'Purity certificates' may be extreme, but the concept isn't too far from mainstream society's obsession with women's sexual histories. Photo: Javier Marquez / Stocksy
What a strange world we live in, where the moment you end a marriage you become divorced and all the stigma attached to that, but when you end a long-term cohabiting relationship, even one of the same duration and hope, you simply become single. Of course, the formality of divorce has its advantages.
For ease of understanding, I use 'divorced' regularly to describe my status, though I was never married. But what other words do you use to convey a relationship you thought would be a lifetime and wasn't? Until we had children, he and I lacked both the terminology and the ceremony to explain the significance of our relationship to others. Now, without marriage, the transition from inside to outside the relationship has similarly lacked terminology and ceremony, and is apparently so capricious as to require two witness statements to prove it. This is something I discovered recently when updating my tax information. By now, the presence of children is more a confounding variable.
The unstitching is frustrating at times. Even if I know which stitches to unpick for me, without the pattern of marriage and divorce others seem to have difficulty following. And when I turn the fabric over, I find the thread is bunching and looping in ways I hadn't expected. ("Are you still going to call yourself a single parent if we move in together?").
Reading this article in The New York Times, 'The Wedding Toast I'll Never Give', I was initially warmed by its affectionate homage to marriage and the importance of "loving someone through the irritating". The loving is useful advice, because I've learned in long-term relationships you eventually find a great deal of the 'irritating' isn't in fact theirs, but yours.
However, as the New York Times piece progressed, it soured for me. When the tender embrace of marriage was contrasted against the supposedly tawdry desperation of Tinder, I wondered about this defensiveness in celebrating marriage. Why was the "back when divorce wasn't so easy" sentiment necessary, when apparently the effort and goodwill of commitment was the point?
As someone who didn't make it last, I find it increasingly odd that a marriage can be celebrated simply for enduring. That its value is not measured by the degree to which both feel connected to one another and whole in themselves, but in the commitment to, simply, not move. That the failure is divorce and not inertia.
Because, what about the commitment to get the hell out of there?
Say, you're both working in a country where the laws are a very dangerous thing if your husband should develop mental illness. If, say, he has become psychotic and you now lie awake thinking this is the night when he kills me. Thinking, this is not the country for a man to become paranoid and imagine infidelity. Thinking, a woman could find herself separated from her children, deported, jailed or worse in a country like this. What do you do?
You get the children and run, past compounds, airports and borders, with secretly written notes to yourself on what to pack and who to call, and your lies to the little ones about a surprise holiday. Don't you? You promise yourself that much. And to follow through with divorce, just as soon as your feet touch the ground again. As my friend did.
These days she is married to a new man and in love again, but the trauma of that first marriage endures. There's some reassurance in that for the "back when divorce wasn't so easy" brigade. Some things do, in fact, last. But I wonder, after all this, has she kept a vow of another kind to her first husband?
What if we thought of the promise to be with someone as also being the promise to not ever be destroyed by it? It probably won't be intentional, this destruction, and it's something different to the dips and peaks of relationships over time. But if this person you are with should ever really lose the way? Are you not pledging to protect this thing they loved to begin with? Even if that means ending the relationship? In sickness and health, but not in destruction.
Another friend of mine, happily married, told me recently you don't love someone until you have accepted two things.
Firstly, the love you begin will one day end, either by death or disillusion and when it does, it will hurt. You must surrender to that, knowing it is coming.
Secondly, you accept that you will survive it. There will still be you, at the end. With the first love, you can't imagine being without them. But the next time around, you know it is possible. If you can live with those two things, difficult as they are, then you can fully love this new person. No wonder it is called falling in love.
If these are the preconditions for love, then might re-partnering have an advantage here? After all, this is love built on the commitment to start again, a kind of faith in self. It comes from the part of you that now appreciates what a risk it is to fall in love. You know it isn't just about devotion, tolerance, that this bond, there's a role for chance in here, too. This thing is very big and you are very small. You know all that, the pain is vivid and real for you, and you fall anyway.
And if, say, you want to get married again, what then are the vows you make when you now know you can't actually promise to love forever? I don't know, but I'm thinking they're perhaps the most romantic vows of all. This is the commitment you make, finally present.