Sadly, our most common criticisms of marriage reveal much more about the critics than the state of contemporary romance.
As I mentioned in a previous article, I recently posed the question When did you figure out what marriage isn’t? to men over social media and during conversations with married (or divorced and separated) friends and colleagues.
I’ll present the “best of” in a future post. I realized I could very easily arrange the responses into two groups. The first group believes there is something inherently wrong with marriage. The second group believes there’s something flawed about our culture’s expectations and the way marriage is advertised to young lovers. The small sample of responders can’t indicate any larger social trend, but it’s worth noting that the former group outnumbered the latter by about three to one.
Interestingly, I did not ask people When did you figure out what the problem is with marriage? My question didn’t qualify marriage one way or another. Yet people chose to offer critiques, often lengthy ones, some of them rather angry. I happened on a conversation with a man in a cafe who claimed “Marriage would still be good if they didn’t ruin it.” I asked him to clarify who they were, and he went off on tangents, implicating feminism, government, the university system, traditional religions, postmodernism and Hollywood. I actually wish I had recorded the little rant. It showed just how hysterical we can get when we approach this subject, and how quickly we’ve learned to personalize blame, to fault things we don’t understand.
This post is a response to people like the angry man I met in the cafe.
The error made by people who believe there is something intrinsically wrong with marriage is indicative, as I argued in a previous essay, of larger cultural problems. There has never been a time or place in human history when we could point to someone’s marriage and say, “This one’s typical,” or “Here’s the ideal.” Marriage has been a topic of interest long before 1950’s American suburbia became a fetish. Count the number of Shakespeare’s plays that present the institution’s nuances. Consider the relationships presented in Dangerous Liaisons. If you want a fascinating discussion (most likely a heated argument) about gender roles in marriage, read The Wife of Bath’s Tale, a late 14th century text, at your book club. It’s possible to interpret the prologue and story as an argument for a “model wife,” but it also suggests such a wife is rare. Another book that does this is The Bible, penned long before the Connecticut suburbs had blueprints.
America, of course, where the divorce rate is high—and where many of these criticisms of marriage spawn—has a short memory and a deeply flawed relationship to history and information. We don’t just fascinate ourselves with myth and romance but actively switch fantastic beliefs for paradigms and vice versa. Our airwaves and Facebook feeds are filled with tracts from deluded folk who believe in Raptures, FEMA camps and the WWF. As an instructor at an urban community college, I’ve met many students who once belonged to gangs. Their noses and knuckles have been broken in street brawls, yet they believe WWF bouts are actual fights. I managed to convince one guy to rethink his belief by looking at the effects of blows in UFC matches. When he finally came to his senses, he was visibly shaken and rather moved. “WWF’s theater,” he said. “It’s like a play.” The young man, barely nineteen, actually said he felt betrayed.
America is very skilled at fabricating myths and realities, for ourselves and the rest of humanity.
We don’t just create and watch Seinfeld. We believe in Seinfeld’s version of New York, that Tom’s Restaurant is usually empty and quiet (In reality it is almost always packed, bustling even at late hours), and that most New Yorkers have close relationships with the people in their buildings. We don’t just watch Friends. We believe that once we have graduated from college and found jobs, our relationships and apartments must resemble the kind in the show. And when we get married, our marriage—following an amazing wedding, accoutrements fit for royalty—will resemble the relationship of our favorite mythological lovers. I envision young women in five to ten years complaining to their therapists: “My husband’s nothing like Edward Cullen.” The men, in turn, will complain their wife is no Bella Swan, or borrowing a British romance, no Ginny Weasley.
Marriage feels like betrayal when we believe that any myth or romance—Harry Potter, Twilight, Cinderella, Maid in Manhattan, Pretty Woman—is a promise. The experience will be the same as staying up all night to meet Santa but witnessing dad bent under the tree in his briefs. If we believe that hot lovers will be waiting for us when we get off the train at Paris, we’re pissed when we find custodians and baguette shops full of old men. But that does not mean Paris is the problem.
This effect of mythology on our psyche becomes worse when we base sweeping conclusions on our very limited experience. Imagine, for example, that our friend goes to Rome. He finds clogged toilets and stale pizza in the train station, sweaty men waiting for busses, tables of cured meat pungent on a hot day. At the Vatican he is told, as he is wearing shorts, that he must buy trousers made of cat food bags if he’s to enter the Sistine. He buys the trousers because he’s about to meet God. Once in the Sistine, our little friend is shocked to find the ceiling adorned with uncensored butt cracks, small dicks, Eve’s tits and other semi-nudes. Pissed off at God and the Pope, his faith shattered, he goes to the nearest cafe to order a cappuccino and seethe. The waiter trips over a stray cat and the cappuccino lands in our friend’s lap, scalding his testicles. And this on the day before he must sit in a plane for eight hours! When he’s finally home, we meet up and ask, “How was Rome?” He rants: “Rome sucks. Just a bunch of clogged toilets, butt cracks, dicks. Rome will burn your balls.”
How can I compare marriage to Rome? Quite easily. Rome, created by people, is ancient, complicated, never typical, less than ideal. It’s sublime at one turn and smells of sewage at the next, yet no single corner of the city can be used to describe the whole, and no story will tell the city’s history, as no photo or painting will recreate its sprawling landscape. What remains of Rome today is small, perhaps trivial compared to what has lived and died in this labyrinth of so many souls: slaves and Caesars, actors and architects, orators and mutes. People come to Rome looking for all sorts of things: gods and sex, music and silence, Anita Eckberg swimming in the Trevi, photos of the Coliseum. There’s history and myth and love and death and coffee and gelato.
But the gelato is not Jupiter’s gelato or the Pope’s gelato, and the Anita Eckberg of 1960 will not stick her boobs in my face when my tongue licks vanilla. It’s just cream and sugar. I cannot blame the gelato for failing to conjure Anita Eckberg’s boobs, no matter how full and white and perfect the globes of frozen cream looked before I inserted my spoon. When Anita fails to appear, I must blame, if I am wise, my expectations, and then trace them back, wonder how I could have expected anything beyond cream and sugar when I had specifically ordered cream and sugar. If I am not satisfied by cream and sugar, I must order something to my satisfaction. But it must be on the menu before me, not the one in my dreams.
Photo by Moyan_Brenn