On Divorce

The Wedding Vow: The Promise it's Okay to Break

Minimizing MarriageIt’s considered bad form to break a promise. We regard those who don’t keep their promises as untrustworthy. If you make a commitment to someone, you’re expected to keep it.

One of the most serious promises that you can make is a wedding vow. Traditionally, this is a promise to stay with someone, for better or for worse, through good times and bad, until death. Indeed, we call it a “vow”, rather than a mere “promise”, to underscore just what a solemn commitment this is. Few promises are weightier.

It’s ironic, then, that a spouse who unilaterally decides to break it will generally face little condemnation.

Few would criticise the unilateral termination of such a vow in cases of abuse, whether physical or mental. But our society sets the bar much lower. If one partner is unhappy, perhaps for no reason more serious than because she no longer enjoys the same leisure activities as her partner, many people consider that sufficient grounds for termination. Even if the leaver made little effort to save their marriage, even if there are children involved, few will condemn someone who ends a marriage unilaterally. It is enough that they are unhappy. The vow seemingly counts for nothing.

This contradiction is explored by Elizabeth Brake in Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality, and the Law. She starts by summarising the problem:

“Although many people see marriage as a serious undertaking, divorce—when “irreconcilable differences” threaten one or both spouses’ happiness—is not widely seen as a serious moral wrong. However, breaking a promise is widely seen as a serious moral wrong. This suggests an inconsistent triad:

  1. Wedding vows are promises.
  2. Promise-breaking is morally impermissible in the absence of morally overriding circumstances or release by the promisee.
  3. Unilateral divorce (an unreciprocated decision by one spouse to leave a marriage) is generally morally permissible.

If wedding vows are promises (1), then unilaterally willed divorces are acts of promise-breaking, which, according to (2), are prima facie morally impermissible. But as divorce is generally permissible (3), it cannot be an impermissible act of promise-breaking. How shall we resolve this?”

Brake considers several ways to reconcile these contradictory premises.

The first, what she calls the “hard-line” response, is to reject the third premise, and declare that unilateral divorce is almost always immoral. This view still permits it in some circumstances: where a more stringent moral duty overrides the promise (for example, a duty to protect oneself or one’s children in an abusive marriage); where there has been deception; or where one party has defaulted on an obligation (for example, not to engage in extra-marital sex). However, if none of these conditions apply, the hard-line response does not consider mere unhappiness sufficient reason.

The hard-line response argues that it is morally wrong to break wedding vows, but not that one should be legally compelled to keep them. What is legal and what is moral are not always the same. Moreover, marriage is a contract. Like other contractual arrangements, performance of contracted services cannot be compelled, and where one party no longer wishes to do so, there are typically terms under which the contract can be dissolved.

The second way to resolve the problem is to assert that the “morally overriding circumstances” described in the second premise are almost always present. Brake terms this the “hardship” response because it holds that the hardship of a failed marriage overrides any promise. Essentially, this response boils down to saying that unhappiness, whatever its cause, is sufficient grounds for divorce. However, Brake argues that the moral duty to prevent one’s own unhappiness is no stronger than the moral duty to uphold a promise, except in extreme cases. “Morality requires promise-keeping even at the cost of personal unhappiness,” says Brake.

The third solution is to argue that a promise is not binding if some assumption made by the promisor (in this case, the continuance of love) turns out to be false. Brake dismisses this. Promises based on risky assumptions may be reckless, but they do not excuse the promisor from discharging their obligations. Moreover, those who marry know that love does not last in many marriages, so it’s hard to argue that an assumption that it would continue in theirs is reasonable.

However, Brake contends that there is a fourth option: that wedding vows are not promises at all. She argues that this is because the spouses are promising something (the continuance of loving feelings) that is outside their control, and you can’t promise to do what you can’t do. Brake offers an analogy:

“If you visit me in Calgary, I might say, “I promise to show you Calgary’s historic downtown blues bar, the King Eddy, where some of my colleagues once took Elizabeth Anscombe,” only to find that developers have torn it down; in that case, I never promised you anything. I tried to promise, but didn’t succeed: I didn’t obligate myself to show you the bar because the act is impossible. My failure to perform is not wrong, nor is it promise-breaking.”

