Grown Up Marriage: What We Know, Wish We'd Known, and Still Need to Know About Being Marriedby Judith Viorst
For years, hundreds of thousands of/i>/i>
Although marriage is for grown-ups, very few of us are grown up when we marry. What is a grown-up marriage? Can we achieve one? Here, from the bestselling author of Suddenly Sixty and Necessary Losses comes her best ever -- a life-affirming book on the difficulties and possibilities of being well and enduringly wed.
For years, hundreds of thousands of readers have enjoyed Judith Viorst's poetry and prose on the challenging, sometimes hilarious subject of marriage. Now, in this thought-provoking new book, she helps married couples of every age and stage figure out how they might create a grown-up marriage.
Blending interviews of married women and men with the findings of couples therapists, the truths offered by literature and the movies, and a bemused exploration of her own marriage, Viorst illuminates the issues couples struggle with from "I do" to "till death do us part." She examines marital rivalry, marital manners, marital sex (not always with the person to whom we're married), fighting and apologies, and the boredom and the bliss of ordinary everyday married life. All aspects of marriage -- from the early years when we wonder "Who is this person?" and "What am I doing here?" to divorcing or almost divorcing, marrying again, growing older and old together -- are explored with honesty, humanity, and humor, with a rueful recognition of how tough it is to be married and -- if we can make it -- how precious it is.
Viorst's insights into what it takes to stay married -- a commitment to preserve and defend our marriage against all attacks, including our own; the recognition that courtesy and charm, like charity, begin at home; the honoring of each other's good intentions and good will, even when we don't get what we need; the adaptations and compromises; the just plain dumb luck and the hard, hard work -- have something to offer everyone, even the most abidingly married among us. Fascinating, funny, and perceptive, Viorst's Grown-up Marriage will enrich the lives of all her readers.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Why We Get Married
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.
Perhaps these jittery people should have bravely postponed their weddings until, with counseling, they had explored their concerns. Indeed, some experts have argued that marrying couples, whether jittery or not, should attend premarital education classes, which teach them how to listen, praise, deal with conflict, and fight respectfully, and which sometimes recommend a compatibility quiz. For those who prefer to skip the quiz, Todd Outcalt's book, Before You Say "I Do," supplies an exhaustive list of questions that couples, prior to marriage, are urged to explore:
Like how many kids do you want? And how important is religion in your life? And what do you call a clean house? And are you in debt? And how close to your folks do you think we should live? And do or don't you like animals? And what big secrets haven't you told me yet? The questions cover hopes and dreams and values and work and sex and money and family and household chores and personal history, although the usefulness of the answers depends on the answerer's honesty and self-awareness. For couples who set a wedding date without ever asking each other the most basic questions, this Q&A may be a revelation. But sometimes almost a decade of knowing each other will still not provide enough information to guarantee a woman and man that their marriage will last.
For marriage, as Ted and Nancy learned, can provide a whole different kind of information.
Ted and Nancy met in their sophomore year of college in southern California. They were living in the same dorm and became close friends. They took classes together, studied together, and hung out a lot together before, in their senior year, falling deeply in love. After graduation they temporarily put their relationship on hold while they each went off "to do stuff on our own," then after two years of separateness, they got back together, moved in together, and lived together for four mostly pretty good years.
"We believed that we loved each other and were meant to be with each other," Nancy told me, although there were some tensions that arose, what with Ted becoming something of a free spirit who couldn't be bothered with paying bills, and Nancy becoming "the stabilizing force, the administrator, and sometimes the nag." Nevertheless, she says, they were very committed to the relationship. "We thought," she said, "we were building a shared life." So when Ted began behaving less free-spiritedly and declared that he wished to be married and have a family, they decided that the time was right to get married. Five months later, in a state of panic and confusion, Ted stunned Nancy by saying he wanted out. He couldn't stay in the marriage, he told her. He needed to be free. He wasn't, he explained, the person he'd claimed he was (and maybe had hoped he could be), a person who wished to be married and have a family.
Nancy, who had known Ted as her friend and classmate and roommate and lover for nine full years, didn't know the confused and panicked Ted who'd become and did not want to be her husband. She was astonished, astonished, she said, and then repeated the word again, astonished to discover she didn't know him.
Couples who think that living together allows them to learn the "truth" about each other may also assume that knowing this truth enables them to make a sounder marriage. But in Should We Live Together? a review by David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead of recent research on the subject, the question of whether cohabitation before getting married is helpful to the marriage is (you may be surprised to hear) answered no.
Consider this: Between 1960 and 1997, the number of cohabiting couples unmarried sexual partners sharing a household grew from less than half a million to four million. Consider this: More than half of all first marriages today, in contrast to almost none at the start of the twentieth century, are now preceded by cohabitation. And consider this: Almost all the research on the subject finds that marriages preceded by living together have a greater chance of ending in divorce.
If you want a figure on this, it's about 46 percent higher than for marriages not preceded by cohabitation.
Alhough this finding doesn't apply to couples who've already planned to marry and are simply cohabiting briefly before they do, it's a blow to those who believe that living together will help them get to know each other, thus helping them decide if they ought to get married and inoculating them against getting divorced.
So how come it doesn't?
The most common explanation is that people who choose to live together are less traditional than those who don't, and that the same untraditional outlook that allows them to cohabit allows them to divorce more easily. Studies also find that cohabiting couples, compared to couples who are married, display less of a commitment to the relationship, along with a greater insistence in matters like money and social life on individual autonomy. "It is reasonable to speculate," concludes the Should We Live Together? report, "that once this low-commitment, high-autonomy pattern of relating is learned, it becomes hard to unlearn." Add to all this the studies suggesting that living together itself negatively affects the way that partners value the institution of marriage, and we've got some persuasive theories of why the married state may be riskier for those who, before getting married, have first cohabited.
Ian, age thirty-six and married for the second time, offers his thoughts on the subject. "I lived with my first wife for two years before we got married. Although I don't have any religious or ethical objections to living together before marriage, I would now advise against it. The problem is that, once you live together for a significant period of time (say, six months), you...do not have reasonable middle ground or neutral corners if differences arise. You're essentially faced with either getting married or ending the relationship."
He concludes that "if you have doubts about your partner, it is unlikely that living together will clear anything up."
I respect what Ian is saying, and yet there are still, in my view, some good arguments for cohabiting. Even if living together doesn't ensure a successful marriage, it does weed out clearly poisonous relationships. (Indeed, I've known a few parents who've urged their children, "Don't be rash! First live together," hoping they'd see the error of their ways.) It also allows men and women who are too young or not yet ready to be married to become somewhat more responsible and mature. And of course, it enables those who do not wish to be celibate to have regular and safe unmarried sex.
Eventually, however, the issue of marriage will arise. Indeed, it will arise if a couple is only seeing each other, not living together. The reason it will arise is that marriage remains, for most women and men, a desirable goal. Although cohabitation is increasingly becoming a marriage alternative, although the rate of marriages has declined, although a mere 23.5 percent of American households are currently composed of nuclear families, and although (as one report puts it) "marriage...no longer looms like Mount Everest in the landscape of the adult life course," the vast majority of women and men still intend, and still are going, to get married.
Why? Let's hustle past wise-guy replies, such as, to get all those presents, to get on her health insurance, to save my mom from committing suicide, and consider the deeper reasons why men and women today continue to want to marry: Because it provides a greater degree of emotional security. Because it's "a permanent sleepover with a best friend." Because it creates a stable framework in which to bring up children. Because it's a vow to share a future together. Because it alters the way they are seen by their family and friends and colleagues and by all the institutions of society.
Here, from some of the many young married women and men I queried, are a few more becauses:
From Deb: "Because I wanted to get to hang out with my best friend for the rest of my life with everyone's blessings."
From Oliver: "Because the difference between living together and being married is like the difference between eating at McDonald's and eating at a five-star restaurant. Both satisfy your hunger, but only one of them is a real meal."
From William: "Because with family and friends and work constantly pulling at us, it was our way of saying to ourselves and the world that we're the most important thing in the world to each other."
From Tova: "Because I met, at the right time of my life, someone who was totally what I was looking for, and getting married meant more to me than just physically putting two people under one roof it meant making a real agreement to try to work together to be together forever."
From Dan: "Because marriage has a religious significance to me, and it was important to me that our marriage be recognized and blessed by God."
From Heather: "Because I did and do adore him; there isn't a moment of my life I wouldn't prefer to be with him; and marrying him seemed the best way to make sure that we would spend a lot of time together."
Marla, who lived with our youngest son, Alexander, before they got married, offers this response to my question, Why marry?
She says that, after a while, living together without being married starts to feel "like you're holding out for something better." She says that if marriage represents a greater commitment than living together, then "that's the commitment I want to give and to get from the person I love. I want the whole thing." She says that marriage, much more than living together, "entangles you, making you responsible to this specific person and this life." She also says, "I was drawn to the romance of marriage, to becoming part of something that was so much bigger than the two of us."
