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Who's Hiding on the Premises?
"A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage."—Shelley
Some forty-odd (some odder than others) years ago, I accomplished a small volume called Married Men Make the Best Lovers, which you are probably too young to have read. If so, ask your mother, or perhaps your grandmother to tell you the tale of the Outrageous Woman who became the scourge of the suburbs wherever disreputable books were sold.
Now, a book with a title like that is bound to raise some hackles, not to mention eyebrows and blood pressure, but I never expected it to result in the turmoil of which I rapidly became the vortex. Suddenly, I was being introduced as "Controversial Ruth Dickson," as though "Controversial" were my first name, and the ensuing furor continued for years. However, not all the comments were negative, and some of the more penetrating remarks reinforced my contention that adultery is not the cause of poor marital relations, but rather the reverse. If there weren't something wrong with our system of marriage, adulterous relationships would not be as prevalent as they are; and obviously, there lay the real root of the problem.
As the nation's wives heaped scorn and curses upon my head, it became more and more apparent that they were operating not only from fear, but from a deep-seated anxiety about matrimony itself. Those who shouted the loudest were obviously those who were the least secure in their belief that marriage was a desirable state. They seemed to be saying, "I'm in this mess, and I'm not going to withstand it alone. Therefore, everyone damn well better get in it with me, most especially you, Ms. Controversial!" Because I said I felt women had something better to do with their lives than subjugate themselves to men, I was called evil. And because I stated flatly that I was far happier living alone than with a husband of my own, I was labeled sacrilegious. It seems like a pretty sad commentary on our society that the people who comprise it, especially the female contingent, are so frightened that they feel called upon to react so strongly to one woman's opinions.
No matter. Marriage as we know it is going down the drain, and nobody is more aware of that fact than the wives who are so desperately trying to make it work. And for this reason, I thought it high time somebody shed the light of sense on what's really happening to this fast-disintegrating system, and why. You aren't going to like it, any more than you liked the Surgeon General's report on smoking. Nobody likes to break a habit, no matter how damaging it might be, and I know perfectly well that nothing is going to change as a result of this book. But maybe it will make a few people think of what we've done to ourselves in the name of a religious superstition we insist on referring to as a "sacred institution."
Perhaps we had best first define what we're talking about when we use the word "marriage." Let's see what Mr. Webster has to say about it: "Marriage: the state of, or relation between, a man and woman who have become husband and wife, or the ceremony marking this union." Well, that doesn't tell us much, so let's see what he means by "husband," okay? Ah, now we're getting somewhere. "Husband: married man; the manager, as of a household; to manage economically; conserve." Does that begin to tell you something? Let's try "wife," shall we? "Wife: from the Anglo-Saxon 'wif,' meaning 'the hidden or veiled person'; a woman in relation to her husband." Still true in certain mid-Eastern countries, but hardly the norm in the Western world.
Yet, viewed objectively, that's pretty much what marriage is still supposed to be, despite all our strides forward into what we hopefully call civilization. A husband is expected to gather wherewithal and see that it is expended wisely and conservatively, while his wife is supposed to stay hidden from the world (meaning other men) and do whatever it is she's presumed to be doing behind those closed doors. We assume she's bearing and raising children, and helping the husband to husband his resources. And that's it. Except for one thing: it doesn't work like that anymore. Nowadays, the "hidden person" is just as likely to be out husbanding as is the male, just as much exposed to the world at large as he is, and thereby just as knowledgeable and educated as he. Maybe more so. And if she's not, and remains at home, it is she who is doing the managing and conserving, duties once assigned to the man. So what do we have? A system which is working on principles that are no longer valid.
Even Webster hasn't been able to give more than the original definitions of the words "marriage," "husband," or "wife," and would doubtless throw up his hands in despair if he were called upon to give adequate, workable meaning to these words today. They have become as ephemeral as "truth," "beauty," and "honor," with each individual defining them in the light of his own background and experience. In other words, totally meaningless, since they mean all things to all people.
Marriage was, at one time, a sound economic move, with predetermined and worthy ends. It was a working partnership, at best; a means to an acquisitive end, at worst. If, a thousand or so years ago, someone had asked the question "What is marriage for?" a reasonable answer could have been given. And it would have been a man who answered, because marriage was designed by and for men, with nobody ever bothering to ask the woman what she thought of the whole thing. Men needed wives for many things, not the least of which was to provide them with offspring to whom to leave their land. For it wasn't until man settled down and stopped his nomadic existence that marriage was conceived.
Of course the human animal bred, but it didn't much matter which female a male mated with, or vice versa, in a society which took its sustenance from the land on which it found itself, then moved on when it had depleted those resources. In those circumstances, all the children belonged to everyone, as did all the women. The women did tend the children, but only because they were biologically equipped to do so, nursing bottles being a rather recent innovation; but the children belonged to the tribe as a whole, not to any individual pairs of parents. And I bet there wasn't an Oedipus complex in sight, much less any of our other modern conveniences. But more on that later.
Anyhow, after a while man realized that he could make the land do things for him, rather than just taking what he could find, and thus began the whole sorry system. As soon as man began to identify himself with a piece of real estate, he needed (1) someone to help him take care of it, and (2) someone to leave it to, in order to create his own immortality. The offspring also answered a need for more manpower to defend his property from intruders and invaders, but because these extensions of himself needed to be his, he hit on the one solution to insure that they would be. He outlawed adultery. Not for himself, mind you, but for his wife, or wives, depending on the area and the time in history. It had nothing to do with morals, purity, or any other latter-day invention. It was simply a way to make sure some other dude's kids wouldn't inherit his land.
And it all worked pretty well, if you want to ignore the state the poor female found herself in. She, for centuries, was a mere piece of property, belonging first to her father, later to her husband, with no rights of her own, no self-determination, no voice in her own destiny. And the funny part is, she helped man perpetrate this crime against her, aiding and abetting every anti-feminine device he could imagine. It's difficult to pinpoint any one reason for this attitude, outside of congenital masochism, but it isn't too hard to see how it could happen. After all, man held all the wealth, made all the laws, and did all the brainwashing. And with the female's enslavement to her own biology, plus all the myths man invented about her, she never really had a chance.
Until now. Finally, after centuries of second-class citizen status, we women are finally coming into our own, as human beings in our own right and as a direct result of this emancipation, are beginning at last to question the validity of that most insidious of all enslavement methods: marriage. Females have been made the butt of the most complicated joke in human history, but I think we're beginning to take a jaundiced look at the boy pranksters and say, "It ain't funny, McGee!"
All of which brings us back to our original premise— that marriage, although based on sound motives at the outset, no longer has those motives, and is therefore doomed as a way of life. What began as a means to an end has become an end in itself, and as such is without reason or meaning.
It's hard to believe that in this day of enlightenment— and in this country particularly, where obsolescence is not only clearly recognized but actually built into our economy—we are still operating within a social structure so completely outworn as the institution of death-do-us-part monogamous relationships. It wouldn't be so bad if we looked upon it with the kind of amused condescension with which we view children's pranks and games. But we take it so seriously! As though it were real, for heaven's sake! Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we still keep trying to believe that marriage actually is a lifetime agreement, and what's worse, that it should be. When we know that just the opposite is true.
How many of the people you know are still married to their original spouse—and of those, how many wish they weren't? And when the almost-inevitable divorce occurs, how many recognize it as a natural result of an unnatural relationship, instead of feeling as though they were somehow at fault for failing to make it work? Yet, knowing that it can't work, knowing that it is contrary to human needs, we still continue to foster this myth, as though our very lives depended on it—when, in fact, our lives may indeed depend on dispensing with it, once and for all.
No, it wouldn't be quite so bad if we could live with it. If it were just a quaint relic of bygone days, doing no harm, we might keep it around, like a comfortable pair of old slippers. If we'd been able to change its shape to meet our changing needs, it wouldn't be quite so intolerable. But we keep trying to squeeze ourselves into a pair of shoes that no longer fit, and we've developed a set of corns on our psyches that would send Dr. Scholl into ecstasy.
