On failing at marriage

As I finalize the paperwork for my second divorce (only 7 months after I started it–how time flies when you procrastinate!), I think about something my therapist in New York City told me last summer as we discussed this possibility: “A relationship isn’t a failure just because it ends.” I’ve thought about that a lot during the past year. As a general principle I believe it’s true, but in this particular case I feel it would be dishonest to dismiss failure from my interpretation of the story.

The story? In August 2019, Gianna and I got married in a ceremony we designed together. We vowed to love and support each other as life partners “til death do us part”. This is a traditional phrase, but we didn’t include it in our ceremony out of some dutiful or mechanical obedience to tradition. I felt that such obedience was a big factor in my having gotten married and divorced the first time, and I was determined not to repeat the same mistake. We made that vow because we wanted to make it and believed we could keep it.

When the ceremony concluded and I was hidden from the small crowd of guests, I burst into tears. Gianna followed suit, as did her parents and mine, and the six of us hugged each other and wept for a long time. I can’t say for sure why I started crying, but at the time I felt it expressed an emotional (dare I say spiritual?) confirmation of the words I had spoken and an embrace of the words that had been spoken to me.

A mere 10 months later, and after not quite 3 months of pandemic lockdown, Gianna and I parted ways for what turned out to be the last time in our lives as a married couple. We weren’t yet intending to get divorced, but divorce was on the table as a plausible possibility. How the hell had so much changed in so short a time?

I won’t attempt to anatomize the collapse of the marriage here. I’ll just say that we chose what turned out to be a very difficult year in which to wed. Gianna started a Fulbright in Italy not long after the wedding, which she had to end prematurely because of the pandemic. I got a dream job in Cairo, where her employment opportunities (and resources for finishing her dissertation) were unclear. These were big challenges indeed. Yet we knew, when we made our vows, that we would face big challenges sooner or later.

We faced them sooner, and they got the better of us.

My New York therapist was a smart guy. Growing up, I didn’t know anyone who went to therapy, and I absorbed an image of therapists as hippy-dippy charlatans skilled only at making negativity disappear in a puff of flowery, guilt-erasing semantics. My experience with one California therapist showed me that there exist therapists who are even worse than that caricature. But my New York therapist was terrific. So I suspect what he meant when he said “a relationship isn’t a failure just because it ends” wasn’t that nobody ever fails in relationships (which is obviously false), or that one can still appreciate good memories from a relationship that has ended (which is obviously true), but rather that failure can become an opportunity to grow. Failure is debilitating, yes; that must be acknowledged (and lived through). But it can also be enabling.

Jack Halberstam says it best in The Queer Art of Failure: “Under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world.” I hope this is one of those circumstances, for Gianna and for me.

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

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