Chapter VI: HOW GROWNUPS DO MARRIAGE

From "Grow Up! How Taking Responsiblity Can Make You a Happy Adult"
Golden Books/1998

-"Marriage is our last, best chance to grow up."
Joseph Barth

"I didn't marry you because you were perfect. I didn't even marry you because I loved you. I married you because you gave me a promise. That promise made up for your faults. And the promise I gave you made up for mine. Two imperfect people got married and it was the promise that made the marriage. And when our children were growing up, it wasn't a house that protected them; and it wasn't our love that protected them---it was that promise."
Thornton Wilder, THE SKIN OF OUR TEETH

Marriage is that promise: not the emotions, not even the relationship, but that commitment. To be worth anything more than a vacation together, a boarding arrangement or a temporary job, a marital promise must be made to withstand and weather all human emotions, and the inhuman ones as well. It must withstand cruelty, neglect, and the innumerable more subtle forms of abuse frightened people use to protect themselves from recognizing the equal rights of others. It must withstand periods of separation, which may occur when the reality of war, work, school, illness, imprisonment, duty, or vacation comes between people. It must withstand cooling-off periods when one person's behavior requires that the other escape to safety or punitive distance. It must withstand change, aging, loss of youth, loss of beauty, loss of youthful hopes, and an expectable lifetime full of disappointment. But if that promise is made to hold, one is never alone, never in despair, never lost in the universe. One always has a home.

Jessie Bernard in THE FUTURE OF MARRIAGE stated: "One fundamental fact underlies the conception of marriage itself. Some kind of commitment must be involved...Merely fly-by-night, touch and go relationships do not qualify." In Louisiana a new state law gives couples a choice between regular marriage that permits no-fault quickie divorce and "covenant" marriage that requires counseling, cause and patience to escape. I worry a bit about those who would choose "marriage lite" rather than the real thing. People who marry "til death do us part" have a quite different level of commitment, therefore a quite different level of security, thus a quite different level of freedom, and as a result a quite different level of happiness than those who marry "so long as love doth last." The "love doth last" folks are always anticipating the moment when they or their mate wakes up one morning and finds the good feeling that holds them afloat has dissolved beneath them.

Marriage is not about being in love. It is about the agreement to love one another. Love is an active, transitive verb. It is something married grownups do no matter how they feel. It is nice when married people are in love with one another, but if they are loving enough to one another, that magic may catch fire again.

There is a relationship between love and marriage, but it is oblique. Judith Viorst, author of NECESSARY LOSSES, explained: "One advantage of marriage, it seems to me, is that when you fall out of love with him, or he falls out of love with you, it keeps you together until you maybe fall in again." Paul Tournier said it in THE MEANING OF PERSONS: "It is a lovely thing to have a husband and wife developing together and having the feeling of falling in love again. That is what marriage really means: helping one another to reach the full status of being persons, responsible and autonomous beings who do not run away from life."

Marriage is not supposed to make you happy. It is supposed to make you married, and once you are safely and totally married then you have a structure of security and support from which you are free to make yourself happy, rather than wasting your adulthood looking for a structure.

The state of marriage can make people happier even if the particular partner is a disappointment or an irritant. The state of marriage seems to offer security to lives that would otherwise be obsessed with either the deficiencies of the unpartnered state or the search for a partner. The marriage does not have to be very fulfilling to offer comfort and structure and the sense that a life is going on. But when the marriage is threatened, by you or your partner, that's a major threat to the sanctuary of domestic life, and thus a trigger of intense insecurity and disorientation. Obviously, a few marriages are so abusive or degrading or unequal or insecure, they offer no sanctuary at all. Even then, it is rare for people to leave until they have found a potential partner who offers a more hopeful alternative. The human animal resists being alone.

HER MARRIAGE, HIS MARRIAGE "The responsibility for recording a marriage has always been up to the woman; if it wasn't for her, marriage would have disappeared long since. No man is going to jeopardize his present or poison his future with a lot of little brats hollering around the house unless he's forced to. It's up to the woman to knock him down, hog-tie him and drag him in front of two witnesses immediately if not sooner." THE MIRACLE OF MORGAN'S CREEK by Preston Sturges

Does marriage "jeopardize" a man's present and "poison his future"? On the other hand, does it enslave women? Under patriarchy, every effort was made to undercut the basic equality of marriage. In the patriarchal book of GENESIS, God tells Eve: "Thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over you." Men were warned to keep women unequal. In ancient Rome in 215 B.C., Cato the Censor warned: "Suffer women once to arrive at an equality with you, and they will from that moment become your superiors."

Under patriarchy, a woman was treated as property to be passed from a father to a husband without ever achieving an independent adulthood of her own. There was a time when the job description for a wife, i.e. a helpmeet to a man, was close to that of a servant.

Yet even in those patriarchal times, just as in these as yet imperfectly postpatriarchal ones, marriage has offered the closest possible situation of equality to men. "Traditionally, marriage involved a kind of bartering, rather than mutual interdependence or role sharing. Husbands financially and economically supported wives, while wives emotionally, psychologically and socially supported husbands. He brought home the bacon, she cooked it. He fixed the plumbing, she the psyche," writes Bettina Arndt in PRIVATE LIVES.

Under patriarchy, according to Elizabeth Fox-Genovese in FEMINISM WITHOUT ILLUSIONS, "Marriage did subject women, inluding their property and their wages, to the authority of a man upon whom they depended for support. (But) for many women...marriage constituted a viable career, a more promising source of security than anything the individualism of the public sphere could offer." If the relationship could become personal, then it could be flexible enough for interdependency and a measure of equality to be achieved.

Marriage has become far more personal in our postpatriarchal society, as people have increasingly demanded their rights to pursue happiness. As the roles, no longer prescribed by gender, became negotiable and interchangeable, "A successful relationship rested on the emotional compatibility of husband and wife, rather than the fulfillment of gender-prescribed duties and roles." (D'Emilio and Freedman, INTIMATE MATTERS) But of course as people began to take their marriages more personally and realized they had more say in how things went, they began to complain and tinker with the relationship more and concern themselves with matters of automatic compatibility.

Men have been accustomed to believing that women were getting a better deal out of marriage than men were. Men have tended to complain more about what they had to give up in order to be married. For instance, Rock Hudson in PILLOW TALK, explains: "Before a man gets married, he's like a tree in the forest. He stands there independent, an entity unto himself. And then he's chopped down. His branches are cut off, he's stripped of his bark, and he's thrown into the river with the rest of the logs. Then this tree is taken to the mills. Now, when it comes out, it's no longer a tree. It's the vanity table, the breakfast nook, the baby crib and the newspaper that lines the family garbage can."

Women have had their say as well about the inequities of marriage: Mildred Natwick explains it to her daughter Jane Fonda in Neil Simon's BAREFOOT IN THE PARK: "Take care of him. Make him feel important. Give up a little bit of you for him. If you can do that, you'll have a happy and wonderful marriage---like two out of every ten couples."

Actually the data would indicate that both men and women benefit from marriage (quite aside from the overriding benefit to children.)

Jessie Bernard's findings on that subject, and her collection of the relevant research on the matter (compiled in THE FUTURE OF MARRIAGE in 1972 and updated in 1982; it hasn't changed much since), have been widely quoted and divergently interpreted. For instance Deborah Leupnitz, in THE FAMILY INTERPRETED states: "Looking at a host of variables, from rates of psychiatric admissions to self-reports of happiness, Bernard found that married men were better off than single men, but that single women were better off than married women." Actually it is not quite that bad. Certainly men have benefitted more from patriarchal marriage than women have, but women have benefitted as well. Married women do have more psychological distress than single ones, and women with children at home are more stressed than those without them, but the married women are more likely to consider themselves happy. Women who marry and stay at home have more psychological symptoms than single women with careers, but married women who also work are healthier. Working mothers and wives may be exhausted, but they are healthy and happy.

In these surveys, separated, divorced and widowed women had higher levels of unhappiness than those who were still married, even if the marriage was not too great. Women complained about their marriages more than men did, and found the specific relationships with their husbands less satisfying than they had wished, but they found the state and institution of marriage a source of satisfaction as well as security. Perhaps one of the pleasures women get from marriage is the opportunity to complain about it, just as men who sacrifice their lives to work delight in complaining about doing so.

The concept of "unhappily married" is misleading. The person so described is both unhappy and married at the same time, but I think it dangerous and presumptious to assume that the marriage is causing the unhappiness. Only foolish romantics assume that their marriage partner should make them so happy they will not have periods of unhappiness---or, for that matter, attractions to others or longings to live in a different place or time or situation or century.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh in WAR WITHIN AND WITHOUT said: "Marriage is tough, because it is woven of all these various elements, the weak and the strong. 'In loveness' is fragile for it is woven only with the gossamer threads of beauty. It seems to me absurd to talk about 'happy' and 'unhappy' marriages."

