“In Defense of Marriage” (“Beyond Sexual Freedom”)
The case for a battered institution and against the false promise of sexual freedom.
Philadelphia Inquirer Sunday Magazine
February 20, 1983
By Art Carey
LAST SUMMER, ABOUT a week after I returned from my honeymoon, I was greeted at the office by an older, married colleague whom I've come to respect for his professional skills and wisdom about life.
"Hey Artie, I heard you got married. "
"Sure did," I said, beaming.
"You really blew it. You had everything going for you. Why did you do it? "
My face fell. I looked at him again to make sure he wasn't kidding. He wasn't. Nonplussed, I stammered out something inane about "a triumph of hope over experience. "
It was not the first time I'd encountered such a response. During the months I was engaged, several friends and acquaintances expressed similar sentiments, though usually not as bluntly. Sometimes they would say something positive and blithe, but all the while they were looking at me in a way that seemed both rueful and disbelieving, as though I'd just told them I was planning to do something heroic, romantic and doomed - like row across the Atlantic in a six-foot dinghy. "It's so quaint," said a single woman friend when I told her I was getting married. "You rarely hear of people actually doing it anymore. "
Some of my more macho single men friends simply thought I was crazy. "Your fiancee may be terrific," they seemed to be saying, "but this is 1982, and there are all those lovely, hard-charging career women out there - lonely, hungry, willing, able, up for anything! How could you pass it all up? " It was like walking away from a lavish buffet table (courtesy of the sexual revolution and the women's movement) with only one meager entree.
This anti-marriage attitude was not universal, but it was prevalent enough to make me wonder. Some of it, of course, was a function of where I work. Newspapers tend to attract free spirits, people who are vigorously independent and who pride themselves on traveling light and being hip, fast- moving and fashionably cynical. To people of such temperament, marriage, naturally enough, often seems stifling and confining.
But the skepticism I sensed toward marriage was broader than that. It seemed as though society in general - or at least its opinion leaders and tastemakers - had decided marriage was frumpy and obsolete.
I resented it. I resented the way the media glamorized the nomadic romantic habits of childishly fickle celebrities. Meanwhile, the everyday joys of successful marriages were a non-story. To the makers of prime-time soaps like ''Dallas" or "Dynasty," marriages were interesting only when they were splintering or being violated. In movies such as Ordinary People and Shoot the Moon, marriage took its natural course, crumbling, crushing souls, igniting vicious fury. To be married, it seemed, was to be boring, bourgeois, stunted, hemmed in, frustrated. It was the end of adventure, the end of precious, precious freedom.
Or so some believe. But not I. I believe in marriage, and my belief has nothing to do with religion or some idealistic view of human nature. Growing up, I saw more than my share of disastrous marriages - sham adulterous marriages that existed solely for social convenience, cold hateful marriages that warped children's lives and boiled over occasionally in scenes right out of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Closer to home, my parents divorced when I was 12. My mother remarried and divorced again. Both her marriages ended in spectacular orgies of bitterness and recrimination.
I realize, in other words, that marriage is no nirvana, that it's no panacea, and that it's not right for everybody. Some marriages are bloody battlefields of clashing egos; others are spirit-eroding purgatories of thwarted desire and ambition. Sometimes the kindest thing that can be done for a marriage is to get out, as I did more than three years ago; I had been married 6 1/2 years.
Still, I believe in marriage. My loyalty to the institution stems partly
from a respect for tradition. But it also reflects my conviction that marriage has lasted as long as it has because, by and large, it works. For all its many imperfections, it is the best arrangement man has come up with for structuring relationships, organizing family and kin, and, as a married friend of mine put it, "being the best you can be. " "Living with someone in a controlled relationship like marriage is what we're supposed to do," a single woman friend said. "It's what we're wired for. "
I like the way it was put by Dr. Walter Brackelmanns, a marital therapist who is host of a syndicated television show called "Couples. " In a recent People magazine interview, he said: "Marriage is a very imperfect institution full of imperfect people struggling to hide from or resolve problems. It is, however, the only place where two people have a chance at an intimate, warm, caring, loving, meaningful, deep, total and real relationship with each other. "
My appreciation for marriage is not new-found. This is no song of repentance by a reformed rake, nor is it a herpes-inspired paean to monogamy by a born-again puritan. When I was single, I was single with gusto, but for me the putative pleasures of bachelorhood never matched the pleasures of married life. In fact, my experiences during that period, if anything, only affirmed my belief in marriage and fired my longing for its quiet, subtle joys.
This, then, is an unabashed celebration of marriage, a kind of conscientious objection to the ways in which this worthy institution has been attacked, undermined and ridiculed. It is also a salute to those who have the courage, optimism and spirit of adventure to get married, and those who, through energy, stamina, maturity, compassion, determination, wisdom, faith and love, have managed to keep their marriages happy.
PAST, PRESENT AND FUTURE
MARRIAGE HAS ALWAYS had its critics. "To marry is to halve your rights and double your duties," declared Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher. ''Marriage is like life," said Robert Louis Stevenson. " . . . a field of battle, and not a bed of roses. " Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes called marriage "a noose," and British dramatist William Congreve said that ''though marriage makes man and wife one flesh, it leaves 'em still two fools. " "The best part of married life is the fights," playwright Thornton Wilder claimed. "The rest is merely so-so. "
For all the obloquy, though, marriage until lately was still basically respected, most people agreeing with Menander, the Athenian comedy writer who once said, "Marriage, if one will face the truth, is an evil, but a necessary evil. "
Then came the '60s, free love, polymorphous perversity, and an ethos that exhorted, "If it feels good, do it. " Marriage was just one more Establishment institution that impeded "the revolution," another ruling- class "instrument of oppression. " Suddenly it was all very serious. As some women shook their fists at Father Nature for cursing them with a womb, Bella and Betty, Germaine and Gloria, Kate and Ti-Grace were lambasting marriage for turning women into chattels and twisting their psyches into pretzels. Marriage, one feminist polemicist wrote, is "oppressive politically, exhausting physically, stereotyped emotionally and sexually, and atrophying intellectually. " Marriage had become "the ultimate trap, the ultimate routine in a routinized society, the ultimate expression of the banality that pervades and suffocates modern life," observed Christopher Lasch in The Culture of Narcissism.
