Monday, October 19, 2015

Something About Monogamy and My Divorce

It's probably bad form to take more than a few months to get over the break up of a romantic relationship that only lasted a decade or two. Protracted mourning of a disastrous end even to a deeply felt and profoundly meaningful relationship is felt to be something shameful, a disgusting wallowing in a disappointed self-pitying infantilism.

Human Sexuality in all its varieties is a peculiar thing. Many times it is not at all what a person expects it to be. Just look at the coming out stories of many gays and lesbians, especially of those poor souls coming from conservative Christian homes. The heart wants what the heart wants, or rather the genitals want what the genitals want. Sexual monogamy is not a necessary prerequisite for intimacy. Sexual monogamy does, however, make possible it's own peculiar forms and possibilities for intimacy. When a monogamous relationship is also heterosexual, there is a seemingly infinite abundance of possible forms to choose from to reinforce and deepen intimacy between a man and a woman. Even now marriage is still primarily between 2 people. The ideal marriage is still looked upon as founded on commitment to one another and on the creation of intimacy. And what is intimacy? Perpetually finding oneself with unfinished business with another person.

Once upon a time marriage was not felt to be a mere personal choice akin to selecting a wedding gown or a restaurant for tonight's dinner.It was arranged or it was a calculation to achieve an end. The idea of God sanctioning marriage made it more than private, personal choice, hence the difficulty if not impossibility of divorce.

If marriage is something other than yet another personal choice, then there are standards for determining what counts as a "good" and ideal marriage, and what does not, as well as everything in between. This means some possible marriage arrangements are excluded and others are deemed praiseworthy. Once marriage became primarily a matter of personal choice for idiosyncratic reasons, same-sex marriage was inevitable. It also meant an increasing divorce rate and greater likelihood of infidelity.

Considered as a simple personal choice, it does seem that needing more than a few months to get over a disastrous end to a relationship is excessive. It is not prudent to invest oneself so deeply and committedly in a relationship, romantic or otherwise. The only payout for a broken heart is irredeemable pain. Consequently, grief and severe depression lasting years resulting from a disastrous end to a relationship is one's own damn fault. The egoism that would declare one's love for anyone to be of such high passion, is unseemly. One should just get over it already. It is a pain no one wants to hear about, at least not without getting paid to listen.

I know in my case the roots of my untimely conception of marriage. Growing up, we moved around a lot. I attended 6 or 7 grade schools before high school. Life was always unsettled. New schools, new "friends", new bus stops, new schedules. As I've written elsewhere there were ongoing conflicts between my parents. There would be months at a time when they would only communicate with one another through us kids. And there were always conflicts about money. And there were other grounds for conflict which I am forgetting or of which I was only dimly aware. But all through this like the foundation of the world, my parents stayed married for 38 years before Dad found himself a woman half his age & twice his size. Even though I was 24 or 25 at the time, the divorce hit me hard. I don't think I ever really understood why until now.

Zoya leaving me almost killed me. I was in a severe depression for 4 or 5 years. The sudden, unexpected, brutal disillusionment. The discovery that I had been living in a fool's paradise undid me. Given the depth of my disillusionment, it's painfully obvious to say in hindsight that I should have known better. Anyone who's read much of this blog will recognize right away that an awful lot of "who I am" is tied up with being as severely honest with myself about myself and about the world around me as I can possibly be. My grand disillusionment was especially bitter and demoralizing.

De omnibus dubitandum. Be suspicious of everything! (generally attributed to Descartes) Very specific experiences lie at the root of the appeal of that phrase to me and I won't discuss them here. Mainly because it was a modus operandi that I had already adopted long before I ever heard of Descartes. My grand disillusionment raised troubling questions that had to be sorted out. Was I especially prone to self-deception, did it even make sense to find my out of mazes of my own making? To what extent could the "grandness" of my disillusionment have been mitigated? Or was the whole project of de omnibus dubitandum doomed from the get-go? To what extent had I become fat and lazy, complacent even, to believe that I had worked out that part of my life?

When I think now, of how I felt about my marriage to Zoya, I remember feelings of certainty. It was a certainty that I arrived at reluctantly. I was careful but over the time that we were together my fears and suspicions were gradually laid to rest. I could find no reason to doubt that I had found a certainty that was above and beyond the comings and goings of feelings and moods. I was living my life emotionally, spiritually, professionally, socially, and in every other conceivable way as if I was going to be married to Zoya for the rest of my life. When we met I thought she might be the woman with whom I would spend the rest of my lie. Over time, that hope gradually turned into fact and the cornerstone of my life & place in the world. Divorce? Infidelity? Those things happened to other people.

After the dissolution of my marriage, I was left alone with my questions and my conscience. Being left alone with one's conscience is the most brutal spiritual experience that I can imagine. What it really means is that my conscience became my torturer-interrogator. Everything had to be reexamined, subjected to minute scrutiny. Every thought, every feeling, every whimsical passing fancy had to explain itself and justify itself. The starting point was, as would be expected for someone brought on a nasty version of Christianity, my completely abject worthlessness. Not even as a human being, my humanity was also thoroughly cross-examined and worked over. I think of this process as reading my own entrails much in the same way ancient diviners would read bird entrails in the Roman Empire. It was as much punishment as it was truth-seeking.

One of the signs of clinical depression is excessive fault finding in oneself. When in a severe depressive episode a person might seem calm, even inert, to other people, but internally, there is a raging hell-storm of anger, self-recrimination, fault-finding, hurled epithets, all fueled by an eagerness, a lust even, to believe every possible bad thing about oneself. In high school I went through something similar as a culmination of a series of unacknowledged traumas. Then, as with this last hell-storm, I had no one close to me to whom I could turn for understanding or a kind word that was more than perfunctory, rote encouragement that only betrayed complete ignorance of my emotional life.

