[…] Iris would sometimes think, about marriage: it was only a boat, too. A wooden boat, difficult to build, even more difficult to maintain, whose beauty derived at least in part from its unlikelihood. Long ago the pragmatic justifications for both marriage and wooden-boat building had been lost or superseded. Why invest countless hours, years, and dollars in planing and carving, gluing and fastening, caulking and fairing, when a fiberglass boat can be had at a fraction of the cost? Why struggle to maintain love and commitment over decades when there were far easier ways to live, ones that required no effort or attention to prevent corrosion and rot? Why continue to pour your heart into these obsolete arts? Because their beauty, the way they connect you to history and to the living world, justifies your efforts. A long marriage, like a classic wooden boat, could be a thing of grace, but only if great effort was devoted to its maintenance. At first your notions of your life with another were no more substantial than a pattern laid down in plywood. Then year by year you constructed the frame around the form, and began layering memories, griefs, and small triumphs like strips of veneer planking bent around the hull of everyday routine. You sanded down the rough edges, patched the misunderstandings, fared the petty betrayals. Sometimes you sprung a leak. You fell apart in rough weather or were smashed on devouring rocks. But then, as now, in the teeth of a storm, when it seemed like all was lost, the timber swelled, the leak sealed up, and you found that your craft was, after all, sea-kindly.
Ayelet Waldman from Red Hook Road
The passage above, from the lovely novel Red Hook Road, stayed with me long after the book was returned to the shelves. I have often pondered what makes a good marriage, why we marry at all, why we cling to the slightly absurd notion of eternal love, and, if the passage or the book don’t necessarily answer these questions, they provided me with a wonderful metaphor for how it feels to be a couple: a sea worthy vessel to navigate life together in and, sometimes, weather the storms. A vessel that is not beyond sinking but oftentimes arrives at its destination intact, just a little bit worse for wear.
I was never a likely candidate for marriage. Despite a romantic spirit, mainly fueled by Russian and English literary tales, I never had marriage as an ambition or even an aspiration: I fell in and out of love, I had my heart broken and I broke my share along the way, all in all vaguely looking forward to finding someone with whom to spend a long chunk of my life. Not necessarily marry. And then, when I was 39 and already living with my boyfriend for a year, he asked and I said yes.
It took me a long while to adjust to married life, to a life of “we” and of shared decisions: the framework of marriage feels harder to escape when the going gets tough. It’s not just about moving out, reclaiming your space, dividing books and cd’s equally and erasing a phone number.
Over lunch with a very happily married girlfriend, a few days ago, the question of compromise in marriage came up.
“I don’t believe marriage is about compromise as my friends claim” Kim said “My husband and I just make it up as we go along, and it works fine. It ever feels as if one of us is compromising”.
That finicky word, compromise, comes up often when marriage is indeed discussed – unless it’s Bill Cosby, who fully recognizes the wife is queen of the castle and all the man has to do is just get with the program.
I have been married for 12 years, not all of them easy. We had our share of grief, and happiness and difficulties just like everyone else. He learnt not to leave the clothes in a pile on the floor and I learnt not to throw things away without asking first. More than compromise, being married mostly requires common sense and figuring out what works.
If life is nothing more than a chase, bookended by time, for moments of beauty, moments of grace, then all we can hope for it’s to string as many of these pearls as we go along. And marriage, relationships in general, are no different: it should not be about compromises and boundaries and duties but a string of as many moments of unity, communion and beauty as we are able to muster, seeing each other for who we are, and not who we project the other to be.
If respect and acceptance are at the base of a union, the rest usually follows: who does the dishes, who works and who stays home, who plans the vacations and who gets to control the remote. It’s both simpler and more nuanced than we make it out to be. At least, that I made it out to be for a long time.
There are no guarantees it will be smooth sailing. The most we can hope for is that our little boat will deliver us to our destination in one piece. After all, that berth we can climb into, when outside is dark and stormy, can be the safest and happiest place of all.
The title of the post was borrowed from Jeffrey Eugenides‘ book of the same name.
Images found in the public domain