Simone Signoret, married forever to Yves Montand in a marriage that survived his notorious affairs with Edith Piaf and Marilyn Monroe, explained: "Chains do not hold a marriage together. It is threads, hundreds of tiny threads which sew people together through the years. This is what makes a marriage last---more than passion or even sex."

Still Bernard concludes: "To be happy in a relationship which imposes so many impediments on her, as traditional marriage does, a woman must be slightly ill mentally."

Men have consistently been happier and more satisfied with their marriages than have their wives, but that is probably because men have been less likely to expect their marriage to be the primary source of their happiness. Men expect more service but less joy from marriage as they look to their careers for their major source of satisfaction.

Bernard notes: "There are few findings more consistent, less equivocal, and more convincing, than the sometimes spectacular and always impressive superiority on almost every index---demographic, psychological, or social---of married over never-married men. Despite all the jokes about marriage in which men indulge, all the complaints they lodge against it, it is one of the greatest boons of their sex."

Faludi, in BACKLASH, summarizes: "The suicide rate of single men is twice as high as that of married men. Single men suffer from nearly twice as many severe neurotic symptoms and are far more susceptible to nervous breakdowns, depression, even nightmares. And despite the all-American image of the carefree single cowboy, in reality bachelors are far more likely to be morose, passive and phobic than married men.

And, according to Michael, Gagnon, Laumann, and Kolata in SEX IN AMERICA, single men have a lot less sex, as well.

Even if traditional marriage was a greater boon to men than to women, marriage makes both men and women happy, and the breakdown of marriage makes both men and women miserable. Still, men don't always do a very good job of meeting the psychological needs of their wives and making women happy, especially women with a romantic turn of mind. In our postpatriarchal society, men are having to change of course, but so are women: women need more in their lives. It is not surprising that better educated men and women are happier and more satisfied with marriage. But it should also not be surprising that married women who work outside the home are healthier than housewives on almost every category of psychological symptom. Women can't look to men, anymore than they can to children, for the total meaning of their lives, and many have been erroneously socialized to expect that.

Marriage worked fine, in fact probably better, before it got saddled with fantasies and expectations of romantic love. Marriage was always a necessary economic and social arrangement which provided an atmosphere in which children could be raised, sex regulated and adults would have a partner and companion to share the work and keep them from feeling alone in the world.

Samuel Johnson, who was right about most things, was quoted by Boswell in 1776: "I believe marriages would in general be as happy, and often more so, if they were all made by the Lord Chancellor, upon a due consideration of the characters and circumstances, without the parties having any choice in the matter." I regularly see people who have come to the conclusion that they married for the wrong reasons or at the wrong time in their lives, and therefore their marriage is emotionally invalid, so they owe no loyalty to their commitments or the basic structure of their life. This is immature and irresponsible and is a guarantor of unhappiness for somebody, probably everybody.

Above all, it does matter how marriage partners treat one another. Contrary to the theories of the '60s, like THE INTIMATE ENEMY, fighting a lot, spewing emotions on one another, and "expressing" every damn fool thing you feel, as if it were pus in a dangerous abscess, does not make marriages happier. John Gottman, in WHY MARRIAGES SUCCEED OR FAIL, reported that contempt, criticism, complaining, and withdrawing forebode gloom for marriage.

Actually kindness seems to be the heart of happy marriage. What marriage partners need is less encounter group style "mental health" and better manners. There is little in life that ever needs to be said, from "Your breathe stinks" to "I shall surely kill you if you ever do that again" that can not be said politely, even lovingly. The primary task for postpatriarchal marriage, however, is to keep it not just personal---focussing on the ability to make one another happy---but equal. It is hard for marriage to be equal when the impact of divorce might affect the two partners unequally, might have different financial consequences for one than the other, might have different impacts on their relationships with the children, and might put one in a better position to remarry. So one step toward equalizing a marriage is to preclude the possibility of divorce. Another step is to provide equal access to money and to decisions about money. Still another necessary step is to divide the work equitably, which requires ongoing negotiation of chores and tasks and responsibilities. Even if the jobs aren't equal in some way, the voices must be.