Marriage is not harmless. Aside from organized religion, it is quite likely the one most damaging force our species has ever invented, up to and including war. After all, killing each other does at least have the advantage of making room for more maniacs to continue the cycle, whereas marriage only adds to the seething mass of suffering humanity already overcrowding our poor perspiring planet. It is not just a benign old tradition; it's a dreadful malignancy, threatening to wipe us out if we don't do something about it. It's a woebegone disaster area, and it's time some beneficent government agency did something about it, like outlaw its existence. Of course, being the rebellious people we are, that would probably be the answer, right there. Look at the number of happy drunks Prohibition caused. Can you imagine all the happy bootleg marriages there would be, if it were against the law?
But it's still legal, worse luck, even though it has become as vestigial as the appendix; just as useless, just as liable to disease, and just as painful to remove. Nobody, not one single man or woman, needs it anymore. Yet we persist in perpetuating it as recklessly, fecklessly, and relentlessly as though it were necessary to our survival—when, in fact, it is the absolute opposite. It is, at the very least, mankind's second greatest folly, and it's a wonder to me that our supposedly paternalistic government hasn't put an end to it, once and for all. After all, they've seen fit to step in and protect us from ourselves in every other phase of our lives. We are not allowed to gamble or use dope or drive without buckled seatbelts or otherwise leave ourselves open to harm. So how come, if our government loves us so much, it continues to allow us to ruin our lives, and the lives of our mates and children? Shame on you, Mr. President! Shame on you, Congressmen! Shame on you, Supreme Court Judges! Why don't you guys get on the ball and extricate us from this mess we've made?
Viewed objectively—which is difficult for most people, there being so much emotion connected with the subject—the only reason marriage seems to have hung on this long is tradition. Yet, in a nation of forward-looking, progressive-minded individuals, this seems rather odd. We've never before let tradition stand in the way of bigger and better everything. Even religious tradition is gradually giving way before the onslaught of reason. The only other barbarism to equal marriage's stubborn refusal to give up is the ceremony of the funeral, both of which rituals go back to about the same era. Even so, although the Glorification of the Corpse is exorbitant, shockingly wasteful of land, and an unnecessary cause of suffering for the survivors, at least the star of the performance doesn't have to stay around to watch the putrefaction set in, after all the folks have gone home.
Not so with marriage. Here is the same pomp and panoply used centuries ago, with the bride in white, although the chances are only one in eighty-nine that she is the virgin thus signified; with her father still giving her away, although the law no longer states that she was his property to begin with; and the groom whisking her off to something called a "honeymoon," although nobody even knows how to make mead anymore (the word derives from an ancient custom requiring newlyweds to spend their first moon getting wasted on honey-based booze) after having been pelted with rice, to promote fertility, although the bride has been dutifully swallowing birth control pills since she was sixteen and will probably continue to do so for some time to come. When the couple arrives at their secluded retreat, the groom is presumably to divest his bride of her hymen, although the chances are still eighty-nine to one that he or somebody else has already done so.
And there they are. The guests have gone home, the parents have collapsed, the caterers have cleaned up the mess, and the honeymoon couple is just glowing with happiness. Forever and ever, they have promised. You know how long it lasts? The odds right now are better than even that they'll end up in a divorce court by the end of their first year. And if they survive that, they may call an armed truce for six more years, at which time the odds soar to six to one that they'll be divorced by about the end of the seventh year of an arrangement which was to have lasted till death.
All of which makes the whole thing much worse than a funeral. At least a corpse doesn't know what's happening to its body after its soul has departed, if we are to accept the conventional definition of death. But a dead marriage just lies there, unburied, with its participants looking hopelessly on, feeling guilt, remorse, distaste, distrust, and even hatred. And all for what? To continue a ritual which has long since lost its raison d'etre, for no other reason than habit and lassitude, with a little romantic superstition and a lot of financial concerns thrown in.
The habit of marriage makes me think of the Jewish custom of keeping a kosher kitchen. When the dietary laws of Judaism were established, they were an intelligent answer to poor sanitary conditions, and had no more religious significance than a garbage disposal has today. Yet they have become so imbued with mystical tradition that, despite their present irrationality, they have become an entity in themselves, surrounded by superstitious magical properties to which nobody gives an examining thought. In the same way, the habit of marriage persists, with the sensible reason for its existence long since forgotten.
Excerpted from Marriage Is a Bad Habit by Ruth Dickson. Copyright © 1968 Ruth Dickson. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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