You’ve most likely heard by now that the most famous power couple in the world, Brangelina, is divorcing. People everywhere are asking themselves how they can be expected to survive marriage if two genetically perfect specimens packing millions of dollars, a nanny per child and a vineyard can’t even do it. The news follows this year’s revelations that Jay Z probably, possibly, very likely cheated on Beyoncé, Gaga dumped her Chicago Fire hubby soon after accepting his proposal and Sharon Osbourne nearly parted ways with Ozzy after 34 years of Satanic matrimony.
I got married when I was 23. By the time I was 28, I was on my way to divorce court. There were many reasons for the split, but the primary reason I left was that is was getting increasingly harder for me to remain faithful. Around that time, I began getting panic attacks. I was lying to myself—and I knew it.
No fairy tale shows the prince and the princess 20 years into marriage, the affection-starved prince trying to delicately brooch the subject of a threesome with his innocent flower; the princess, feeling unappreciated and sexually frustrated, missing the man who used to give her daily cunnillingus. She’s lucky to get eye contact and a kiss these days.
Like anything in life, changes of heart don’t happen in a void. Marriages are complex, living, breathing organisms. They evolve. The very institution of marriage itself, after all, has evolved over time too; for thousands of years, marriage was nothing more than a contract. It had absolutely nothing to do with love. It had to do with dowries and family-arranged alliances and power. Wives lived in an almost permanent state of irrelevance, destined to keep silent and bear heirs. Men had courtesans and took mistresses openly; that was expected. “Boys will be boys.”
In many parts of the world, this structure still exists. And the inherent sexism attached to infidelity persists today. For example, men on the now-infamous adulterers’ website, Ashley Madison, pay a fee and women don’t. In a sense, the women are drafted.
Only in the past 250 years has marriage taken on a new definition in which it encompasses love and sexual desire and a Disney-esque wedding. Only in the past 50 years has marriage become about equality.
Algorithms and cookies that track our every move online end up knowing us better than we know ourselves—and definitely better than our spouses know us.
“When marriage was invented, and as recently as 100 years ago, marriages didn’t need to last as long as they do now because people didn’t live as long as they do now,” says Laura Carpenter an associate professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University. “People didn’t necessarily expect marriage to provide their main source of emotional fulfillment as well as sexual satisfaction, financial security and everything else we expect from marriage today.”
Nowadays, not only is your spouse supposed to be your life partner, but also your greatest lover, your best friend, your therapist, your housekeeper, your masseuse, your errand boy, your girl Friday, your chauffeur, your delivery service, your confidante, your business partner, your psychic and your workout buddy. Your everything. “The One.”
The unrealistic expectations we have for each other—and the roles we are agreeing to play—are then ceremoniously woven together within the 1,000-thread-count Egyptian cotton fabrics of marriage. Marriage is supposed to be forever: “To have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part.” Wow. No pressure there.
Yet, at the exact same time, we’re living in a society that values self-improvement and individuality above all else. We are constantly pushed to evolve, change and reinvent ourselves. Get in touch with our feelings. Be our authentic selves. And the way we do that is by personalizing our experiences of reality via the thousands of opportunities we’re given to do so online. Algorithms and cookies that track our every move online end up knowing us better than we know ourselves—and definitely better than our spouses know us. The temptation of “something else” beckons with every click and every push notification.
So, while our marriage is supposed to remain fixed, we are expected to change. This paradox creates tension before we even enter into Holy Matrimony. In most cases we are setting ourselves up for failure. Statistically, half of us do fail.
I did—but as far as divorce goes, mine was the easiest on the planet. We didn’t have kids. We didn’t have assets or a production company or a house in France. The split was relatively painless. This isn’t always the case.
As I’ve written about before, I’ve been the other woman, too. So I’ve seen things from the other side; specifically, from the perspective of a man torn between two realities. There was a moment when the Married Guy whom I fell in love with seriously considered leaving his wife. In that moment, he was forced to do a cost-benefit analysis of his life. He had kids, a house, and a lot of money at stake. He had a wife he dedicated his life to and whom he loved and didn’t want to hurt.
How do you choose between love and love? You don’t. He was damned if he did and damned if he didn’t.
So he didn’t. And honestly, I didn’t want him to leave. He couldn’t (or shouldn’t.) He had too much to lose. And I loved him too much to see him lose it.
I don’t believe all adulterers are selfish assholes, consumed with having their cake and eating it too. After 20 years of marriage and kids, deaths, financial hardship, health and whatever other cruel curveballs life has in store, sometimes something gets lost. We get lost. The easier, softer way of finding ourselves can sometimes appear to be an affair.
But it’s not the cheating that’s poisonous. It’s the lies. In the current, traditional structure of monogamy, oftentimes spouses feel trapped in a prison of their own design. That isn’t part of the fairy tale drilled into us from childhood. It isn’t the happy ending we expect—or that is expected from us. So, in order to maintain the illusion of the story, we don’t just lie to our partners, but we lie to ourselves. In doing so, we close the feedback loop of what marriage represents. We perpetuate the fairy tale. We force ourselves to believe the myth.