Dispatches Tagline

Treasure the Relationships That Don’t Last

Wednesday, September 11th, 2019: Relationships, Society.

(Note: None of the couples shown in these photos are still together…but their relationships made all of our lives richer)

The Problem of Marriage

Can you be single and happy? Our society doesn’t seem to think so.

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly is subtitled: “A course at Northwestern University teaches students about what makes a healthy relationship.”

The first sentence of the article begins: “Research shows that practically every dimension of life happiness is influenced by the quality of one’s marriage….”

The article never questions the institution of marriage in our society – the author takes it for granted that young adults are going to get married. The primary focus of the Northwestern course is to enable students to marry successfully. What they teach is, in a nutshell: figure out who you are first, then find someone who shares your worldview.

It’s good to see someone in national media talking about worldviews, after I worked for years to clarify what they are, and to convince people of their importance. But how accurate are the worldviews of 18-year-olds? Wouldn’t it be better to partner with someone whose worldview is radically different, someone you could learn from?

And what about happiness? What do we mean by that? If we mean contentment and self-satisfaction, isn’t it more important to learn, to grow, to change, to see the world clearly for what it is – which can result in discomfort, even pain?

Statistics show that roughly half of adult Americans are unmarried, and 40-50% of marriages end in divorce. These statistics are mirrored among my own friends and family. Should we conclude that up to 75% of Americans are unhappy, mainly because they failed to achieve a lasting marriage? As someone who is single late in life, has never been married, and has no ambition to be married, should I consider myself a miserable failure, or just totally irrelevant?

Actually, I suspect that many of my married friends might consider me a failure for those very reasons. As a young adult, I spent years single and celibate, and felt little peer pressure to find a partner, but when I reached my 40s and found myself between relationships, I came under more and more criticism of my choices and behavior. Friends pressured me to “put myself out there,” to find a compatible partner and avoid the tragic fate of being “old and alone.”

In our society, young adults are expected to find a partner, make a long-term commitment, live together, get married, and form a nuclear family. Everything from our legal and economic systems to our architecture are based on that. Our housing industry creates privacy for isolated units of consumers, with locked apartments for single people and childless couples, and the holy grail, the fortress of the single-family home, designed for the nuclear family.

The social norm of marriage is part of our culture’s overall plan for our lives: establish a career, get married, make a home, and have children. A failure in any of those is a failure in life, condemning us to unhappiness. Conversely, those who succeed in all four are encouraged to look down on the rest of us. And they often do, like smug children who are rewarded for following the rules.

Marriage is considered so essential to happiness and fulfillment in our society that biracial couples, gays, and lesbians have fought for decades for the legal right to marry. To those who’ve been denied this right, marriage is a precious accomplishment.

Each time I came to the end of a relationship, friends called it a failure and blamed it on some personal inadequacy I needed to overcome via soul-searching, therapy, or some other form of “personal growth.” The assumption, shared by the instructors of the Northwestern course, was that these short-term relationships were just the trial runs, preliminary to the real thing. If I could overcome my own problems, I would ultimately find and keep a life partner, and that partnership would become the foundation for my happiness.

The Atlantic article is yet another example of how national media encourage conformity to social norms that few of us question. And it highlights our society’s bias against aging without a partner. As we age, the pressure gets worse, and self-satisfied conformists smugly condemn us single elders as miserable failures.

Is this fair?

Seeing Only Failure

I began life in a nuclear family, but my parents separated and divorced while I was still a child. Then my mom moved my brother and me in with her parents, and the rest of my childhood and youth were spent in a traditional, multi-generational extended family.

But my grandparents and most of the families in our neighborhood had stable marriages, and the overwhelming message from media and the society around me was that you met your personal needs by finding a partner and pairing off. Marriage would be the ultimate result of that, and it would in turn satisfy your duty to society when you and your spouse produced offspring. Unmarried adults were oddballs, objects of suspicion.

