“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
"Who so findeth a wife findeth a good thing." Proverbs
Reinventing Marriage: How can I miss you if you won’t go away?
We’ve all been sold a bill of goods- that marriage is the sine qua non of a happy life. But statistics tell a different tale: that roughly half of all marriages end in divorce, and that even more- upwards of 60-70% of second marriages crash and burn, often with devastating consequences for the involved parties and children left scattered among the detritus. And actuarial tables and studies have shown us again and again that married women are the least emotionally and physically healthy participants in a marriage, while men report the most satisfaction within the confines of marriage. When we are confronted with the stereotype on a constant basis that men are commitment-phobes, and women are needy, MRS-degree seeking, marriage-obsessed neurotics, how do we resolve this paradox and make sense of modern marriage?
Well, I say we just go ahead and redefine the whole thing. I am hardly the first to point out that marriage is a wholly unnatural state of affairs from an evolutionary perspective. But from a personal perspective, I also crave solitude and sometimes just want to sleep alone, in a bed with cool sheets, without anybody touching me or demanding my attention. I want to be able to stay up and watch tv or read all night without fear of disturbing anyone, and sometimes I want to fall asleep early without my husband watching stupid GOLF videos or talking to me about his insane politics. Like Garbo, I vant to be alone!!! And, to point out a stereotypically male perspective, how can one go a lifetime without a first kiss, that incomparable thrill that becomes a thing of the past once we walk down the aisle?
And yet…we crave the singular intimacy that only comes from weathering life’s ups and downs- the same pits and valleys that are romance-killers: crises with children, career fluctuations, economic downturn, getting older/fatter/thyroid disorders. You can only get that from a long-term relationship, unless you are Madonna, or JLo.
But the very idea, of marriage- that “forsaking all others, we keep ourselves only unto him as long as we both shall live” is pretty heavy-duty, man. I was thinking about this the other day while forced into a whitewater-rafting expedition with my children and husband on the Rogue River in Oregon. Made popular by Western author and romantic rogue Zane Grey, the river was subsequently abandoned because of its over-crowdedness and celebrity congestion- conditions Grey himself caused by drawing attention to it and romanticizing it- though not before he had set up a love shack on its shores that he enjoyed with a succession of young and/or exotic mistresses, funded and facilitated by his wife Dolly, an heiress who remained happily in Manhattan, raising their three children and editing his often awful prose. “So”, I mused, as I floated on the gear boat like Cleopatra down the Nile, paddled by a succession of jacked-up, badass river guide-women, “he chased an ideal and then left it behind once he tamed it, just like a man.” His wife, a thoroughly modern Millie who attended Hunter College and later Columbia University at the turn of the last century, seemed less offended than amused by his shenanigans, and probably immensely enjoyed herself back in New York, uncontrolled by an annoying husband telling her what to do or embarrassing her by ogling other women in their own neighborhood- “As an author you are pre-eminent, as a fisherman unexcelled . . . as a manager of the fair sex you are superhuman, and as a husband you are . . . PUNK!!"
50 year-old Zane Grey with his teenage mistress
For what it’s worth, Grey did warn her, telling her “he loved women and would not change his ways once he married her”, and adding “I love to be free. I cannot change my spots. The ordinary man is satisfied with a moderate income, a home, wife, children and all that . . . But I am a million miles from being that kind of a man and no amount of trying will ever do any good.” Well, duhhhh! Who doesn’t feel that way? Maybe some do, but anyone who won’t admit that a workaday life is sometimes…just plain boring, is just full of shit.
Why can’t we be married and still chase our dreams, ride the rapids, have a fling once in a while? It’s the finality of it that gives me the shivers, not the comforting ideal of what it’s “supposed” to be. As far as I’m concerned, too much familiarity breeds content, and I just need some damn space once in a while. What’s wrong with maintaining separate residences but getting together for fun and companionship, like in the Village of Round and Square Houses, a Margaret Mead-ish story I used to read the elementary school students I taught in a previous (suburban, first marriage) life? An interesting part of this story is that the wise, peaceful African tribes people live apart after a huge volcano erupts and spews hot lava all over them. Hmmm, if that isn’t a metaphor for the dangers of marriage, I don’t know what is.
Now, don’t get me wrong- I love men, and I love romance. I love having a partner to share things with and to go through life’s roller coaster ride with. It’s just that sometimes I want to hang out with my girlfriends and just laugh, drink champagne, and not worry about pleasing or pissing off or disappointing anybody. As long as we are broadening the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples (are you sure you want to do this, guys?), let’s just reinvent it, and take the stigma out of alone-ness, which can be a GOOD THING for a relationship! The gays have always known this, and maybe we can take a page from their book and give each other some space. Maybe then we can stop feeling shame over the non-perfection of our marriages and appreciate all the good they have to offer.