Who needed marriage (and husbands) now that women could drive Caterpillar tractors and cash their own paychecks? Who needed marriage (and wives) now that practically any man could walk into practically any singles bar on practically any night of the week and, for the price of a few drinks, go home with a braless chippy who would guide him through the Kama Sutra? It was the Age of Aquarius, an era of love, peace and happiness, far-out drugs and no- hassle sex - two popular diversions, Lasch notes, that created "the illusion of intense experience without emotion. "
Then came the '70s, and from sea to shining sea, everyone was "into" the Self, which they "actualized" by looking out for No. 1, meditating, jogging, Rolfing, esting, Lifespringing, swinging, swapping, marinating in hot tubs, stalking sensation, fleeing from feeling and prostrating before the latest self-help guru, cult prophet or Eastern swami. "My Heart Belongs to Me," sang Barbra Streisand. Forget marriage, forget the family, forget the future (and death). I do my thing and you do your thing. I need my space. I am my own work of art. The end product is ME! Marriage, with its demands for sacrifice and compromise and surrender, hardly had a chance.
There was Mom, her consciousness raised, ditching Dad and the kids so she could screw her brains out with the 25-year-old Omar Sharif look-alike who was teaching her how to fly. And there was Dad, suddenly growing sideburns, wearing bellbottoms, working out at Nautilus, driving a fire-engine red Corvette, and screwing his brains out with what Tom Wolfe called the "New Cookie" - "the girl in her twenties for whom the American male now customarily shucks his wife of two to four decades when the electrolysis gullies appeared above her upper lip. "
Marriage, it seemed, was fast becoming, as Gore Vidal proclaimed, "no more than a ceremonial vestige of a bygone era. " In 1960, there were 393,000 divorces nationally and the divorce rate was a moderate 2.2 divorces for every 1,000 persons. By 1981, the number of divorces had more than tripled, to 1,219,000, and the divorce rate had more than doubled to 5.3 per 1,000, one of the highest in the world. In 1973, for the first time in history, divorce ended more marriages than death; by mid-decade, for every two couples marching down the aisle, one couple was clawing its way into court.
Among the children of the baby boom, marriages were even more ephemeral. Since 1960, the divorce rate for couples under 30 has quadrupled. For couples under 25, it has jumped 50 percent in just seven years. "The baby boomers were not willing to make the risky and often painful compromises their parents did," explains Landon Y. Jones in Great Expectations. "Just as they had great expectations for themselves, they had great expectations for their marriages. Life was too short to live with an unhappy marriage. If they could switch to another TV channel, why not switch husbands or wives? In fact, their satisfaction and sense of self-obligation practically demanded it. "
There were other ominous signs. Young people bought condos and shunned matrimony en masse. From 1970 to 1980, the proportion of unmarried women between 25 and 29 doubled, and the number of unmarried couples living together tripled, soaring from 532,000 to 1.5 million. From 1970 to 1981, the number of people living alone leaped nearly 75 percent, to 18.3 million from 10.8 million. And among never-married women, according to two University of Michigan surveys, the feeling that marriage was "all burdens and restrictions" doubled from 36 percent in 1957 to 72 percent in 1976. Watching these trends, some social scientists wondered whether conventional marriage - and the family, the basic unit of cultural transmission - were doomed to extinction.
Then came the '80s, and the signals were mixed: On the one hand, pop singer Olivia Newton-John, the blond girl-next-door-turned-vamp, was beseeching her audiences to "get physical," and willowy sex surveyor Shere Hite was lamenting that 72 percent of married men had cheated on their wives after only two years. In big cities, some husband-hunting women bridled because every other good-looking man, it seemed, was gay, and among swinging singles, hostility between the sexes was so fierce that some men and women sought refuge in celibacy. Meanwhile, in New York, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon made a farce of marriage by joining 2,075 couples - many of whom had just met each other - in a mass ceremony in Madison Square Garden.
On the other hand, there were calls - at first timid, then increasingly bold - for an end to promiscuity and a return to romance. Soon, women's magazines, decrying the epidemic of "commitmentphobia," were reminding their baffled "liberated" readers, "You have a right so say no, too. "
Moreover, for all the flirting with alternatives, traditional values and aspirations had apparently held firm. In 1970, 96 percent of all Americans declared themselves dedicated to the ideal of two people sharing a life and a home together. A decade later, the percentage was - Holy Moral Majority! - exactly the same. Moreover, the marriage rate, after bottoming out in 1976 and '77, began climbing again, and in 1981, there were more marriages - 2,438,000 - than ever before. At the same time, the divorce rate finally began leveling off.
Awash in nostalgia and a new wave of conservatism, millions of Americans clicked on their television sets to gape at the storybook wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana, and, on a less sublime level, the much ballyhooed nuptials of "General Hospital" 's Luke and Laura. Charlie, that bouncy, flouncy liberated career girl of the perfume ads, was now pausing to listen to a boyfriend propose, and after months of agonizing ambivalence, Rick Redfern of "Doonesbury" finally tied the knot with Joanie Caucus. Moviegoers wept as they witnessed the sunset love of Norman and Ethel Thayer in On Golden Pond or watched Richard Gere literally sweep his girlfriend off her feet in the swooning climax of An Officer and a Gentleman. Evidently, the promise of ''happily ever after" still had pull at the box office.
