[Bella’s intro: It has always bothered me when people heap such high praise and applause on people who stay married for a long time when other significant relationships are not similarly valued. I wrote about one example of that here previously. Recently, in the Community of Single People, Kristin Noreen asked whether a lengthy marriage should qualify as an accomplishment. I thought Kristin’s post was written in a careful and a compelling way. I liked it a lot. But it got a lot of push-back. I asked Kristin if she wanted to share her argument here, and respond to the reactions it elicited. Happily, she agreed. Thanks, Kristin!]
Should a Lengthy Marriage Qualify as an Accomplishment?
By Kristin Noreen
Last week George H.W. Bush and Barbara Bush celebrated their 71st wedding anniversary. I found this out through a posting on Facebook that showed a photo of them together, with the caption, “Happy 71st anniversary to the longest married presidential couple in history, President George Bush and Barbara Bush.” A friend of mine shared the post and added her own caption, “What an accomplishment!”
I stopped to think about it for a minute, then reposted it yet again on the closed forum, Community of Single People, with a note saying “Is accomplishment really the appropriate word choice?” Maybe for this couple, but what rankled me is the notion that any long-married couple predictably receives such praise. By all means, congratulate them on the anniversary, and be happy for them. But is it an accomplishment?
To me, developing a vaccine is an accomplishment. Running a marathon is an accomplishment. Learning to walk again after a brain injury—something I have actually done—is an accomplishment. But is remaining married year after year really an accomplishment? In some cases it’s the path of least resistance. In other cases, it’s a deeply ingrained force of habit. If, after being married 71 years, you are still in love, that’s fantastic luck, but is it an accomplishment? Calling it an accomplishment just seems a little like giving adults blue ribbons for perfect attendance.
Raising good people is an accomplishment, I’ll give you that. Some of my friends from childhood have raised good people; some have raised adults who are now in treatment, dealing with the fallout of dysfunction, or in jail. All the parents are praised equally at anniversary time.
It’s a general consensus in society that marriage takes hard work. Society rewards those who stay together with approval and the perception of moral heroism. Those who don’t stay together are somehow morally lesser beings; they just couldn’t cut it. Even when the marriage holds one partner back—that partner’s sacrifice is noble. If you can’t work out your differences, you failed. As society changes and becomes less conducive to the old family model, the social sanctions haven’t adapted with the times.
When I questioned the use of the word “accomplishment” on the Community of Single People, the reactions generally ran in the vein of, “Hey, if they’re happy, more power to them.” I found it interesting how many people completely missed the point and assumed that I was having a knee-jerk groan reaction to the veneration of marriage. That wasn’t my point at all. The post was clear—all I took issue with was the use of the word “accomplishment.” Some people did get the point and asserted that maintaining healthy relationships was essential to living a good life, so yes, it was an accomplishment. Is anyone praising people for lasting friendships, or for being close to their siblings, or nieces and nephews? I get the principle that healthy relationships are part of a good life, but I still don’t make the leap from there to “accomplishment.”
Society loves a good romance. How many public marriage proposals have you seen on TV (and possibly in real life) where as soon as people realize what’s happening, they all go “aaaaw” and cheer if the woman says yes, knowing nothing about the events that led up to the proposal? Nobody applauds the woman who walks away from the family she started too young, to pursue her talent as a world-class pianist. But the woman who sacrifices that career to raise her kids, and dazzles the family when she plays the piano for Christmas carols, her martyrdom is glorious.
People stay together for all kinds of reasons. They might have a talent and be so afraid to try, they hide in the convention of family. They might be naturally wired to be the marrying kind. (Not all of us are, by the way.) They might be passionately in love with someone and give thanks every day for the extraordinary luck of crossing paths with their One.
Which brings me to my real point: a long marriage should not be viewed as an accomplishment as much as a stroke of uncommon luck, to be humbly given thanks for by the couple themselves. Parties are okay for the big anniversaries; I’ll go to your 50th.
By all means, congratulate couples on their anniversary. Recognize it as a happy event. But let’s not call it an accomplishment, unless they happen to be the Curies and their work together changed the world.
About the Author
Kristin Noreen lives in Bellingham, Washington, where she works a variety of home-based consulting jobs, volunteers in animal rescue, and regularly contributes to the Facebook closed forum, Community of Single People. She recently published a memoir, On Silver Wings: A Life Reconstructed.
Photo courtesy of the guest blogger