Ghost marriages? Though ghost marriages are historically reported, and thus are real, the metaphoric possibilities of the concept are far more interesting.
Ghost marriages were an ancient Chinese practice to ward off loneliness in the afterlife. The “arranged” betrothal of an unmarried deceased family member occurred when a corpse match was found to bury beside the unmarried one, usually by a relation, resulting in the intended eternal union. Though contemporary China has discarded the practice and grave robbing is outlawed, there still exists practitioners in rural areas. In fact, just last October, the BBC reported a grave-robbing incident by eligible corpse seekers, which led to arrests.
The idea of a ghost marriage is quite frankly creepy to me, but that is most probably due to my cultural predispositions. As the short TED talk featured below describes, marriage is an historical institution that is shaped by the ever-changing values and practices of a given culture throughout time. It is a flexible arrangement that conforms to the people who practice it.
But a ghost marriage is precisely what some people have, whether intended or not. Let me belabor the obvious with an example of the married couple, one of whom works endless days and nights and misses out on the benefits of marriage and family. A husband who works at an all-consuming job appears vacantly in the family functions of necessity, sometimes at dinner or breakfast before scurrying off to work. His mind is never really there, just his body. He is a symbolic figure as husband and father. Though he goes through the motions of patting his children on the head before leaping off to his car or makes love to his wife to keep up some semblance of duty, his presence is somewhere buried in what others need of him: his job.
Or perhaps his mistress’ siren call is the life-suck that keeps him a specter in his marriage. When he is home, he thinks of her and wants to be with her; she provides him with what he doesn’t get at home. He thinks of her when he does his husbandly duty to keep that circle sewn up, maybe even making it possible to complete the task of making love to his wife. He is a ghost husband.
But the ghost husband or wife may also be either or both in a marriage that has run its course, where both long to be somewhere else but remain in the marriage for the sake of the kids or for fear of financial insecurity or the unknown. The comfort of the well-worn patterns walked in the carpeted floor of the family home of thirty odd years is all that is left when desire and disdain have deadened walking bodies, zombies, that refuse to be buried. The glazed over lifeless eyes that gaze out the kitchen window onto manicured green flawless lawns of suburban safety reveal the truth.
A marriage is only as strong as its weakest member.
Marriage clearly is a highly improbable proposition. How can two people pledge themselves forever after in a lifetime of change? The inhabitants of this thing, marriage, are both the components and the encasement of that which has an independent existence itself. Marriage is both the sum of its parts and the excess, an entity in itself, an idea, a pledge, and a monument to societally structured love and order. It persists.
Like the jailhouse that stands separate from the inmates will continue to stand though the inmates perish, languish or thrive within, so too marriage survives beyond its inhabitants. The bride and groom pledge as much to the symbol and practice of marriage from wedding rituals to marriage licenses and filing joint tax returns, as they promise themselves one to the other.
Marriage tests the mettle of its subscribing members. Survivors of imprisonment and marriage–no I am not equating the two–make their world from within not without. Strong marriage mates can stretch, withstand and grow from pain, isolation and degradation yet do not stagnate in the long safe sailing days of predictability, comfort and security. Marriage is both stasis and evolution, the anchor and the ship.
Just as our bodies are garments we wear to weather the surrounding climate, so too the marriage protects us from outside forces that threaten us: disease, rejection, insecurity, heartbreak and restlessness. We trade possibility and excitement, stimulants from the outside, for the quietude and stability from within the shelter of marriage. Some of us need the staid grounding that strengthens us to journey far.
Some find themselves, what they’re made of, only in adversity. While marriage is the impetus for that discovery for some, ultimately, each of us finds within ourselves the necessary tools to make our own happiness wherever we are and with whom we are by self love; selfless compassion and forgiveness; fullness of time; persistence, presence and acceptance; growth in experience; open-mindedness and the ability to laugh at ourselves.