Growing older, many baby boomers began yearning for security and stability. Having too much freedom and too many options was exhausting, they realized, and trying to love with only the head and genitals in a moral and ethical vacuum was about as exhilarating and carefree as hopscotching across a minefield in snowshoes. It was nice to have limits, an acceptable excuse for abstinence, even if, for the time being, it had to be something physical, like herpes, the genteel venereal disease, "the new Scarlet Letter," as Time dubbed it. Thus, while Helen Gurley Brown was still exhorting her Cosmo girls to "mouseburger" their way to the ultimate instant orgasm and Hugh Hefner was still peddling the gospel of erotic hedonism, a writer in Esquire, that one-time bulwark of Hemingwayesque he-manism, was proclaiming "the end of sex" and singing the praises of "High Monogamy. "
Moreover, while social critic Daniel Yankelovich was heralding a new ''ethic of commitment," sociologists were discovering that, despite the
Sturm und Drang of the past 20 years, marriage was stronger than ever. ''Marriage is far from withering away in contemporary America," asserted social critic Mary Jo Bane in Here To Stay. " . . . The majority of marriages do not end in divorce, The vast majority of divorced people remarry. Only a tiny proportion of people marry more than twice. We are thus a long way from a society in which marriage is rejected or replaced by a series of short-term liaisons. "
Indeed, among the hordes rushing to the altar lately have been many ''retreads" and "second-timers. " Three out of four divorced men and four out of five divorced women are remarrying, usually within three years. ''People may have given up on their own marriages, but they have not given up on the institution," says Andrew Cherlin, associate professor of social relations at Johns Hopkins University. "
Today, to an almost universal degree, the United States is still "a marrying society," especially by comparison to the rest of the world, says Paul C. Glick, an Arizona State University sociology professor who was formerly the U.S. Census Bureau's senior demographer. A surprising 95 percent of adult Americans marry at least once during their lifetimes, and married people are generally happier, healthier and more successful than the unmarried, studies show. Although many baby boomers are remaining single into their 30s, Glick and others expect the popularity of marriage to slip only a few notches in the future. At some point, roughly 9 out of 10 Americans will try marriage, and marriage will continue to be the preferred way to live.
"The idea that marriage has become passe is bunk," says University of Pennsylvania sociology professor Frank F. Furstenberg Jr. "The high rates of divorce in our society indicate not that marriage has been denigrated but that it's been exalted to a point where it seems almost unattainable. There's a tremendous premium on marital gratification now. People feel they have an obligation not to be married unless they're in love, unless the relationship meets their standards for what an ideal marriage should be. "
People are dissatisfied with marriage today not because it's any worse, says sociologist Jessie Bernard in The Future of Marriage, but "because it is getting better . . . There are, in fact, few human relationships with a more assured future. For men and women will continue to want intimacy, they will continue to want the thousand and one ways in which men and women share and reassure one another. They will continue to want to celebrate their mutuality, to experience the mystic unity that once led the church to consider marriage a sacrament. "
THE FALSE PROMISE
OF SEXUAL FREEDOM
A DIVORCED MAN: "When I got divorced, I was really looking forward to the freedom of being single. This would be my big chance to live out all my fantasies. A different lady every night of the week. I thought sex would be easy and free. My first disappointment came when I realized I was right. It was easy and free - too easy and free.
"I can remember one time when I was seeing three different women at once. I was practically living out of my car, sleeping with one woman one night, another women the next. Paradise, right? Guess again. One morning, I woke up and I didn't know where I was. I didn't know whose bed I was in or who I was with. What was I doing there? What was I trying to prove?
"After that, I began to do some thinking. All this catting around was empty and meaningless. I didn't feel good about myself, and I started realizing how much I missed the closeness of my marriage when things were good. I missed having someone really care about me. Pretty soon, I kind of dropped out of the singles scene. I was afraid of hurting others - and myself. "
Shortly before I got married last year, I had a discussion about marriage with a single woman friend who outspokenly opposes the institution.
"I'll never get married," she told me. "That's when the walls come closing in. That's when you kiss your freedom goodbye. "
"Nobody's really free," I said. "You're always making choices that limit you in some way. When you take a job, you give up your freedom to drive a motorcycle across the country. When you decide to become a lawyer, you give up your freedom to be a doctor.
"When I'm married I'll be able to do just about anything I can do now. The only thing I won't be able to do, if I take my marriage vow seriously, is have sex with another woman. In other words, I won't have the freedom to be promiscuous. "
That was it, I thought later. The great freedom of singlehood was the freedom to act on your lust with any person at any time and in any place. It was the freedom to do just about anything two healthy adults can do between sheets - except become intimate. For in order to remain free, you could not afford to become close. Because if you became close, you might begin to feel and care. And once feeling and caring get involved, things get serious. Before you know it, you might begin to love. And love is the end of freedom. It's attachment, obligation, responsibility and commitment.
Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson contends that the critical task we face in our 20s is developing the capacity for intimacy - that is, learning "to commit (ourselves) to concrete affiliations and partnership and to develop the ethical strength to abide by such commitments. " Sadly, commitment has been the Achilles' heel of the baby boom generation. "It was able to commit itself politically and socially all right, to everything from Hula-Hoops to the protest movements," writes Landon Jones in Great Expectations. "Those commitments were made ensemble, as a mass. The baby boom's strongest and most effective statements have always come through the larger group. Only in the aggregate could they find the necessary intensity and emotion to fulfill their needs. But the baby boomers, so decisive and passionate as a generation, were practically paralyzed on the individual level. It was as if life in the here and now could not deliver on the expectations they had always had for it. Why should one limit one's prospects when the choices still ahead were so thrilling? "
But how thrilling is freedom, how free is freedom, when it becomes such a totem that it virtually disables you, preventing you from feeling and caring, loving and being loved? "Singlehood makes you free in the sense that your actions don't matter to anyone else," another single woman friend told me recently. "To not matter to anyone is not such a wonderful thing. Like the song says, 'Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose. ' "
"We cannot love without committing ourselves to another person," asserts Rollo May in Freedom and Destiny. "In grasping for freedom from entanglement with another person, we come to grief over our failure of compassion and commitment - indeed, the failure to love authentically. . . . To treat sex and values as totally divorced from each other is . . . to block the development of one's freedom. . . . Moral concern in sex hinges on the acceptance of one's responsibility for the other as well as for oneself. Other people do matter; and the celebration of this gives sexual intercourse its ecstasy, its meaning, and its capacity to shake us to our depths. "
Without a doubt, being single can sometimes be glamorous, thrilling and full of adventure. But for most people, it's a temporary state, because ultimately, being single is unfulfilling. Most single people do want intimacy; they do want, as a single woman friend put it, "to have just one other person love them the best. "
The "deepest need of man," contends Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving, ''is the need to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness. " This "desire for interpersonal fusion . . . is the most fundamental passion, it is the force which keeps the human race together, the clan, the family, the society. The failure to achieve it means insanity or destruction - self-destruction or destruction of others. "
The casualties are all around us: brittle, neurotic women whose longest, most successful relationships are with cats, and glib, feckless men whose chief aims in life are "scoring with chicks" and keeping their softball batting averages above .500.
