Yes, the Newton idea; objects in motion and so on. Marriages are like that as well. In this case when it comes to why couples keep hanging out, for most it’s just because. There’s nothing acting against them, no friction, no resistance, no opposing forces.
Being the big deal that weddings are, great momentum is brewed with all the well-wishers and gift registries, announcements and photos, tens of thousands of dollars, all leading up to that glorious day – and well it should. What a wonderful thing to celebrate. That momentum along with the rice and the limo push young newlyweds into a new life and if that push sustains them along even for years, without anything acting against them, chances are they’ll keep hanging out for no other reason than nothing has stopped them.
The usual stuff isn’t enough, like buying a house, having a (healthy) baby, or landing the new job, all American dream stuff. It just adds to the inertia. It’s the crisis of faith, the loss of self-worth, the death of a child, bankruptcy; these cause friction, these equal and opposite relational forces.
You’ve probably felt a symptom of inertia. Happened to me while watching a movie with my first spouse. It was Bed of Roses, Christian Slater and Mary Stuart Masterson. We’d been married about twelve years. There we sat in the theater. I’m safe enough with my own concept of masculinity to confess that I don’t mind chic-flicks, and this one got under my skin. I got caught up in it, in that feeling, that new idea of someone remarkable, that complete saturation that leaves you instantaneously thirsty the moment you’re apart. Somehow this movie nailed it and I sat there, suddenly aware of my romantic deficiency.
Deep inside is that whisper, “wow,” that ache that reminds you that you don’t feel that way anymore, not in a twelve year-old marriage. New love. Eros. In love.
So much different than what I felt for that woman sitting next to me in the dark. We’d been through so much together; buried one son, had another, more life changes than most people have in a lifetime in that first decade together. Despite it all, despite the victory of even being able to sit there in that theater with her, defeating opposing forces and maintaining our inertia, I was no longer in love with her, and I missed that feeling.
There it was, illuminated, 16:9, in living color. In love.
When you find some level of satisfaction outside your marriage, be it fantasy or vicarious, in movies and novels, TV shows, the Internet or even in the lives of others, chances are your relationship is hanging in there through inertia. The trouble with Newton’s law is that while couples continue the relationship, they’re not doing it because they’re in love.
So, I’m going to go out on a limb here, way out for some.
There’s a relational cycle, personified in a popular Marilyn Monroe film, of seven years. More recent study shows the cycle is moving toward eight, while conservative studies reveal that it has been reduced to two. Most relational scholars tie that cycle to eros love, that Bed-of-Roses love, that in-love love. After a period of time it diminishes. Love becomes a rut. Kids and work and money eclipse the romance of the relationship and like a tide, the cycle snubs the spark.
Much has been written and said about monogamous tendencies of the human heart, masculine and feminine. Women tend to be more so than men. Ongoing and trend studies show that more men cheat than women, or that men or more polyamorous than women. Helen Fisher begs the question, “Who are these men cheating with?”
Following that logic I’d have to assert that perhaps both genders may have polyamorous propensities. Simply, everyone has at least the capacity to wonder if the grass truly is greener. Paul Simon nails this sentiment in his song Train in the Distance in the refrain, “The thought that life could be better is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains.”
Could this be due to falling out of Bed-of-Roses love? What if, barring all the cultural mores and social expectations of couples, we really only have the capacity to be monogamous for two or seven or eight years? What if the rest of the time relationships are the product of inertia? Do we have the ability to be in love forever? Or is that just Hallmark and Moses talking?
For as long as we’ve been able to love, poets and songwriters (especially those County Western ones), novelists and play and screenwriters have interpreted that lamentable time when the flame is reduced to embers.
Granted, there are those who know how to bring back that lovin’ feelin’. I tried no less than seven times in nineteen years in my first marriage.
And there are those who keep moving along because that’s what’s expected, or because the inertia of their relationship has not countered a force equal and opposite enough.
And there are those who allow themselves to be affected by those forces, especially when it’s a new person with whom they fall in love. And we all know what kind of trouble that leads to.
We’ve demonized infidelity long before Hester. Tough to argue with a note from God written in stone. But, while I’ve reached the leafy part of this branch here, I might as well say it; what if deep down inside, as part of our genetic code most of us were wired to love madly and passionately for a certain period of time and then move on and fall in love all over again? What if Newton’s laws like gravity and momentum and inertia didn’t really apply to human hearts?
I hate to leave this in the parenthetical, so let’s wrap this up by saying one of the reasons why people stay in marriages is because nothing worse has happened, and nothing better has come along. If something does on either end of that dichotomy, there is at least the grace of divorce.
It’s been almost four years since I wrote this little chapter and the cool thing about publishing electronically is being able to respond in this way, a bit wiser, perhaps.
The whole inertia idea still holds, and there’s enough evidence to support the seven-year-itch phenomenon, but I was much too glib in saying that if something better comes along there’s that divorce thing.
I don’t believe that, and I’m sorry I ever did. It’s this type of thinking that leads too easily to using people for instant gratification upon losing interest, even if it is mutual.
A) That’s chickenshit.
B) Gratification isn’t, nor should ever be the goal of a marriage.
Instead, I believe it is gratitude. I’ve already written to this end elsewhere on this blog.
While the grace of divorce grants the sufferer a new meridian in their relational time, divorce is too easily defaulted to by most who lose sight of the promise their union once held. It’s not the promises that change. Instead, it is the ability to feel gratitude for the promised.