Every other Wednesday in Cool Takes, S. D. Kelly offers a fresh reflection on hot topics by exploring the intersection of faith with high and low culture.
Drew Barrymore is getting divorced. She’s been married for four years to an art consultant named Will Kopelman. A wedding photo of the smiling couple, heads together, made the front cover of People back in 2012, a fitting bookend to the magazine’s current cover, which features just Barrymore, alone and somber.
It’s unclear what marriage is, exactly, beyond a celebrity wearing a white dress on the cover of People magazine.“Sadly our family is separating legally, although we do not feel this takes away from us being a family,” Barrymore says in People. Along with their two young daughters, Barrymore and Kopelman plan to continue operating as a family. The marriage will dissolve and fade, the legal union undone by lawyers and a rock solid prenup. The family, however, will go on according to Barrymore, divorce notwithstanding.
Gwyneth Paltrow, the celebrity yin to Barrymore’s yang, famously described the end of her own marriage in 2014 to musician Chris Martin as a “conscious uncoupling.” Paltrow has made a point of saying that she and Martin and their two kids remain a family even in the wake of the uncoupling. “The point of conscious uncoupling is how to stay a family when going through a divorce,” Paltrow says in a recent interview in Glamour.
When I was a kid, I used to read the engagement announcements in the local newspaper with the avidity and curiosity of a housebound 85-year-old. It’s not that I dreamed of being married someday myself; it’s that I sensed that the young people whose pictures I scrutinized were going to be the foundation of the world, the same world I was due to inherit. That young man in the photo, standing behind his fiancée against a mottled green backdrop in a photography studio, his arms gently wrapped around his lady as if preparing to protect her from whatever harm might come—possibly beginning right there in the local franchise of Olan Mills—was now a novitiate in a sacred societal institution of marriage. A young person who was willing to get married, potentially have babies, support those babies, and so on was a person who by definition was yoking himself or herself to the larger community, providing a stable foundation for all of our communal rituals: 4-H club, high school basketball, church youth group, boy scouts, and the county fair.
Stability moves from being a notion to becoming a necessity after a wedding. Even my 9-year-old self knew this, immersed as I was in a close reading of the biographies of the betrothed, surveying the couple’s educations, job prospects, and living situations as detailed in their engagement announcements. I would (somewhat coldly for a kid, it seems to me now) calculate the likelihood the couple had of “making it,” of traveling all the way over to the facing page of the newspaper after an interval of years, where the silver and golden anniversary announcements were printed.
I no longer calculate the likelihood of this sort of outcome when reading the wedding and engagement announcements in the Sunday New York Times, the grown-up, globalist version of my local newspaper. It’s not that I’m not interested or hopeful that a couple will last ’til death do they part; it’s that I don’t consider the announcements to be related to marriage.
I don’t consider these announcements in any sense other than that of being really good stories, fascinating glimpses into lives outside my own. Happily, each tiny little narrative ends at the moment when things are working out really well for the couple. Each two-paragraph engagement announcement is like a romance novel rendered in miniature, the stories stopping just short of whatever happens next. Please, for the love of Pemberley, don’t tell us what happens next.
Way back in 2006, Brad Pitt was quoted in People as saying “Angie and I will consider tying the knot when everyone else in the country who wants to be married is legally able.” On the other hand, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell “didn’t feel like they needed a piece of paper to be committed,” says the actress Kate Hudson, Goldie’s daughter. Now, nearly 33 years into their relationship, Hawn and Russell still don’t feel as though they need a piece of paper to legally recognize their union, tax breaks and hospital visitation rights aside, while Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie ended up getting legally married in spite of their scruples.
Meanwhile in 2016, Drew Barrymore follows up her divorce announcement by saying that legal sundering “doesn’t take away from being a family,” and Gwyneth Paltrow is still discussing her relationship with her husband, a year after she filed for divorce. According to her interview in Glamour, Paltrow even sleeps over at Martin’s house and vice versa. “We spend a lot of time together,” says Paltrow. She, too, says that they will always be family.
So then, why aren’t they still married? Who knows? It’s unclear what marriage is, exactly, beyond a celebrity wearing a white dress on the cover of People magazine. These same celebrities ratchet the value of the institution up and down at dizzying levels. My 9-year-old self does not approve.
But then again, I was lucky enough as child to have grandparents who could have been featured in a PSA for marriage as a public good. They were married for 67 years, which seems an unimaginable stretch of time. My grandpa was a reserved man and not given to proclamations of faith or love though he lived his life according to both. He gave his kids a book by Khalil Gibran when each one graduated, a somewhat scandalous act when viewed in retrospect by my mother, an evangelical. Still, marriage—not the Barrymore-Paltrow model of living as a family post-divorce, but legal, sometimes-tough-to-navigate-marriage—is supposed to be a universally recognized institution. This means that everyone is allowed to speak to it, even Catholic poets.
Then Almitra spoke again and said, “And what of Marriage, master?”
And he answered saying:
You were born together, and together you shall be forevermore.
You shall be together when white wings of death scatter your days.
Aye, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.
Love one another but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.
A more prosaic way to state this same idea comes from the writer Garrison Keillor. Keillor, at 73 is short on time when it comes to suffering fools, and does not seem to consider legal divorce to be a minor obstacle in counting his ex-wife as family. No conscious uncoupling for him, just plain old uncoupling.
Keillor’s advice, many years after he remarried, is equally plain and old. The rules of marriage, Keillor maintains, are the same as for a lifeboat:
. . . don’t crowd each other, no sudden moves, and keep all disastrous thoughts to yourself.