"I don't think people were ever meant to live alone," a single woman friend said. "You get used to what you want becoming the only criteria for everything. It seems so sterile and calcifying. You become so stiff and unable to deal with real life.
"I have a friend who has a litmus test for the men she dates. If they move the bathroom rug from the tub to the sink and don't move it back, she gets furious. That's it; that's the end. She drops them. That's what can happen when you're single too long. You get out of the habit of the way the world is. . . . '
To escape their "prison of aloneness," many people today seek "freedom" through casual sex. But the search for the perfect orgasm, Fromm warns, eventually "results in an ever-increasing sense of separateness, since the sexual act without love never bridges the gap between two human beings, except momentarily. "
And so they go on searching, festooning their egos with new accessories, repackaging their personalities, mastering new erotic tricks, adding new lines to their resumes, new war stories to their psychic histories. Wounded and frightened, lusting with the nerves instead of the flesh, careening through life with their sexual accelerators pressed to the floor and their emotional clutch pedals out, they eschew intimacy, keeping their encounters hermetically free of affect, going back to the savage for their sensations, cauterizing their hearts and debasing their souls in their wild rut-boar wallowing, losing freedom the more they seek it, scouring every bar, every party, every business meeting, for "Mr. Right," or the woman with the right ''chemistry," all the while denying that the problem of love is not only the problem of an object but also the problem of a faculty.
A remarried man: "After I got divorced, I was absolutely anti-marriage. Marriage was insanity to me, since it had brought me nothing but grief. My inclination at that point was being bolstered by a lot of anti-marriage literature. Feminists were attacking the very premise of marriage. If I had free-associated with the word "marriage" then, I would have come up with words like "prison," "suffocation," "boredom. "
"After a while, I got involved with a woman I really enjoyed. We began living together even though I was not interested in monogamy. Honesty is very important to me, so I wasn't interested in cheating. I didn't want to undermine the relationship that way. Instead, I started dating other women openly and undermined the relationship head-on. . . .
"I began dating again and fell into the search-for-the-perfect-woman syndrome. After a while, it was almost like conducting job interviews. There were a lot of one-date situations. I'd go out with promising people and realize that they weren't what they pretended to be. There was a lot of false advertising. . . .
"I met one woman who was beautiful, intelligent, rich and very loose. She had the money to fly off to the Virgin Islands or Aspen. She seemed to have men scattered all over the country, and I guess I was her man in Philadelphia. She was very reluctant to say where she'd been and very uncomfortable with total honesty.
"She was so scared to death of real intimacy that she made me look like Joe Steady. In fact, she was a caricature of me. She brought all my quirks into high relief and made me realize how absurd they were. Because she was so uncomfortable with herself most of the time, she made me realize that comfort was a real high priority for me. She made me realize that I didn't always want to be moving on. I wanted an oasis, a place to relax and be at peace. She was always plunging into a storm - often a very interesting storm - but who needs it? "
The great irony of the last two decades is that the search for fulfillment through sexual freedom, which wrecked so many marriages, did not, in the end, degrade marriage, which had been so maligned, but sex (or more properly, erotic love), which had been so exalted.
Today, sex has become a mere sport, a recreation, "divorced not only from love and creation but also from empathy, compassion, morality, responsibility, and sometimes even common politeness," asserts George Leonard in a provocative Esquire article entitled "The End of Sex." ". . . It has become something you 'have. ' You have a car, you have dinner, you have a swim, you have the chicken pox . . . and you have sex. "
That sex has become so trivialized is a tragedy, because sex, I believe, is sacred - not in a religious or sacramental sense, but in the sense John Updike was getting at when, in Couples, he described lovemaking as "an exploration of a sadness so deep people must go in pairs, one cannot go alone. " Because we are more than dumb animals, because we also have minds and feelings and souls, sex is so much more than merely a reflex. It is a powerful, mystical, ineffable force, infinite in its mysteries and profound in its effects. Think of it: When we are our most animal, we can also be our most emotional and spiritual.
"For whatever else is in the act, lust, cruelty, the desire to dominate, or whole delights of desire, the result can be no more than a transaction - pleasurable, even all-encompassing, but a transaction - when no hint remains of the awe that a life in these circumstances can be conceived," argues Norman Mailer in The Prisoner of Sex.
"Casual recreational sex is hardly a feast - not even a good, hearty sandwich," Leonard says. "It is a diet of fast food served in plastic containers. Life's feast is available only to those who are willing and able to engage life on a deeply personal level, giving all, holding back nothing. "
"The most prevalent form of escape from emotional complexity is promiscuity: the attempt to achieve a strict separation between sex and feeling," writes Christopher Lasch. "Here again, escape masquerades as liberation, regression as progress. The progessive ideology of 'nonbinding commitments' and 'cool sex' makes a virtue of emotional disengagement. "
As a result, says Lasch, "sexual liaisons, including marriage, can be terminated at pleasure," and intimacy becomes "more elusive than ever. "
A separated man: "After my wife and I broke up, I tried to be a single man, even though I wasn't really interested in casual sex. . . . There was a woman at work who started coming on to me. She was a friend and I admired her work and I appreciated her being attracted to me but I wasn't particularly attracted to her. At one point, she came right out and suggested we have sex. She said we didn't have to get seriously involved because she was committed to somebody else.
"I was reticent but she kept pushing. Why don't you try it and see if you like it? she said. I gave in and had satisfying physical experiences on numerous occasions, but I never felt that great about it. Instead of reassuring me that I should be content with the physical pleasure and delighted to have that kind of relationship, she became emotionally involved with me and started casting me in the role of a heavy. At that point, I turned on my heels and fled. . . .
"Casual sex has never been that satisfying or enjoyable to me. Really passionate sex occurs spontaneously in the context of affection for someone. . . . In dispassionate sex, I've always felt more like a performer than a person. It wasn't really me, this creature who needs to be held, cuddled and stroked, but some detached third party, a possessor of erotic tools and bits of knowledge about how to please a woman's body. . . .