My personal needs were abundant. I was turned on by girls from my earliest memories, but I was undersize and sickly as a child, so I was harassed and bullied by other kids. I needed companionship and comfort as much or more than most.

I became an adolescent as our country entered the Vietnam War, and my generation was inspired by what has come to be known as “the Counterculture.” Many friends in my peer group agreed that marriage was an obsolete institution of a failed society. Only conformists got married. Freed from society’s shackles, we nonconformists would love honestly, equally, and respectfully, and if we fell out of love, we’d simply part ways, hopefully as friends. Liberated by “The Pill,” we also resisted having kids, partly because we didn’t feel mature or stable enough, and partly because we believed our parents’ generation had screwed things up so badly that we didn’t want to take the chance of bringing kids into such a damaged world.

Although I’ve seen much more of life since then, and have acquired much deeper insights, my adolescent introduction to relationships via the Counterculture bore abundant fruit. Beginning in high school, I’ve had a long series of intimate relationships, most of which were monogamous and lasted from two to six years. Several involved living together, either in a private apartment or group home.

As the Northwestern University course recommends, my first long-term girlfriend and I did share worldviews. But as the instructors of the course should know, our 18-year-old worldviews could form no stable basis for a long-term relationship, especially in the volatile world we found ourselves in. We were unformed adults, wildly romantic, naive and ignorant. We thought we were Aragorn and Arwen from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The best that could happen was that our worldviews would change radically as we explored the world, exercising critical thinking, gaining experience, knowledge, and wisdom for decades to come. The chances of our relationship lasting through those changes was minimal. It would certainly be unfair to both of us to try to “work it out” as we both turned into different people, and it would seem unfair to society as well, especially if we’d had kids, only to separate and divorce like my parents.

My high school sweetheart and I rejected marriage, in keeping with the Counterculture, believing our bond was deeper and more sacred because we respected each other as distinct individuals. But we grew apart, and eventually broke up. And a decade later, as I turned 30, both I and society had changed in many ways. The Counterculture was seen to have failed – its critique of the Establishment may have been valid, but it hadn’t offered any viable alternatives. The world had gotten scarier – with everything from economic recessions to serial killers and nuclear meltdowns – and the future looked a lot less hopeful. And I had gone from a timid, uptight, naive, and ignorant small-town prodigy to the ambitious, aggressive leader of a big-city bohemian post-punk enclave.

My fourth girlfriend was a young professional woman from an elite college, who proudly considered herself a feminist. By the standards of the Northwestern course we appeared misfits from the start. I was immersed in my bohemian milieu, living in a communal loft in the midst of an industrial slum, experimenting with art, music, and drugs, while she was part of the newly-minted yuppie class, a compulsive shopper, living in a luxurious, frilly apartment in an upscale neighborhood. And she made it clear on our first date that she had a life plan, and getting married and having children were her primary goals. I was honest in my rejection of both, yet we fell in love and spent two rewarding years together, learning from each other, after which she married, had kids, divorced, and eventually remarried after her kids were grown up.

A decade later, when I met my seventh girlfriend, the world and I had continued to change. Some of my friends were getting married and buying houses. My long-secure day job was imploding. I’d achieved national recognition as a musician and bandleader, but I’d also become a serious outdoorsman, falling in love with the desert wilderness, studying aboriginal survival skills, dreaming of going “back to nature.” My new lover was much younger, nearly as unformed as I was two decades earlier, and I was her first really “mature” and caring partner. But whereas she wasn’t much interested in marriage, she did announce on our first date that she planned to have at least one kid.

Despite our differences, we also had a fulfilling relationship for almost two years, and I ended up loving her so deeply that she changed my whole vision of life. Toward the end of our time together I told her I wanted to work toward marriage, and if that happened, would like to have children with her. It was a momentous, scary prospect that put butterflies in my stomach. A few months later, she left me for a man her own age.

