No one really prepares you for (collapse of) marriage
Marriage is the one social arrangement that all societies in the world preach. People from different parts of the world may disagree on many issues, even those that appear to be morally sensible, but they seem to agree that there is something good in marriage.
Many societies actually insist on marriage, making it almost a rite of passage. In fact, in some religions, marriage is taken as a sacred commitment not just to the community but also to a higher being or spirit or God.
Yet, many societies hardly prepare the individual for marriage. Granted, there are places where marriage is actually an elaborate process, beginning right at birth, where matchmaking is made in childhood.
But even in such contexts, the couple is never really prepared for the drama of life in marriage. For, no one gets married whilst anticipating a rupture that would end in separation or divorce. Just like no driver anticipates an accident until it happens. However, trained drivers know that an accident can and often does happen.
Marriage is the main theme in The Little Book of Marriage and Divorce (Ssali Publishing House & Unisa Press, 2022) by Enid Muthoni. Divorce is just one of those unexpected consequences of marriage. So, every young woman and man out there should keep their eyes on the ball of marriage, right?
Probably no, suggests Muthoni. Maybe, every prospective husband or wife or life partner, or whatever adjective one chooses to use in relation to those who opt to live together as partners, should ask endless questions about what comes before and after the marriage decays.
What comes before a marriage? Not much from the places where children and young people are raised. Parents, relatives, teachers, friends, and the community, just don’t ever conduct Marriage 101 lessons. Society still baulks at the mention of sex education. As Muthoni writes, “The preparation, there is no script, you wing it”.
She elaborates, “There was one lesson in the science class in primary school that presented the human body and there as brief, by brief I mean a minuscule intro to reproduction taught to girls and boys in separate classes”. These are the boys and girls who are expected to transition into marriage as husband and wife, with neither party aware of what was expected of them.
Lack of preparation
Muthoni wonders how society could spend time preparing young people for “successful careers but not for successful lives and relationships”. This lack of preparation goes on into early adulthood when individuals claim to have fallen in love but as Muthoni cautions, probably people only “fall in love with the idea of being in love”. And what are the consequences of this seeming obsession with love?
Women (and men) tend to ignore the signs of looming danger, ending up in a relationship without the basic tools of survival. For instance, women especially tend to be socialised (or coerced) into thinking that somehow the marriage will work out, whatever the early signs of future doom. As the cliché goes, women will ‘kiss so many frogs’, hoping to end up in the arms of prince charming and a blissful marriage (one imagines that men too have their version of this love script).
However, the dream scenario rarely pans out. In fact, shouldn’t women (and men) today discuss the key question that Muthoni poses in this sentence, “I wonder if I was set to fail in this marriage thing from the very beginning”? She qualifies her statement, “You see, I think I had this idyllic picture of what marriage is and what it ought to be. I wanted a marriage like the one my parents had”.
Fine, not all parents have idyllic marriages. In fact, many individuals are born and raised in what can only be termed a domestic prison camp, with endless violence, alienation, poverty and wretchedness. Many young people grow up in homes that predispose them to either repeat their childhood misery or make them permanently scarred and suspicious of marriage.
In other words, such individuals are least prepared for marriage. But there are those who see their parents as ‘a perfect couple.’ Mum and dad don’t quarrel. They walk to church together. They share jokes. They split the bills. They are warm to everyone. They are a happy couple.
Definitely, many people want sunshine in life. But few people ever sit down with their parents to ask them how they have managed their lives all the past years. Even fewer parents ever reveal the ‘secrets’ of their lifelong companionship. This is why Muthoni’s question on whether marriage as a setup is worth asking again and again.
No easy answers
There are no easy answers to this question of marriage. What Muthoni offers in The Little Book of Marriage and Divorce is a series of poetic ruminations on love, marriage, divorce; dramatised conversations with a divorce lawyer; anecdotes of growing up, falling (or failing) in love, getting hitched, marriage, family, slow death of the romance, and the inevitable split; musings how the women are often left empty and with the heaviest burden at the end of a marriage – divorced, often without property, left to take care of the children alone, socially ostracised, emotionally drained etc.
The Little Book of Marriage and Divorce is a feminist call to women (and men?) to rethink marriage. The writer suggests that women should look at life – before, during and if the marriage fails or if they choose not to be married – soberly; more reflectively. Women should ask themselves harder questions about the worth of marriage.
What happens when one doesn’t get children (yet the man demands a child or two or more); are there chances of getting children but not the man’s preferred gender; will ‘money put us asunder’ before death; were he to die, would I inherit the family wealth; how will he feel about my job, income and status; what is the role of the in-laws in the marriage etc.
These questions don’t have immediate answers. Some will never rise during the whirlwind of wooing, romance, and the early days of marriage. They tend to sneak into the carefully planned life and disrupt it. But as Muthoni suggests in the end, “you do not need their permission to leave” (divorce when it is necessary); “it’s ok to give up” (lest you lose your life); “just jump” (when you see a frog jump, there is danger, so the saying goes); “life goes on”; pick up the pieces from the broken life and build a new life.
This view of marriage and life may not necessarily be acceptable to some in today’s society. But what is the cost to society of individuals remaining in marriages that are emotionally, physically and socially costly?
What should society do when women and men who remain in unfulfilling marriages end up destroying their lives and the futures of their children, as well as the lives of friends and family? Since women suffer most from collapsed marriages, Muthoni suggests in The Little Book of Marriage and Divorce that they should become agents of their own lives, and set their own life agendas, more so should they seek to enter another marriage after failure.
That women’s independence doesn’t come easy is a theme that Muthoni carries from the pages of The Little Book of Marriage and Divorce onto the pages of Memoirs of a Gender Focal Point (Ssali Publishing House & Unisa Press, 2022) and Breaking at the Seams: An Anthology (Ssali Publishing House, 2021). These books are all available in local bookshops.
The writer teaches literature, performing arts and media at the University of Nairobi. [email protected]