Have you ever tried bailing out a boat you didn’t know was leaking?
You see some water in the bottom of the boat, and you think “hey, I’ll get this water out”, so you grab a bucket and start bailing. Then you notice the water starts to fill up again. So you bail it out, then it comes back in. And again, and again.
Sometimes the water leaking in is so slight that it’s not a big deal, but sometimes we need to address the root of the problem. We need to fix the leak, instead of continuing to bail out the water.
Such is the case with marriage and loneliness. In fact, I’d like us to consider that trying to fix loneliness in marriage is like trying to bail out a leaking boat. Loneliness is built into the way we do marriage today. It’s not a flaw, it’s a feature.
To explain, let’s start with what marriage used to be.
Marriage wasn’t always about romantic love. In fact, up until a few hundred years ago, the purpose of marriage was to bring families together. We could even say that the purpose of marriage was to enhance community (more on the significance of that in a minute). It wasn’t until the early 1800s that romantic love even entered the picture.
It’s worth noting that until a few hundred years ago the need for love within a marriage wasn’t a thing, in fact it was even frowned upon. Most of the time when people referred to “love” it was for God, family or neighbors.
Then along came romance.
One of the things romance brought with it was a sense of completion when it comes to marriage — the idea that once you find the “right person” your work is done and you don’t need anyone else. While I certainly don’t think pre-romantic marriage was anything to write home about, it had one important feature that we totally miss today.
It implied that your spouse would not complete you.
In fact, because marriage was designed to bring families together and pool resources, marriage actually served the function of bringing more people into your life, not less.
Today marriage does the opposite. When we get married we see our friends less, we rely on other people less and we isolate ourselves from the outside world, thinking that our partner and a Netflix subscription is “good enough”.
We’ve internalized the belief that our spouse is all we need but it’s a lie. It’s worth noting that this pattern actually starts way before marriage. How often do we see someone get into a new relationship and totally abandon their friends?
This essay would be more accurately titled, “How Modern Relationships Are Making Us Lonely” but marriage is a good type of relationship to examine because it serves as the template for how we do relationships. Relationships are essentially “mini-marriages” or “marriage practice”.1
The reason I say modern marriage makes us lonely, is that instead of bringing people together, marriage actually isolates us. It convinces us that we don’t need anyone else, and mutual need is the basis for human relationships.
Wait, what? Let’s back that one up. This is worth talking more about.
Needs are the Building Blocks of Relationships
One of the reasons we buy the myth that marriage completes us is it’s soooooo haaaaaarrrddd to ask people for help. We don’t want to expose our needs to people, so if we could do all that vulnerable asking with just one person, instead of a community of people — that would be way easier. Oh, and if that person could also read our mind that would be great too. And be a great cook. And be mysterious. And be a good parent.
The way we do marriage today sells us the bullshit notion that we won’t need anyone else, and that’s bullshit. And yeah, I wrote the word bullshit twice, cause it’s that important. And yeah, I’m getting to the sassy part of the essay where I write like it’s 1:39am on a Sunday morning.
When we believe that our spouse can meet all our needs not only are we in for some major disappointment, but we’re literally programming ourselves for isolation and loneliness. It’s a tragedy, but it doesn’t have to be this way.
It Doesn’t Have To Be This Way
That’s right. It doesn’t have to be this way. See how I’m repeating shit that’s important? It doesn’t have to be this way because marriage is whatever you want it to be.
Thankfully, we’re living in a time where the only thing that marriage actually means is a bunch of legal rights and paperwork with the state government. Other than that, you can do whatever you want.
You can live with your partner, or you can live separately.
You can sleep in the same bed, or you can have your own space.
You can fuck other people, or you can only fuck each other.
You get to decide, but that also means you have to spend some serious time thinking about what kind of relationship and marriage you want to have. I don’t know about you, but when it comes to relationships the default isn’t very appealing. We all know what we want our relationships to feel like, but I don’t believe we’ve put in nearly enough time figuring out what they look like. We just follow the script and hope for the best.
The Price Is Wrong
Eight years ago I took a handful of sailors on my ship to see “The Price Is Right” in Los Angeles (I used to be a Navy Officer). We went in uniform, and of course, one of us got called up to bid on prizes.
Drew Carey was the host, and in between the breaks he would do crowd work — which is comedian for make fun of people in the crowd. He was hilarious — and he said one thing I’ll never forget, but it was just a quick comment in passing.
He was talking to a family on vacation in Los Angeles and after listening to them give very detailed plans for what they were going to do while in California, he made an off-hand remark — you know it’s funny, most people spend more time planning their vacations than they do planning their life.
He’s right. We neglect the work, and the elbow grease it takes to actually have an unconventional marriage, than we wonder why we get the same results as everyone else. It’s because we accepted the default hoping it would be enough, but it’s not.
Whether we like it or not, we’re all trying to sail with leaky boats. While it may be tempting to go for short-term fixes, if we don’t figure out where the water is coming from and find the root of our relationship problems, we’ll end up either sinking our ship or spending the rest of our lives bailing it out.
For more on the history of marriage, I highly recommend Stephanie Coontz’s book Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage