By QUANTUM MERUIT

A discussion of matrimony often quickly becomes a place where angels fear to tread. Feelings on the subject run deep. Individual experiences have cut roughly and deeply and there is no shortage of sensitive, barely healed scar tissue. We thought we’d take a look and it quickly became apparent that this was too big an issue, with too much feeling and with too many perspectives to deal with in a single article.

We were quickly surprised. In our conversations and research we soon encountered many unexpected and powerful positions. ”If anyone could focus and direct the pent-up rage of women over 50 they would lead an unstoppable political force” said a columnist (for whom we have great respect) from the biggest newspaper for 1,000 miles around.

We began with the generalities, tried to find a high place for an overview. Not much luck. Recent surveys are often equivocal about marriage, only providing evidence of increasingly varied if unexpected attitudes. For example, a small survey of people of various ages recently produced these results:

 

 

Marriage has become many things to many people. Especially to women. We suspect that the male population is dozing and really has lost touch with how women feel about this subject.

There have been warnings. We talked with young women who have the notion that men are acccessories, occasionally essential, usually optional, easily removed, easily attached and not always necessary.

Other women directed us to a book by Karen Propp and Jean Trounstine entitled Why I’m Still Married. They were smiling and we wondered why.

Even our cursory look at the book was eye-opening.

At the beginning of the book, Propp and Trounstine ask the central questions.

“Why are we still married? As independent, career-minded feminists, we felt oddly defensive to admit we’d settled into such an age old patriarchal institution. In Jean’s first marriage in 1970, she went to a lawyer to have a contract drawn up so she was able to have a credit card in her own name. Karen was practicing her version of the contemporary balancing act known as career and family. Could being long married also imply we were past our luscious prime and doomed for a future of unwelcome compromise? And when one of our husbands turned bedtime rituals into a healthcare triathlon and one let loose his rage, we asked ourselves why we wonderful gals needed to put up with such behavior.We asked ourselves why we wonderful gals needed to put up with such behavior.

“Implied in the question was, of course, something much deeper. We wondered what made us the ones who stayed. Why are we still married, we asked, when more single women than ever before in history are financially successful, eminently dateable, and leading full, independent lives? As ZZ Packer says in her essay for this collection, about her not so long ago single days: “I’d always thought of marriage more like the weather: if certain atmospheric conditions occur, then rain will fall; if not, not.”

Kamy Wicoff writes about her unexpected difficulty in giving up the freedom of her single life, worrying what happens to sex after marriage in her essay Monogamy Meltdown. Contemporary marriages are inspired by expectations for individual happiness and romantic love. However, Susan Cheever reminds us in her essay, Mrs. Married Person, that laws written on stones once deemed women property of men.

“Marriages were arranged to keep liaisons within select families and to provide heirs. The first love poetry came later, during the Christian crusades, creating the connection between love and longing that we now take for granted. But individual happiness and romantic love, as the poets know, are forever fickle. Perhaps that is one reason women coming of age today no longer assume they will marry and stay married.“

Are you with us still? Good. There’s more and you may want to get a sense of it. Why I’m Still Married is honest, tough, occasionally romantic and filled with hard-earned experience and learning. In its own way it is a positive book, warily supportive of being married.

The contributors’ views of men will seem strange to men, highlighting and paying attention to characteristics, habits and issues which we suspect men may be oblivious of and feel are insignificant.

One theme that comes up again and again in the book is the notion that you have to work at marriage.  Marge Piercy, for example says in her essay, The Occasional Persistence Of Love, (there’s a title): “The hardest thing in a long love is not to begin to take each other for granted, somehow to keep finding in the other what you can and do love, and to express that.

To remain loving, you have to keep your eyes on what you care about and cherish in the other person, through a choppy sea of distractions — bills, household problems, minor quarrels, all the myriad tasks and worries of every day. And, if you have children, their woes and needs and problems, and the money to give them what they need and what they passionately want.

Keeping in love is not that different from being able to focus on sex when you get into bed. If you are thinking about the grocery list or what’s wrong with the furnace, you will not get much pleasure from the sex. If you hold grudges or let the small nuisances and failures accumulate, love will suffocate.

