-feminist Woman and New Man, but it still shows itself to be prevalent in some circles. Certainly in my experience (when I was involved in counselling) it was one of the prime reasons for much of the despair amongst the never-married. I’d even go so far as to say that in some cases it could be cited as a possible cause of their singleness. Excessive neediness is not an attractive quality.
This belief that it requires marriage to make you a whole person may be responsible for the spate of divorces that followed marriages made in the pre-feminist era. For the reality is that if this was the expectation of those 1960’s hopefuls, they were bound to meet with disappointment. Paradoxically – if they fail to recognise this – that same belief may also account for some remarriages: a second, third or fourth marriage in the hope of finding the ‘other half’! Finally, it is perhaps the driving force that impels those who feel they’ve been ‘left on the shelf’ - whether single, widowed or divorced - to rush into marriage with a divorcee simply because that’s ‘all that is left to them’.
All in all, there seems to be a good deal of confusion as to who and what we are when we approach marriage; and to what we believe marriage can ‘do’ for us, and to us. The fact is that the truth is to be found in all, and none, of the foregoing ideas.
- Marriage can, and should be, an enriching ‘one-flesh’ experience.
- Of itself, it can ‘do’ nothing for us.
- Nor, without our acquiescence, can it detract from our identity or potential.
- We can only reap that which we have sown - in terms of our concept of marriage; and of our self-perception.
DOES SEXUAL FULFILMENT MAKE YOU WHOLE?
We’ll have a look at some of these ideas in more detail in a moment. But first let’s be clear about the fact that the notions of the swash-buckling philandering heroes who speak of marriage as ‘dis-abling’ or an erosion of self-expression are romantic only in fiction and film. Translated into real life, the behaviour spawned by their way of thinking, wreaks havoc with other people’s emotions.
That’s because they lack the capacity to make a commitment to any one person. They, not the married, are the inadequates: the ‘half-people’ who, by their chosen life-style, have already subtracted from the sum of their persona. It has been said that a great lover is not someone who can satisfy many females once - even a dog can fulfil that criteria; but a man who can satisfy one woman completely and forever.
As is evident in any computer Spam box, the modern interpretation of this is that it’s all about giving the woman in your bed the thrill of her life (i.e. the best orgasm ever). If only it were that simple! The fact is that adult love may (or may not) find fulfilment in sex; but sex per se does not, necessarily, equate to love. And sadly, those who mistake lust for love are frequently destined to repeat the cycle of search and disillusionment.
CAN TWO BECOME ONE?
A marriage ceremony in the Church of England uses ancient words from the Bible which demonstrate the ideal. The two are to become one flesh, leaving their parents and their influence in order to cleave to one another. Note: this is two whole people becoming one. Perhaps the best illustration of that is in the sense of two jelly babies (sweets) which are distinctively complete in themselves, perhaps even different in colour to one another, yet have fused together. Or cut out paper ‘people’ which are joined at the fold. But even these illustrations, as we’ll see in a later chapter, are neither adequate nor accurate in describing what it means to be one flesh.
IS ONE ONLY A HALF?
It is a sad fact, however, that no matter how high the rate of divorce, nor how deep the decline in the popularity of marriage, we have been conditioned to see our ability to attract and keep a mate as the pinnacle of self-expression and worldly success. And in doing so, we imply that there is something odd about those who choose not to marry or cohabit. ‘The Relationship’ has become the badge of self-worth. By it, we assume a status not granted to the single/widowed/divorced.
Is it any wonder then that the unmarried see themselves as deficient in some way? And that if and when the opportunity arises, the temptation is to rush into marriage as if it’s the panacea for all ills? As if, by doing so, we hope to find our ‘other half’. Because without that ‘other half’ - to whom the married refer so frequently - we believe that we’re less of a person?
YOU CAN BE ALONE YET COMPLETE
It doesn’t have to be so. When Chris first met Pam he was a bachelor in his mid-thirties.
“When you’re in your teens,” he said, “people assume that you must have a girlfriend and that marriage will, ultimately, be on the agenda. By the time you get to your late twenties, they take it that this is a foregone conclusion, and are embarrassed when, on asking after your wife, they discover that you don’t have one; that you’re that anathema to modern society: a single man.
“But once in your thirties, things get even worse. Married people take it for granted that you must have a family. They don’t ask. They just assume. And you can see from the look on their faces that when they learn the true state of affairs, they’re thrown into confusion. In their eyes, you’re less of a person.”
THE SUM OF TWO EQUALS
Chris, however, was anything but ‘less of a person’. When marriage to ‘the right girl’ appeared to have eluded him and parenthood seemed to be passing him by, he resolved that he would not allow his single status to deter him from living a full and meaningful life. He took out a mortgage and purchased his own house. His mother had already seen to it in his childhood that he never had to suffer the indignity of being unable to fend for himself domestically, so he set to, fulfilling all his natural instincts of creativity and social integration.
What that house and garden did not go through in terms of structural alteration and sprucing would not be worth mentioning! ‘Before and after’ photographs showed the extent of the transformation. But it was, without doubt, the pictures of the garden that persuaded Pam that Chris was exactly the husband she was looking for.
Only a gentle, home-loving man could have produced such a profusion of flowers and home-grown fruit and vegetables, she thought. It soon became apparent, too, that he had enough outside interests and activities to bring the sense of space, and the richness of variety into their relationship which she knew every marriage needs if it is not to become stale. A member of several clubs: football, tennis, badminton and photographic, Chris was also a member of a local church. Moreover, it was clear from the way in which friends turned to him as their confidant, that he was a good listener. All in all, a ‘good catch’, thought Pam.
He (she was glad to discover!) obviously felt similarly about her. Without wishing to sound smug, she had to admit to having single-handedly brought up her three girls, dog, cat and tortoise over a period of several years; run her home as a bed and breakfast business; and held down a part-time job. Though there were problems with one of her daughters that were later to put the stepfamily under severe strain, at the time when Pam and Chris met, the teenager was living away from home. In Chris’s eyes, to all intents and purposes, Pam had made not a bad job of being a single-parent. What was more, their interests, their faith and philosophies on life, even their personalities, all dovetailed together.
They fell in love because they each found the other mutually attractive. It was an attraction based, first and foremost, on equality and friendship. And it was firmly rooted in the fact that each, as a ‘whole’ person, enjoyed a healthy self-respect.
Marriage is not about two halves making a whole. You have to be a whole person yourself, to begin with, in order to attract someone else – and maintain a relationship with them. Nor is it a question of what marriage can do for you. Rather, it’s: What do I have to offer my partner?
Begin a discussion. Have you known a bad marriage where one partner's expectations of the other exceeded reality? Or perhaps it's worked for you? Let us know so we can all benefit from your experience.
ALL PROCEEDS FROM MEL'S NOVEL, A Painful Post Mortem
Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.
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