You might argue, however, that love is a verb, not a feeling, and that wedding vows are actually a promise to behave lovingly, something that is under our control. Brake disagrees:

“Since the “love revolution,” the Western understanding of marriage involves a crucial emotional component. Spouses may explicitly promise specific acts like sexual fidelity or cohabitation. But surely most do not intend to promise, or be promised, mere behavior… While one can promise to perform love-sustaining acts, this is not a reasonable way to construe the promise people are trying to make when they marry… Conceptually, promising to perform an action requires an intention to promise to perform that action. I have not promised to undertake “love-sustaining acts” if it has never crossed my mind that this is what I am promising, and if I believe I am promising to love someone forever.”

In short, we could promise to behave lovingly, but we don’t. Instead, we recklessly and misleadingly try to promise that our loving feelings will last forever, without realising that this is impossible because we cannot command our feelings.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche had the same opinion. Writing in Café Philosophy, Skye Cleary describes his view:

“If romantic love is ephemeral, promising to love your partner forever is absurd and a lie, according to Nietzsche. Love that lasts a lifetime is the exception, not the rule. Love, like any other feeling, is not within the individual’s power. Nietzsche’s argument is as follows: love is a feeling; feelings are involuntary; and a promise cannot be made based on something that one has no control over.

What one can promise, however, are actions. In a loving relationship, one can promise actions that “are usually the consequences of love”. It would be much more appropriate to recognise this contingency and be honest about it. To avoid deception in wedding vows, Nietzsche recommends saying something along these lines:


Brake’s view is intriguing, essentially arguing that society’s tolerance for unilateral divorce is because it recognises that wedding vows are not promises. But her argument is so technical, that it’s hard to imagine it has ever crossed the mind of the average person. As Brake herself notes, those who marry believe they are promising to love forever, so they are likely to hold the same view of the promise made by someone who leaves their spouse. As such, you would expect them to judge their behaviour on that basis.

Instead, I believe the lack of condemnation for those who walk out of their marriages is explained by Brake’s “hardship” response. Because contemporary Western culture values personal happiness so highly, the unhappiness of a spouse is considered a “morally overriding circumstance”. Even if it might be possible to alleviate their unhappiness through some other means, if the disaffected partner believes that terminating the relationship is the quickest way to be happy again, most people will not judge them for that. Given Brake’s view that morality requires promise-keeping even at the expense of personal happiness, this suggests that, on this point at least, Western culture is immoral.

It seems to me that the fundamental problem is our assumption that marriage should make us happy. However, marriage was not designed to maximise happiness. As Stephanie Coontz notes in Marriage: A History, it came about as a way to extend co-operative relations beyond the immediate family and increase the family labour force. It spoke to the needs of the larger group, not the individual. By insisting that it satisfy our personal need for happiness too, we are asking it to do something for which it was not designed. It’s no wonder that so many marriages end in divorce, that so many that don’t are unhappy, and that marriage is universally considered to be hard work.

In the rest of her fascinating book, Brake goes on to consider how marriage might be reformed to better suit our needs today.

Krista Tippett on Love and Romance

BecomingWise“What is love? Answer the question through the story of your life,” asks Krista Tippett in Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living.

Tippett describes how her own views on love were shaped by her divorce, causing her to question the way that we elevate romantic love above other forms:

“When my marriage ended, I walked into a parallel universe that had been there all along; I became one of the modern multitudes of walking wounded in the wreckage of long-term love. Strangest of all, on this planet, is the way we continue to idealize romantic love and crave it for completion—to follow those love songs and those movies. After my divorce, I created a welcoming home and took great delight in my children. I cooked dinner for gatherings of friends old and new, invested in beautiful far-flung friendships, and drew vast sustenance from webs of care through the work I do. Yet I told myself, for years, that I had a hole in my life where “love” should be.

This is… a story that perceives scarcity in the midst of abundance. I have love in my life, many forms of loving. As I settled into singleness, I grew saner, kinder, more generous, more loving in untheatrical everyday ways. I can’t name the day when I suddenly realized that the lack of love in my life was not a reality but a poverty of imagination and a carelessly narrow use of an essential word.

And here is another, deeper carelessness, which I am absolving in a spirit of adventure: I come to understand that for most of my life, when I was looking for love, I was looking to be loved. In this, I am a prism of my world. I am a novice at love in all its fullness, a beginner.”