"If anything, my experiences with casual sex have intensified my positive feelings about marriage. I realize this is a radical statement, but sex is first and foremost a way to perpetuate the human race. If you get too far away from that natural imperative, then I think you're not using your body - or your soul, for that matter - the way it was meant to be used. "
THE JOY OF
BEING A GIVER
THE JOY OF MARRIAGE is, to begin with, the joy of not being alone. It is the joy of companionship and intimacy and having a person and place to come to. It is the joy of structure and order, of comfort, security and stability. It is the joy of having someone to help with the burdens and drudgery of daily life. It is the joy of making a home and creating a family. It is the joy of being a parent and raising children.
It is the joy of defining your relationship with respect to others and society at large. It is the joy of loving someone so much that you want to celebrate that love and commitment publicly. It is the joy of taking a risk, making a leap of faith, going all the way. It is the joy of believing in someone and something above and beyond yourself. It is the joy of building something lasting and substantial.
It is the joy of having a best friend who is also your lover, and a lover who is also your best friend. It is the joy of sleeping with someone who warms your heart as well as your bed. It is the joy of making love without awkwardness, self-consciousness or shame. It is the joy of developing a private vocabulary and doing some of your best talking without words.
It is the joy of having someone real to hold when you wake up sweating during a dark night of the soul. It is the joy of having someone who truly cares, someone who will stand by you when you get sick, or falter or fail. It is the joy of having someone you believe, and who believes in you, tell you at times that you're the best, and at other times, that you can be much better.
It is the joy of outgrowing your adolescent self-absorption and getting on with life. It is the joy of being faithful and honoring a vow. It is the joy of ennobling yourself through discipline and sacrifice. It is the joy of having a common history and mutual memories and the sense of having traveled together far. It is the joy of being a separate individual and yet also part of a whole. It is the joy of fighting and making up, of going apart and coming together again. It is the joy of learning to yield and to compromise, to care and to love.
Finally, it is the joy of giving.
"As your marriage progresses, what happens is you begin to feel you're creating something that's somehow bigger than either you or your husband," said a married woman friend. "When you begin giving up something to the idea of the two of you, then a magical process occurs where you begin getting back more than you're giving. Then you gain a little confidence and give again, and back it comes again, and it begins to grow. The two of you are still there as individuals but there's also this blossoming entity that is the two of you as a couple. . . .
"Day by day, if you want the marriage to go on, you give in, you keep making decisions over and over again that this marriage is more important than this or that wish or desire. When you get into the habit of that, it makes you a good team, and in the end, it can make you a more gracious person. You get bigger; something about your whole life gets bigger. "
When we're young, most of us are takers. We take from our parents and our teachers, and the schools, colleges, churches and other institutions that nurture us to adulthood. At some point, theoretically, we become grown up, and slowly, we begin to give back. We give to our spouses, and our children, and our parents, and we begin to care for the institutions that cared for us so that future generations can enjoy the same benefits we did.
One of the advantages of marriage is that it encourages you - in some cases, forces you - to become a giver, because your marriage won't last long if you're a taker. Although my married friends have many faults, most of them seem to have one admirable trait in common: They are givers; they are on the credit side of society's ledger. In reaching this state, they have had to acknowledge the facts of life: that they are limited and fallible, that aging and death are inevitable, that they are human beings and that part of our human destiny is to be part of a community. In learning to give and to love, they have, as a woman friend put it, "yielded to the river of life" - achieving immortality in posterity.
To be sure, giving inevitably involves some degree of self-denial, but, as Daniel Yankelovich writes in New Rules, "suppression of needs is not always bad. In fact, some suppression is required if one is to avoid becoming a blob of contradictions. The Christian injunction that to find one's self one must first lose oneself contains an essential truth any seeker of self-fulfillment must grasp. "
"Really, what do people want?" asked a single woman friend during a recent conversation about marriage. "They want to be loved and to love other people. By love, I mean thinking, willing and doing good of another. If you can be good to someone, you can really build something. That's where transcendence is, where you're carried out of the self, where you're really up there. "
"Giving is the highest expression of potency," writes Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving. "In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation, but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness. "
ON THE OPENING page of D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, Ursula Brangwen, one of the main characters, confesses to her sister Gudrun that she is wary about marriage because she fears that instead of being an experience marriage will more likely mean "the end of experience. "
Many of my single friends share this view. They regard marriage as something you do when you run out of libidinal steam, when you tire of sampling the smorgasbord of life and love, when you grow so old and lazy that the soothing comforts of hearth and home become more attractive than the bright lights, glitter and action of the fast lane. In other words, marriage is something you do when you're ready for the end of adventure.
I disagree. In the words of a friend, a man who is now working to save his marriage, "instead of closing off adventure, you're actually opening yourself to one of the greatest challenges you'll ever meet - the challenge of making a relationship work and endure. To deny yourself that challenge - and the satisfaction you get when you succeed at it - in order to keep your options open in the hope that the Cheryl Tiegs of your dreams will someday throw herself at your feet, is to miss out on one of the best things life has to offer. "
"The ultimate erotic challenge," contends George Leonard in "The End of Sex," "lies not in racing from bed to bed, shirttails aflame, but in the quest of what I call High Monogamy: a long-term relationship in which both partners are voluntarily committed to erotic exclusivity, not because of moral or religious scruples, not because of timidity or inertia, but because it is what they want. Because they seek excitement and adventure through the love of another person. "
But can you find excitement and adventure through the love of the same person after 5, 10 or 25 years of marriage? Can you stay interested in that person after passion and romance fade, as inevitably they do?
The answer, I think, is yes, some people can - people who believe that human beings are wondrously infinite in their complexity and mystery, and that despite our surface consistency, we are always growing and changing, continually remaking our characters and souls. If you subscribe to these premises, then it is possible to have an endlessly exciting adventure with the same person - the adventure of intimacy.
What exactly is this adventure? It is the kind of adventure you have when you spend a month-long vacation in Europe exploring one country in depth instead of visiting 10 countries for only three days each. By confining yourself to one country, you do not deprive yourself of new discoveries, surprises and delights. If anything, these experiences are heightened because, through time and familiarity, you've gained a context. You've developed bearings, a sense of history and evolution and identity. Suddenly, your adventures have meaning.
