I’ve had marriage on my mind in recent weeks. Not because it’s on my horizon, but because it seems further out of sight than ever before. I’ve been capable of very little but consuming easy-going cultural products for months, which means that I’m seeing a huge number of weddings. I’m curling up with My Best Friend’s Wedding for the 20th time, secretly hoping the mean, chain-smoking Julia Roberts wins the guy even though she doesn’t deserve him. I’m watching Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, and when Meryl Streep lies in bed in an agony of doubt on her wedding day I internally beg her to stay there and let smarmy Jack Nicholson be on his way. Just lately I’ve regained the ability to read actual books, and tore with salacious, appalled delight through the 1983 Phyllis Rose study of five Victorian marriages, Parallel Lives.
I don’t want to get married myself. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about marriage. I’ve likely thought about it with greater care and scrutiny since I’ve turned away from the idea than I ever did when I blithely assumed I’d end up doing it. I’m aware, though, that I’ll remain ignorant about one of life’s most fundamental experiences.
One might think the marriage-avoidant like me would feel validated by news of spikes in divorce enquiries during lockdown, but it only seems to underline how impossible all paths are in their own way. I found “lockdown proper”, before we could see anyone, excruciatingly draining as a single person, and kept seething at pictures of couples settling in for another Broadchurch rewatch and a curry. Why were they complaining when they had each other?
Then I thought back to when I lived with an ex, when I would sometimes find the static boredom of an ordinary Sunday aimlessly oppressive, and become filled with a strange, mercurial anger which had no real or fitting target. The peculiarities of the present moment mean I am contemplating marriage, and its absence, more than ever.
It isn’t that I object to marriage on political grounds. There are many things I object to on political grounds but still do, like having relationships with men and eating McDonald’s. It’s more that it has never seemed normal to me. When people warned darkly of 50 per cent divorce rates during my youth in Ireland, I remember thinking, “50 per cent? That’s all?” It seemed more astonishing to me that it wasn’t almost all of them.
I hate to veer into being my own armchair analyst, but I can’t help but think that growing up without a traditional nuclear unit had a formative influence on me. My parents were never married to each other, and separated amicably when I was a small child. When I was growing up they had various serious relationships. It mostly felt very easy and natural to me – not some devastating blow to the sanctity of the family. They both eventually married new partners, but too late – they’d already given me the deviant knowledge that relationships don’t have to be defined by marriage to be meaningful.
It became clear as my twenties proceeded that I think differently to many people who grew up with married parents. To me, something like moving in together was a not wholly world-changing event, but something you might do with a partner because you thought it would be fun. If it didn’t work out, as such things generally didn’t, then you’d move on. It didn’t feel very complex. To others, I learned slowly, moving in together was not just an action related to the present, but one of a series of milestones that had a strict logic to them. You met someone good, you dated, you moved in, you got married, you had a baby. That this was the order of life was so obvious to those people that it went without saying, but so alien a concept to me that I didn’t think to contradict it.
There are good things about approaching love in the present: the feeling that you are voluntarily making the decision to be together each day, without any formal diktat binding you. In the same way that death makes sense of life – makes it more poignant, makes it mean something – to think of relationships as inevitably finite makes me appreciate them more in the moment.
I like feeling that I take care only of myself. I make my own money and am responsible for how I live. I don’t feel the seething resentment I sometimes did when I lived with that ex, when at times even washing up his plate could fill me with rage, simply because the feeling of us being dependent on each other was so disturbing.
But there are, of course, bad things, too, terrifying things even. I fear the idea of not being known, of there being nobody in my life who sees me change and stay the same over the course of many years. I fear that when my parents are gone, there will be nobody who has known me for long enough to make me feel like a real, coherent person. I admit to habitually tearing up at the WB Yeats lines for this reason:
How many loved your moments of
And loved your beauty with love false
But one man loved the pilgrim soul
And loved the sorrows of your
I am afraid of what a life without marriage might be like. I’m not deluded enough to think that a single life would be all thrilling dates and exciting travel and so fabulous I’ll never have time to miss what I don’t have. I imagine there will be significant loneliness, which is what I’m most afraid of. Yet fear seems a bad reason for doing most things, especially tying your one life to another person. Because when it comes to it, I don’t think I’m actually most afraid of being alone. What I really fear is that washing up-induced rage, and the way it makes me treat a person I’m supposed to love.
This article appears in the 08 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, State of the nation