This lack of imagination, says Tippett, is endemic in our culture:

“Love is the superstar virtue of virtues, and the most watered down word in the English language. I love this weather. I love your dress. And what we’ve done with the word, we’ve done with this thing—this possibility, this essential bond, this act. We’ve made it private, contained it in family, when its audacity is in its potential to cross tribal lines. We’ve fetishized it as romance, when its true measure is a quality of sustained, practical care. We’ve lived it as a feeling, when it is a way of being…

The sliver of love’s potential that the Greeks separated out as eros is where we load so much of our desire, center so much of our imagination about delight and despair, define so much of our sense of completion. There is the love the Greeks called filia—the love of friendship. There is the love they called agape—love as embodied compassion, expressions of kindness that might be given to a neighbor or a stranger. The Metta of the root Buddhist Pali tongue, “lovingkindness,” carries the nuance of benevolent, active interest in others known and unknown, and its cultivation begins with compassion towards oneself.”

Tippett recounts a conversation with Eve Ensler, the American playwright best known for her play The Vagina Monologues, who came to a similar realisation about the nature of love after being diagnosed with cancer:

You wrote how, in that extreme moment, the loves that we tend to focus on—love with a capital L, the romantic love, the marriages, the lovers—didn’t really come through for you, didn’t feel very substantial. And yet you realized that did not amount to the equation we would often make—that you don’t have love in your life. You realized you were surrounded by love, that you were held by love, and that you’d had too small an imagination about that word, that thing.

Romantic love, absolutely. Our notion of love—it just seems a very unevolved and very unenlightened notion. That it’s this one person who you will meet.

The One.

The One. And, by the way, I’ve yet to meet anybody who has that experience in that way. Yes, there are people who have good marriages that have lasted long. But I don’t think you will talk to anybody who will tell you this is the panacea and this is the only person whom I’ve ever loved who fulfilled me. Of course not. And I feel so excited now in my life, now that my notion of love has been dispelled, that old notion. Though it still haunts you and lingers. How do we get rid of so much of that stuff? It’s in your cells. You just gotta keep purging. But since I recovered from cancer, I feel so joyful. To be sitting here occupying this space with you. This summer, I had my friends and we were in Italy and we were dancing and we were swimming and we were talking and we were having amazing evenings. And every moment of that was so dear to me and precious. We find our fulfillment where we choose to find our fulfillment. And if you’re told you can only find it here and you don’t look at where it is, which is your life, you keep thinking it’s coming. Oh, it’ll be here one day. I’ll get the big love. Well, you have the big love. It’s already here.

You talk about “the daily, subtle simple gathering of kindnesses.” It was that love you felt. It was also the love you felt from women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who were praying for you.

Absolutely. I had one of those bad nights where I was thinking about all my past lovers and husbands and the failure of love in my life, with a capital L. I just didn’t get it, and my own intimacy issues, and blah, blah, blah, blah. And then I suddenly realized, okay, how many beautiful people had shown up for me? Marie Cecil, who was cooking me eggs at five in the morning to settle my stomach when I was in chemo. Or my granddaughter, who packed my bags when I went to see my mother for the last time. Or my sister who was there every minute on the couch with me, putting washcloths on my forehead. And it was just this moment of, “Oh, my God, my life is so rich.” There is the love. The paradise is here. Paradise is right in front of us. In capitalism what is engineered is longing, engineered longing and desire in us for what can be in the future. It’s always about the next product, the next big thing…

Come on. What if we actually were content with our lives? What if we actually knew this was paradise?”

“To walk through the world practicing love across relationships and encounters feels like a great frontier,” says Tippett, who goes on to suggest how we might do this.

Cheryl Strayed on Divorce

TinyBeautifulThingsMost people regard divorce as an apocalyptic event. Even though marriage is more optional than it has ever been, it is still valued so highly by our culture that it's hard not to interpret its premature end as a crushing personal failure.

In Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Cheryl Strayed takes a gentler view. Echoing Marcus Aurelius' knack for seeing things as they really are ("Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig."), she offers some advice to her younger self when she was considering leaving her first husband:

"You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all."

If you were the one who was left, the desire to understand why can be overwhelming. But even the one who left may not know. Strayed recounts the end of her own first marriage:

"I was married to a good man whom I both loved and wanted to leave.

I still can’t entirely explain why I needed to leave my ex. I was tortured by this very question for years because I felt like such an ass for breaking his heart and I was so shattered I’d broken my own.

I didn’t want to stay with my ex-husband, not at my core, even though whole swaths of me did. And if there’s one thing I believe more than I believe anything else, it’s that you can’t fake the core. The truth that lives there will eventually win out."

