Note: This piece is meant as an analogy regarding “normal” dysfunction in a marital relationship between two well-intentioned partners. It’s not the author’s intent to include abusive or exploitative relationships within the scope of this analogy.
Trigger alert – violent imagery in the context of a marital relationship. The imagery is metaphorical and not intended to represent an abusive marriage.
Marriage is a strange endeavor.
Even under ideal circumstances, a significant part of marriage involves being stuck with someone who you like, academically, on paper, and who claims they like you, too, but for reasons that seem almost outside of your control, you can’t get along with. You deal with each other, you handle each other, you put up with each other, but you’re not really getting along. It’s not their fault, and it’s not your fault, but there’s this constant friction between you.
The unremarkable events of day to day life are imbued with a prickly significance. Even the happy times are negatively charged. It’s just there, this tension, all the time, ingrained behavior patterns and deeper meanings and a long and tangled mutual history that colors everything ugly. When things are good, you can mostly ignore it, but if the relationship starts to disintegrate, the embers flare into a conflagration and you find yourself shrieking at each other over an imagined slight that occurred in 1993.
America 2017 is a bad marriage.
It isn’t you, it isn’t me, it’s US. We’re in a rut and it feels too deep to climb out of. Everything feels weird and strained all the time. Everything is a THING. We can’t even talk to each other without finding some errant misspoken word to quibble over, some unforgivable implication that probably wasn’t even being made. We have to walk on eggshells. We can never just be together and have fun any more. We used to like mostly the same things and share mostly the same interests but now we feel like strangers. You like MMA, I like NPR. I’ve been going out after work with the Russians and you have a lot of pictures of some chick named Lena Dunham on your phone. We can’t even discuss finances or our children’s educations without it turning into this horrible fight where one of us dredges up things that happened during the Reagan administration and the other one spits the failures of Common Core back.
We’re grudge-holders, we have hair triggers. We’re constantly drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. We’re like the couple in the movie The War of the Roses who fights so hard that they end up destroying their beautiful home and accidentally killing each other because they just can’t get along.
There are no winners in a bad marriage. You fight and you fight and over time you realize no one ever wins this war. You both always lose. If you’re wise, you eventually conclude that sometimes, the only way to win, IS to lose. To give up, to give in, to compromise, to accept the imperfection, to settle. It feels like a defeat, but it’s the only way. Winning is not an option. The only victory available is Pyrrhic.
You can carry on as you were, refusing to compromise, playing only to win. You can keep blaming the other person for everything that’s gone wrong, refusing any and all responsibility, making each other miserable from now till forever. Or, you can decide to step up and own it. Not taking blame for crimes that you didn’t commit, not at all, but accepting that at least some of the disaster is a direct result of who you are and what you’ve done – even the things that weren’t deliberate, that you weren’t even fully aware of. Especially those, because they are equally toxic, and yet the hardest to control.
Doing this kind of self-evaluation not only helps you to be a better partner, it also helps you to realize that the stuff that your other half is doing, the stuff that drives you up a tree and around the bend, is also usually not intentional. Nobody wants a bad marriage. But it happens. It’s just life, it’s just exhaustion, it’s relationships being what they are, two imperfect entities coming together imperfectly. Sometimes we fall short. It isn’t you, it isn’t me, it’s US.
If both of you do this at the same time, you can meet in the middle and mutually acknowledge that there are patterns that the both of you tend to fall into. We don’t mean to hurt each other, we’re both acting in good faith here. We just have these shortcomings in the way we relate that we have to become more aware of. We have to decide that we are a team and that as a team, we will work harder to accept each other’s foibles and break those bad habits that we both have. We can learn to recognize the pitfalls and avoid them. We can forgive. We can rewrite the tired old scripts into a new love story.
We can do that as a country too.
I don’t think either America is bad. I don’t think either America is deliberately out to hurt each other. Both Americas have some amazing qualities and both Americas have a dark side. In some ways we fit like a glove, and in other ways we will probably never see eye to eye. But that is true of every couple. We have to stop seeing each other as enemies and start thinking as teammates, as partners. We have systemic problems, serious problems, that we must work together to fix. The first step is stopping the name calling and acknowledging that both Americas are acting in good faith. Neither side is evil or stupid. We are all well-intentioned people who love our country and want the best for it. We love each other and we want to be together, but we can’t do that until we stop tearing each other apart.
Divorce is not an option, America. We are stuck together, for better or for worse, til death do us part. Right now we’re behaving like conjoined twins in a battle to the death, punching and scratching and eyegouging and each of us trying to get an arm around the others’ throat. But if one of us dies, the other goes, too. By trying to destroy the other, we are destroying ourselves. If there’s a scale of self-destruction, America 2017 is set to overweight comedian – we are Chris Farley thinking, “hm, black tar heroin, sounds harmless enough, think I’ll give it a whirl.” That’s us. We are eating ourselves alive and no one can disengage from the conflict long enough to take a step back and see it.
So many of our problems are not my fault or your fault but OUR faults, both of us – we’re so caught up in this cultural war that we created together and we must dismantle together. To do so, we have to accept that we’re fighting a battle that no one can win. We’re walking down a road of mutually assured destruction unless we stand down and sheathe our swords.
Image by yeison_varon_velasquez