I’ve been asked to address a wide variety of subjects in my blog, including, among others, jealousy, parenting, marriage, and even assertiveness. And I’ve happily explored them all. But much as I’d like to, I can’t get to everything, so I try to invest my blogging time wisely. Which is why I’ve set aside everything else this week to address the exceedingly important matter of Kim Kardashian’s divorce.
For those of you who may not already know, Kim Kardashian, star of a reality TV show, Keeping up with the Kardashians, married NBA basketball great Kris Humphries, for exactly 72 days–a fact that’s spawned a slew of jokes on twitter and inspired a fascinating little tool called the Kardashian calculator, which allows you to convert the length of your marriage into Kardashians (a unit of time equivalent to 72 days). The brevity of their union has also raised the ire, understandably, of the gay and lesbian community, who usually have to field questions about why they’re so intent on destroying the sanctity of marriage. Kardashian’s divorce is one of many disasters the LGBT community can now point to as evidence that straight people have done a fine job, all on their own, of ruining marriage for everyone. (For what it’s worth, I agree with them. Our time would be far better spent legislating against the marriage rights of the Kim Kardarshians of the world than interfering with the lives of millions of same sex couples in the US.)
All well and good, you might be thinking, but why would a clinical psychologist with so many other potential commitments, squander his free time by exploring the implications of Kim Kardashian’s brief period of not-so-wedded bliss? I have no good answer to that question since I’ve never even seen the show. So I’ll avoid explaining my choice for now, as we therapists often do, and instead focus in depth on why you should be concerned about the implications of the Kardashian-Humphries divorce.
At present, there seem to be two, competing theories embraced by the press and public at large:
1) The whole wedding was a hoax, yet another example of reality TV manipulating its viewing audience to yield higher ratings and a bigger profit.
2) Kim and Kris were simply young and in love–too blinded by their passion to consider the realities of a long-term commitment. Or, as Gregory House, a character from a show I do watch might say, “they’re both idiots.”
I find the first explanation oddly comforting. In a way, it reflects our unbounded optimism when it comes to marriage. That is, despite a steady divorce rate of 50%, and our abysmal track record for sustaining marital happiness over time, we’re all left so completely dumbfounded in the face of Kim Kardashian’s astounding about face that we’d prefer to believe the whole thing was made up. I imagine I’m not alone, though, in being completely horrified by the thought that this might actually be true. Staging a marriage for entertainment and profit does tremendous damage to an already troubled institution.
And what about the second explanation? Why should that concern you?
One simple reason. If this really was just a whirlwind romance that failed (it looks like they married within nine months of beginning to date), that means there’s really nothing special about it all. In fact, rather than being remarkable, it’s simply emblematic. It shows us exactly what’s wrong with how we all think about marriage.
As I’ve discussed previously, passion can blind us, and the “love chemicals” may be partly to blame. Oxytocin, released when we touch, kiss, or hold hands, relaxes our guard. Dopamine, the same brain chemical released when we’re psychotic or high, floods our nervous system. Our brain’s judgment centers, which should be busy evaluating a potential partner, become eerily quiet when we’re falling in love. For most of recent human history, this wasn’t of much concern when it came to long-term commitment. People lined up for arranged marriages, based on pragmatism and mutual economic interest (which is still the case, in some cultures). But once we started to marry based on passion, a new narrative for love emerged, one which clearly conflated love with lust: true love is irrational, earth shattering, and beyond our control. “The heart wants what it wants,” as the filmmaker Woody Allen explained, when confronted with public outrage over his marriage to his ex-wife’s adopted daughter.
But we didn’t buy it. Nor should we. However seductive it might be, this image of true love as something mystical, something completely beyond our control, was probably constructed in our cultural imagination because it justified defying the wishes–and the interests–of both the family and the culture at large. After all, who could blame Romeo and Juliet, the children of two warring clans, for casting aside convention and common sense, and following their hearts? It was love, after all. Infatuation, on the other hand–well, what fool would risk health and happiness for something as shallow as that?
Which brings us back to Kim. She claims she tried to save the marriage (one wonders what portion of the 72 days she devoted to her soul-searching efforts), and that the whole experience has been thoroughly devastating, shocking, deeply disappointing–I may have added some color to her language here–as if she was simply ambushed by the reality of what marriage means. This is what troubles me most about explanation number two–call it the naïve young lover theory. Second thoughts are hardly a good reason for a divorce. By the time you’ve decided to marry, you shouldn’t be surprised by your partner’s personality at all (one of the reasons cited for the their problems). Unfortunately, this kind of thing happens all the time in relationships rooted in infatuation and fantasies of perfection.
Life is full of obstacles, some of which we choose (like Kim and Kris, choosing to be in the public eye), some of which we don’t. In the end, it’s our ability to navigate those obstacles and maintain a loving bond that’s the true test of a relationship. Do you work together to face the inevitable problems of building a life together? Or do you succumb to the myth of an effortless, ineffable love?
All the clips and photos I’ve seen lead me to believe that Kim and Kris’ romance was glamorized in all the typical fairytale ways. In fact, the show featuring her wedding was called Kim’s Fairytale Wedding: A Kardashian Event. (Subtle, I know.) I imagine the audience witnessed plenty of magic during those hours: the celebration of a completely impossible ideal, in which two separate people, with different needs, motivations, and feelings, mysteriously fall in love and marry but somehow–just as mysteriously–never need to work anything out. Why should they? It’s simple. They have love on their side.
Until they don’t. Then they divorce.
Not unlike the millions of other couples operating under the very same, outdated, anemic version of romance–a story in which love, itself, conquers all. Without reflection or work. Without, it seems, any real knowledge of the person we’re with. Somewhere in time, way back when we discovered the “I can’t help myself” excuse, this notion of romantic love might have come in handy–especially, say, for a young suitor who needed to rationalize away hooking up with the daughter of his father’s nemesis. Today we’re supposed to know better. So how come we don’t?
It’s all too easy to lampoon the behavior of Kris and Kim. It’s also comforting, because it gives us some distance. Idiots, we can say. I’d never behave that way. I have far more sense than that.
But our divorce rate seems to suggest otherwise. The demise of the Kardashian marriage is, in reality, mind-numbingly ordinary. That’s what makes it so incredibly disturbing. And that’s why you should really be concerned about the Kardashian-Humphries divorce.