My parents-in-law recently celebrated their 49th wedding anniversary. When asked if they had any advice to dispense on how to achieve a successful marriage, my father in law reflected for a moment and said “think about everything you do twice”. And then added “and don’t get sick”.
What starts as a starry-eyed affair, a meeting of two souls and promises of eternal love often ends up colliding with the reality of boredom, practicalities, mundane details and, if you do stay married a few decades, most likely sickness and the difficulty of caring for an ailing spouse. Marriage vows hardly ever take into consideration unruly children, the loss of a job, who gets to clean the toilets, and that “in sickness and in health” feels like a remote eventuality. Love conquers all, doesn’t it?
When we think about marriage, a business contract is not what comes to mind. Yet, that is what it was for centuries, a contract that linked two families, at the heart of which was a business transaction and the understanding that reproduction would be involved. Even in the lower classes, marriage was often a quid pro quo: I will provide lodging, clothing and food and you will provide the cleaning and cooking and will work in the fields. Love was to be found somewhere else.
Marriage as an interlocking of two soul mates crossing paths and pledging undying love is a very recent proposition, one that, paradoxically, has been fueled by women’s independence. If I don’t need a man to take care of my basic needs, I do need a man to complete that fantasy of love, white wedding and happily ever after I bought into from a very young age. So we spend an inane amount of time in our youth fantasizing, looking, experimenting until we are ready to settle down with the ONE.
In the note I received a couple of days ago from Gywneth Paltrow (as a subscriber to Goop) under the drivel about her “uncoupling” from Chris Martin there was an interest take on divorce by Dr. Habib Sadeghi and Dr. Sherry Sami. In it, they mention that [..] “during the 52,000 years between our Paleolithic ancestors and the dawn of the 20th Century, life expectancy rose just 15 years. In the last 114 years, it’s increased by 43 years for men, and 48 years for women”.
That we can actually spend upwards of five decades with the same person is a tad optimistic. Most people experience three meaningful relationships in their lifetimes. Still we cling to the notion that there is another person walking the planet, our other half that will make us whole. Well, not all of us it turns out.
I can’t produce any hard statistics, but anecdotal evidence leads me to believe a sizable amount of women are reverting to Victorian notions when it comes to marriage: they are looking to marry for money, for a lifestyle they couldn’t otherwise support on their own, for status or just to secure old age. If love is a by-product of this arrangement, all the better, but it’s not strictly necessary.
A piece titled “On Safari in Widowhood” that appeared a few weeks ago in the New York Times’ Style section, detailed the recent life and past travails of one Carole Radziwill (formerly married to Anthony Radziwill, nephew of Jackie Kennedy). Her husband died shortly after John Kennedy and Carolyne Bessette also did, and the last 14 years have seen Ms. Radziwill making a living at writing, starring in the “Real Housewives of New York City” and dating younger men (and filling her face with Botox by the look of it). Ms. Radziwill justified her choice of appearing on such a TV show as financially motivated, as if getting a regular job which didn’t involve airing your personal business in the most demeaning fashion possible was not an option. But what caught my attention was how the journalist described Ms. Radziwill eyeing the Four Seasons’ Grill Room for possible billionaires. Apparently the restaurant is known as a Serengeti for billionaires and women go hunting as a matter of fact.
I was slightly appalled at the notion. Jane Austen probably would not.
After twelve years of (mostly) happy marriage, I am not sure that marriage is easier than making our way in the world on our own. Whether love plays a part in it or not (and, on the worst days, it better be there to tame your murderous instincts), marriage requires more diplomatic skills than scaling the corporate ladder; more perseverance than a dead-end job and a healthy dose of self-esteem and self-knowledge, two by-products of any career. The rewards are often more satisfying than a seat on the board, but I still can’t fathom marriage as a career choice.
Above all, marriage requires equanimity and compassion and no matter how fat the bank account or the closet bulging with designer clothes, without the love that bound two people to begin with, getting through it will prove arduous. Maybe the eventual divorce settlement makes up for it.
Maybe it’s the romantic streak in me, but I would rather live on my hard-earned income than on the spoils of a hunt.
Images of flowers by C&S – others found in the public domain