This week, my wife Paula and I began transitioning our relationship from husband and wife to friends and business partners.
In simpler terms, we’re breaking up.
It’s been an emotional roller coaster, yet one thought that continues to persist is that I’ve somehow failed or did something wrong. With that thought comes feelings of embarrassment, shame and guilt. To add to that, we weren’t monogamous, and I worry that people will see our break up as a sign that being non-monogamous “doesn’t work”.
While I can’t claim to have been the perfect husband, I can say one thing for sure. Our relationship worked. In fact, it worked brilliantly, but that brings up an important question. How do we know that a relationship “worked”? What does that even mean?
We live in a culture that holds longevity as the primary measure of a successful relationship, but that’s like judging the success of someone’s life based on how many years they live. It’s a symptom of our culture’s obsession with quantity over quality, and marriage is just one example.
Take healthcare for example. Our current system neglects to address the root cause of sickness, yet has become masterful at keeping someone’s heart beating. We live longer (quantity of life), but are less vital and healthy (quality of life).
We make sure that our family is in tact by spending time together on the holidays, but we don’t intentionally set aside time for intimacy and closeness, we just clock in and clock out. We do this in other relationships as well. The internet has made it possible for us to have a huge quantity of relationships, but has left us deficient on quality. I could go on and on.
I’ve always enjoyed this quote from the playwright George Bernard Shaw.
Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.
What if that’s how we saw marriage?
What if instead of marriage being an eternal flame kept lit by good intentions, it’s a torch that burns brightly, until there is no fuel left? What if that light then shines on and illuminates our future relationships?
That’s more exciting for me. For us to re-define a successful marriage in a way that focuses on quality instead of quantity, we first need to identify and change the cultural norms that keep us stuck.
The word commitment can be one of the scariest words in the english language, and for good reason. It often implies a certain future. For anyone who has done any deep thinking, they might have noticed that while we love to think we know our future, we most certainly do not. Given this undeniable fact, committing to something in the future is never 100% honest.
It reminds of that scene in Team America: World Police where the main character says to his girlfriend “I promise I will never die”. Yeah, it’s that ridiculous.
Given this grim situation surrounding the word commitment, I decided to re-define it for myself in a way that works for me. Commitment is no longer a guarantee about the future, it’s how I relate to the future. It’s not how long I will be involved in something, it’s how deeply I’m involved right now.
That shift has not only helped my peace of mind, but it’s allowed me to truly be committed in a way that brings more strength and power because it’s something I know I can actually deliver.
Changing the Conversation Around Divorce
For us to embrace the idea that a successful marriage isn’t defined as “til death do us part”, we need to release the stigma around divorce.
Whether or not you grew up religious, you’ve been deeply affected by religion. Since the fall of Rome, western society has been collapsing itself with christian values, and although we’ve come a long way since the Spanish Inquisition (insert Monty Python quote here), we still have it that on some level, getting divorced is something we don’t want to have on our record.
The truth is — divorce is a break up with paperwork. And if you have kids, divorce only becomes an issue when the parents don’t get along, which is less about the relationship status and more about the kind of people you are.
In fact, I believe that because divorce is such a big deal in our culture, it often creates a bigger rift between couples who break up. We feel ashamed of being divorced so we place the blame on our ex to ease our conscience.
Relationships as a Continuum
Love is never lost, it’s only the attachments, expectations and resentments that keep us from loving people after a relationship ends. For me, I live in a world where relationships aren’t binary, they continue to exist but often change forms.
When we see relationships as a continuum and not black and white, we can make easier and healthier transitions, we are more likely to change labels that don’t work for us, and we can stop the cruel practice of cutting off people that we once had deep love for.
I really believe that on some level when we cut off people we love we’re also cutting off a part of ourself. It doesn’t have to be this way.
I don’t regret a minute of my romantic relationship with Paula. I look back at the four years we spent together as easily the most enlightening four years of my life.
Not only did I grow massively as a person, but I got to experience life through Paula’s eyes, which may be the greatest gift of all. Her wisdom was the inspiration for so much of my writing that I often felt like a scribe, articulating the things she already understands.
We grew together, and we experienced deep and profound moments of beauty.
I can only hope all my future relationships are as successful as this one.
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