"When you travel," a male friend of mine told me, "you see a lot, but only on a superficial level. Part of me wants to sink roots into everything I get hold of. I want to really know it, to go deeper instead of wider. I remember reading once about a Japanese writer who spent his entire life taking pictures in his own backyard. Some people can focus on the narrowest slice of life and find a whole universe. The problem with spreading yourself out is that you also spread yourself thin. "
In pursuing the adventure of intimacy, at least half the thrill comes from
finding out about yourself. The High Monogamist, Leonard says, must have "a sort of towering, vertiginous daring. For this state requires that we look directly and unflinchingly at our every weakness and flaw, straight down through layer after layer of cowardice and self-deception to the very heart of our intentionality. . . . High Monogamy, merciless in its presentation of self-knowledge, demands that we change, that we have the courage to lead an essentially unpredictable life. "
I like the way a married man put it in a recent issue of Esquire: ''Marriage is like boxing; you can run but you can't hide. Sooner or later, you're going to end up in a clinch - and it's in the clinches where you learn the most about yourself, where your strength is really tested. "
A woman friend, who is reluctantly single, said to me: "After a while, skipping from person to person becomes boring, because you're just doing the same thing over and over again. Pretty soon, you start to get it down, you do all the preliminary things without any ragged edges that somebody could grab and hold onto. You start getting so glib about your emotions that they lose their intimacy value, there's no feeling left. . .
"When you make a stand with one person, you get to go on to other, more meaningful things. . . . When you're married and something's wrong between you and your spouse, you can't just stomp out and call a cab. You have to deal with it. You have to scream, cry and argue and admit you were wrong - all those crazy, terrible things. There's something real about marriage and having to work around all these complications. It feels grown-up. "
THE STAYING POWER
A SINGLE WOMAN I know sometimes claims she envies me because I have an intimate relationship with a woman I love. Although she's no fan of marriage, she says she wishes she had someone to love, and someone to love her.
I'm not so sure she really does. My friend may think she wants what I have, but what she really wants - and generally manages to get - is not love but to be in love.
Being in love is the high-voltage, circuit-blowing infatuation we've all experienced when we connect with someone new. It's the intoxication of being accepted and desired. It's the thrill of taking a leap, shedding clothes and inhibitions, being dazzled by the private magnificence of another. Being in love is awesome and enthralling, but in the end, sadly, it's an emotional sprint. Like a blossoming flower, it's simply too phenomenal to last longer than a season.
Love, by contrast, is a marathon of the heart. It requires training, discipline, endurance and work. It is not a spectator sport or an event whose outcome can be decided in seconds. It is pushing up hills and suffering pain and resisting the temptation to drop out. While love has its highs, they are generally more calming than electrifying - the satisfaction of simply being able, and persevering, and making progress toward a distant and significant goal. Love, writes Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving, "is a 'standing in,' not a 'falling for.' . . . To love somebody is not just a strong feeling - it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise. "
One reason so many relationships and marriages founder these days is that people too often confuse love and being in love. When the newness wears off, when the passion cools, when fights occur and problems arise, they immediately assume love has died and begin plotting ways to bail out with a minimum of carnage. What has really happened, of course, is that they're no longer in love, though they may be at a point where, if they're willing to make the effort, they can now begin to love.
Those who insist that their lives constantly crackle with the heady electricity of being in love, and who never advance to the more serene, sophisticated pleasures of love, inevitably begin believing that all relationships, including marriage, are inherently doomed, that they sprout, bloom and wither, that they have a finite life cycle that rarely coincides with the human life span.
When love is viewed as an act of will, however, it can survive as long as your heart beats. Put another way, while being in love may sometimes lead to marriage, it's love that makes a marriage last. More specifically, it's the deliberate, active commitment implied by love that lies at the core of conjugal bliss.
Commitment is essential to marriage because marriage is difficult. To begin with, marriage is not a truly natural state. In fact, while monogamy is common in nearly all species of birds, it is rare, as a rule, among mammals - the group of animals that includes us. On the other hand, human beings seem to have a deep, almost instinctive yearning for companionship, structure and security.
"There is an intrinsic and inescapable conflict in marriage," writes
Jessie Bernard in The Future of Marriage. "Human beings want incompatible things. They want to eat their cake and have it too. They want excitement and adventure. They also want safety and security. These desiderata are difficult to combine in one relationship. Without a commitment, one has freedom but not security; with a commitment, one has security but little freedom. . . .
Today, marriage is more demanding than ever. With women asserting their right to be treated as equals, with both husbands and wives working at careers and simultaneously trying to raise children, with the media bombarding couples with the latest psychobabble about what the ideal marriage should be, with so many temptations and so little social support for such archaic virtues as fidelity, with men and women expecting so much from marriage, it is amazing, really, that so many marriages are as sound as they are.
Bookstore self-help sections are loaded with tomes about how to succeed in marriage, and all of us are familiar with qualities that lubricate a relationship - honesty, patience, loyalty, kindness, communication, sensitivity. But what the marriage commitment demands above all is plain, old- fashioned hard work.
"The secret to making a marriage work can be summed up in two words: enormous energy," said a friend, a man who is separated and working hard to reconcile with his wife. "When you have two professional people working 10 or 11 hours a day, you come home and your body and mind are calling out to have the plug pulled, either by sitting in front of Monday night football or disappearing into a nice quiet corner with an escapist novel. If you let this happen often enough, it becomes a habit. Sooner or later, all your energies are devoted to working and recovering from work, and you end up without any strong, exciting emotional exchanges with your spouse.
