In a blog that purports to examine the real-world applications of a skeptical worldview, and what it means to embrace a search for “reality” while still celebrating all that is beautiful about the depths of earthly human experiences, one can reasonably expect personal references. That said, it’s never been a goal to make Perspectives about me; but today, after a couple months of notable absences from blog posts and podcasts, and even reduced Facebook ruminations, an update seems appropriate.

The reason for my absence involves some major personal changes and challenges, especially those surrounding the transition out of my 20-year marriage to a phenomenal, great-hearted woman—with whom I have had the honor of sharing what surely must be one of life’s most challenging and rewarding chapters. While there is perhaps sufficient beauty, pain, melancholy, love, and grief for a compelling book someday, at this stage I wanted to expound upon a particularly irritating phrase from the conventional vernacular of divorce—“failed marriage”—and then ponder the notion that “number of years sustained” is the only good measure of the success of a relationship.

It might sound like a delusional rationalization, and as a skeptic I must admit that is a possibility—but of all the terms, axioms, and clichés that I’ve heard bandied about surrounding “divorce,” none do I find less applicable, nor despise more, than “failed marriage.” You see to call the backdrop that was our marriage—in front of which my soon-to-be former wife and I expended great energy to lovingly embrace and live within some unique challenges; loved and raised two amazing children; shared and exchanged the deepest love I have known (a bond that will likely transcend all others in my life); experienced fits-and-starts as we decided to let one another fly and be free to experience and grow beyond the confines of marriage—to call any of that a failure would be akin to calling the life of a great philosopher, teacher, or statesman a failure merely because the season of that individual’s life came to an end.

Questioning Convention

The fact is that human relationships are among the toughest, most rewarding, most trying, and most growth-inducing experiences that humanity has to offer. In the pages of this blog, and certainly of my novel, you have seen me boldly question social norms, including those of marriage and monogamy. On my podcast you heard a leading marriage expert suggest that until the last fifty years, marriage was never primarily about love, or sex; it was about property, business, and social structure, not romance. You have also heard me ponder what a world without jealousy might look like, and ask if true love can ever really end.

I ask these questions not because I have answers, but because I am a life-long student of human nature, of culture, of rethinking morals with a more utilitarian philosophical bent, and of our human fallibilities. And among those fallibilities, perhaps might just be the way we structure and define the goals we set for relationships. Let’s examine an example. 

The Ultimate Measure of Success

When young people take their wedding vows, they pledge a number of things to which I have argued they simply do not, as a matter of absolute certain fact, have the ability to consent or promise. Forget the fact that 50% of marriages end in divorce; the reality that nobody can predict the future, that nobody can predict where either partner’s mind will be in five years—let alone fifty, should tell us that there is literally no way one has the omniscience, and therefore ability, to promise with certitude he or she will stay with someone else forever, live together, and exclusively feed one another’s every emotional and physical need. A person may be able to reasonably make that prediction, based on experience, education, knowledge of the other’s character, etc., but she cannot, I argue (for the sake of stimulating blog posts at a minimum), promise and pledge such.

There are many things you can pledge and reasonably promise in vows: to be kind, to work to resolve conflicts with the other’s interests in mind, to be respectful at all times, to care for and co-parent offspring, and so forth. But you cannot pledge the impossible; humans simply lack the omniscience to pledge that we will always be the perfect fit for one another, and will always choose to remain together despite those differences.

Those who think they can know all possible future scenarios with certainty, and all possible future outcomes, are either delusional, or divine. People change. People grow. People disintegrate and commit crimes. People hide their dark sides. (Luckily none of the dubious elements apply to my situation in any way.) After all, few of the 50% of people who divorce can look back and say that on their wedding day they foresaw that which would end their marriage. It just doesn’t work that way. And what if your husband became a murderer, or a thief, or an addict? You can predict that won’t happen, but there are no guarantees. So why do we make such promises?

In short, we pledge “forever” because of social and cultural traditions surrounding either property rights, or of late, romantic love. Still, we do so confidently and often somewhat uncritically, based on historical evidence about the person to whom we are pledging “forever,” our best judgment at the time, and to a large degree based upon faith, hope, and even wishful thinking. Still, a few of us get lucky. I believe I did.