As she tells one letter-writer, however, even though you may not understand why your marriage ended, that doesn't mean you can't learn from it:

"I encourage you to do more than throw up your hands in your examination of “whose fault” it was that your twenty-year marriage fell apart. It was no one’s fault, darling, but it’s still all on you. It would behoove you to reflect upon what went right in that relationship and what went wrong; to contemplate how you might carry forth the former in your current and/or future relationships and quash the latter."

Perhaps one of the most difficult things to do when going through a divorce is to try to keep a sense of perspective. And yet divorce is not without its upsides:

"The end of your relationship with him will likely also mark the end of an era of your life. In moving into this next era there are going to be things you lose and things you gain."

Being left by someone who doesn't love you any more may even be a good thing:

"He deserved the love of a woman who didn’t have the word go whispering like a deranged ghost in her ear. To leave him was a kindness of a sort, though it didn’t seem that way at the time."

Marriage creates an expectation that you and your partner will stay together for the rest of your lives. Set aside that expectation and suddenly divorce seems less fearsome.

"We live and have experiences and leave people we love and get left by them. People we thought would be with us forever aren’t and people we didn’t know would come into our lives do. Our work here is to keep faith with that."

Planet My Baby Died

TinyBeautifulThingsWhen my marriage broke up, I was fortunate to be able to lean on several people for support. Some were old friends, who I'd known since my school days. One was just an acquaintance, yet became - unexpectedly, humblingly - one of my greatest allies. But what shocked me was how many other supposed friends, and even family members, offered little or no support at all. 

Some offered a few sympathetic words the first time they saw me, but then I never heard from them again. Some avoided me. Many pretended as if nothing had happened. A year later, while I was still struggling to deal with my pain, even some of the more supportive ones were suggesting it was time I moved on. 

"Oh these little rejections, how they add up quickly," as Alanis Morissette once sang. I never understood the way these people behaved until I read some advice given by Cheryl Strayed to a woman who had miscarried eighteen months previously and was still struggling to deal with her grief. In Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, Strayed writes:

"Don’t listen to those people who suggest you should be “over” your daughter’s death by now. The people who squawk the loudest about such things have almost never had to get over anything. Or at least not anything that was genuinely, mind-fuckingly, soul-crushingly life altering. Some of those people believe they’re being helpful by minimizing your pain. Others are scared of the intensity of your loss and so they use their words to push your grief away. Many of those people love you and are worthy of your love, but they are not the people who will be helpful to you when it comes to healing the pain of your daughter’s death.

They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died."

Stephanie Coontz on the Changing Role of Marriage

MarriageAHistoryMarriage has existed for around five thousand years. But as Stephanie Coontz observes in the fascinating Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, the idea that love should be the main reason for getting married has only been around for the last two hundred. Coontz presents compelling evidence of how this shift has rendered marriage more optional, fragile and risky than ever before, and illustrates the extent to which our ideas about love and marriage are determined by when and where we are born.

"For thousands of years, marriage served so many economic, political, and social functions that the individual needs and wishes of its members (especially women and children) took second place. Marriage was not about bringing two individuals together for love and intimacy, although that was sometimes a welcome side effect. Rather, the aim of marriage was to acquire useful in-laws and gain political or economic advantage. Only in the last two hundred years, as other economic and political institutions began to take over many of the roles once played by marriage, did Europeans and Americans begin to see marriage as a personal and private relationship that should fulfill their emotional and sexual desires. Once that happened, free choice became the societal norm for mate selection, love became the main reason for marriage, and a successful marriage came to be defined as one that met the needs of its members."

Different perspectives

There are similarities between the institutions classified as marriages throughout history, but coming up with a common definition is difficult.

"Marriage usually determines rights and obligations connected to sexuality, gender roles, relationships with in-laws, and the legitimacy of children. It also gives the participants specific rights and roles within the larger society. It usually defines the mutual duties of husband and wife and often the duties of their respective families toward each other, and it makes those duties enforceable. It also allows the property and status of the couple or the household head to be passed down to the next generation in an orderly manner.

But marriage does not serve all these functions in any one society. Moreover, almost every single function that marriage fulfills in one society has been filled by some mechanism other than marriage in another."

Coontz provides numerous examples to illustrate how our current ideas about love and marriage, far from being timeless and universal, are specific to our culture and age. 