"To do that can be a real time bomb. You're often not conscious of how bad it is. At some point, you have to come to the realization that your marriage is at least as important as your job or your efforts to recover from your job. To make it work, you have to save an awful lot of physical and emotional energy for your relationship. It's not something you can wait to let happen on its own. "
Succeeding at marriage does, indeed, require plenty of work, but so does any worthwhile accomplishment. "Marriage is but life in miniature," Havelock Ellis writes in Psychology of Sex. If married life "were all easy and pleasant, it would be but a feeble image of the world and would fail to yield the deepest satisfaction that the world can give to those who have drunk deeply of life. . . . Marriage as a creative personal relationship is an achievement between mates . . . often a very slow achievement. "
The way to that achievement is littered with snares and barriers, and no one makes it without sweat and tears, bruises and scars, boredom, frustration and rage. "I don't think it's possible to not get bored and wear each other down," a friend told me. "You have to believe in the value of the institution because you do get to a point where it becomes easier to part than to stay together. You have to have faith that your love is still there even when you don't feel it. That's what marriage is all about. If you don't get married, you don't build an edifice around the relationship that keeps it intact during phases like that. "
The love that sustains marriage is, as Joyce Colony pointed out recently in the New York Times, "the staying on in spite of . . . the acknowledgment that 'for better or worse' includes worse, something the old marriage has learned it must abide. "
Married love, writes Nathaniel Branden in The Psychology of Romantic Love, is "the ability to know that we can love our partner deeply and nonetheless know moments of feeling enraged, bored, alienated, and that the validity and value of our relationship is not to be judged by moment-to-moment, day-to-day, or even week-to-week fluctuations in feeling. There is a fundamental equanimity, an equanimity born of the knowledge that we have a history with our partner, we have a context, and we do not drop that context under the
pressure of immediate vicissitudes. . . . We do not reduce our partner to his or her last bit of behavior and define him or her solely by means of it. "
In the end, then, married love may be simply a matter of attitude. A friend of mine, a man who's been married for 15 years, says staying married means being able - and most of all, willing - to fall in and out of love repeatedly with the same person. Several years ago, following a pregnancy, his wife gained a lot of weight. "When my wife became obese, it was one of the greatest disappointments of my life," he said, "and for several years, I was quite depressed about it. Then, one night a few years ago, we were on vacation and my wife was sleeping next to me. I woke up for some reason and looked over at her and began thinking about how much we'd been through together. Suddenly I realized that I really liked her. After that, her obesity didn't bother me so much. "
Recently, my friend's wife has slimmed down, and as he put it, smiling triumphantly, "I got back the girl I married. " He is glad he had faith and that he stuck to his commitment. "When you live with someone for a long time with a positive attitude, a special bond develops that becomes very durable. You're friends but also more than friends. In most successful marriages, there are times when spousecide is contemplated, but after a while, you learn to roll with the punches. I think it all boils down to approaching life with a sense of the joy of winning rather than the fear of losing. You have to look at what you might gain rather than what you might lose. "
THE STORY OF
A GOOD MARRIAGE
A HAPPY MARRIAGE SOMETIMES seems like a unicorn. We've all heard of it, and we all know what it's supposed to look like, but none of us has actually seen one.
I'm exaggerating, of course. Most of us have had the privilege from time to time of knowing married couples who truly seem to delight in each other, even after decades of matrimony. These are the blessed husbands and wives who still touch and fondle each other like lovestruck teenagers. They are the couples who at dinner parties still devour each other with their eyes. They are the ones who pine when they're apart and rejoice when they're together again. Over the years, they have become genuine friends of each other's enthusiasms, as fond of each other's follies and foibles as they are proud of each other's virtues and victories. Their marriages seem so strong that, to paraphrase the Talmud, they could sleep together on the blade of a sword. Indeed, one can't imagine them with anyone else.
How pleasant, for example, to learn of the happy marriage of writer E.B. White and his late beloved wife Katharine. When they were both working at the New Yorker, they frequently exchanged billets-doux through the office mail. In one memo, after asking his wife to change a couple of words in a piece, White signed off: "And thanks for unforgettable nights I never can replace. "
And what a treat to read in Time recently of the fabulous 25-year marriage of Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward: "A few years ago, when he was filming in Hawaii, Paul handed Joanne a box with a new evening gown in it. When she had changed, they were flown to a deserted golf course where they were served an elegant dinner alone beside the sea, serenaded by a string quartet. . . . When Paul is traveling, he calls Joanne every day, and when they are in Westport, he will break off a conversation to say, 'I want to see my lady. ' " On Newman's desk, he keeps an oval-shaped, sepia-toned framed picture of his wife as a teenager, looking demure and holding a rose. Under the picture, in fine gold lettering, it reads, "People I like to go to bed with. "
Romantic? Yes. Rare? Yes. Impossible? No. Although my parents did not have a happy marriage, I've been lucky to be close to two people who definitely did: Edward and Elizabeth Norris Lynch, my grandparents. They met in 1918, after being introduced by a mutual friend. By outward appearances, they made an improbable couple: he, the lusty, cinematically handsome, banjo-strumming son of a Shakespeare-quoting Brooklyn cop; she, the refined, convent-reared, harp-playing daughter of a proper Philadelphia lawyer who always wore a vest and a high starch collar.
They courted for three years, strolling around town, riding horses and playing tennis in Fairmount Park, going to the movies ("Would you care for some refreshment, Miss Norris?" my grandfather asked his wife-to-be after they'd seen their first silent film together), and spending a chaperoned week at the Pocono Manor Inn. They were married on June 8, 1921, at St. Francis DeSales Roman Catholic Church in West Philadelphia.
They honeymooned at the Lake Mohonk Mountain House in the Catskills. A full week cost them only $105. In my grandfather's study, mounted and framed, is the Philadelphia Trust Co. check drawn to pay that bill, as well as the resort hotel's dinner menu and congratulatory wedding telegrams from friends. Surrounding these souvenirs are scores of photographs that, along with three bulging family photo albums, chronicle the many happy times my grandparents shared: Sunday drives in a sporty 1916 Mercer; family picnics in Fairmount Park and at Valley Forge; outings to Willow Grove Park to hear the bands of John Philip Sousa and Victor Herbert; elegant Sunday night dinners on the roof of the Bellevue Stratford hotel; trips to the Catskills, Washington, Williamsburg, Quebec, Vancouver and Alaska, vacations in Ocean City and Maine; boisterous cookouts and parties at the family mansion in Merion; and throughout, the fresh, exuberant faces of their four children - a fey, angelic-looking son, and three cover-girl-gorgeous daughters.
But there were also tough times. During the Depression, my grandfather's business shrunk to almost nothing; one year, his income was only $600. To keep his family fed and clothed, he borrowed from relatives, moonlighted as a bill collector and wrote screenplays at a picnic table in Fairmount Park. Later, two vacation homes - one in Maine, the other in Ocean City - burned to the ground, incinerating the dreams that went with them. Worst of all, there were the troubled lives and early deaths of all four children - successive, staggering blows that wounded my grandparents to the quick.
