Toxic Marriage, Served with Contempt


My daughters gaped, open-mouthed, at the histrionic couple dining at the adjacent table. We were in France, at an auberge in the Dordogne during my annual single-mom summer trip. The intimate dining room overlooking an ancient mill was frigid with cheerless couples purportedly enjoying celebratory anniversary and birthday dinners of foie gras and duck confit, but each unhappier than the last.

Kids are sponges, soaking up tidbits of relational distress. They are not above gawking at fighting couples, nor are they immune to the subtler cues of relational frigidity; a husband’s pontifications about a wine’s terroir- tedious and unappreciated. His wife’s dismissive eye roll, cutting sharper than any knife. They noticed all the disdainful silences and relational boredom at that charming inn.

Having recently separated from their father, I often discuss with my kids what makes a relationship work, or not. Clearly, most long-term relationships are dysfunctional. Precious few get through a lifetime with another mortal, and actually seem happy about it, as many elegant, frosty restaurants reveal.

We all, just like the couples in that grim Perigourdine dining room, trusted that we had found “the one”; the mythical love to transcend time, space, and the cavernous pitfalls that complement life’s peaks. How do we, once ripe, dewy lovers, wither into the desiccated husks we saw in France? More importantly, is this demise preventable?

The short answer is that lifelong marriage is an obsolete, futile obligation that causes more harm than good and should be retired. Humans are not designed for permanent superglue. Matrimony requires that we bond and breed with a flawed human who must be our best friend, business partner, co-parent, and hot sex consort for 40 or more years. This is barmy.

The hot sex fades, as it always does, and the problems build. Financial pressures, unresolvable arguments, and our own ingrained human imperfections take their toll and we fight badly, with contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. But, we stick together through good times, and bad times, and worse times, until we no longer see our partner’s humanity. We hold on past reason or sense, when the very sight of our partner makes our skin crawl. We should call it quits. Instead, we self-medicate with affairs and alcohol, or betray our once lovers with critical words and untruths.

In short, we become everything we are not supposed to be to someone that we once loved. So, we read John Gottman, and we go to therapy. We try “communication skills workshops”, as if talking better to the one we can’t stand will help. When that fails, we take futile trips to Hawaii to salvage what used to be so good. These noble efforts are usually fruitless in the long term.

By the time our kids are in middle school, many of us are married on paper only. We remain, trapped, for the “sake of the kids” and saving face in our communities. We either wait, hunched and miserable, until the kids leave for college to make a neat and tidy exit, or worse, we age out of hope, and stick to the one we have because we don’t want to live alone in our dotage. We accept stifled, choking half-lives, forever in bitter compromise with someone we once loved so passionately, just like the hopeless roommates in that French inn.

We stick with our toxic malignancies because under our current broken system, divorce is a humiliating failure, an abortion of a vow. Even in secular communities, matrimony is religion’s vestigial tail; a dysfunctional, often painful remnant of an institution based on guilt and shame.

It is time to see lifetime wedlock for the idolatrous golden calf that it is- all false promise and harsh quasi-religious legalism. To remain in a malignant marriage is to sacrifice happiness on this altar of matrimony. This tragic sacrifice offers only the smug self-satisfaction of dining, in our geriatric years, in bland companionable silence on foie gras, with a side of benign contempt.

We need to be braver. We need to acknowledge when our relationships have turned noxious, and exit graciously and lovingly before we pathologize ourselves. Clinging to a gangrenous relationship is the height of idiotic cowardice.

How do we know when things have become purulent? Any whiff of disdain and disgust means that there is a serious relational infection that will likely turn septic. Contempt is the indicator of relational rot.

Rather than fearing and fighting the end, we need to think of it as a normal course of life. It is not a failure, it is a completion. There may be sadness, grief, and tears for a season, just like with the end of any good journey. We may mourn as we lay it gently, to rest, but there should be no shame, and no judgement from ourselves or society.

Ending a relationship requires grace, humility, and courage. It needs to be done with honor and honesty, not hiding anything or betraying trust. Nor should we blame our partners for the strain and dysfunction between us. We are human. No one is perfect.

So, what is the solution? Should we all live in casual sex communes, sharing musical-chair partners like Bonobos?

I think not. Serial monogamy is evolutionarily hardwired into our DNA. The French say that love last 3 years- this seems like a safe bet to me. To this end, we need short, contractual marriages, which automatically expire unless proactively renewed.

Renewable unions are clean, humane, and logical. Their automatic dissolution cannot be stigmatized, and their elective renewal would be celebrated.

When a contract expires on a dying relationship, couples separate cleanly before things become bitterly septic. This allows for the possibility of a positive, amicable parting. In the best case, it leaves the door open for a future friendship.

This is far more merciful to everyone, parents and kids alike, than forcing ourselves to suffer through years of unhappiness, only to be torn asunder with lawyers and courts when the pain becomes unbearable. It is a gentle, humanitarian solution to the complexities and perils of long-term human attachment.

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