I am not a fan of the insipid slate of reality shows that plague our television viewing, and I am even less impressed with the "Survivor"-esque shows that pit people against each other and vote people out and whatnot. But there were five minutes of one such show that actually brought up an interesting point for me, and I suppose I have to concede that these reality shows may be good for something, albeit not much.
I'm referring to an episode of The Bachelor, a show that aired a few years ago to what I believe was a lukewarm reception.I won't even go into the sordid details, it was so ludicrously perverse - some idiot gets to sleep with or try to sleep with a bevy of different women and tries to pretend, for the cameras, that he's experiencing a deep personal, marriage-minded relationship with each one...but I digress. The thing that caught my attention was one segment in which he's having dinner with one of his "women" (what else does one call them?). This woman started talking about her former marriage, about how it had all been a big mistake and it was in the past, and how "we ended up having it annulled". Bachelor's face lit up like a Christmas tree. "Oh, so you aren't actually divorced then?" you could see the wheels turning. "You had it annulled...." Apparently Mr. Bachelor had scruples. He could enter into a farce of a dating game and broadcast his sexual encounters with five different women on national television, but a divorced woman? Well, no, he had to draw the line there.
Aside from how obviously insecure and egomaniacal this guy had to be in order to shun someone who was divorced, his reaction to the news of her annulment raised an interesting point. What does it mean to have a marriage annulled? How many people even know what it is? And if you object to the idea of divorce, why doesn't an annulment bother you?
For anyone who doesn't know the ins and outs of legal annulment, the concept is fairly simple. It's a complete evasion of reality, but it's simple: a marriage, entered into by two people and solemnized by the church or the state, is effectively "wiped out", voided, nullified, canceled out - treated as if it never existed. It's not a divorce, because divorce acknowledges that there was a marriage in the first place. Annulments are unusual in our largely non-religious society, and that's probably why they aren't all that common.
Traditionally, it was the Catholic Church who, while completely forbidding divorce, nevertheless came up with a way to "undo" marriages under certain circumstances. Generally, if church officials agreed that one or both of the parties 'lacked the will' to remain faithfully married, or if one or both decided not to have children, or if one or both had married under pressure or duress, then the marriage was considered "invalid", as though it had never taken place. This was an important loophole for Catholics, and most especially for the Catholic kings and queens of Europe throughout history who needed to make political marriages and break them if necessary - and it still goes on today among Catholics who don't want to appear to go against the no-divorce tenets of their faith but who nevertheless want to get as far away from the person they married as possible. Most importantly, it's the only way that Catholics who end their marriages can remarry someone else with the full blessing of the church. And because much of our secular state marriage laws are based on Christian sensibilities, annulments became as much a function of the state as marriages and divorces did, and so it's still an option for parting couples today.
Although every jurisdiction makes their own laws about marriage, divorce and annulment, the grounds for annulment do not vary too much from state to state. Generally speaking, the grounds for annulment are as follows:
Misrepresentation or fraud (concealing the truth about capacity or desire to have children for example, or about existing marriage, or about drug addiction, felony convictions or having reached the age of consent)
Refusal or inability to consummate the marriage (inability or refusal to have sex)
No age of consent (minors or anyone not having reached the age of consent as declared by the state)
Bigamy, incest (being married to someone else, or close relatives)
Duress (being forced or coerced into marriage against one's will)
Mental incapacity (considered unable to understand the nature and expectations of marriage)
At first glance, these seem like reasonable grounds for declaring that a marriage never existed, especially in the case of duress or mental incapacity where it's clear one or both parties did not consent to it willingly. Bigamy, too, and incest as grounds for annulment also make sense to most people - few would argue that if your spouse is currently married to someone else, you can't be married to him as well. And few would argue that a brother and sister who tried to marry would be accepted as married by our culture in general. But I'm sure that the young woman in The Bachelor didn't get her marriage annulled because her husband turned out to be her father or because someone had a gun to her head during the ceremony - like most people, she probably relied on the idea of "misrepresentation" to have her marriage voided, and it is this reason that is the most unreasonable of all.
People will come up with just about anything and call it "misrepresentation" - "But I didn't know Herb was a cross dresser when I married him" or "She told me she was pregnant so that I'd marry her, but she wasn't." They will protest that if someone lies to you or cheats you or misrepresents themselves to you, that the marriage ceremony you went through doesn't mean anything because you didn't have full knowledge, and so couldn't fully consent to the vows you were making.
But if we examine that a little closer, it means that every couple who divorces should, by that reasoning, end up annulled rather than divorced. After all, a wife could argue that she "didn't know" her husband was going to cheat on her fifteen years after the wedding, or a husband could declare that he "didn't know" his wife thought marriage was a free ride with him paying for all the fun. These people probably wouldn't have gotten married either if they had known who their spouses would turn into down the road. What about all those couples who learn more about each other with each passing year of marriage, and learn a few things that they don't particularly like? What about the skeletons that come out of the closet only years after the wedding has taken place? Can we really justify the terrible self-delusion of saying the marriage "didn't happen" just because some people didn't bother to get to know their spouses too well before the wedding, or because life takes us on an unpredictable road sometimes? Can we really justify ignoring reality like that? That's what we're doing when we witness a wedding, treat the couple as married, and then wave our magic wands and say "Oh, that never really happened, it was just an illusion" just because the groom had too much to drink an hour before the ceremony or because the bride failed to mention that she didn't want kids.
This is where I have a problem. If you went through a marriage ceremony, you're married. You spoke vows and exchanged rings before an officiant and witnesses, you went home together as husband and wife, you shared your bed, your time, probably your name, everything. At any point before things all fell apart, if anyone had asked you, you would have declared that you were married. You probably did all of this in "good faith", expecting your marriage to last a lifetime and you probablyfelt married after having done it. None of this changes simply because you found out, later, after the fact, that your spouse was not the person you hoped she was.
I think this is a significant point - just because you didn't know your spouse well enough before you took the plunge doesn't mean you didn't take that plunge. It just means you didn't do it wisely, and in that case, you are perfectly free to divorce. If your husband or wife ends up betraying you or turns out to have some terrible secret they never told you about, you have every reason in the world to end your marriage and find someone you can trust. But to try to pretend that your marriage 'never happened' is the worst kind of evasion there is.
The Bachelor was deluding himself if he wanted a woman who was unspoilt and who would only call one man - him - husband. She did have a husband, she did have a marriage, and she was ultimately divorced, no matter what legal technicality allowed her to say otherwise. I don't know who was the bigger dupe in this show - the man for having a problem with divorce but finding an easy scapegoat called "annulment", or the woman for thinking that she could just erase an ex-husband right out of existence. Either way, they'll both find out sooner or later that marriage is a very real thing, with a very concrete beginning and a very definite ending if it ends at all, and that reality can never be "annulled" just because some of us might want it to be. I hope they find this out before they too have a marriage they just want to wish away.