In weathering these crises, my grandparents had many disagreements and fights. But no matter how disgruntled they got or how much they sulked, they remained committed and loyal to each other. They never stopped treating each other with respect and courtesy, and when they were feeling well and times were good, their affection for each other was obvious. My grandfather, an expert amateur chef, was always whipping up exotic desserts to please my grandmother's finicky palate, and whenever my grandmother would chide him in front of the family for some endearing excess, she'd always conclude by reminding us, "I've been lucky to know two good men in my life: my father and your grandfather. " At other times, clutching my arm, she'd say: "Your grandfather has been very good to me. Promise me you'll take good care of him after I'm gone. "
About 10 years ago, my grandmother fell and fractured her pelvis. Soon, her health was under attack on several fronts: a weak heart, crippling arthritis, asthma, emphysema, a peptic ulcer and glaucoma. By 1981, when she was nearly 87, she could barely lift her head. Her legs were constantly swollen, and she could no longer walk. Breathing was so difficult that it was a feat for her to complete a sentence. She refused to go to a nursing home, and my grandfather, who knew it would kill her, refused to let her. Instead, he insisted on becoming her full-time nurse.
He prepared all her meals and gave her medication more than 20 times a day. He pushed her wheelchair, and helped her bathe and brush her teeth. He lifted her into and out of bed and on and off the toilet. He sorted out her pills, and gave her eye drops and nose drops. When she gasped for air, he sprayed an inhaler into her mouth or held an oxygen mask over her face. The duties were endless and consumed all his energies from the time he awoke till the time he fell asleep. Every five minutes, it seemed, my grandmother was summoning him. And always, he responded swiftly, cheerfully. His selflessness, his ability to give and to love, put me to shame. At the same time, I marvelled at how joyous he was, even though I knew that his insides were being gored by grief.
As my grandmother's mind began failing, she became unreasonably petulant, scolding my grandfather for trivial offenses. But he just smiled and laughed and redoubled his kindness toward her. When my grandmother began telling the same stories over and over again, he never let on. He listened attentively, as if he were hearing the tale for the first time, and he always chuckled at the same stale punch lines. On Sundays, without fail, he pulled out his prayer book and he and my grandmother said Mass together.
By the early summer of 1981, my grandmother was a wraith. Her flesh had shriveled away. Her skin was transparent and tissue-like. Her hands were gnarls of veins and bones. And her eyes - hollow, sunken, practically blind and eerily wide - gave her an astonished look, as though she were appalled at what had become of her or had already glimpsed the answers to the final questions.
At night now, in a feeble, doleful monotone, she began calling my grandfather. "Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed," she would repeat. The chant echoed faintly through the darkness like some haunting, otherworldly mantra, as though my grandmother had already passed on and were begging my grandfather to join her. Hearing it, he would rise out of bed and go to her side. He would smooth her wild white hair, then sit in a chair next to her, and hold her hand and stroke her arm. He would do this, sometimes for hours, until she fell asleep. Then, he would try to steal back to bed. But often, as soon as he began drifting off, she'd awake, and the chant would resume: "Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed-Ed. "
As the summer wore on, my grandmother stopped chanting at night, and my grandfather then knew she was about to die. He was right. On Aug. 13, 1981, she was unusually serene and cooperative. Despite the great pain she was suffering, she managed to smile several times. That evening, as my brother David was dressing her bedsore, she suddenly said, referring to my grandfather, "Where's Daddy? "
"He's in the other room. He'll be right back," my brother said.
My grandmother paused, seeming to reflect.
"I love Daddy," she said.
Those were her last words. She breathed her final tortured breath a few minutes later. My grandmother and grandfather had been married on earth for 60 years and 66 days.
THE DAY AFTER my grandmother died, my grandfather suffered a back pain so severe he could barely stand up. He had strained his back a few days before while trying to hoist my grandmother from an awkward position. Now, suddenly, this man with the proud military posture, this astonishingly robust athlete who was still lifting weights and playing squash, tennis and golf at 84, was almost a cripple. The physical injury was real, but I couldn't help think that the pain in my grandfather's back was acute heartache.
In time, my grandfather's back healed, and so did his spirits. Being the kind of man he is, he mourned privately for the most part, though occasionally I caught him with red and sodden eyes. He began sitting at a different place at the dining room table so he wouldn't have to look directly at my grandmother's empty chair. He left her room just as it was when she passed away, except over her bed he hung her art school diploma and a scholarship certificate. It was almost as though he was expecting my grandmother to return home for Thanksgiving after her first semester at college.
In the living room, he removed an oil painting and replaced it with my grandmother's wedding picture. So now, as he read in his rocker, all he had to do was glance up and he could see her as she was on June 8, 1921, so virginal and innocent, her mouth caught in a coy half-smile, her hazel eyes beguilingly impish. More and more, he began playing his Victor Herbert album, the one with the sweet, sentimental melodies he and his wife liked so much when they were young - "Kiss Me Again," "Gypsy Love Song," "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life" and "For I'm Falling In Love With Someone. " And over the big upholstered chair where my grandmother spent so many hours, my grandfather hung this framed bit of verse:
Fifty years seem very long
But these fifty have swiftly gone
With less of tears and more of smiles
Fifty happy sunny miles
Happier years because of you
Brave and tender, kind and true
May the years ahead stretch far and wide
With us and happiness side by side
To Betty from Eddie
June 8, 1921-1971
(The above paraphrased from a jingle you composed and sent me in 1936 marking fifteen years. )
SEVERAL MONTHS AFTER my grandmother died, I asked my grandfather about his marriage. It was late at night and we were sitting in the living room after dinner. His marriage had been happy, he told me, and he had never broken his wedding vow nor been seriously tempted to. He told me that he prays to his wife often and that he feels she is very close by. Sometimes, he said, he can hear her call him.
"We're still bound together, just separated physically," he said. ''Someday, I expect to be rejoined with her. "
"But isn't there part of you that's relieved that Grandma's dead? " I asked. "Taking care of her around the clock was such an incredible burden on you. I don't know how you put up with it. Aren't you glad that's over? "
"Artie, with all her incapacities and all that that involved, I'd give anything to see her there now," my grandfather replied, nodding toward my grandmother's favorite chair. "God, what I wouldn't give."