Friday, September 30, 2011

Coda 5: Modus vivendi

Over lunch in May, a friend told me that, despite decades of separation and a current relationship of long standing, he and his wife are still married. This is reminiscent of Vanessa and Clive Bell, discussed previously, who stayed married "unto death" while they went their mostly separate ways. Formally, there's marriage and there's divorce. More recently, there are also domestic partnerships, a halfway house toward marriage. Meant to extend some of marriage's rights to those excluded from it, this category could end up disappearing as marriage grows more inclusive. Its existence as an alternative to marriage sets up the possibility that a married person, living separately with another partner, might embrace it in order to afford the new relationship more rights and standing.
    Some might argue that this is a kind of bigamy. I don't think it is, but the notion of a domestic partnership may not satisfy the other partner, either, since at least some of the impetus for divorce is to be free to remarry. 
    Marriage and divorce are usually a binary pairing, a black-and-white rendition of a landscape that we know full well is resplendently colorful, textured, messy, and in flux. When you look back in history, especially across cultures, you see a lot of variation. And looking across a table sometimes, you see former partners breaking bread. I realize that time is a factor here, but when you consider both the tumult and reconciliation, life often proves to be bigger than the partners imagined. Certain ties still bind them.
    We speak of no-fault divorce, but it may also be useful to speak of no-fault marriage. This is to recognize that much of what affects a marriage reflects our human dilemmas. Moreover, if a marriage is a partnership of two individuals, then we have to accept everything this implies. In particular, we have to accept the essential good will of the other, even when the situation seems impossible. This is not an argument for any particular outcome, but for modus vivendi - the ability to take a larger view of things and use one's imagination.
    Empathy, if one has it, makes a mockery of any insistence that there's only one course to follow. This is the basic fallacy of a black-and-white view of life. We are, each of us, a boiling pot of desires, fears, limitations, and smarts. We slowly acquire wisdom as we age, but slowly is the operative word. Our wisdom, though hard-won, can be gone in a flash. Volatile, subject always to our natures, we make our way. Marriage and friendship alike have to deal with the carnage. There are times when we've had enough, but then we remember that we're like that ourselves.
    Part of the idea of no-fault is to accept that along with the individuals involved, the nature of a marriage or a friendship (and their variants) changes over time.  The form it takes matters infinitely less than the attitude of the individuals toward this. "An end that endures" is the I Ching's phrase for this "seeing the woods for the trees.

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