When things went belly up with the wife, I initially kept it private and avoided mentioning it to my colleagues. Then one day, 0n the way to my carpool pickup, I ran into a fellow teacher and the game was up (Dude, why are you in Harlem at this time in the morning?). Coincidently, another teacher I traveled with was also in the midst of a breakup. We still laugh about that bright spring day when we both burst into tears over the demise of our respective relationships as we drove down the West Side of Manhattan.
While it was good having carpool buddies to whom I could fume, what galled me most was their disposition to the whole thing. She was awful to you, but, you know, stuff happens. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out.
So much for the concept of marital loyalty. So much for the concept of betrayal. So much for having a spine and working it out.
But I’m talking like a jaybird.
I’m also talking like a Ciceronian. Writing to his son in On Duties, Cicero has this to say:
Everything that is honourable arises from one of four parts: it is involved either with the perception of truth and with ingenuity; or with preserving fellowship among men, with assigning to each his own, and with faithfulness to agreements one has made; or with the greatness and strength of a lofty and unconquered spirit; or with order and limit in everything that is said and done (modesty and restraint are included here).
Cicero, On Duties, 7
To me, a marital vow is not merely the articulation of an emotional state at a given point in time. It’s an agreement to love and to hold come hell or high water. In this sense, you’re not promising to feel the same way about someone (the high of love) but promising to care for them no matter what. Of course, you should not take lightly such a decision, but once you’ve pulled the trigger that’s it. It takes a lot of work, but you’re agreeing to the work and one of the byproducts of said work is happiness. That’s the pain and beauty of the vow.
But I’m old school.
The new school is something different and that’s where the chasm opened between my wife and me.
Thanks to modern affluence, you don’t need a wife or a husband as in days past. Marriage has become for all intents and purposes a strictly romantic affair. Sure, there are tax breaks, and splitting the rent is convenient, but you can do without. Plus there isn’t a stigma against premarital sex or cohabitation.
But the fundamental change I believe is this: modern society emphasizes happiness as the one absolute. And by happiness society means pleasure. You only get one life, you might as well maximize the feel goods. Hard work in this paradigm is optional. In fact, if something takes a lot of hard work, it probably means you didn’t find the one. Plus the consequences for walking out on someone are negligible (everyone’s doing it, right?). Hedonism and narcissism rule the age. And thus the jaybird is put at a unique disadvantage to the bluebird. In short, the female tendency has won out. The evidence backs this up with the majority of women, not men, ending marriages. Not only that, females have caught up to their male partners in the adultery department. The jaybird once ruled the roost, but now it is the bluebird.
Maybe this is liberation, but there is a lot of misery especially when you toss in the kids. One thing my father said, “Thank God you didn’t have children.” He was right. Some folks aren’t so lucky.
But it’s not liberation. It’s a new enslavement to the passions. One thing that has struck me about the modern bluebirds’ attitude to breakups is their passivity. A breakup is something that happens to you, even if you are the one who initiates it. It’s a strange possession of sorts: things aren’t working, you’re unhappy, and then you begin to mull it over for a time, chew that bone, and then opt to leave. Or it happens to you, in which case you’re angry, but you can’t be that angry because the other’s passive paradigm doesn’t allow you to be angry—stuff happens, shrug.
It’s a false passivity, though. That mulling and choosing is an active embracing of the passions, of the feels, even as the bluebirds invariably describe it in passive terms.
That is maybe the most maddening thing of all for the jaybird. All these bluebirds flopping around, doing stuff (like ending marriages), and pretending they’re just bending like a reed in the wind.
No, you’re not, birdbrain. You’re ripping the guts out of a marriage.
But you’re not happy.
So let the fickle tyranny of the passions murder away. It can’t be helped.