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The dread of loneliness is greater than the fear of bondage, so we get married. - Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave
Most of the women of my generation probably married too young to have grown acquainted with the dread of loneliness. Most of us were taught, however, before we left our teens the dread of unmarriedness. One of my aunts, who remarkably got a Ph.D. in physics at a time when most of her peers went no further than high school, was perceived by my mother and father and other relatives as our family's tragic failure because she never achieved a husband and kids. Another of my aunts, who was seen as a lesser tragic failure because, although divorced, she at least had been married, was still an object of pity because she needed to earn her own living instead of being supported by a man. Earning a living was something a woman aspired to be relieved of. A solid middle-class marriage was a marriage in which a woman did not, thank God, have to go out and get a job.
So we married because, for a woman, there was no higher attainment. And we married to be taken care of financially. We also married in order to have safe sex, which - had we been pressed - we would have defined as sex that wouldn't make getting pregnant a vast catastrophe. We also - most of us - married to get pregnant and raise a family. Of course what we said was that we married for love.
As for the men who married us, why did they do it? Why in the late 1950s were men, at the average marrying age of twenty-three, in a rush to become our economic providers? Part of the answer, I think, is that they were brought up in a culture that equated becoming a man with settling down. Maybe no one whispered words like "breadwinner" or "responsible" in their ears, but most of them knew what they were supposed to do. "A young college-educated bourgeois male of my generation who scoffed at the idea of marriage for himself ... laid himself open to the charge of 'immaturity'...," writes Philip Roth in My Life as a Man. "Or he was just plain 'selfish.' Or he was 'frightened of responsibility.' Or he could not 'commit himself' ... to a 'permanent relationship.'"
And so these young men committed themselves, receiving in return the approval of society plus - very important - sex on a regular basis. Of course what they said was that they married for love.
We all meant it - well, most of us meant it - when we said we married for love, and we knew what kind of love that ought to be: Romantic love. And lustful love. And tender love. And giddy love. And you are my one true love, my destiny. And love-song love. And movie love. And happily-ever-after love. And baby, baby, you belong to me, so let the beguine begin because I've got you under my skin. Dreamy, steamy, now-and-forever love.
We all married - well, most of us married - for love, for some version of Sinatra and Casablanca love, for a love that would light up our lives and cast out fear, for a Romeo and Juliet love (except with a better ending), for a love that the poet John Donne once wrote "makes one little room an everywhere." And if our feelings were, as they doubtless were, a bit naive, a bit adolescent, I don't intend to disparage them, for there can surely be nothing sweeter than a man and a woman marrying for love.
And most of us did. But whether we consciously knew it or not, most of us also married - let's be honest here - for the sex, the kids, the security, the approval of our community, and marriage's other pragmatic benedictions. There were plenty of reasons to marry back in my day. But that was then. Why get married now?
Now that the state of unmarriedness isn't the disaster that it used to be. Now that women are raised to be economically independent, and actually want to go out and get a job. Now that unwed sex and unwed living together seem to be widely tolerated, and even unwed parenthood no longer shocks. Now that two people who love each other can freely, and some would say fully, express their love without doing something drastic, like getting married.
Why not simply live together as long as love survives, without insisting on "always" and "forever"? Why accept the constraints, the obligations, the routinization, the rut of marriage?
Especially when so many marriages fail.
Certainly, with 45 percent of first marriages ending in divorce, marriage today is a high-risk occupation. For those who have divorced once and those whose parents have divorced, it is even riskier. Divorce, the experts tell us, occurs more often in second marriages than in firsts - the current figure is 60 percent of the time - which surely says something dismaying about our ability to learn from past experiences. Even more dismaying are the statistics on children whose parents have divorced: compared to the children of parents who have not, the chance of their marriage breaking up is currently said to be two to three times greater.
Some of these children of divorce are, not surprisingly, wary of getting married.
"I want to be sure we won't mess up the way you and Mom messed up," Don explains untactfully to his father, who has asked him why he hasn't yet married the woman he has been living with for five years. She is a perfectly lovely woman, Don says. She is everything he wants, but how does he know if he's always going to want it? Living together until he feels 110 percent sure seems to him more prudent, right now, than marrying.
