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Till 2006 do us part

The tyranny of the ideal

Well, it’s that time of year again. No, not election season. Break-up season. There seems to be something about spring that makes long-term couples itch, gets them sniffing at what they hope will be sweeter flowers.

A good friend of mine recently broke up with her partner of eight years. As we dissected the highs and lows of their relationship over ice cream we hit upon what seemed like a revolutionary idea: that long-term relationships just aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. That each relationship has a natural life span and that extending it artificially will only serve to stunt the growth of the individuals involved.

It’s odd that even those of us who have rejected other markers of traditional marriage in our relationships, monogamy for instance, remain wed to the fantasy of “till death do us part.” Somehow, despite all the arguments and evidence to the contrary, the expectation persists that once a relationship has reached some critical momentum it should just keep rolling along forever.

It seems rather fantastical to imagine that any two people could change through the course of their lifetimes in a way that would allow them to continue to be compatible partners. Even simple friendships, which require far less in the way of synergy, ebb and flow over time. It seems unlikely that a romantic relationship, which is more intimate and intense, would not be affected in a similar fashion.

Still, the idea that a relationship will last forever is undeniably appealing, not unlike the idea of true love or soul mates. Who wouldn’t like to imagine that there could be a single special person out there with whom permanent fulfilment is possible? There’s nothing wrong with having a clear ideal, but imposing that ideal where it doesn’t fit is problematic.

In the next item, McGill professor Margaret Somerville argues that marriage is just such an ideal. Her thinking is that the institution should be limited to opposite-sex partners, not because queers aren’t just as capable of having loving committed relationships as straight folks, but because a man and a woman bound together in a permanent relationship represent the ideal conditions in which to raise children. According to Somerville it is this distinction that warrants the institutionalization of marriage and makes the heterosexual couple alone worthy of government recognition.

It’s a fine thought, as ideals go. Although I don’t buy the argument that children are better off raised by their biological parents, I can see an argument for the permanency of the parental relationship. But legislating an ideal doesn’t call it into existence. It can only encourage the illusion that the ideal has been attained.

There is some sick sense of success in having a long-term relationship, as though it were a question of stamina as opposed to happiness. We all know at least one couple that’s been together for ages and are perfectly miserable. They might not even like each other anymore, but they stay together out of a sort of inertia; it’s simply easier to let things go on as they are than it is to break up. Are these really the ideal conditions for raising kids?

Even before there was the spectre of marriage hanging over homos’ heads there was the impulse to build permanency into our relationships, whether it meant entangling ourselves financially, domestically or otherwise. Some might argue it’s a kind of biological predisposition. It might just be a lack of imagination.

I don’t mean to sound cynical. It’s not that I’m against long-term relationships. My girlfriend and I are coming up to the five and a half year mark and I’m hopeful that we’ll be together well into the unforeseeable future. But I recognize this as a hope rather than an inevitability, and I want to believe that should the time come that we’ve grown too far apart to continue to be each other’s partners that we’ll be able to end things in a way that’s respectful and that we can continue to be important people in each other’s lives.

There isn’t a framework out there for amicable separation. We place such importance on the ideal that when a long-term couple breaks up it is generally taken to be as a result of some failure on one or both sides. Any ideal is only as good as our ability to resist imposing it where it doesn’t fit.