Three of my long-term relationships, including that one, have ended in anger and pain, resulting in lasting grief and disillusionment and the criticism of my peers. There were long periods of celibacy between some of them. And ultimately, after the tenth relationship ended traumatically, years went by without one, until I found myself “old and alone.” Was there really something terribly wrong with me, as some friends had suggested?

I always paid close attention to my friends’ relationships. A few of them were never alone – they were always either dating, with ever-changing partners, or in some kind of relationship. Some were more like me – holding onto a relationship for a while, going through a more or less difficult breakup, then being single for a while before finding someone new. A few of my friends achieved stable long-term relationships. Some got married, often for economic reasons. Some of those had kids, while others stayed childless.

Some of my girlfriends left me for abusive men, which turned out to be a pattern for them. I suspect there’s an unconscious belief, on a biological level, that strong, aggressive men will be better protectors, although it’s actually more likely that they’ll be abusive. And both friends and girlfriends sometimes fell into “co-dependence” on alcoholics or addicts. I had a couple of girlfriends – artists both – who turned out to be addicts and were occasionally violent, and one – highly educated and creative – who inherited mental illness from her mother. After being burned enough times, I developed zero tolerance for the addiction or instability of others.

But from earliest adulthood, I always had a few peers who were perennially celibate and frustrated, apparently due to low self-esteem. Some of them self-medicated with drugs or alcohol. Some of them had an occasional one-night stand that left them even more miserable. Those of us who regularly got laid, and those of us who were mostly in relationships, always pitied them, and if we couldn’t sustain a relationship very long ourselves, we always feared we’d end up like them. The Counterculture slogans of free love and open relationships had long been forgotten. Instead of being liberated, we were paranoid of being left alone in a world that made relationships ever harder to form and sustain.

It got worse as we got older, and more of my peers got married and had kids. The older I got, the more I saw how the solitary among us were pitied, and the more difficult it became to be single, because I felt inferior, and I was afraid it was finally all over for me – I’d never have another girlfriend, never find a life partner, let alone my mythical soulmate.

When I made perhaps the most radical move of my life – the move from the San Francisco Bay Area, where I’d spent thirty years, to a remote small town in the least populous corner of New Mexico – I’d been single, celibate, lonely, and depressed, for five years. Frankly, one thing that encouraged me to settle here is that on my first visit, I met more attractive single women than I’d met in all those years of loneliness in the crowded megalopolis.

I spent the first few years flirting with and getting to know all of those women, and the more I got to know them, the more red flags appeared. Eventually, I found myself lonely and depressed again in my new home.

Finding Myself

Before moving to New Mexico, during a long period of unemployment, I’d started a project to finally figure out who I was and what I was supposed to be doing here on Earth. I studied ecology and anthropology, and tried to make sense of powerful visions that I’d had throughout life, visions that seemed “spiritual” for want of a better word.

Venturing into the past, and into the spiritual realm, and trying to envision the future, made me aware of alternate interpretations of time – the diverse phenomena of motion and change. Our technocentric culture is ruled by the linear time defined by our machines – the strictly ordered forward progression from past to present to future, in standard increments of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. Alienated from nature, our way of life perpetually creates problems, so we envision the forward march of time representing “progress” from the problems we created in the past to the imagined solutions of the future, and we want each generation’s life to be better than the previous.

Traditional societies, which depend more directly on nature for their sustenance, tend to seek stability and sustainability rather than change and progress, because to thrive, they must stay within the finite limits of resources in their local habitats. Thus they experience time in the repeating cycles of nature: the solar day and night, phases of the moon, seasons and harvests, and the longer cycles of drought, fire, flood, and human generations. Instead of associating their past with problems and their future with solutions, they honor their past and work to make sure the future will be just as good. This may be called cyclical time.