Even without the shadow of divorce in their personal history, those now considering marriage seem a lot more cautious than my generation was. (The New York Times reports on a wedding in which the vows excluded "till death do us part," on the grounds - the bride explained - that "we didn't want to make any promises we couldn't keep.") That caution may help explain, in part, why the median ages for marrying today are the oldest that they've been in American history- - twenty-seven for men, twenty-five for women. Maybe people are trying to wait until they harbor no doubts, until they are 110 percent sure.
Sure that what they want now they'll want ten years from now. Sure that their differences aren't irreconcilable. Sure that there aren't any deep, dark secrets. Sure that this is love, not infatuation. Sure that they won't - like their mothers and fathers - be stuck for life in an inert, juiceless marriage. Sure that, good as this seems, they won't be missing out on something even better.
Christy, pushing thirty-five, has been telling me about Benjamin, a man she describes as pretty close to perfect - warm and smart and funny and reliable and crazy about her and just as eager as she is to start a family. The trouble, Christy says, is that while she's very fond of Ben, she isn't what she'd describe as madly in love, though the men she's been madly in love with had no interest in getting married and would have made really rotten husbands and fathers. Ben, she's completely confident, would make a great husband and father. And her biological clock is ticking away. Isn't it time for her to say that this is maybe as good as it's going to get? Isn't it time to stop holding out and get married?
I didn't know how to answer her, although I was tempted to say, Marry the man today and start a family. I didn't know if not being madly in love was code for he doesn't thrill me in bed. I didn't know if, by letting Ben go, she'd miss out on motherhood and always regret it, or if, by marrying Ben, she'd miss out on passionate love instead and regret that more. I once watched a woman decide to marry a man with whom everything worked except the sex. She believed they would figure that out eventually. But they wound up getting divorced because she solved the problem with sex by engaging in adultery. Then he found out. And when he told her, It's either your lover or me, she chose her lover. And married him, and lived extremely unhappily ever after because he was a rotten husband and father.
Maybe we simply have to hold out for Ms. or Mr. Right. Remember that Neil Simon movie The Heartbreak Kid?
The heartbreak kid is Lenny, who marries Lila, goes off to Miami Beach on their honeymoon, and falls madly in love - on their honeymoon! - with the girl of his dreams, a golden goddess named Kelly. "I've been waiting for a girl like you all my life," Lenny tells Kelly. "I just timed it wrong." But he doesn't let bad timing stand in his way. Instead, while still on their honeymoon, Lenny tells Lila they're wrong for each other and that he thinks they ought to get divorced, after which he pursues and woos and succeeds in marrying the glorious Kelly. At the end of the movie we see Lenny on his wedding day. He is looking rather uneasy. He is looking much less than 110 percent sure. Has he or hasn't he finally picked the right woman? How do people know if they've made the right choice?
Perhaps if we find it so hard to decide if we're making the right choice, we ought to commit to something less binding than marriage, some sort of legal arrangement that provides us and our partner with certain protections without signing on until death does us part. France, for instance, now offers a civil solidarity pact - Pacte civil de solidarité - which was intended for same-sex couples but has been seized upon by marriage-shy heterosexuals. It establishes for both partners of the PACS, as it is known, a number of marriage-like obligations and rights.
Because it's dramatically easier to dissolve a PACS than it is to end a marriage, this arrangement appeals to those who wish to formally acknowledge their relationship while avoiding the terrors of making a lifetime choice. It is definitely more serious than the low-commitment arrangement known as "sex without strings, relationship without rings." It is definitely more serious than living together with no sense of obligation. It is definitely more serious than living together with some sense of obligation while refusing to put any promises down on paper. But it's definitely less serious than marriage.
So what is it called if a woman and man decide to be legally bound without being married? What is it called to be sort of, semi, married? Some call it hedging your bets or fear of commitment. Some call it half-assed, halfhearted, or half-hitched. Actually, the Germans have a name, a very, very long name for it. They call it Lebensabschnittgefährte, which means temporary partners or companions through a slice of life.
The women of my generation were looking for lifetime, not slice-of-life, companions. We were looking for a strings-and-rings relationship. We wanted to know, for the next fifty years, exactly who our New Year's Eve date would be. We wanted to be not semi, but totally, married.
