The greatest threat to marital peace is a set of unrealistic expectations, demands which may reach an early climax in the wedding ceremony.
Like other children raised Catholic, I was trained to enter a dark claustrophobic hole where I confessed sins to a wrinkled priest. As early as second grade, when preparation for First Communion began, I had been rather confused by the nature of sin. I had learned, having studied the Sermon on the Mount and heard so many explanations of Christ’s pivotal lesson, that certain thoughts—certain fantasies—were sins all by themselves, just as bad as whatever they represented. I had been a fat, uncoordinated nerd (growing up in a bruising, blue-collar neighborhood) and harbored fantasies of revenge over the bullies who terrorized me, just as I dreamed of proving myself to them by stealing bikes or vandalizing property. But I lacked the courage and physical energy to steal or thrash. For a long time, inspired by books like Tom Sawyer, Treasure Island and The Book of Three, I imagined marauding. I used my Lego set to build a gallows, tied a noose with a shoelace and, ignoring my sister’s wailing protest, executed her Ken doll, an effigy for bullies and the potent, physically-able man I knew I’d never become.
Thoughts of violence, the nuns and priests explained, were unfit for the mind of a young boy. Yet I had realized the hierarchy of sin very early. According to Christ’s Sermon, if I imagined building a proper gallows in the middle of the churchyard and marching Leo Molina, thug and imbecile, to his doom at dawn, I had already killed him. However, the wrinkled priest assigned few prayers for this murder. Serious penance, entire decades of the rosary came when I confessed how often I was fornicating with girls, committing adultery with so many women, some from television, others from the neighborhood.
There was the lady who dusted windowpanes in her panties—according to the Sermon, if I thought about grabbing her buttocks, I had already done it, and her flesh, delightful and soft, was in my hands. Veronica Zamora had the school’s fullest breasts. How would it be to flip open her blouse? There! Actual breasts sprung before my eyes, their skin the smooth tone of coffee splashed with milk. Because all of this was taboo—because it was punished harshly—every sexual thought conjured a new one. They grew exponentially so that boobs begat bush begat lips begat belly buttons, tours of neighborhood girls’ bodies, the anatomies of Charlie’s Angels and Jack Tripper’s roommates. Waiting to confess, I’d sin just by recollecting sins: any attempt to count my fantasies activated the mind’s multiplex, conjured flesh and underwear. Kneeling before the priest, I’d be holding the panty lady’s buttocks like offerings, Veronica’s brassiere draped around my neck, and words failed. It was simply impossible for a fourth grader to confess the whole of this perversion.
I’m recalling this anxious confusion only to explain that it was not my worst. Yes, I had troubling thoughts. But the fantasies of things I’d never do with Farrah Fawcett were nowhere near as troubling as the vision of what sex I might actually have in the future. I knew, as I had been trained to know, that it would come on my wedding night. I would need to figure out where to put my tackle, how to get it to some mysterious hole my older cousin had told me about. Fearing the fires of hell, I believed Matthew 5:28, and knew that in my heart I had actually whored my wife thousands of times before being married to her or even knowing what she looked like, and I had done it without any knowledge of how to go about it. The more vivid the visions became, the more I realized I had no way of figuring out how they should play, and my sin became some weird pantomime of shades and knots of bodies, a conjured wife that resembled a department store mannequin, all of it presented on the only stages my child’s brain had for the sex act: the bedroom sets of Dallas and Dynasty.
These visions caused me great apprehension over my eventual wedding and I wondered if I should ever have one. Even after I had finally discovered helpful books, read the important sections of Our Bodies, Ourselves in my aunt’s attic, I could not shake the apprehension completely. By my third year of high school, I had finally rejected Catholicism as a fool’s philosophy, but I still remained apprehensive about a wedding before a Catholic court. This is the horror of a male teen virgin: it was one thing to have my own private fantasies. But it would be quite another to find myself before a congregation whose philosophy set up every heterosexual male to make mental peep shows of my consummation, even to kick me out of the marriage bed and take my place. I knew it would happen because I had done it myself; as an altar boy, I had probably served three dozen or more wedding masses. I had looked over every bride, examined each groom and wondered, “How’s that bastard going to do it?” Then I’d tie those pantomime knots with the bride instead of my department store mannequin. I believed all the other men in church were sinning in similar ways, a chorus of fantasies that became flesh to a booming soundtrack of organ pipes.