With their deep communal memories of cyclical time, oral cultures move through a landscape teeming with potential phenomena from both past and future, so unlike us, they’re prepared to adapt to surprises. Thus they may also visualize time as a lake, in which the surface is our present consciousness, and the depths represent the continuum of experience, past and future. I experienced a powerful vision of that simultaneous time once, with loved ones from my past, as well as strangers from my future, rising briefly from the depths, only to plunge back down into the darkness again.

To make up for the lack of attractive single women in my life, I had added a few images of past girlfriends to the walls of my house, and I’d put together “scrapbooks” to memorialize our relationships. Unconsciously, I was manifesting simultaneous time. One of the unexpected consequences of aging, and my new phase of life, was that I could truly live in the past, present, and future simultaneously.

As I observed my family, friends, and acquaintances in this new light, reflecting on their experiences and relationships and comparing them to mine, I suddenly realized that despite coming of age in the Counterculture, I’d been made to feel inferior as a celibate single person, and when a relationship ended, society had made me feel worse about the breakup.

But now, reflecting on the long series of romantic relationships I’d experienced, which felt just as present and real as anything in my current life, I felt like I’d achieved more, in some ways, than people who’d married young and maintained stable lifelong marriages.

I began to see the pain and trauma I’d experienced in a few of my relationships, and in some of our breakups, as priceless inspiration for some of my best art, music, and writing. All of those relationships, from first to last, were physically and emotionally rewarding. In all of them we professed profound love for each other and shared countless moments of warm caring and tenderness. None of my relationships were abusive. I’ve loved deeply and intensely and have been loved deeply back, year after year.

By spending at least a year – a full round of the seasons – in each of those relationships, we’d gotten to know each other in the context of natural cycles, in cyclical time. And now, all of those partners are still with me every day, in my growing awareness of simultaneous time. Most of them are still friends, though we may never see each other again – and I still feel the love we shared as a daily part of my life, every bit as real as the pain and frustration of chronic injuries and disabilities that come with aging.

I compare this new awareness with the previous belief, reinforced by my closest friends, that as each relationship ended, it became a failure, proving there was something wrong with me that had to be fixed, either through soul-searching, therapy, or some other form of “personal growth.”

The revelation of this past year is that contrary to the assumptions of the Atlantic article and many of my friends, happiness can result from a long life of “failed” relationships. Far from failing in my ultimate state of singlehood, I’ve achieved deeply loving relationships with not just one, but many diverse partners, in which we lived adventurous and fulfilling lives together. Sure, there was plenty of discomfort, distrust, anger, pain, and trauma. But as an artist, rather than seeing these as evidence of an inadequacy that needed to be “fixed,” I now see them as precious raw material for my creative work.

It turns out that being an artist has determined the course of all my relationships. I’ve always had personal passions, goals, and projects that have either competed with, deferred, or replaced relationships. Some of those things I could do with a partner around, but many took me places where my partner couldn’t follow. I’ve used long periods of solitude to take chances, explore dangerous places, and get a lot of work done. Some have called me selfish. It looks like I’ve been unable to let go of my ego, unable to lose myself in something bigger, whether a one-on-one relationship or a community where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

That’s partly true, but hardly anything in life is ever that simple. Like most artists, I’ve had to have a “day job,” conscientiously giving decades of my life to other people’s projects and the collaborative work of teams. I started a harvest festival as a gift to a community I wasn’t even part of, and have spent 13 years volunteering to make it happen.

And while in relationships, I’ve sincerely tried, and sometimes succeeded, in giving selflessly to those I loved. You can ask any of my ex-girlfriends about that.

My newfound contentment and appreciation of my past relationships doesn’t mean that I want to restart any of them! On the contrary – our paths diverged for good reason. We are all different people now, and what brought us together originally is no longer there.

Not the Only Way

Is marriage really essential to happiness?

What about the broader notion of “partners for life?”

The nuclear family?

Are any and all of those valid goals for young adults?

Are married people successes, and single people failures? And should solitary elders regret their failure to maintain permanent relationships?

