01.01.2015

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Tom was a marketing major and was hired by an international firm with a home office in the UK.
I have thought long and hard about what brought our marriage to the place where it now resides, and I can’t really say that I am much closer to unravelling the mystery.
If I tough it out, there is some evidence suggesting I will be happier, in the long run, than if I leave. Since the Sixties, roughly twice as many of us are walking away from marriages and heading down that long, dusty highway in search of personal fulfillment’s Holy Grail. My parents’ marriage, in its heyday, remains for me the single most compelling model of a loving partnership that I know.
This is important, I think, because, although they had a great capacity for playful enthusiasms, my parents were adult in a way that seems strangely foreign today.
Sometimes when the pressures of modern life grind us down, we tend to feel nostalgic for a time when marriage looked easier.
I once asked a friend who married young, built a life with the accoutrements of success, and has managed to stay happily married for thirty-odd years, to tell me why her marriage made it through.
Indeed, one doesn’t have to look far to conclude that an enduring marriage is often a serendipitous accident.
And so, married couples, as well as governments and religious institutions, have a great deal invested in shoring up the myth of marriage—something that anyone who has lived through a divorce has experienced, often painfully. These two powerful pressures are at work all the time in our culture, subtly and not-so-subtly punishing and ostracizing those who remain unmarried by choice or destiny, and those who choose to leave an unfulfilling marriage.
This business of expectations interests me, because a marriage is always laced through with expectation, whether consciously expressed or not.
We have come to think of marriage as a private matter between two people in love, but marriage has never been a private matter. Cott argues that legal authorities have always fashioned models of marriage finely calibrated to political ideals, and even though in Canada history took a different path, in both places cumulative associations to marriage models reverberate in the collective unconscious. The result is that we are all carrying around this ideological freight, at once internalizing a profound belief in the moral rightness of marriage and being propelled into marriage by many symbolic cultural incentives and attractive economic ones, while remaining deeply skeptical of the marriages we observe and clearly conflicted about our own. What is even more confounding is that just as the institution is in the process of imploding, it is being hailed as a panacea. What’s more, it is impossible to turn around these days without reading a study about how marriage is better for you than omega fatty acids.
I want to give her some hope, but I’m not sure what to say, and platitudes are pointless. And why is it that the moment you’re through the gates, married people have this compulsion to fix you up? And yet, when incontrovertible evidence suggests that most of us are, at best, ambivalent about marriage, when only a lucky few seem to have mastered the trick of contented coupledom, when the institution itself seems to be flailing about in the grip of social Darwinism, when it is becoming increasingly evident that marriage itself may be the culprit here, or at least our current ideas about marriage, there is still a terrible sense of failure when a marriage ends.
It strikes me as nothing short of astonishing how two people can travel the distance between adoring affection and lethal rage and back again. Let’s talk about ambivalence for a moment, because ambivalence, it seems, is the quicksand on which modern marriage is built. To say that there is a conspiratorial silence about marriage may seem like a strange assertion in a confessional culture where so much is exposed you begin to wish for a little dignified restraint. So here we all are, colluding in this massive denial, propping up this myth that marriage meets our every need, which brings me to the subject of lousy sex. We have now officially entered the era of the sexless marriage, another cruel irony of our time because it seems to me that one of the main reasons for putting up with all the shit you have to put up with in marriage is because you can have sex on a fairly regular basis.
And yet, if the sardonic comments I frequently hear on this subject are any indication, it’s almost become hip to have a monastic marital life these days.
I read somewhere once that there is nothing sexier than a married man who has not given up on life, and I have often wondered what it must be like for Hillary to be married to a man whose sexual magnetism is legendary, when her power resides elsewhere.
Experts will tell you that every marriage, sooner or later, experiences a crisis of disappointment.
And so, here I am, on marriage’s new frontiers, without a map, doing my best to improvise. He was funny and smart and gentlemanly, and there was a stillness about him that I found calming. We fell in love and moved in together and built a life and adopted each other’s families and bought a place and raised a kid and weathered crises and had adventures and dreamed our dreams.
On the other hand, the damage is mounting, and maybe it would be best to cut my losses before more damage is done. I remember gazing wide-eyed when he put on Ella Fitzgerald and took my mother’s hand and danced her around the living room. It is a template—a precious jewel in my consciousness, which I take out to gaze at from time to time. It worked in part, I think, because their roles were clearer and the avenues of exit not so freely available. There was a gravitas about their marriage, which is not a word I would use to describe many marriages I see today.


But even today, when we have spawned a culture of drive-by marriages and serial marriages, when the nuclear family has become an alternative lifestyle, when each new publishing season brings yet another avalanche of save-your-marriage manuals, the mythology of the storybook marriage remains an astonishingly potent force in our lives.
Marriage is a tenacious idea for many reasons, not only because the desire for intimate connection is profoundly human, or because, for many, marriage is a matter of consecration and faith, but because marriage is the glue that holds us together as a society.
Whatever the state of their own marriages, perhaps because of it, couples find it deeply threatening when a marriage in their circle ends. And those expectations are implicit from the moment people marry, or enter into an arrangement that they consider a marriage, even though they may not have formalized that arrangement legally. Cott, a marriage historian and professor of American history at Harvard University, argues that in the U.S. In America, for instance, the founding fathers viewed monogamy as an alluring concept, because they saw neat parallels between the idea of monogamous marriage between two consenting adults and republican government by and for the people. We are in the midst of a huge marriage-is-good-for-you moment right now, so much so that to governments interested in staying in power, marriage is the new opiate of the masses.
One of the more fear-mongering treatises on the transformative powers of the institution is Linda J. She mourned its loss but did not see it as a personal failure, and, as far as I know, she never regretted it.
It’s supposed to be this honeymoon hotel where you check in with your soulmate for life and you crack open the bubbly of your hopes and toast your good fortune and go to sleep on the Frette linens of emotional intimacy and elegant communication and mutual fulfillment and rewarding sex.
A happily married man of my acquaintance says that he loves his wife and sometimes he hates her, but that he loves her more than he hates her, which strikes me as a pretty decent definition of the precarious balance on which most marriages teeter. All marriages hinge on the dialectic between interest and boredom, passion and contempt, adoration and hatred. But for all the obsessional taking of marriage’s pulse, for all the sordid, maudlin bloodlettings on talk TV, nobody really talks about what a marriage looks like at the molecular level. We are living in an age when there appears to be an inverse ratio between the amount of sex you can watch other people having, and the amount you can actually have with the person who shares your bed. To qualify for membership in the sexless marriage club, you cannot be doing it more than ten times a year. Still, whatever your views on fidelity, I think it is impossible not to sense the presence of some aliveness, some kinetic energy in the marriage. Couples can choose to negotiate this Waterloo in many ways, but one of the less-talked about is to acknowledge that it is normal to feel the need to live separately at times in a marriage, and choosing to do so doesn’t necessarily have to mean that the marriage has malfunctioned.
Every year on the anniversary of our first date, we agreed to renew our option for another year. Maybe it would be wiser to join the ranks of those leaving long-term marriages later in life, unwilling to squander whatever years they have left. We’ve got it bad, this soulmate for life thing, this sweet illusion that once we find The One, marriage will meet our every need.
Indeed, we have always had a prurient interest in the miseries of marriage, and literature is full of horrendous accounts of unions gone sour. Marriage and government have long been in bed together, entwined over property rights, welfare issues, taxation laws, and civil rights—a reality the same-sex marriage debate has highlighted, but not something most of us think about much. Over the years, governments have used marriage as a handy tool with which to restrict or exclude certain groups (forbidding slaves and homosexuals to marry, for instance), and ideas about the definition of marriage have shifted according to the body politic. It embarrasses me to admit that I’m the one who still cries watching A Wedding Story. I tell her I think there is something of great value in marriage, some opportunity to achieve a certain wisdom and generosity and patience that only a marriage can bestow.
For a time she hated him so much that she would lie beside him in bed at night thinking “Die!
His wife attributes their marital success to the fact that they never fell out of love at the same time. We’re not allowed to see the storyboard, to watch the marriage unfolding scene by scene. The characters one encounters in Cheever and Updike, with their cocktails and cigarettes and affairs, seem at once infinitely more dissolute and more adult than most of the young parents I know.
And, contrary to the many harsh judgments I read about her, I have never viewed Hillary Rodham Clinton as a throwback to an era when women simply stood by their men, no matter how humiliating their transgressions. To my eye it looks like a jazz improvisation, an organic experiment with form that constantly surprises and steadfastly refuses to follow a set score, reminding us that this partnership of equals is a complicated matter requiring complicated choices and solutions, that the one-dimensional scripts we have devised for marriage no longer apply, that not only is it possible to define marriage more fluidly than we have in the past, but necessary, and that monogamy may not be the fundamental basis of an enduring marriage that we once thought it was.
I have often wondered why we don’t just acknowledge this reality from the start, and view periodic separation as a normal stage of a healthy marriage, like letting a field lie fallow to regenerate.