Alexander adds: "Getting married was making a public statement that she's mine and I'm hers and we're going to build a life together."
Even a seemingly untraditional woman like Marjorie Ingall, a self-described "purple-haired, tattooed, nose-ringed feminist," wants to acknowledge publicly, in a religious wedding service, that she plans to spend her whole life with the man she's been living with. "I want to say," she writes, "in front of everyone that this is holy and legally binding, and I care enough about this person to enter into a very ancient covenant with him."
It's the public aspect of marriage, the entering into a covenant sanctioned by society, that makes it feel so different from the strictly private arrangement of living together. It's the public aspect of marriage, fortified by the law, the service, the family, the rings, that makes it feel like a much, much bigger deal.
But marriage isn't only a much, much bigger deal, argue sociology professor Linda J. Waite and Maggie Gallagher, director of the Marriage Project at the Institute for Family Values. It is also, as they exhaustively document in The Case for Marriage, a much better deal. Says Professor Waite, "We have looked at well over 1,000 studies that overwhelmingly show the strong and consistent relationship between marriage and well-being." Here's what they've found:
Compared to cohabiting couples, married couples seem to be blessed with better sex, greater happiness, longer lives, shorter hospital stays, more money, and less anxiety and depression. In addition, married couples get to live a more settled existence in better neighborhoods and have children who are less likely to drop out of school. Furthermore, being married can benefit physical health, while unmarriedness may actually be more life-threatening than heart disease or cancer. And if you consider that married people enjoy, in addition to all these other advantages, more sexual fidelity, less alcohol abuse, and a stronger sense that life has purpose and meaning, "Will you marry me?" can start to sound like one of those offers you can't refuse.
It's unlikely that many couples depend on social-science research to persuade themselves that they would be better off married. Some couples, in fact, need no persuasion at all. In contrast to those who agonize over whether or not they should go for it, there are some who, like Christopher Marlowe, ask, "Who ever loved who loved not at first sight?" and make their decision to marry with awesome alacrity.
Like Cynthia Heimel, who three weeks after she met her "wonderful dream man," said, "Yes, oh, absolutely yes," to his marriage proposal because "I fell in love with this man all the way to my reptilian brain."
Like Cal Fussman, who loved his wife at first sight because "I'd been traveling around the world for ten years and had seen about all there was to see. My instincts knew she was perfect before I could blink."
Like Al Gore, our former vice president, who met his wife, Tipper, when he was seventeen and says he knew almost immediately that he wanted to be with her for the rest of his life.
And like Jessie, my friend Jackie's daughter, who called up her mother from Vermont and breathlessly said to her, "Guess what I found today?" Her mother, bemused, pointed out that her answer could range from a five-dollar bill to...virtually anything, and that maybe she could use a little hint. "Just think about what I've been looking for, for almost my whole life," Jessie hinted. "The man of your dreams?" asked Jackie facetiously, not exactly prepared for Jessie's fervent answer to be "That's it!"
Two days later Jessie again phoned home and announced their plans. "It's all settled. We'll get married, have kids, and live here in Vermont, as soon as I finish up my master's degree." Two years after their fateful meeting, with undiminished love and certainty, Jessie and the man of her dreams got married.
For those who believe in love at first sight, in a match made in heaven, in soul mates, such certainty seems a sufficient basis for marriage. But cooler heads will argue that falling in love is a state of temporary insanity and that deciding to get married requires careful consideration and rational thought. Indeed, the extremely rational and meticulous Charles Darwin, in an act of scientific deliberation, preceded his decision to marry by drawing up two lists under the headings "Marry" and "Not Marry," mustering the arguments for (a "constant companion," "charms of music and female chit-chat," "better than a dog") and the arguments against ("forced to visit relatives," "anxiety and responsibility," "less money for books"). He finally concluded that "one cannot live this solitary life...friendless and cold and childless" and that, although being married might enslave him, "there is many a happy slave."
But deciding in favor of marriage isn't enough, the cooler heads tell us. We must also assess our chances of succeeding at it. We can't confuse alluring with enduring. We can't trust the feelings sweeping us away. We cannot be so blinded by love that we aren't able to see the person we're marrying. We cannot be so bedazzled that we ignore all the reasons why this will never work out.