The Northwestern University course maintains that a marriage can be successful if you first figure out who you are, then find someone who shares your worldview. But in a society as patently dysfunctional as ours, and as I certainly learned, finding out who you are is a lifelong project. If you’re really diligent about examining both the world and yourself, your worldview is guaranteed to change. What are the chances of your partner making the same changes, and continuing to share your changing worldview along the way?

We should never forget that we’re animals. The survival of our communities depends on at least some of us reproducing, and reproduction requires partnership. Many of us are clearly driven by biology to find partners we can reproduce with, without even thinking about it. Most of my peers did think about it, though, at the time when we were becoming adults, and we put off having kids until very late, if ever.

Anthropologists like a teacher of the course at Northwestern should be aware that marriage in our sense is the exception, not the rule, across the incredible diversity of human societies. In many, if not most indigenous societies, men and women pair up opportunistically, stay together as long as it works, then drift apart. They may have children together, but those children are raised by the community, not by a stable “nuclear family” in a private fortress home. The lives of both parents and children take place in the context of a small, intimate confederation of people of all ages and genders who work together to take care of each other, rather than in the context of atomized families that live isolated from each other in private homes like ours. Traditional societies tend to lack the stigmatization of single people that our society perpetuates.

The evidence shows that marriage is no sure path to selflessness. Many or most marriages have a dominant partner and lead to oppression or divorce. From my point of view, it isn’t just biology that drives people to get married and/or form permanent partnerships – it’s also insecurity – the fear of being on their own and taking risks. They seek safety and security, whether real or an illusion.

My Quest

Whereas some of my girlfriends and peers started adulthood with a conventional life plan, like getting married and having kids, I left my family home in the midst of a cultural revolution in which all the rules were supposed to be broken. For years I’d been told I had great talent and potential, and college was supposed to be an opportunity for me to explore that potential, and forge a new life path. But my family wasn’t rich, so like most of us I was forced to set aside my dreams in favor of developing a practical career.

Years later, when my first serious relationship ended and my time in the ivory tower drew to a close, it was like waking up from a coma. I found a magical world around me, waiting to be explored, and I started on my lifelong quest for experience, knowledge, and wisdom. That ultimately made it impossible for me to sustain a relationship, and it’s still ongoing. Death will be just another phase of it.

My quest has taught me different senses of time, different interpretations of what we call past, present, and future: living and loving in both cyclical and simultaneous time.

It’s showed me how extended families, in cooperative communities, can provide better caring and child-rearing than the nuclear family. How parenting can be uncoupled from romantic partnerships. How group living situations can be more supportive than the private home.

It has taught me not to wish for or expect a life partnership. On my quest, I’ve experienced love and caring in dazzling richness and diversity, and feel better for it. I treasure the moments, and no longer regret that they couldn’t last.

By falling in love with women who were radically different from me – and clearly incompatible – I learned new things and discovered new worlds, I gained wisdom and had memorable experiences that made my life richer.

Unlike most married people, who are constrained by the jealousy of their spouses, I don’t have to dismiss, forget, or deny my past relationships – I can continue to celebrate them.

Healthy communities need parents and children. I feel for my friends who are parents, and for their children, who, like the rest of us, struggle to deal with the dysfunctional society they’ve been brought into. I also feel for my aging single friends, who should treasure the moments of real connection they’ve had, no matter how few or far between.

My quest can be seen as the height of selfishness, but I continue to share what I’ve learned with anyone who will listen. My art, and what I’ve learned from my quest, are my gift to my community. It’s who I am, like it or not.

I’m not your type, you’re not my kind,
and love that’s born of this encounter
surely won’t endure the future;
and we know that love is blind.

But that’s no reason not to try!
but if we tried a thousand years
we could never get it right,
we could never get it better.

And now these days that get us nowhere,
these days of stormy weather,
these are the good old days,
these are the times we will remember!

(From “Tiare’s Theme,” a song I wrote in my 20s, after a breakup)