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As the mother of daughters some of them still unmarried I noticed that I was reading the wedding announcements with an indecent amount of attention. I read descriptions of weddings of people I didn't know and would never know as if hidden in the lines were a secret code that if I could decipher would bring my children to their own marriages. Beneath my fascination I found envy lurking. I thought of myself as a lighthouse standing on the shore flashing my beam across a stretch of dark ocean, attempting to guide their ships into a safe harbor. This was particularly absurd because I know as well as the next person that marriage is just the beginning of the story; afterwards comes the plot, the work, the place where shipwrecks occur routinely. I know better than to think that marriage is the only or right path to happiness and yet I felt anxiety: what would become of them? My anxiety irritated my daughters of course. It irritated me.
In a sore place a book begins.
The idea of a sanctioned union between the sexes begins in Genesis when God sees Adam and sees that he is lonely. ""It is not good," saith He, "that man should be alone. I will make him a helpmeet for him."" Never mind the patriarchy in that description, never mind that Darwin tells the story with greater balance between the sexes and more credibility, the basic idea is right. It is not good to go through life alone. In my childhood we played card games in which the object was not to be stuck with the Old Maid card. Her picture was appalling, hair askew, a pinched face, tight mouth, and long baggy dress. This is now a politically incorrect image precisely because it was so intimidating. It evoked pity and scorn and fear in equal proportions and was directed at the female. This was absurd. Of course your life is not miserable if you do not marry or do not stay married. Of course you need not look like a frump or live without love because you didn't get to that altar. In more coercive times the image of the old maid was a threat meant to keep every little girl in line. Today she isn't an old maid anymore but a career girl in her late thirties nervously searching for a mate in order to have children before her biological clock gives way to menopause. She is no longer the butt of the joke but has been transformed into one of the heroines of "Sex in the City," sharing the common fear of so many that they will miss out or be left out. There is something in the sad singleness of Adam before there was Eve, reflected in all the men and women who do not, as did all the animals of God's kingdom, go two by two into the ark. There is something fearful in human life without coupling. There is also something fearful in coupling. No doubt you take your life in your hands when you marry: also if you don't.
Just imagine--we remove marriage from the landscape. Boys and girls grow up expecting to cohabit or not, to have children or not, to take care of themselves in times of sickness, to save for their own old age and live out their lives free of divorce, free of obligations. Imagine a world in which children are raised in communal houses by senior citizens. Right now twelve-year-olds live like this, roaming the playground in packs, whispering secrets to a best friend, finding out what they like and what they don't, making plans for futures that will surely be different from the present. Add sexual experience to this vision and you see a world of adults with no reason not to change everything in their lives on a whim, with expectations of other choices ever blooming, ever tempting. In this world no one person works to put another through school. In this world banks grant mortgages based on one tax return only. No one feels fear of being left out (always a bridesmaid never a bride), and gays and lesbians are able to link or unlink with one another in the same manner as everyone else. In this world the wedding industry loses and divorce lawyers drop below the poverty line and couples therapists starve, the Elvis Chapel in Las Vegas shuts its doors, but the rest of us go about our days rich in friends and lovers, our lives sanctified by God and State not at any particular moment but always. Is this utopia or is it hell?
There is abroad in the land an acute anxiety about marriage. We all know that only 25 percent of Americans are living in traditional families. Only 51 percent of all children live in two-parent homes. The proportion of all households headed by married couples fell from 77 percent in 1950 to 55 percent in 1993. Today 36 percent of children are living apart from their biological fathers compared with only 17 percent in 1960. The divorce rate in 1998 was twice as high as it was in 1968. We know that divorce is as common as the cold. We know that even Baptist ministers in the Deep South are concerned that so many of their weddings end in disaster. The age of marriage is climbing so high that we can see the day when only the long in tooth and short on the future make it to the altar. We know that vast numbers of women and a few good men are raising children without spouses and that in most parts of the country both men and women have sex whenever they wish without benefit of state or religious sanction. The bookstores are filled with medicines for troubled marriages: a sure sign of epidemic misery among us. Hucksters and shamans make fortunes off of any promise to heal a troubled marriage. We have lost confidence that marriage will make us happy, that marriage is a blessing. Many young men and women are afraid of the so-called "commitment." They stall. They wait. They have seen unhappy parents split and wander. Like a child afraid to dive into the pool they shiver at the edge uncertain. So the question arises: do we still need marriage and if we do what do we need it for? Is there anything we can do about the sorry state of our domestic lives? Are we on the way to phasing out marriage as a social, cultural, religious necessity? Are we in a transitional period and if so what comes next?
Strangely enough after some years of marriages held barefoot on the beach we are now seeing the return of the very fancy traditional wedding, the bride and groom figures resting on top of a big white cake, the most expensive flowers, the very dazzling dress. These formal ceremonies serve like sandbags at the levee. They make a brave statement. "We will not be swept away in the heavy floodwaters of contemporary chaos and confusion. We will close our eyes and pretend it is 1950 and perhaps it will be." The popular fancy wedding can be understood as an anxious symptom of the current marital malaise. Perhaps a bachelor party, add a bachelorette party, a white dress, a florist's handiwork, can make our vows indelible, turn the evil eye away from our bans.
Another sign of our anxiety is the fierce resistance of the religious right to gay and lesbian marriage. This reveals not so much meanness as sheer fright. If marriage were a strong institution it would not be placed in peril by loving homosexual couples joining in. The anger and the anxiety caused in parts of this country by the very idea of a gay marital vow tells us just how fragile our social system seems, how it totters and shakes before the winds of change. Some are worried the respect for marriage may be slipping down a new cultural drain. That's why they call so loudly for women's obedience, for abstinence before the wedding night, for "family values." But the old world where marriage kept a woman in her place and sex was a genie kept inside of the bottle (or so we pretended) is disappearing, has in most parts of the country already disappeared. The conservative hysteria on the subject is a measure of how severely our marriages are truly under siege. No wonder the conservative right is fighting back. No wonder there are significant backlashes--no wonder reactionary talk-show hosts speak of feminazis and speak of gays as if they were communist saboteurs attempting the overthrow of all we hold dear.
There are however family values that are not those "family values." There are other family values that are humane, flexible, and yet strong. These values too have deep roots although those roots are not necessarily planted in the authority of a deity. They do not require a return to an America of another era. I believe my daughters, raised by a feminist and a psychoanalyst, could one day arrive at marriages that maintain the best of the past and shed the worst. Do they believe that, can they find a mate? That is the question.
The Way It Was
When I was twenty-one and just graduated from college I was in love with a daring, dashing young man who wanted to be a writer. He spoke with an English accent of his own invention having been raised in a one-bedroom apartment in an outer borough of Manhattan by a divorced mother and divorced grandmother whose family or some other branch of the family had once had money in the state of South Carolina. He wanted to be famous the way some boys want to be baseball players. That is, very seriously. He was nervous like an Arabian horse. He was beautiful like one too. He drank not simply too much but constantly. I thought all artists did. He knew volumes of poetry by heart. He was a philosophy student. He allowed me to buy him drinks and sometimes to drive him home across the bridge to Queens after the bars had closed. He won a fellowship to Germany and asked me to go with him. Perhaps he didn't so much ask as allowed it. I stole a ring from my mother's jewelry box the proceeds from the sale of which allowed him to go to Europe with me three months before his fellowship began.
In Paris that summer we moved into a small apartment on Boulevard Montparnasse. He was writing a long story about a graduate student who shot his philosophy professor for destroying his faith in God. I was sitting in cafes watching the passing scene. My mother thought I was traveling with friends, who mailed her postcards every now and then that I had prewritten. As August approached I knew I wanted to go to Munich with my roommate, my partner. He was a writer. I was his muse. The year was 1957. I wrote my mother and told her the truth about my whereabouts and asked her to send me my winter coat, also some money. She wrote back and said if I was going to Munich I should get married. My lover disappeared for a two-day binge when presented with that idea but then he agreed.
We got a license and had a civil ceremony at the town hall of the arrondissement in which we were living. There were many couples waiting to be married in the large room before the mayor's bench. Many of the brides were in white and about to go off to their church weddings. I had on my best dress which was somewhat wrinkled because I didn't have an iron, nor did I know how to use one. When it was our turn we stood before the mayor and he said the necessary civil words and then he leaned over his bench and loudly called out in English to us, "You know I have never in all the twenty years that I have been mayor of this arrondissement, had any marriage of mine end in divorce." He was congratulating himself and us, that was clear from his tone of voice. I remember, although that was forty-four years ago, the sharp pang of guilt that ran through me at his words. I was in love, could have done only what I did, and still I knew standing there that I might well produce his first marital failure. All day long I felt ashamed that I might ruin this mayor's perfect record. When six years later I held my divorce papers in my hand in a courthouse in Juarez, Mexico, and the clerk who stamped them wished me, "Felice dia," I wondered if the mayor of my arrondissement would find out. I hoped not.
In 1957 I couldn't live in sin and grow up at my own pace. In 1957 I didn't dare. Ten years later I wouldn't have been so sure that my only option was to marry a writer when I wanted to be one myself. I have no nostalgia for the past or for those who would keep others in ancient prisons simply because the present is so chaotic, confusing, and not yet satisfactory.
Anxious but Undeterred
This anxiety about marriage has not yet killed the idea of marriage. The achievement of a happy marriage, of a love-filled home, is still a core value, a deeply desired and sought-after ideal. This wish exists equally in secular urban centers among those bearing Ph.D.'s and LL.D.'s and M.D.'s as well as in the distant corners of Pat Robertson country and under the big skies of the far west and southwest. Marriage remains a crucial life plan for most of us and achieving legal state-sanctioned marriage is still a sign of belonging to one's community, and taking one's adult place in the world no matter how unsteady that world or that place may seem. If the folks who did the census that discovered that only 25 percent of Americans are living in nuclear units could have measured the number of those who would like to, women and men who want families or want a partner to parent with them but haven't figured it out yet, the 25 percent would take one giant leap upward. This is not a provable statement but does anyone doubt it? We still have images of happy homes dancing in our heads, no matter how crackling the cyberspace around us becomes. We want our children to have a Ma and a Pa just like Mary, Laura and Carrie, in "Little House on the Prairie." This is our conflict. Reality clashes with wish, myth with fact. It makes us nervous and it should.
It is not just for future children that we marry. It is for ourselves.
Plato told the tale that once upon a time the human being was both male and female, a one-in-all creature, and then we were split apart and both halves spend their lives looking for the other half to make themselves complete. This it turns out is rotten science but adequate metaphor. There is something in us that longs for union, if not merger with the other sex, that feels complete in this mating satisfied in both its physical and emotional impact. However this perfect union, this recreation of ourselves as one double sexed being, is no easy matter. It requires fusing both our erotic love and our minds into another person's body. It means placing erotic love and companionship in the same place. Even Dr. Freud may have found this slightly beyond his grasp. His wife, who became the dutiful Viennese mother and housekeeper, appears not to have been the ideal intellectual companion he also needed. For that it seems he preferred his unmarried sister-in-law Minna Bernays and then later his daughter Anna. Martha Freud was left outside at least when it came to discussing his ever flowing ideas, his professional colleagues, his true interests in archeology, art history, and science. If this is truly so, poor Martha, poor Sigmund. They neither of them succeeded in finding the wholeness Plato glimpsed. This is not because Freud lived much of his life in a pre-Freudian era. It is because Plato's ideal is unrealistic, especially so in societies in which women are so often relegated to the tasks of the home and men are sent out into the world growing apart from their wives. That Freud seems to have found a way to live happily with three women attending him, two not married to anyone else, is perhaps proof of his genius.
This view of completeness served by marriage is also in the Talmud. We find this in the commentary. "Why did the Torah state, "if any man take a wife" (Deuteronomy 22:13) and not "if a woman be taken to a man"?" Because, says R. Simeon, "it is the way of man to go in search of a woman, but it is not the way of a woman to go in search of a man. This may be compared to a man who lost an article: who goes in search of whom? The loser goes in search of the lost article. (Thus man having lost his rib, he seeks to recover it.)" Never mind that this reflects the sexist courtship practices of several thousands of years right up to the present. It also tells us that the rib story is a form of the Plato fable. We feel incomplete one without the other. In some ways man and woman, husband and wife, are one being.
Of course this oneness is tricky. Taken too literally the Platonic ideal can ruin a marriage. Too much oneness and someone may disappear into the other, which is not good for the survival of the marriage. Marriage cannot make a person with a seriously sick soul well. It cannot fill in all the holes we have or serve to keep us alive like a mind meld on "Star Trek." The two-into-one process in the sense that Plato meant it needs a lot of balance and explanation and caution in the modern world. As a metaphor it works well enough to describe the sexual act but fails to capture the nature of companionship which by definition requires a twoness as well as a oneness.
Excerpted from Married by Anne Roiphe Copyright © 2003 by Anne Roiphe. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted April 24, 2004
A very convincing argument for marriage as an institution. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking. The author argues that marriage matters, marriage is desirable. She debunks a lot of myths about men and women and human nature. Read this book and remember the reasons you got married in the first place.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.