Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Marriage is Wonderful!

The lefty internet magazine Salon has an article up on marriage by Aaron Traister. Traister is extremely bothered by recent writing on the crumbling state of heterosexual marriage.

Amid all the bad press marriage has been getting recently --from Sandra Tsing Loh's admission of adultery and refusal to do the "work" necessary to keep her marriage together, to Cristina Nehring's dismissal of boring companionate marriages in favor of rash flings, to the very public ruin of the marriages of every governor ever elected, to Caitlin Flanagan's flaccid defense of marriage as something to hang onto for the sake of the kids -- I'm starting to feel like there is something wrong with me, because I actually enjoy being married.
I'm all with Traister here. I'm on my second marriage and have been either married (22 years) or shacking up (another four) for the vast majority of my adult life. My experience of marriage is that sharing things with another person (and the kids) creates an inner drama that makes it great when it's working and hell when it's not. If people are sharing their married life in any meaningful way at all, I can't see how it's possible to be boring or routine. My second wife and I have an unending stream of new problems to address and new situations to get through. Our daughters are going through puberty, my wife's in grad school, and I've been reassigned to a unit with a bunch of right-wingers. We also have a new puppy. Traister says of marriage: "It's hot. It's sexy." It is hot and sexy and it's cute and engaging. Marriage is always stretching the limits of my capacity for love, physical endurance, tolerance for sleep deprivation, and observational and negotiation skills. It's also warm-hearted, cute, and engaging beyond anything I could have imagined as a child. My first marriage was kind of a Gothic tragedy in which I ended up somewhere between thinking I was dying and wishing I was dying. But my second, sit-com marriage is just as full of meaning and much more pregnant with possibility.

I have some points of disagreement with Traister though. I don't think love is as absolutely central as the author believes.
As hard as marriage can be, it only really sucks if you don't love the person you're married to. If you don't love the person you're married to all the other crap seems insurmountable -- the scary large children, the lack of money, the fantasy sexual partners (who I like to imagine was wearing a particularly low-cut top today in my honor but, in reality, was not), the falling-apart house, the weeks where you just don't click, the ridiculous arguments about nothing, and most important, the fact that you're getting older and still haven't magically achieved your life goal of becoming Randall Cunningham or Patti Smith or whatever.

If you love the person you are married to then all the stuff that's your problem and not actually a problem with the relationship, stays your problem (for the most part), and you can focus on what's great about marriage.

Yes, love is important. But it's not enough. My first wife and I loved each other even after we were divorced, but we had long since stopped "liking" each other and stopped enjoying being around each other. We both needed to get the divorce and move on to better lives. This was something I thought a lot about as my first marriage fell apart. "Liking" and "enjoying" someone is just as important as being "in love."

I also believe that Traister underestimates the importance of self-involvement in American culture. One of the major reasons for the criticism of marriage by writers like Sandra Tsing Loh is that marriage interferes with intense self-involvement so highly valued in American popular culture. Much of the reason that some types of sexual flings, art, music, connoissureship, sports involvement, etc. etc. represent an alternative to marriage is that they speak to the ideal of self-involvement that marriage cannot accommodate. Many strands of American culture view these kinds of intensive self-involvement as the only meaningful dimension of life.

As a result, there is always going to be a strand of dissatisfaction with the necessary mutuality of most marriages.

My own thought is that it would be best if we just lived with the tension and both sides of the "marriage debate" tried to understand the other side better. People who advocate marriage need to recognize the high value placed on self-involvement in American life and how that militates against marriage. Marriage critics would also do well to recognize the value of the mutuality in marriage.

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