“In the Chinese language the term love did not traditionally apply to feelings between husband and wife. It was used to describe an illicit, socially disapproved relationship. In the 1920s a group of intellectuals invented a new word for love between spouses because they thought such a radical new idea required its own special label.”

Adultery was sometimes considered a good thing.

“In Europe, during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, adultery became idealized as the highest form of love among the aristocracy. According to the Countess of Champagne, it was impossible for true love to “exert its powers between two people who are married to each other.””

In some societies today, too much love is considered a bad thing.

“In many peasant and working-class communities, too much love between husband and wife is seen as disruptive because it encourages the couple to withdraw from the wider web of dependence that makes the society work.”

Coontz provides some fascinating examples of how other cultures have regarded same-sex relationships.

“In many Native American groups, for example, the rare person who chose to do the work of the other gender could marry someone who shared the same biological sex but played the opposite role in the division of labor. A man doing “woman’s work” could marry a man doing “man’s work,” and a woman doing “man’s work” could marry a woman doing “woman’s work.”

These social gender roles completely overshadowed the actual biological sex of the partners. As a result, sexual relations between two people of the same sex, when one had chosen man’s work and the other woman’s work, would not have been considered homosexual, had an equivalent of that label even existed. But eyebrows would certainly have been raised at the idea of a man and a woman living together if both were playing the same work and gender roles.”

The ancient Greeks valued some homosexual relationships above heterosexual ones:

“The Greek model for true love was not the relationship between husband and wife. The truest love was held to exist in the association of an adult man with a much younger male.”

In Victorian England, despite general condemnation of actual homosexual acts, intense same-sex friendships were considered unremarkable:

“People did not pick up the sexual connotations that often make even the most innocent expression of affection seem sexual to our sensibilities today. Perfectly respectable nineteenth-century women wrote to each other in terms like these: “[T]he expectation once more to see your face again, makes me feel hot and feverish.” They carved their initials into trees, set flowers in front of one another’s portraits, danced together, kissed, held hands, and endured intense jealousies over rivals or small slights.

Only at the end of the nineteenth century did physical expressions of affection between men begin to be interpreted as “homosexual,” and only in the early 1900s did ardent woman-to-woman bonds start to seem deviant.”

Coontz also reminds us that marriage is not a fundamentally religious institution. Not only does it pre-date the Christian church by several thousand years, “for the first eight centuries of its existence, the church itself showed little concern about what made for a valid marriage or divorce among the lower classes of society”.

The rise of the love match

When the idea of marrying for love started to emerge in the late eighteenth century, there were several factors that still acted to stabilise the institution. There was a belief that there were large, innate differences between men and women, and that marriage enabled them to gain the benefit of each other's unique abilities. There was no reliable contraception, so sex and child-bearing were still closely linked. There were penalties for illegitimacy. There were strong social controls on people's personal behaviour and penalties for non-conformity. Divorce was not readily available. Women were legally and economically dependent on men and men were domestically dependent on women.

One by one, these restraining factors fell away. Reliable contraception had a huge impact:

“The pill gave unmarried women a degree of sexual freedom that the sex radicals of the 1920s could only have dreamed of. But when a large number of married couples stopped having children, it also radically changed marriage itself. Not only did effective contraception allow wives to commit more of their lives to work, but it altered the relationship between husbands and wives. Without a constant round of small children competing for their attention, many couples were forced to reexamine their own relationships more carefully. In addition, the growing number of childless marriages weakened the connection between marriage and parenthood, eroding some of the traditional justifications for elevating marriage over all other relationships and limiting it to heterosexual couples.”

Improvements in healthcare and nutrition resulted in people living longer, and therefore being married longer.

“In England in 1711 the median age at death for men was thirty-two. By 1831 it had risen to forty-four. By 1861 it had reached forty-nine, and by the end of the century the median age of death was in the high fifties. “The average duration of marriage,” estimates historian Roderick Phillips, “increased from about fifteen to twenty years in preindustrial Europe to about thirty-five years in 1900.””

The erosion of the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy in the 1960s and 1970s, while reversing an ancient inequity, also stripped marriage of one of its traditional functions.

In parallel with these changes came a rise in individualism, in the belief that everyone is entitled to personal happiness and satisfaction. Marriage became freighted with increasingly high expectations: that it should provide sexual satisfaction, emotional intimacy, self-fulfilment, a sense of meaning and a source of fun. Married couples should be best friends and put each other above all other relationships. Each should provide the other with everything they need. Such a package of expectations, notes Coontz, is historically extremely rare.