In time I matured past this particular apprehension. The anti-climax of losing my virginity helped. I had been expecting enlightenment and transcendence but got an orgasm and a confused partner: “That’s it? You’re done?” As I progressed through the lessons of sexuality and romance, I realized—I was quite young when it happened (not yet twenty-six when I finally married)—that I really did want a wife. What did this mean? I hoped to find a soul mate, a stable sex partner, a woman who relaxed me, one who wanted children, a family raised wisely. The fantasy of this person pleased and calmed me even when I believed my chances of finding her were small. If I did find her, I’d happily sit through whatever wedding she wanted, participate where needed in the ceremony and party. But I had no interest in a wedding for myself. If I could find the wife I desired without ever having a wedding at all, I’d feel no loss. On the contrary: it would be a dream come true.
It happened. I met Maria, a Russian-Ukrainian violinist of passion and power, while living in Austria in the late 90s. Our wedding was a ten-minute document-signing ceremony at a Justice of the Peace. Maria’s family, practical people who had negotiated the realities of the Soviet Union (and remained, therefore, on the frustrating side of the world’s visa politics), were elated; from day one, I felt welcomed by my in-laws and their extensions, a natural member, even when my Russian is abysmal, my Ukrainian nonexistent. My family, of course, was not elated. Maria’s relationship to certain family women is strained to this day, and some of the relations have crumbled completely. The reasons are many and complex but still rooted firmly in our mutual decision to skip the formality of the wedding. Some people perceived this as Maria’s disrespect of family traditions, the very ones I had rejected, criticized openly long before moving to Austria.
It’s a sad thing. Maria and I have built a marriage strong enough to admit its imperfections (after all, she married a writer). To some people our union is still flawed simply because we had no wedding. It used to confuse Maria wildly, especially after we moved to America and started attending weddings. After dozens, both Catholic and non-traditional, we can call about half of them sincere affairs. Two were amazingly beautiful, and one achieved a transcendent level, expressing kinship between the bride and groom that I might call spiritual; the union I felt between the gathered family and friends left me humbled to have been invited. But others were much less than this. We have been to the cardboard ceremony meant to satisfy expectations, opulent expressions of someone’s ability to take on debt, hundreds of guests in a swanky downtown Chicago hotel. Some weddings, fueled by booze, featured fistfights, fire alarm pranks, sexual encounters with coat check girls, confrontations with police, and utterly trashed hotel rooms. The worst wedding we know had been purposed to create a princess myth for the bride, establish her role as autocrat. Privy to its preparations, I know the groom had no say in anything; in fact, the family men participated only as order-takers and errand-runners, scrambling to complete a list of ever-growing demands. The bride had a refrain, This is my day, isn’t it? and repeated it for weeks leading up to the wedding, then continued on through the reception. The couple divorced after only a few years; in the aftermath, the deluded young woman lost half her girlfriends.
I proposed to Maria because, while she was an artist, a dreamer, she had no myths in need of satisfaction, no expectation for a childhood fairy tale or fantasy to become flesh. I have found, after thirteen years of marriage, that the greatest threat to marital peace is a set of unrealistic expectations, demands that your spouse (or your entire marriage) meet some ideal. It might be handed down by tradition, fabricated by social pressures or just dreamt up. It is natural for us to search for shortcuts that announce our legitimacy or value. In some cases, the “perfect wedding” is one such shortcut. Striving for perfection, of course, is the business of knife throwers or major league pitchers whose concepts of perfection are easy to define. I know of several cases where the desire for an ideal wedding interfered with the possibility for a stable, sensible marriage. And I wonder how often, across all the world’s marriages, this desire creates a conflict in need of immediate and very difficult repair.
Gint Aras is the new Marriage Editor at The Good Men Project. See his call for submissions here.
Image credit: bm.iphone/Flickr