Longevity for It’s Own Sake?

But what if you could pledge forever in an ideal world? Should we then do so? Is longevity, for its own sake, really all that it is cracked up to be? Or is it possible that one person might be just exactly the right fit for one phase of our lives—perhaps for parenting or child-rearing, but not the perfect fit for our golden years? Is it possible that one person can teach us and help us grow or discover brilliant insights about ourselves in our fifties, but that those insights would have been missing or would have escaped us if we’d met in our twenties?

In the workplace I’ve long questioned longevity for longevity’s sake. The “vesting”; the gold watch ceremonies; seniority and social promotion; the indignant rants: “I’ve put thirty-five years into (fill in the blank) and I deserve (fill in the blank).” Maybe, just maybe, there are times when we should change jobs, change companies, or even change careers altogether.

In the industrial era we came to worship longevity, but what if change is actually better for us? What if it can help us learn, be refreshed, grow, meet new people and new challenges, and become better, more-fulfilled, well-rounded humans?

Is the same not arguable when it comes to human relationships? People grow, change, ebb, and flow. They outgrow one another, or they grow at separate times, or diverge down radically different paths (not our case, but rhetorically it happens). Is it possible that it is our traditions of ignorant or impossible pledges, and associated requirements of omniscience, that need fixing more so than the underlying tendencies to worship longevity as the ultimate measure of a relationship’s value?

We seem obsessed that longevity should be the ultimate goal. Our culture tells me that I should work for one company (a virtual impossibility anymore—but nonetheless it is still a mythological ideal), and love only one person (especially if sex is involved)—for as long as humanly possible, no matter what. To do otherwise is somehow “wrong.” You are a “job hopper” or someone who “couldn’t keep a marriage together.”

Don’t get me wrong. Longevity is of course a worthy goal on many levels. I have written often about the great value of the depth of love that comes only after the romantic flames have cooled, and the broader, more stable love settles in with a warmth that transcends the passion of new love. My nearly twenty years with Julie taught me that lesson, among many others, and I hope we can still share that common and unique bond of deep caring for one another forever. Clearly I admit that I can’t see the future, but I think we will.

Conclusion

It might be easy to dismiss me as merely rationalizing a mid-life crisis, and perhaps rightfully so, insofar as I’m too close to my situation to argue the point dispassionately. But I would simply point out that a) I certainly don’t fear commitment; in fact I think commitments and contracts are a vital part of a civil society—when they are supportable by practice, consent, and tradition; b) further, I am proud of our twenty years together through plenty and want, joy and grief, belief and unbelief, and the inevitable challenges of abandoning personal baggage and melding a long-term, loving relationship; and c) I have been asking these philisophical questions for many years from a moral standpoint, with no intention they would apply to me—so it would seem consistent to continue to ask them even now.

All that said, changing chapters in life is painful. It is traumatic. It is upsetting. It is a lot of things. But for me, in our situation, the kindness and love that has been shared could never, under any circumstances, ever be considered a “failed marriage.” Merely typing that term leaves me indignantly and emphatically shaking my head “no.” Perhaps to someone who defines a relationship based on quantity of years rather than quality, such a thing could be alleged. But to me, I’ve been truly fortunate to have had such a wonderful soul mate and partner as Julie. I will learn and grow more in this new chapter of life, but I’m confident that the last one was of a quality and concentration that it was beyond what many experience in a lifetime. I am so very much richer, and so truly “blessed” for having lived that chapter with Julie Gibson, and I hope she will be a regular character and travel partner in life’s next chapter as well.

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(Stephen L. Gibson is the author of  A Secret of the Universe, a critically acclaimed, citation-rich novel about the intersections of science, reason, and faith. Still an emotion-driven thinker in recovery, Steve shares his journey in search of ever-elusive truth with thousands via his Truth-Driven Thinking podcast, and his Perspectives blog. © 2010, Truth-Driven Strategies LLC.)

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