Thursday, April 05, 2007

Isn’t There Something Wrong With the Triply Wed?

The New York Times has a long story by Mireya Navarro that has been causing a stir among marriage supporters. “A Double Standard for the Triply Wed” asks two important questions. The first is the question in the title: are women who have been married three times or more judged more harshly than men in a similar circumstance – the current Mrs. Giuliani, for example, compared to her husband, presidential candidate Rudy.

This is a fair question. I think women usually are judged more harshly for their sexual history than men are. I disagree with this double standard. If anything, I think that men should be judged more harshly for cutting and running as a way of life, because they still have more options afterwards than the women they leave behind. This question is not so hard, really. There are few public defenders of the sexual double standard now.

The second question raised by this article, though, is of a different order. Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce and cited as a divorce expert in the article, says that the multiply-married face the judgment that “’Something must be wrong with you.”’ We haven’t gotten over that for second and third marriages.” It is not so surprising that Ahrons, who decided not to remarry after her second divorce but just cohabit with whatever partner she might have, would oppose judgment. Indeed, I think half the reason that the sexual double standard has few defenders today is not so much because the double standard is unjust, but because many people are afraid to voice a judgment at all.

Avoiding judgment is impossible and self-contradictory. Claiming that we ought to avoid judging is a judgment. Being against judgment is, I think, more of a tactic to avoid thinking a problem through than it is a compassionate response to the people with the problem.

I think people who have married, divorced, and remarried several times do have a problem. The thrice-wed make up only about 3 percent of the population, so it is not a huge problem. And that 3 percent includes remarried widows and widowers – not the same issue morally at all.

In any given case there may be a series of good reasons explaining multiple remarriages. As a group, though, I think it is reasonable to suspect that, yes, there is something wrong with the triply-wed. The main thing that I think is likely to be wrong is that they have the wrong idea of what marriage is. We should help them, and help everyone better understand what marriage is. Helping requires judgment.


VP said...

I was once asked to be part of the a marriage that was a 4th wedding for the groom - the party I knew - and at least a second for the bride, whom I didn't know. It was hard to rev up any enthusiasm for this, especially as he had been the one to depart from 3rd marriage (and I think the first two). It was not so much a matter of not knowing what marriage meant as not having the self-management and relationship skills to carry out the role he professed to want.

My grandparents generation had a skill set that included how to rekindle relationship on purpose when stress or neglect had cooled it; how to so value the life of the family as to make them genuinely happy to keep people together; how to argue and then repair the relationship, and most of all a gut sense that being married was a choice one makes day after day, and lives out in actions and gestures.

Even in my parents' generation (in their 80s )these skills were being lost; many in my generation took a consumer approach to marriage: buy what you like and when you are ready to redecorate, discard it and get another one. My particular group - the kind who went to liberal elite colleges - became suspicious of marriage at all (just a trap of the establishment) before we undertook it.

All told, we frittered the inheritance of those relationship skills that held marriages together, and it's taking a raft of academics to uncover them again. It may take a miracle for large numbers of people to want to practice them.

Is there something wrong with the thrice-wed? Yes, but they may be not so much abnormal as harbingers.

amba said...

One of my sisters is about to get married for the third time. Crudely put, her first marriage was to have children, her second marriage was to raise the children, and her third marriage is for loving companionship for the rest of her life.

She is a warm, emotional, sensuous person who grew up the odd number in a close but somewhat intellectual and emotionally inhibited family. Her first two husbands were bright and decent but emotionally and physically cool. She was still trying to win over a father she felt disapproved of the way she was. (It's all perceptions, of course. Our parents have survived to a ripe old age and we've all gotten over all of this long ago. All the love is out in the open.) At her first divorce, her two kids were, I believe, 8 and 3. The eight-year-old was hit especially hard. Her second husband was a marvelous front-line father to her kids, as she fully acknowledges -- and they had one more child -- but she was left hungry.

Her second marriage blew up after her two oldest kids had left home, over an affair she had with her high school sweetheart (who brought it all out into the open when she tried to end it). The affair ended before the marriage, resumed for a while several years later after the HSS had done time in AA, but it was the reverse of the other two: physically and emotionally warm but limited above the eyebrows. The man she is about to marry began as a friend at work. He is loving and affectionate and they are equals with many common interests.

I'm not really trying to make a point, except that life is messier than our theories about it. My sister got married the first time because she thought she should get married and thought she had found a suitable man, who wanted her. She probably should not have married that man (a perfectly good man, just chosen for his fit to what would reproduce her childhood unhappiness) at that time, with that lack of self-understanding, but then two cool people whom we now can't do without would not exist. Should she then have stayed married to him, and tried to get him to learn and change with her? Maybe. Would her kids have been better off? As it is, they suffered through the divorce, but they were raised by a more involved and down-to-earth, less dreamy and intellectual father. Who, having raised an older daughter as a single father before he met my sister, himself bought a fast car and had his own long-deferred "adolescence" after their divorce.

Whew. We call her our soap opera.

If only we all knew ourselves and were clear with ourselves when we were young, so that we didn't make the most difficult commitments for the most neurotic reasons. I think pre-marriage counseling and education could be very important.

Gruntled said...

None of which would seem to contradict my conclusion. The search for one's "soul mate" through many marriages rarely works out well, and in the meantime the kids are whipsawed by all the divorces.