As love became the main reason to marry, loveless marriages started to be seen as a problem. The idea that women might have to enter such a marriage just to survive economically was seen as unacceptable, and spurred demands for women’s rights. The risk of being trapped in a loveless marriage, if love and intimacy disappeared, prompted calls to make divorce easier. 

“Evidence of a slippery slope leading directly from the celebration of free choice to the destruction of family life was provided by the mounting demands to liberalize divorce laws. In the mid-seventeenth century, the poet John Milton had already argued that incompatibility should be reason enough to declare a marriage contract broken. His view found little support in the seventeenth century but gained much broader backing in the eighteenth. By the end of the eighteenth century Sweden, Prussia, France, and Denmark had legalized divorce on the grounds of incompatibility…

The strongest opponents of divorce in the nineteenth century were traditionalists who disliked the exaltation of married love. They feared that making married love the center of people’s emotional lives would raise divorce rates, and they turned out to be right...

In 1891 a Cornell University professor made the preposterous prediction that if trends in the second half of the nineteenth century continued, by 1980 more marriages would end by divorce than by death. As it turned out, he was off by only ten years!”

Today, 43% of all first marriages in America end in divorce within fifteen years.

All these changes came to a head at the end of the twentieth century:

“In less than twenty years, the whole legal, political, and economic context of marriage was transformed. By the end of the 1970s women had access to legal rights, education, birth control, and decent jobs. Suddenly divorce was easy to get. At the same time, traditional family arrangements became more difficult to sustain in the new economy. And new sexual mores, growing tolerance for out-of-wedlock births, and rising aspirations for self-fulfillment changed the cultural milieu in which people made decisions about their personal relationships. During the 1980s and 1990s, all these changes came together to irrevocably transform the role of marriage in society at large and in people’s personal lives.”

Coontz does not argue that these changes are bad. “When a modern marriage is stable, it is so in a more appealing way than in the past,” she says. Her point is that marriage is no longer necessary:

“Marriage used to be… the gateway to adulthood and respectability and the best way for people to maximize their resources and pool labor. This is no longer the case. Marriage still allows two people to merge resources, divide tasks, and accumulate more capital than they could as singles. But it is not the only way they can invest in their future. In fact, it’s a riskier investment than it was in the past. The potential gains of getting married need to be weighed against the possibilities offered by staying single to pursue higher education or follow a better job. And the greater likelihood of eventual divorce reinforces the appeal of leaving your options open while investing in your own personal skills and experience.”

Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage is a fascinating read in its entirety.

Cheryl Strayed on Forgiveness

TinyBeautifulThings"Forgiveness," wrote David Whyte, "is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life." It's also one of the hardest skills to acquire, as Cheryl Strayed acknowledges in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, a collection of the unconventional, moving, no-nonsense advice columns she wrote for the online literary magazine The Rumpus.

The most important thing is not to try to rush it. "Being friends with someone who once broke your heart is fine and dandy," she writes in response to one letter-writer, "but it’s almost always a good idea to take a breather between this and that."

Instead, she proposes a more modest initial goal:

"You asked for help with forgiveness, but I don’t think that’s what you need to reach for just yet. You know how alcoholics who go to AA are always using that phrase “one day at a time”? They say that because to say “I will never drink again” is just too damn much. It’s big and hard and bound to fail. This is how forgiveness feels for you at this moment, no doubt. It’s the reason you can’t do it. I suggest you forget about forgiveness for now and strive for acceptance instead...

Your life has been profoundly shaken by these recent revelations. It’s not your task to immediately forgive those who shook you. Your spoken desire to forgive the woman who betrayed you is in opposition to what you feel. Forgiveness forces an impossible internal face-off between you and a woman you hate.

Acceptance asks only that you embrace what’s true."

Others have eloquently expressed the futility of holding on to past wrongs ("Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies," said Nelson Mandela), but Strayed expertly defines what is and is not required for forgiveness itself:

"Forgiveness means you’ve found a way forward that acknowledges harm done and hurt caused without letting either your anger or your pain rule your life or define your relationship with the one who did you wrong."

Forgiveness, then, is a gift to ourselves, not to the one who wounded us. It doesn't require that we forget or condone what was done to us. It only requires us to decide that we will no longer allow that hurt to shape our future.

