Why You Married the Wrong Person

gray divorce, divorced over 50

The New York Times recently published an article by novelist-philosopher Alain de Botton entitled “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.”

Many Divorced Over 50’s will see that title and think, “That’s not something I will do, it’s something I did do.”

So why bother reading his piece and trying to make sense of it?

Because his arguments should make most of us feel pretty damn good (or at least better) about being Divorced Over 50.

de Botton begins with some background on marriage itself. He explains that for most of recorded history, marriages occurred for logical reasons: his family’s land was next to hers, or her father was a magistrate in town. This persisted into the era of Downton Abbey — remember how Lady Mary was pushed to marry Matthew to preserve her family’s lifestyle? 

This approach to marriage rarely resulted in happy ones.

More recently, “marriage of reason” has been replaced by the “marriage of feeling.” That’s what we all thought we were doing, right? Marrying for love? Marrying to be happy?

According to de Botton, what we were truly seeking was familiarity. We were trying as adults to recreate feelings we knew well in childhood. Unfortunately, those feelings were often part of a destructive dynamic; for instance, wanting to help a parent who was out of control. Don’t we all know someone who admits something along the lines of: “After my divorce, I realized I had married ‘my father’.”?

de Botton adds that we also marry these days because we are lonely — the prospect of remaining single is so unbearable, we’ll marry the wrong person just to stop being alone. And he says we marry to make a nice feeling permanent; that is, we want to hang onto the joy we felt when we first got engaged.

And, just like the old-fashioned marriages, he says even new-fangled ones are doomed to unhappiness, too.

But de Botton says it doesn’t matter. His solution is for the still married person to just abandon the romantic idea of marriage, and accept that our partners will “frustrate, anger, annoy, madden and disappoint us — and we will (without malice) do the same to them.” And he suggests adopting a philosophy of pessimism, as it will relieve the pressure our romantic culture places on us.

Closing the barn door after the marriage horse has left, he suggests it’s best to seek a partner who is good at disagreement. He says it is “…the capacity to tolerate differences with generosity that is the true marker of the ‘ not overly wrong’ person.” He adds that romanticism has been harmful, leaving us lonely, and convinced that our marriages are not normal.

Okay, all that being said, why should de Botton’s philosophy make us celebrate being Divorced Over 50?

First off, because we’re out of that bad marriage. We don’t have to abandon romanticism in an effort to continue with someone who wasn’t making us happy. We’re spared even attempting that difficult, or perhaps impossible, effort.

But mainly, in seeking a new partner as a DO50, we can now add the lessons of de Botton to the additional knowledge we’ve gained about ourselves. Even stopping short of his total rejection of romanticism (which I definitely do), the notion of finding someone who can “negotiate differences in taste intelligently” rather than one “who shares our every taste,” is worth considering.

Moreover, this time around, we’re judging this possible partner on who he or she has actually become, not just on potential. Which should lead to a better choice than the first time.

I wrote about the advantages DO50’s enjoy in seeking new romance in this piece, Time is on Your Side When You’re DO50. I’m in no way comparing myself to de Botton, but another quote from his piece very much aligns with what I wrote:

“Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating.”

As DO50’s, we’ve been there and done that. But now we get the chance to do it over, the right way.

(If you want to read more from Alain de Botton, click here).