The love that matters in marriage is not that jolt you felt when your eyes met in the early days, that obsessive gnawing of desire. It is akin to friendship but deeper and more rooted in your identity. Sex is important to some of us; to others, it couldn’t matter less. I find a strong sexual connection keeps me motivated to work out problems and helps heal breaches that occur. It won’t do that if you get out of bed and go right back to the same argument you had before.”

Or as Julia Alverez points out in her essay Third Time Around: “What I’ve discovered from staying married this last time around is pretty much what I learned from writing novels, you have to work at it page by page, day by day. And if you stay with your story and characters, if you give your passion and talent and faith to the writing, and if after the bad days, you still come back the writing, well, you’re going to end up not just writing a novel but learning and growing by doing it. So, with marriage.”

The views expressed are matter of fact, not judgmental and with a few exceptions do not take sides. Everyone, men and women, is responsible for a marriage.

This theme of working together blends into another main theme of the book,  and that is sharing and growing together. As Julia points out in Third Time Around: “I need to know that my partner has my back, is on my side, can be trusted out of my sight; Ira needs that also. He needs me to avoid situations that trigger his jealousy, jealousy that in other relationships has eaten away at his sense of self-worth. I have to put up with his teasing; he has to put up with my ever encroaching mounds of papers. He had to learn to live with cats in order to live with me. I had to learn to follow and understand football …. You learn where your real boundaries lie as you work your way through a marriage, where you can give way and where you cannot.”

Learning about your mate and about getting along are presented as facts of life, often but not always with a positive side.

Four married guys go fishing. After an hour, the following conversations take place:
First guy: “You have no idea what I had to do to be able to come out fishing this weekend. I had to promise my wife that I’d paint every room in the house next weekend.”
Second guy: “That’s nothing. I had to promise my wife I’d build her a new deck for the pool.”
Third guy: “Man! You both have it easy! I had to promise my wife I’d remodel the kitchen for her.”
They continue to fish when they realize that the fourth guy hasn’t said a word. So they ask him.
“You haven’t said anything about what you had to do to be able to come fishing this weekend. What’s the deal?”
Fourth guy: “I just set the alarm for 5:30 am. When it went off, I shut it down, gave the wife a nudge and said, “Fishing or sex,” and she said, “Wear a sweater.”

 In her essay 18,260 Breakfasts, Eve LaPlante writes: “There’s the abiding warmth of waking up each morning beside David, confident that he’ll be there to encourage, critique, and even tease me. There’s the exhilaration of knowing another person, deeply and without pretense, and similarly being known. As the judge explained, marriage ‘puts you to the test of accepting one another with all defects revealed, and then having your own weaknesses described as never before.’ As ordinary as it may seem, David’s and my ability to jointly — rather than separately — raise our children thrills me. I savor family life more than I might have if I’d known it as a child.

“I appreciate special occasions doubly, once because they’re fun, and again because they represent the stability I missed. Simply gathering for regular meals as a gang, crowded around the kitchen table, is a delightful contrast to the solitary meals I ate as a girl with Mom or Dad. ‘Staying together is more important to those of us who come from divorce,’ a friend in her forties explains. ‘You really want to work things out.’ ”

Divorce and its consequences surface frequently in the book. Divorce is characterized as, a major influence, deterrent, relatively common experience, consequence and happy if life-changing alternative. “The ability to be grateful for comparative happiness,” as she puts it, comes up often in conversations with adult children of divorce, who comprise a growing segment of the population. The great wave of divorce in the United States began around 1960, the year before my parents split up. A generation later, during the final decade of the twentieth century, a striking social shift occurred: the number of Americans living in single- or step-parent families surpassed the number in traditional families.”

And growing old together? The advantages are cautiously promoted in Why I’m Still Married. We suspect that this is an increasingly widely shared opinion. Living independently or in a group with other women is a more and more commonly discussed and practiced alternative.

Marge Piercy says it all: “When you are young, it’s no particular advantage to be married unless you’re having a baby and want help and support. When you’re older, it’s much more valuable to be in a good marriage. Who has time or patience to date after forty unless you absolutely have to? We need each other more as we age, not less. Growing old together is, in part, not forgetting to grow.”

Marriage takes many forms and has many aspects. There may be nothing better than a good one and nothing worse than a bad one. There seems to be a consensus that working at making a marriage into a good one is a good idea. We agree. As Spider Robinson says, shared pain is lessened; shared joy is increased (and bad puns are appreciated).