As an exploration of the subject by someone who was in the throes of the turmoil and heartache of marital breakdown, it’s a fascinating and valuable read. At some point that night, I remember saying that even if we didn’t go out again, I wanted him in my life in some way. I remember standing on a dais once and toasting my husband as my mate in the grandest sense of that word. Whatever their private dissatisfactions, they seemed to view them as insignificant compared to their commitment to the grand experiment of their marriage and the task of raising their family.


But I never had the feeling (as I do so often today) that they viewed their marriage as diminishing of themselves. This is not an argument against divorce, merely an acknowledgement that a huge and compelling body of social-science research points unequivocally to the conclusion that, in almost every way, divorce is bad for children and society. Could it be, I wonder, that so many of us are failing at marriage because expecting to live happily with one person for the rest of our lives is an absurd idea? By the end of the last century, marriage came to be seen purely as a private matter between two consenting adults.
Waite, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, and Gallagher, director of the Marriage Program at the Institute of American Values, are like two industrious little marriage actuaries, reducing the subject to a cost-benefit analysis. I see serviceable marriages based on routine, dysfunctional marriages supported by a web of lies, marriages sustained by social ritual, marriages whose bones are brittle with calcified resentments, marriages where the contempt is so palpable it oozes between the cracks like primordial slime, marriages that went on life-support years ago: dead couples walking. I am fascinated by the Clinton marriage because it has always struck me as a Rorschach of a modern marriage in all its glorious and terrible ambiguities. To me she is uncompromisingly herself, a truly modern woman who showed strength, maturity, and grace under pressure and who radiates a complex yet clear-eyed understanding of what is ultimately important in a marriage and what is not. Marriage, after all, is a commitment to share one’s life intimately with another person, and that commitment can take many forms.
All I know is that in its most eloquent expression, it is a lunatic idea worth fighting for. I felt more deeply comfortable in his company than I ever had with anyone else, so freely alive and at home in my own skin that I put on the Rolling Stones and played air guitar while he looked on with amused fascination. Gays and lesbians may be beating down marriage’s double oak doors, but, increasingly, heterosexuals are leaving in droves.
My mother, in turn, made a point of looking effortlessly beautiful, revered him as the man of the house, and made a loving home.
They parented with grace, but they did not make my sisters and me the obsessive focus of their lives. It seemed to both elevate them as individuals, and serve as an anchor mooring them to something larger than themselves.
All the ingredients were there for her marriage to have worked, but forces conspired against it. And when the going gets tough, there’ll be those endless reserves of trust and affection and respect to see you through. If, as psychologist John Gottman, director of the University of Washington’s Family Research Lab observes, the sudden decline of marital sex is a bellwether, like those one-eyed frogs that presage environmental disaster, then apocalypse is nigh. In its clash of Titans and shifting power relationships and dual-career pressures and co-parenting dilemmas and mid-life affairs and marriage sabbaticals and monumental achievements and annihilating furies and negotiations, betrayals and accommodations, it seems to contain, in grand scope, all the jostling, flawed elements present in most marriages I know.
Whatever its limitations, it seems apparent that both of the individuals who inhabit this marriage find something of great depth and renewal there. Who’s to say that couples who live physically together but emotionally apart are married, while couples who live separately, but remain intimately connected, are not? Children were expected to aspire to the grown-ups’ world, not the other way around, the way it seems today. When another friend announced that she was moving in with the man in her life, her phone started ringing with calls from married female friends anxious to know what she was doing with her apartment. How does one partnership survive while another crumbles under the weight of too many “fuck you”s? I think she would like to feel that marriage is possible, but she can’t risk believing in what seems to her such a doomed enterprise.
It was not until the philandering husband was ritually humiliated and the feminist virago morphed into the wounded-but-stoically-enduring wife, that order was restored. All I know is that we are two decent people who love each other and are living in a marriage that feels unfixable. Resisting the impulse to marry is portrayed as such a dumb choice, one almost expects to see a picture of a blackened lung on the cover.
This is the third time around for both my husband and me, although, this time, he and I never actually married.
And so, here I am, staring down the barrel of my own ambivalence, wondering whether to stay or go.
And yet, in spite of its darkest moments and our unwedded state, I can say, unequivocally, that this is the best marriage I have ever had. How is she supposed to believe, as I do, that aspiring to intimate partnership is a worthy goal, when all around her marriages are collapsing?
And yet, as a culture, we tend to pity those who prefer to take their chances on the open seas rather than go down with the ship.
Or bouts of such hatred for your spouse that you start realizing the true miracle of modern marriage is not that half survive, but that more don’t end in murder.



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