It has been more than a quarter of a century since I was married, but nonetheless I read, “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person,” a front-page piece in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times this week, with great interest. Before my husband died, I had been married just shy of 25 years, so I figured I had a dual perspective on the issue.
I was not surprised to learn that the article had one of the highest “hits” in the entire Sunday paper, from those who read online. Marriage is a fascinating subject, both for those who are, those who never were — and those who are no longer. There is some magic in the whole process of falling in love and of deciding that this is the person one wants to spend the rest of one’s life with. By the same token, that was not always the primary criterion for marriage: financial security, international alliances, duty — these are but some of the other motivators. My grandfather, for example, was widowed at a young age when my grandmother died in a wagon accident at the turn of the last century, leaving him with three young children. The family expected him to marry his wife’s younger unmarried sister, which he obediently did, to keep the clan intact and provide loving care for the children, who were after all her nieces and nephew. There are countless instances of royals who were married off to other royals in order to cement strategic alliances — between countries, between tribes, between sects.
Marrying for love is a fairly recent and novel idea that is even today not always practiced around the globe. Marriages can be and still are “arranged.”
But this article last Sunday dealt only with a marriage that is made by mutual choice of the couple involved. So what are the problems the couple will face? Alain de Botton, the author, attempted to list them. “We seem normal only to those who don’t know us very well,” is definitely one of his better lines. He continued, “In a wiser, more self-aware society than our own, a standard question on any early dinner date would be: ‘And how are you crazy?’” He doesn’t say this, but when one buys a house or a car, one asks,”What are the problems here?” Certainly the choice of spouse is far more critical, and all liabilities and drawbacks should honorably be revealed.
Even in today’s lenient “shacking up openly” culture, something new by the way with only the past couple of generations, couples may not know all that they should about one another. “One of the privileges of being on our own is therefore the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with,” the author said.
“Marriage ends up as a hopeful, generous, infinitely kind gamble taken by two people who don’t know yet who they are or who the other might be, binding themselves to a future they cannot conceive of and have carefully avoided investigating,” de Botton asserted. He certainly hit the nail on the head for at least my generation. We all became engaged as casually as picking a partner with whom to go to the prom. We dated for two months, two years, whatever the case, but always on our best behavior and in settings like concerts and parks that surrounded us with beauty. Perhaps today’s greater intimacy lessens the surprises.
The author makes a key point: That what we seek in marriage is supposedly happiness but in fact is familiarity. We seek to recreate relationships we experienced or yearned for that were out of reach in our childhoods. Those are not the relationships most conducive to happiness.
Also people who feel terribly lonely, who find the thought of being alone throughout their lives terrifying, “risk loving no longer being single rather more than we love the partner who spared us that fate.”
And then there is custom. Everyone married when they finished their schooling, or shortly thereafter, it seemed to us of a certain age. Indeed, my mother told me on my wedding day that I had barely managed to avoid being “an old maid.” I had just turned 22.