Indeed, I suspect that my friends and I, had the option been available back then, would have signed on eagerly for the "covenant marriage," which requires premarital and predivorce counseling, as well as - in Louisiana, one of three states that now have covenant marriage - two years apart before a marriage is terminated. The point of the covenant marriage is to make divorce much harder, to intensify the commitment of husband and wife, to give them the opportunity to choose "marriage heavy" over "marriage lite." The point of the covenant marriage is "to lock in forever and throw away the key."
I married, of course, believing that I had chosen marriage heavy, that I had locked in forever and thrown away the key. I certainly never dreamed that I would divorce.
I was still in my twenties when my brief first marriage came to an end in the late 1950s and on my own for the first time in my life. A single woman living in Greenwich Village, I was only just beginning to become acquainted with the dread of loneliness. On her visits from New Jersey, my mother would often reassure me, as she fluffed up my hair and proffered a darker lipstick, "You're a nice-looking girl. You'll get yourself a husband." But I knew that she was worried about my matrimonial future. So was I.
Will I ever get married? Is the end of my searching in sight? There are lamps that I'm waiting to light, Waiting to light them together.
Will I ever get married? There are secrets my heart yearns to speak To that someone who seeks what I seek, And wants to seek it together.
The world is full of short-term lovers Who don't even know your middle name. I want to cuddle under the covers Year after year after year after year With the same ... With the same man. Will I ever get married? Will I ever be somebody's wife? Making dinner, love, babies, a life, Making a life together.
Then one night the telephone rang. It was Milton.
My first husband and I had agreed that we would wait to file for divorce until one of us decided to remarry. I decided, in 1960, to remarry. But when I went off to get my divorce, I fell into a panic: Ending a marriage was horrible. I never wanted to go through this again. How could I be sure that I never would? Why was I, a woman who loved the great indoors and obscure poetry readings, planning to marry a man who loved to ski and canoe and go on camping trips? Surely Milton and I were irredeemably incompatible. Surely it was best to break this off now and avoid the grief of a second divorce.
I called him up and broke it off. He told me we needed to talk. And after we finished talking, and hugging and kissing, and going out shopping to buy me a wedding dress, it was back on.
What is the lesson here? If I had listened to my panicky inner voice instead of listening to Milton, we would not now have been married for forty-two years. But should everyone beset by you're-making-a-really-big-mistake fears simply ignore them?
One young man, a few weeks before he was due to say "I do," had a powerful wish to flee his fiancée. He felt that his marriage was already doomed, but persuaded himself to stay by telling himself that "although there's a lot about her I just don't like, I'm twenty-seven years old and almost all my friends are married, so maybe the problem isn't her but me."
A twenty-four-year-old woman, only a week before her wedding, decided that although her husband-to-be was a man of many fine qualities, he was also a workaholic and undemonstrative and "I didn't think I'd be happy living that way." She wanted to call off the wedding, but her parents gave her Valium and told her that everything would be okay, that she was simply suffering from normal premarital jitters.
"I don't think I love her," Rick told his dad about his bride-to-be. His father quickly replied, "Oh, you'll get over that."
"There's too much we don't agree on," Mary Ellen wailed to her mom, who said, "No, there's not."
And Maggie, who informed her mother and father the day of the wedding that she wasn't good enough to marry Scott and therefore she wouldn't, was informed by her mother and father that she was plenty good enough - and therefore she would. She was also informed it was normal, if you really took marriage seriously, to find yourself with a case of premarital jitters.
That's what Jeffrey tried to tell himself too.
For Jeff had looked at Annabel and decided that, since their engagement, they had been going down two very different paths. He knew in his gut, he said, "that she wasn't the one." But they now owned a dog and a house, and they had a wedding coming up to which three hundred people had been invited, and "the train was in motion. I couldn't stop it. I couldn't stop that train. I was just too much of a coward to try to stop it." Embarrassed at his change of heart, Jeff didn't breathe his secret to a soul. Instead, he kept reassuring himself, "We'll find things to talk about, things to do with each other." Pasting a happy smile on his face, he walked into the church on his wedding day, saying - or maybe praying - "It will work out."
So Jeff and Annabel, Maggie and Scott, and the other couples got married. Then Jeff and Annabel, Maggie and Scott, and all the other couples got divorced.
Excerpted from Grown-Up Marriage by Judith Viorst Copyright © 2003 by Judith Viorst. Excerpted by permission.
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