I've been thinking a lot about what it means to say that a marriage failed. When I told someone awhile back that I was divorced after 25 years of marriage, she said, "Wow, it's terrible that your marriage failed after 25 years." I wasn't sure what to say to that. I never felt like my marriage was a failure. Then I ran across an old news story. It seems that a 99-year old man was divorcing his 96-year old wife after learning about the affair she had early in their marriage of 77 years (she never should have saved those damn love letters.)
When my husband and I broke up, two friends of mine told me about the views of marriage in two other cultures. One friend had studied eastern religions for many years. He said that we join with another person to fill a void in our lives. Eventually that void is filled or no longer exists or matters. Perhaps that partner has recognized a different void and different needs and is ready to move on. Rarely do that partners reach that place at the same time. Hence the heartache. Even when they do, our society is so judgmental and has added such baggage, that it's difficult for many couples to split even when it's what they both want and need.
My Native American friend tells me that in his culture, marriage is thought of as a path. Everyone walks his own path. Sometimes that path converges with the path of another, and the two travel together for a time. Sometimes, more than two paths converge. Some paths are parallel until one partner passes on, but often they diverge, go their own way until they meet up with yet another traveler. This is a way of life, expected, acknowledged. There are often feelings of grief and adjustments to be made, but there is no expectation ever that the travelers are meant to be together always.
These words were very comforting to me. I had grown up Catholic, taught by my parents and the Church that I was destined to spend eternity with one man. I took that seriously. Actually, I think it is coded into my Catholic DNA. Even after I became a lawyer, and understood that marriage was as much a state-sanctioned contract as it was a spiritual or emotional commitment, I had a hard time accepting that people could just walk away. (The paradox of Church annulment was very confusing to me, too. If two people commit to each other in the sight of God, how can the Church divide what God has sanctioned?)
As I grew older and my faith in the Church and In divinity waned, and as I learned more about the fundamental biological nature of humans as non-monogamous creatures, divorce did not seem like such a disaster.
When my marriage came to an end, I was not ready for it. It came on quickly, at least as I saw it. At the time, it was not my choice. Later with a little perspective, I realized it was the best choice. But that does nothing to negate the 24.5 years of happiness and satisfaction I experienced. We made a life together, raised two terrific kids to successful adulthood. I have many happy memories. Does that sound like a failed marriage? No to me.
So, if a couple is married for 5 months before they split up, is that marriage a failure? What about 5 years? 15 years? 25 years? 77 years?