Is it selfish to seek happiness, 40 years later?

“Marriage is a life-long commitment, particularly a marriage attended by religious vows [. . .]”

—Franco P. Tarulli, Williamswood, NS
Letter to the Editor, The Globe and Mail, 3 June

And it starts: The backlash against those—in this case, Al and Tipper Gore—who would want to end a marriage, for even admirable reasons. The praise for religion-backed marriage. The critique against the Baby Boomer generation, chalking everything that they do, up to “selfishness”. This letter was in response to an essay in The Globe and Mail giving the Gores a pat on the back for doing “the right thing” in splitting up, and seeking out their individual happiness—a happiness that was no longer possible within the context of a 40-year-long marriage. I usually do not enjoy Sarah Hampson’s writings (especially since the essay in which she seemed to mock people who would eat steel-cut oats as, in her eyes, an attempt to show how wonderfully satisfied they are in life.) On this one, however, I agree wholeheartedly with her and others who would say to the Gores, “Good for you.”

When a person marries, to whom should s/he feel the duty of happiness, if not to him/herself? To the spouse, many would say. But no, I don’t agree that it is wise to live your whole life for someone else, if deep down, you’re unhappy in some way. To the children perhaps, even if it means that they must live through the pretense that their parents are satisfied with each other? To parents and friends, who have an expectation that because they saw you both in love and happy once, that you should stay so for the rest of your life? Maybe to the wedding guests who had arrived with a gift of towels or a coffeemaker, and taken a few hours out of one day of their life, and expect you to stay together happily ever after? To the church, then?

Happily ever after can’t exist for everybody, whether they’re solid-American-values power couples, or just ordinary Joes and Janes. Yes, there are the rare marriages that stay rock-solid for many decades, through self-sacrifice, compromise, and a number of other wonderful virtues on the part of both partners. But then there are marriages that, despite all of that, do sour, break up, or just plain stale. It’s not wrong, in my opinion, to end those marriages, if it truly will make either one of you, or perhaps both, happier. And there’s certainly no time limit on when it’s acceptable to end a marriage.

When a couple is unhappy but has a chance to correct it, why not? And if not now, when? Should they wait until at least one of them is weeks away from dying of cancer, like Dennis Hopper? Or wait well into their 80s, like the woman who made the realisation after transplant surgery? To wait until the end of your life, or until some kind of milestone, is more damaging to everyone involved than to get out while you’re both relatively happy with each other. Al and Tipper had a chance to find happiness, even if it’s a separate happiness. That is not selfish, whether or not they are Baby Boomers. That is an honest and loving decision.

. . .

I leave this post with a quote from the most insightful commentary that I’ve seen all week on this subject, from this Feministing blog entry. Miriam Zoila Pérez puts its better than anyone else that I’ve read, and sums up exactly what I’d want to say, and which I wish most of us could have the courage to see:

The other question, which is one that I often ask about our narrative about relationships, is why does it have to be framed as a failure when a marriage ends? The questions about what went wrong display this narrative perfectly. I hate how we shape relationships around the premise that if two people don’t go to the grave together, it was a failure. How can forty years of loving companionship be a failure? Or even two years of it?

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