This is what I mean by being left alone with one's conscience. If memory serves, in the Book of Job, Satan is referred to as "the Accuser." It's hardly surprising that I had difficulty performing even the most minimal self-care: eating, occasionally showering, getting out of bed. Anything beyond that like brushing my teeth, eating a balanced healthy diet, keeping in touch with friends and family, etc. were far beyond me. Obligations beyond the bare minimum turned into occasions for self-blame. I looked at myself and saw only failure, despair, powerlessness, filth, disgust with myself, and then disgust that I occasionally found my enjoying the self-flagellation, the hope/belief that it all made me somehow superior.

Even if it didn't always seem so at the time, it all really was about answering my questions. Was I especially prone to self-deception, did it even make sense to find my out of mazes of my own making? To what extent could the "grandness" of my disillusionment have been mitigated? Or was the whole project of de omnibus dubitandum doomed from the get-go? To what extent had I become fat and lazy, complacent even, to believe that I had worked out that part of my life once and for all?

I've believed for a long time that there is an internal arrangement to our drives, passions, and desires that had its own logic. I used to call it the logic of one's passions. Used to, this was called a person's character. The internals come to an arrangement and ranking based on their relative strengths (not the same as felt intensity). This internal arrangement then shows itself outwardly to other people in how the person arranges and organizes his surroundings through words and deeds. I had this all more or less worked out long before I stumbled across Heraklitos' "Character is destiny."

What does this have to do with anything? We engage the world because of our character and with the panache that our character requires. We love what enhances us. In what I would call deep intimacy, our beloved allows us to take the logic of our passions further and further, to infinity and beyond, to quote Buzz Lightyear. The desire for intimacy, and especially for deep intimacy once tasted, creates phantasms which when shared only deepen and prolong intimacy. When these phantasms are not shared but haven't been contradicted by reality—yet? The phrase "fool's paradise" comes to mind.

My inability to form enduring convictions is profound. Maybe it's because of my ADD, maybe it's something else. But looking back, it was always perfectly clear that I would never have been able to remain stuck in the conviction that I was a worse than a worthless piece of shit [shit, worthless shit, even, is still worth something as fertilizer, maybe there's a metaphor hidden here]. My spiritual restless is congenital.

Another way to describe that hell-storm of the last several years is as wrestling with my conscience. The story of Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord was always one of my favorite Bible stories, even as a small child. Sometimes those years appear in my memory as an endless trek through some featureless, barren arctic wasteland under dull gray skies, with little memory of where I came from and less knowledge of where I was going. Endlessly slogging along day after day.

These last few years did give me the right to be confident in some answers to my questions. No, I am not unusual in my propensity to self-deception. Willfully avoiding acknowledgment of some of the unpleasantnesses of one's life is intrinsic to being a social animal. Avoidance of unpleasant truths is necessary for social life, and especially agreement as to just which unpleasant truths are to remain unacknowledged.

I also learned a couple of things about myself. The isolation that my father inflicted upon us all created two things: an awareness of a capacity for profound intimacy coupled with an equally great ignorance of the means to create that intimacy. Or maybe the feeling of ignorance is misleading. The means to create intimacy: time, repeatedly sharing little moments, experiences together until suddenly hitherto an unnoticed shared privacy with endless unfinished business.

Do I think everyone should be monogamous? Why? Just because that is the kind of relationship that I am happiest with? Human sexualities are diverse. Many people get hung up on monogamy because it was so highly valued for so long. Now that sexual relationships, marital and otherwise, are usually matters of personal choice? Clearly & obviously not. Monogamy is one way among others of going about having sex. Human beings have a need for intimacy. Often sex is used as means to intimacy, or it is felt that sex ought to be a means to intimacy. In other words, for many people monogamy means failure, and with failure guilt and resentment along with the compulsion to place blame. As soon as the word "ought" appears, the topic of discussion changes to something that is not how things are, but to an imaginary, wishful de-acknowledgement of the realities of the present.

These things that I learned from struggling with my conscience all presuppose that I take my side against my conscience. To clarify, there are two ways a conscience can work: as a means to punish bad behavior and as a means to reward good behavior. Everyone has these two aspects of conscience with one or the other predominating at different times in different situations. The harshness of my conscience is the culmination of childhood experiences of verbal and physical abuse. There is one thing that my father did do that probably saved me from a psychotic break in high school: if I told him the truth when he asked me if I did something, he wouldn't use his belt on me, even if he really, really wanted to sometimes. Simple punishment is not enough, punishment has to be deserved. And deserving is a mixture of values and facts. Consequently, the accusations leveled by one's conscience have to be true and as accurate as possible.

* * *

As a practical matter, what does this all mean for my divorce. Simply, we had different expectations. I loved her more than she loved me (assuming she ever did, and that I wasn't mainly a convenient tool for having children).

Two final remarks. 1) If I hadn't invested myself so thoroughly in the life Zoya & I had made together (foolishly or not), I wouldn't have suffered such a profound disillusionment, and put myself through such a thoroughly torturous interrogation. And, 2) interrogation of one's conscience is not just to oppose its accusations. In my case, I found the accusations particularly alluringly probable, tempting me to solid unflinching belief in the truth of the accusations that my conscience made. Wrestling with one's conscience ends up opposing any temptation to embrace a belief or course of action as being perfectly and unquestioningly the right one.

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