Recently, I talked to an 84 year old lady who has written over twenty plays. I was interviewing her for an article I’m writing for the Central Highlands Arts Atlas. I asked her what her highlight was – and I meant in her theatre-making career – but she told me that meeting her husband, at age 17, at a dance at the Heidelberg Town Hall was the highlight of her life.
We spent most of the time chatting about her late husband, whom she was married to for 62 years.
It made me wonder what I’d done wrong to only last 11 years in my most significant relationship, and only a measly 6 months in my most recent.
Or what, in fact, had I done right.
She described it as having half of herself being ripped apart. Married at 19, she had never had another partner. And so, of course, her thoughts and behaviors had been molded by living with another person intimately for such a long time. Who was she, but in relation to this man? Her identity was so tangled up with another person that it was inconceivable to live without him, a reality she now faces. Both of my grandmothers had a similar experience, losing husbands in their 60s and spending another 20 plus years as a widow. My mum and Dad married at 21, and are still together 30 something years later.
So what of me and others like me? Has our societal view on long-term monogamous relationships shifted that much, so that we no longer value the concept of “the one” and forever-afters? I can’t quite believe that, as our media is still saturated with hetero-normative nuclear families. And I strove for that norm too. While I certainly rejected the white wedding as my ultimate goal in life, my familial example taught me that a successful life is one of companionship with the same person until death do us part. And indeed, even after that (as neither of my grandmothers had other partners).
I’ve been reading and reflecting lately on the Buddhist principle of impermanence. The only thing we can guarantee is that everything changes. (I recommend Meshel Laurie’s Buddhism for… books, they are really accessible). I am always changing, and being more mindful of it means that it is increasingly difficult for me to buy into the growing-old-together mindset. Because when we grow old, we’ll also grow out, up, about and around and inevitably something, somewhere, will no longer fit together. The dominant narrative tells us to communicate and compromise. To fight for a relationship because it is inherently valuable. The past evidence of our parents and grandparents sticking it out is proof that a life-long relationship is worth it. But no-one wants to live within a situation of conflict. And that’s what fighting to make a relationship is asking you to do.
But would more of these long-haul marriages have crumbled if there was more acceptance of the idea of leaving? If it were more socially acceptable to actually be apart when you’ve grown apart? I mean, why pour energy into something that’s no longer fit for purpose? If it were a fridge that no longer kept your food cool, you would replace it without a second thought about how long you’d had the fridge or how deliciously cool your drinks used to be. At risk of exhausting this metaphor, its much better to re-purpose your fridge into something new and useful, and that brings you joy. I know my relationship with my ex-husband has morphed into a partnership that is based on mutual care for our children and support of each other as parents. It’s better, because we’ve embraced the change that needed to happen and abandoned the idea of the intimate monogamous relationship as the core value in our lives.
Breaking up is hard to do, but what would have been much harder was to fight for a relationship that wasn’t working for me. In fact, my most recent relationship was actually making me sick in a bodily manifestation of my inner turmoil over locking myself into another happily-ever-after (see my recent blog post about my struggle with anxiety). But that ideal was not my own, but one I thought I needed to strive for at the expense of my own health. I know that the anxiety I experienced was caused directly by ignoring my own instincts in pursuit of someone else’s idea of happiness, because the anxiety evaporated immediately after the break-up. I guess I just wanted something for myself that seems to work for everyone else – on TV, your own parents, and a little old lady from Creswick.