Ellie, while still in college, was introduced to Norman by a mutual friend who cautioned her, "This will never work out. This will be going nowhere. He's not your type." A few weeks after they met, they decided to marry. On their fiftieth anniversary Ellie teased her friend, "Are you still convinced that Norman's not my type?" "Absolutely," her friend replied, adding cheerfully, "which only goes to show you that being somebody's type isn't everything."
Looking back on a long and remarkably happy married life, Ellie asks herself, "How did an unworldly twenty-year-old, who had never bought a pair of shoes without her mother, do so well in making this critical decision?" The answer she gives to her question is "Dumb luck." I think she is right and would add that her answer applies not only to her but to all of us who are basically happily married, to the women and men of my generation who married back when I did, and to the women and men who marry today. For even with premarital living together, and even with should-we-marry questionnaires, and even with marriage counseling and a lifetime supply of how-to-do-it books, married couples need a lot of dumb luck.
The dumb luck has to do with picking a partner who suits us not perfectly, but sufficiently, suits not only the person we are when we marry but also the person we turn out to be. The dumb luck has to do with being compatible in ways that compatibility quizzes may fail to reveal. The dumb luck has to do with being well matched enough to be able to deal as partners with life's seismic changes and unexpected blows. It has to do with choosing when we're way too young and dumb to know what we're doing someone that we want, and keep wanting, to be with, even if we're not each other's type.
In the white heat of love, young lovers might not notice they hold different views on quite crucial matters, or might not worry much about whether their lover will be a good partner, good parent, good person five or ten or twenty years from now. But if we have dumb luck, there'll be something between us that will bind us over the decades, even when love falters and times are tough. There'll be something between us, and maybe we'll never quite figure out what it is, that becomes the glue that helps to hold us together.
So we'll need to have some luck when we choose a partner. But we'll also need to be prepared to work. Although work won't be enough unless we're lucky in what we're working with, luck won't be enough if we don't do the work. "There is scarcely anything more difficult than to love one another," writes the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. "That it is work, day labor, day labor, God knows there is no other word for it."
This labor, this work, demands vast stores of patience. It requires paying attention, more attention than we've ever paid before. It requires compelling ourselves, when we are sick and tired and ready to slam the door, to nonetheless leave the door just slightly ajar. The work includes not only the work we must do on the relationship but also the work we must do on ourselves.
In working on the relationship, I think it helps to see it as an entity greater than the sum of its parts, an entity that's been described as "bigger than both of us" and that I have taken to calling the "third thing." A thing with its own existence and its own rights. A thing to which we owe certain obligations. A thing on whose behalf we will, at least some of the time, have to transcend our individual needs. And so, in the fall of 2000, when the intensely autonomous Nick married his intensely autonomous Marya, I sneaked in a little advice for our middle son and his beautiful bride in a sonnet I composed for their wedding day:
There's you and you, and then there's this third thing Which is the marriage. To it may you bring The finest strivings of the human heart. The "I," the "me," the "mine," the self apart Must yield some portion of its separateness And say a risky but unguarded yes To this third thing, this marriage you create....
The outer work we must do on behalf of our marriage, our relationship, our "third thing," is deeply intertwined with the inner work we must do on our "I" and "me" and "mine." That inner work involves making peace with compromise, ambiguity, contradiction, and many, many different shades of gray. It demands significant self-examination. It requires us to revise and reshape our earlier expectations to meet the changing realities of who we are and where we are today. It means giving up. It means shaping up. It sometimes means shutting up. And it means growing up.
Rilke puts it like this: "For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks, the ultimate, the last test and proof, the work for which all other work is but preparation." Love, he tells us, "is a high inducement to the individual to ripen...; it is a great exacting claim upon him, something that chooses him out and calls him to vast things."
A doctor in his midthirties, when I asked him why he got married, said that "after all these years and years of impersonating a grown-up, I wanted to become a full-fledged adult."
Getting married will not guarantee this, of course, but it will provide the opportunity. For marriage, if we are lucky and if we are willing to do the hard work, can help us to become full-fledged adults. And becoming full-fledged adults can help us create, and help us sustain, an enduring, satisfying, grown-up marriage.
Copyright © 2003 by Judith Viorst
Meet the Author
Judith Viorst was born and brought up in New Jersey, graduated from Rutgers University, moved to Greenwich Village, and has lived in Washington, D.C., since 1960, when she married Milton Viorst, a political writer. They have three sonsAnthony and Nick (who are lawyers) and Alexander (who does community-development lending for a bank) and seven grandchildrenMiranda, Brandeis, Olivia, Nathaniel, Benjamin, Isaac, and Toby.
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