Why Good Women Leave Good Men

It's tempting to believe that a marriage only fails when something goes spectacularly wrong. Drug abuse. Alcohol abuse. Verbal abuse. Physical abuse. Cheating. That it requires one or both partners to be significantly defective in some way. Even if a marriage could be blown towards the rocks by less cataclysmic events, we reassure ourselves that we would have sufficient warning to correct course before it foundered.

It's sobering to learn that neither of these things is true. We may see ourselves as a good person, we may try our hardest, we may think that our marriage is healthy. Yet one day, without warning, our partner may leave us anyway.

When this happens, understanding what went wrong may be extremely difficult. Even if we ask our partner why she is leaving, the reasons she gives us may be little more than post hoc justifications of a decision she has already made, not the fundamental reasons that caused her to make it. If she feels guilt or doubt over her decision to walk out, if she dare not admit the true reasons to herself, or herself does not fully understand them, those rationalisations may be essential to allow her to preserve her self-respect. But in an attempt to learn the truth, they may be largely useless.

For the one who has been left, the realisation that they may never understand what went wrong can be as devastating as the loss of the relationship itself. In the absence of a plausible explanation, the tidal forces of cognitive dissonance may threaten to pull them apart. They may feel as if they did nothing to warrant such a betrayal, that they are a fundamentally a good person, yet find it impossible to avoid the conclusion that, having been abandoned, they must be in some way defective. They may instinctively judge the one who left as having acted callously, unforgivably, yet struggle to reconcile this with the kind, thoughtful woman walking out the door, still loved by her friends.

However, while the specifics may remain elusive, there are general templates that may fit such an apparently inexplicable ending.

Perhaps it was a gradual accretion of resentment due to an inability to communicate:

"I have a friend who is going through a divorce right now and “we fell out of love” is her explanation... In this particular relationship, nothing really bad happened. My guess is just that the two of them got on a bad path of non-communication and instead of talking things through, one or both harbored resentment for years. When one of them started talking divorce, they probably went to marriage counseling, but at that point it was just too late. There could have been years when one or both felt lonely and sad and that their marital situation was hopeless."

Perhaps it was a lack of presence:

"Women leave because their man is not present. He’s working, golfing, gaming, watching TV, fishing… the list is long. These aren’t bad men. They’re good men. They’re good fathers. They support their family. They’re nice, likeable. But they take their wife for granted. They’re not present."

Or perhaps it was a lack of passion:

"She wants to feel your passion. Can you feel your passion? Can you show her? Not just your passion for her or for sex; your passion for being alive. Do you have it? It’s the most attractive thing you possess. If you’ve lost it, why? Where did it go? Find out. Find it. If you never discovered it you are living on borrowed time."

However unfathomable it may be, a reason still exists. No-one walks out on a whim.

Our desire for understanding may be driven by a need for closure, or a fear that, without it, our next relationship may founder on the same rocks. But closure is elusive and the circumstances that doomed one relationship are unlikely to play out in exactly the same way in another. Perhaps the best we can do is accept that people change, and two good people, who once fit together well, may not always remain well-matched.

Marriage guarantees nothing. 

Erich Fromm on Marriage

TheArtOfLoving"True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed," said Scott Peck. "It is a committed, thoughtful decision... This person has made a commitment to be loving whether or not the loving feeling is present."

In The Art of Loving, Erich Fromm starts with the same premise, and extrapolates what this means for marriage:

"This being so, it should not make any difference whom we love. Love should be essentially an act of will, of decision to commit my life completely to that of one other person. This is, indeed, the rationale behind the idea of the insolubility of marriage, as it is behind the many forms of traditional marriage in which the two partners never choose each other, but are chosen for each other— and yet are expected to love each other...

To love somebody is not just a strong feeling— it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. If love were only a feeling, there would be no basis for the promise to love each other forever. A feeling comes and it may go. How can I judge that it will stay forever, when my act does not involve judgment and decision?"

However, Fromm continues, it's not that simple:

"Inasmuch as we are all one, we can love everybody in the same way in the sense of brotherly love. But inasmuch as we are all also different, erotic love requires certain specific, highly individual elements which exist between some people but not between all.

Both views then, that of erotic love as completely individual attraction, unique between two specific persons, as well as the other view that erotic love is nothing but an act of will, are true— or, as it may be put more aptly, the truth is neither this nor that. Hence the idea of a relationship which can be easily dissolved if one is not successful with it is as erroneous as the idea that under no circumstances must the relationship be dissolved."

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