We are not an exceedingly happy family, but there is no such thing as divorce in my family. It has never happened. It’s not that it is not allowed. It’s only frowned upon. Although Portugal has traditionally been a conservative country of Catholic roots, divorce has been partially legal since 1910 and unrestrictedly legal since 1975. Moreover, the national divorce rate was, in 2012, of an unsettling 73.7%. In the US, the divorce rate on the same year was of approximately 50%.
Most of the members of my family follow the orthodox doctrines of Roman Catholicism and, as such, they do not believe in divorce. The individual who happens to desire to commit such an atrocity will not be shunned, socially exiled or turned into a pariah. They will, although, be secretly hated and thoroughly judged. They will not come to Sunday lunch. They won’t be invited for Christmas. They will not stand beside my 97 year-old great-aunt on Easter as she spouts racist diatribes during casual tableside conversations.
There are stories. There are tales, told by drunken distant cousins, about even more distant cousins who made the astounding decision of separating at a relatively early age, on their 40s or 50s, but who remained legally married. They remained together, as they say, “for the children”, and for the soothing reassurance that they will not be mercilessly judged by God and fellow Men. It is a scary story with scary ending. It is a story of people whose fate became a caricature of the words — “’til death do us part” — when, after the separation, the next occasion in which they lied together as husband and wife, was within the claustrophobic confines of their white marble graves.
To be able to endure the misery and the boredom together until the very end — that seems to be the secret of a long marriage in my family. And, by god, it is a very public secret. During any family event, it is possible to observe the interactional materializations of that secret. My grandparents barely talk to each other. There are no loving glances across the room, no embarrassing displays of affection being exchanged between uncles and aunts. Those relationships exist within the stated purpose of procreation and duty to God.
It is one the many aspects of my family that has confounded and disturbed me for years. Whenever I have conversations with friends about our parents, the only similar point of reference I usually obtain, is from friends talking about their grandparents. Their parents do not complain that their 23-year old son is not married with the second child on the way. Their grandfathers don’t actively support the positive attributes of corporal punishment. Their grandmothers don’t ask shocking questions about their encounters with people of African ancestry on their life on the degenerate capital.
It is not that they fully follow the rigid precepts of Catholicism. There are plenty of children born out of wedlock. Little cousins I have never met. Kids whose mothers made the horrible mistake of trusting my misogynistic uncles, whose mothers treat them like princes who can do no wrong. Rumors of affairs are common and usually spread during the communal Petri dish of Sunday Latin mass. The gossip, though unfortunate and petty, is, almost always, invariably true.
And it’s not that there is no happiness in my family. There’s plenty of it. The abundant memories of my childhood are sweet and grand. After reading such descriptions, it is easy to assume that my familial atmosphere is based on agony and that married couples have to drink copious amounts of wine to hide their mutual scorn. There simply is no way that people with such archaic convictions can find joy in a world that has mostly moved on from such cultural constraints.
For me, the biggest shock has always come when I’m able to grasp that complex understanding. After making secular rationalizations about my family, I realize that they are not miserable bastards, as it is logical that they should be. They are mostly happy. And the secret for that is something that, I think, they have all secretly understood, since they live their lives on the shaky grounds of its dogma. They are hypocrites. They’re all hypocrites. And, for them, that is not bad thing, really, because I think it is the only way in which they’re able to function in this world. It allows them to process the preposterous burdens of Catholic morality while indulging in the simple carnal pleasures of human sin.
It saddens me that, with a few laudable exceptions, it seems that there’s no longer a place for genuine romantic love. As any person who yearns for the naïve ideal of a lasting relationship, I am disappointed by the realities of marriage on the 21st century. The cultural institution of marriage has become the relational representation of Leviathan where the lives of men and women were “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. But I do hope that between the rigid insanity of my late 19th century relatives and the vapid promise-making of the third millennium, somewhere, on the middle ground, there’s room for people who’d like to get married, but will only do so with the expectation that divorce is a distant, frightening and terrible measure of last resort.
In some ways, I think that I almost admire the resilience in my family. I have no plans of following their steps, but there’s something to be said about that that resilience. It comes from the recognition that moral hypocrisy is a pervasive force in this world, certainly much more ubiquitous that the limited way in which it is usually acknowledged. It comes from the acceptance that, sometimes, appearances do matter. It comes from refusal of the lie that we’re all angels watching, unscathed, the debauchery of demons.