Temporarily Yours

Apr 25, 2002 |Gina R. Dalfonzo

Divorce is so common that people talk about "starter marriages." It doesn't have to be that way.

Starter. The word may remind you of that junky old car you bought in high school, with the steering wheel held together by duct tape. Or the house with the leaky roof and the little creatures living in the walls.

Or that first marriage that didn't work out.

It sounds crazy, but the term starter marriage has become part of our cultural vocabulary. According to ABCNews.com, in 1998, the Census Bureau found more than 3 million divorced 18-to 29-year-olds. A starter marriage usually begins when both spouses are in their 20s, and ends within five years or so, before children come along.

"I view the marriage as a rehearsal," Vanessa Mobley, one starter-marriage veteran, said on ABC's Good Morning America a few weeks ago. "We, as generation Xers, live in a culture of new beginnings where we can fix anything."

Fix it, that is, by bailing out. People who have done this say things like, "The second after we were married, I knew I had made a terrible, terrible mistake," or "I have this journal entry from the first day of my honeymoon where I wrote, 'Oh no.... What did I just do?'" In a hopeless situation, what can people do but cut their losses and move on?

Even Naomi Schaefer declares in the conservative National Review, "These men and women may suffer some emotional trauma from the split but will land on their feet, and even have a better and more realistic idea of what to look for in a spouse and what to expect from a marriage the next time around. Maybe we should ... regard the starter-marriage phenomenon as confirmation of a widening interest in permanent relationships among today's college-educated young adults."

Well, temporarily permanent, anyhow. But as paradoxical as it sounds, Schaefer is onto something. For if you dig below the surface of all this talk about regaining freedom and learning valuable lessons, you'll find an intriguing truth: Nobody wants a "starter marriage."

Pamela Paul, an editor at American Demographics, should know; her marriage broke up within a year. Her new book, The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony, helped bring the term into the mainstream. Paul had first heard it when a fellow divorcée asked her, "You had a starter marriage too?"

Paul recalls, "I bristle at the term; it seems derogatory, dismissive, superficial. It makes my marriage sound flighty and somehow featherweight. It also has the unpleasant ring of truth."

Like most of the divorced men and women she interviewed, Paul never quite comes to terms with "starter marriage." In the beginning, these people didn't think they were just trying an experiment. Many of them wanted to get right what their parents got wrong. Michael, one such man, saw his parents divorce when he was in eighth grade. "I just knew that I wanted my marriage to be different," he says.

Yet these Gen-Xers absorbed a basic tenet from their parents that would handicap their own marriages. Paul explains, "A fundamental shift in public opinion took place [during the 1970s], producing a new truism: 'People should not stay married if they're not happy.' " That philosophy is echoed repeatedly by her interviewees: "I figured, you only live once and I was still young." "Why put in all the effort for something that's not so great anyway?" "My marriage was an unfortunate mistake, and it wasn't worth saving because we were not meant to be." "I believe in marriage, but if it's not meant to be, better to get out sooner than later."

It's not meant to be. The words are reminiscent of that annoying term "soul mate"; both expressions imply that everything is settled for you in advance and you merely go along for the ride. You find your "soul mate," you know it was meant to be, and you get married! Simple as that.

Then the glamour wears off. You can't agree on how to budget, or he isn't even interested in budgeting, preferring to spend money however he pleases. You like a stable lifestyle, but she wants to drag you all over the country. Tensions escalate, you can't resolve your differences, and you think: This is not how it's meant to be.

What happened to that fun, caring, sensitive person you married? Maybe he or she never really existed. All you know is you're trapped with someone you can't stand. Maybe it's time to go find the person who was truly meant for you.

Pamela Paul writes, "Some of the reasons why ex-young marrieds decide to divorce may sound superficial, immature, or weak, and oftentimes they are — they reflect marriages that were frequently superficial, immature, or weak. If the reasons to divorce sound wrong, it's usually because the marriage itself was never right in the first place."

To be fair, these survivors of starter marriages realize that marriage takes work. At least, they do now. The interviewees in the book keep referring to the new "growth" that they gained from their first marriage, which they hope will help them do better if they marry again. But for all their new perspective and maturity, they still are haunted by loss and shame: "I don't think I will ever really be 100 percent over it." "I had a complete emotional breakdown." "I caused sadness to someone who didn't deserve it." "I felt like a total failure." "I felt scarred."

"Some emotional trauma," indeed.

Beyond a doubt, many young couples rush into marriage without really knowing each other and with unreasonable expectations. But once they find themselves married, they have created something more than what Paul calls a "contract." She unwittingly relegates one of the most significant ideas in her book to a footnote, which states, "According to one strict Christian reading of the Bible, marriage is not only a love commitment but also one that joins two bodies of flesh into one, creating a bond of kinship." Actually, that isn't a "strict Christian reading of the Bible" (although Christians do differ over the Bible's teachings on divorce). That's what the Bible itself says, and as always, it's right.

When we as a society concede that some marriages just aren't working and should end before children are born, we're making a grave mistake. The end of a marriage is the destruction of a union sanctioned by God — whether or not the participants believe in Him — which we're warned in the wedding ceremony to "let no man put asunder." But a society that leaves God out of its affairs, as ours does more and more every day, loses its grasp of the concept of redemption, God's greatest work. Every day He is present in matters both large and small, turning bad into good, bringing unlooked-for hope into the most hopeless situation. And the more we seek to know God with all our hearts, the better equipped we are to imitate that work. But now we no longer look at a bad situation and ask how we can try to make it better. Our instinct is to head for the escape hatch.

But considering the odds against it, how do we expect any marriage to last? Someone once said that marriage is like tying a cat and dog together and letting them work things out. A person who has always had the freedom to put his own interests first bonds with another person who has known the same freedom. Self-sacrifice is at the very heart of marriage, no matter unworthy our spouse might seem. If we want the benefits that we know marriage can bring, we must pay the price from the very beginning.

My parents eloped when they were 22 and 21. Many modern commentators on marriage protest that even 25 is too young to know what you want for the rest of your life. My mom and dad had $300 and a car between them, and they certainly didn't know what they were doing. In fact, when I showed my mother the quote from the woman who asked herself, "What did I just do?" she laughed and said she could relate.

They moved more than 20 times in the first 25 years. He went to war twice. They differed about budgeting, lifestyle, and all the rest. Their marriage survived illness, loneliness, too much alcohol, and a whole slew of problems their children brought them, as children will do. It even survived the five years between their respective conversions to Christ.

Last September marked their 35th anniversary. At times, especially in those first years, they thought they couldn't stick it out for one more minute. But ask them today, and without hesitation they will say it's been worth it.

You can't go into marriage thinking about what you'll get from it unless you're giving even more thought to what you'll put into it. You can't think of it in terms of personal "growth," unless you're also thinking about how you can help your spouse grow. And by the unfathomable grace of God, even the most superficial, most immature, weakest marriage can be saved, if we realize that there is something sacred and worth fighting for amid the superficiality and weakness — something far too precious to throw away.

Copyright 2002 Gina R. Dalfonzo. All rights reserved.

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