One of the things that drive me nuts is that people always say that one in two American marriages ends in divorce. This isn’t exactly true. What is true is that every year there are twice as many marriages as divorces, but this doesn’t mean that one in two marriages ends in divorce. (Unfortunately I can’t really explain why this is so, any more than I can explain short selling, but trust me.)
I have a whole collection of statistics of this sort, statistics that persist in spite of the fact that they’re untrue. One of them is that one in eight Americans will have worked for McDonald’s. Another, which was stated categorically the other day on NBC, is that one in three New York men is gay. Another one, and I’m sorry to say this in the pages of The Nation, is the number of people who are killed by landmines (one every twenty-two minutes), and I don’t even want to get into incest, which for a while was alleged by some feminists to have happened to one in two women.
The statistic about marriage persists, of course, because although it isn’t true, it feels true. There’s a huge amount of divorce. Divorce is the news about marriage, and has been for the past fifty years. Divorce is the news about the culture, too, even though we tend to think that things like television and the Internet are the news about the culture. Divorce is probably going to turn out to be the reason for everything. And unlike television and the Internet, which may or may not be "good things," divorce is bad. It’s bad for women and it’s bad for children. Show me an assassin or a serial killer whose parents weren’t divorced and I will show you an anomaly.
On the other hand, I have been divorced twice, and thank God.
Happy marriages aren’t all alike, but most happy marriages aren’t particularly interesting. But divorce is. Love is bland; the end of love is riveting. Love is serious; the end of love is farce. Love is mysterious and elusive; the end of love is specific to a fault. And when love ends, in the hands of lawyers, you can often see things about marriage that sometimes make me wonder whether half of American marriages (whether headed for divorce or not) aren’t, for the most part, performances.
My friend Merrill Markoe once wrote that one of the most compelling reasons to hope that gay marriage becomes legal is that gays may end up doing for marriage what they do for run-down neighborhoods: restore it to its original splendor. No question that the photos of gay couples getting married these days are far more moving than those perfectly posed pictures of men and women in the Sunday Styles section. Gay couples are usually celebrating love that has lasted, which is, of course, the hard part about marriage. It will be a long time before there are half as many gay divorces as there are gay marriages, but long before that happens, there will be a statistic about it that won’t exactly be true.
Editor’s Note: The article originally appeared in a special issue of The Nation on marriage, in a forum called "Can Marriage Be Saved?"