The attempt to pigeonhole marriage as one thing or another is a bigger problem than marriage itself.
The most common criticism of marriage I hear from unmarried men, in conversations and in comments following articles, is that marriage will limit their freedom in some way. It might be sexual freedom, the desire to have many partners, or the freedom to arrange their homes, to come and go as they please—in short, to live without having to compromise, at least in their domestic space. In extreme examples, men imagine marriage and see life with a raving tyrant woman, a materialist socialite in need of posh dining and expensive furniture. Consider this (somewhat edited) comment:
I see the benefits of marriage for women: financial support, limited fertility window, legal advantage in case of divorce. Personal security. Someone to move furniture, basic domestic and auto maintenance. Company, etc. But what’s in it for me? I have to make more money to buy a bigger house, buy and insure multiple vehicles and health insurance policies, ask permission to make basic decisions, prostrate myself before…feminist opinions so common in modern women. I can see why a man historically would want to marry (access to sex, nurturing role of women, Patriarchal domestic structure, traditional family unity), but there really isn’t much incentive in today’s context. I look around me and I see a lot of married men trying very hard to convince themselves and me that their choice to marry was a good idea. I just can’t think of any. It seems obvious to me that for a man to marry in 2012 America is a contract for indentured servitude. I like to make decisions on short notice. I like living comfortably on $50,000 a year and not sweating it if I have to switch jobs. I like my old, comfortable furniture. I don’t like expensive restaurants. I don’t like large pretentious social gatherings. I believe that animals should not be treated like people. I disagree strongly with the majority of feminist politics. I am attracted to women, but I would prefer not to live with them.
This view baffles me. Where is the example of this universal wife? Where does a man earning $50,000/year encounter her? None of the married men I know busy themselves fixing cars or moving sofas when they are not making black tie dinner reservations for a group of PETA volunteers. Perhaps there is some guy out there who bought a large house when he himself did not want to live in it; even in that case, chances are the family has two incomes, something made possible by feminist opinions like Mary Wollstonecraft’s. I won’t kid the audience: many women in my family like to get together in their front rooms and compare knick-knacks, sofas, rings and other painful trivia. At the same time, men will be in some other part of the house examining fishing poles, golf clubs and grills. As far as I can tell, the desire for this toy collecting life is shared by the sexes—it’s an essential part of contemporary society.
The delusions behind it are easily our greatest problem. We’ve seen from the last American presidential election how people in power become paranoid when they see those traditionally powerless—or not-as-powerful-as-they—gaining numbers, voices and various forms of capital. The assumption: if someone gains, I lose. This assumption isn’t trivial but quite damaging, especially to relationships, and I mean all of them, not just potential marriages. When we think like the commentator, when there are only two possibilities—either you are my servant or I am yours—when our only incentive is control, imagined or actual, of others, marriage will definitely suck. So will all sorts of other things, including friendships and work relations, not to mention our world-view. Why should we assume that the will to impose patriarchal structure—the commentator at the top of his household and everyone else below—ends at home? He will protest: I do not extend this desire to everything, to every child, neighbor, stranger and animal. It is only onto the wife I don’t have and…er…the dog I’d love to have if society did not interfere with how I wanted to treat it.
A recent New York Times article by Sonja Lyubomirsky, titled New Love: A Short Shelf Life, explains that the first two years of marriage are rather blissful. Following these come less passionate years when many marriages end; those that survive may see a bounce-back in the “empty nest” years when the couple “rediscovers” itself again. I’m in my thirteenth year of marriage, my third year of parenthood, and I understand these cycles; they might be intuitive, even obvious. Yes, when I met my wife and realized she was interested in me, I was elated, even shocked. When she agreed to marry me, I was sky high. Once we married and moved into our own place, we felt magnetic kinship. Then the business of life presented itself, the business of school, the business of learning to live together and respect each other’s desires and needs. We entered what Lyubomirsky and researchers call companionate love.
Our marriage would be doomed today if both (or just one) of us suddenly looked at it and asked, “Where has that feeling of soaring elation gone?” Where is the euphoria? The high? Where’s the surge of dopamine? We once had public sex (and photographed each other) in the dungeon of the ruins of a castle in Torun, Poland. Why are we not fucking this way every weekend? We also used to get drunk on beaches, in dormitories and with members of rock bands, budding international jazz stars. God dammit! Why did we have these kids? We could totally get rocked every day if it weren’t for them. What’s the point of life now? Just cartoons and snowmen?
If we treat marriage like crystal meth—if we treat life itself like a search for the ultimate, endless high, rush after rush of passionate ecstasy, every moment indulgent and orgasmic, every experience a bragging right, a collection of new and improved, immediately outdated toys—we’ll be disappointed at best, depressed at worst. We’ll look around and wonder what the hell has happened to us. How did we get “so low” and how can we get high again? If our goal is to control something, anything, we will find ourselves frustrated when we learn it is impossible—whatever pleasure you get from demonstrating the absolute command you have over your dog will end when that dog dies. If we go into any relationship or experience hoping to benefit from someone serving us fantasies and desires, we’ll be shocked to find that others have points of view, desires of their own, that neither the world nor our lover is the customer service desk. Step one in the shift society desperately needs is for us to face our delusions, all of them, and see what we’re looking at. We delude ourselves if we think living without compromise is possible, most easily by avoiding marriage. If nothing else, we’re trading the companionship of a spouse for whatever freedom we believe we have without one.
That, of course, is our right. Marriage is an agreement between two people to share whatever space they see fit. The couple makes the agreement, and there is something to be said for those who seek not euphoria, constant passion or the biggest house in town but peace and stability, support and companionship, gentle hours watching cartoons, coals to press into the heads of snowmen. Especially Americans have bought into so many dangerous and idiotic myths. We are exceptional and our lives are extraordinary. Without anyone around to envy our experiences, we feel like we’re not experiencing anything at all. Weddings recreate princess myths; children become vicarious little pawns, precious commodities on which we project our own self-consciousness. These are symptoms of cultural immaturity. So is the dismissal of marriage as something flawed all on its own, an absolute pathway to something, either servitude or the bliss of fairy tales.
Photo by amslerpix.