What’s Wrong With Marriage?
IN a striking article in Cassel’s, Pearkes Withers conducts a frank consideration of some of the chief causes of matrimonial misery. So important is the subject and so clever its treatment that we present Mr. Withers’ observations herewith:
With the marriage-rate of this country at its very lowest, and a Royal Commission recognizing urgent need of the community for easier divorce, it would be absurd to imagine, even for a moment, that there is nothing wrong with marriage. Manifestly, if there were nothing wrong with it bachelors of both sexes would not seek to shun it, and husbands and wives would not seek to escape from its bonds.
There should be nothing wrong with marriage, ideally, of course. Ideally, marriage should be a flawless union of man and woman—a perfect, lifelong companionship of mental, physical, and domestic intimacy, sanctioned by the law (or, as Mr. George Bernard Shaw would express it, “recognized by the police”) and sanctified by the Church.
The fact that if marriage were as perfect as this there would be no occasion for any elaborate ceremony to begin it, or of man-made laws to secure its continuance, would not disturb the serenity of the ideal husband and the ideal wife. They would accept the ceremony as an advertisement of their affection, no doubt, and the marriage laws as something necessary for the intimidation of moral burglars or the discontented couple next door.
Unfortunately, however, ideal marriage is so rare nowadays that it may almost be said not to exist. It is true that we meet, now and then, with instances of what we are pleased to term “ideal marriage,” but we do not delude ourselves into believing that such marriages are in fact ideal. We use the phrase merely as a convenient way of saying that some people are happier in their union than others. And even these instances are regrettably uncommon, compared with the number of flagrantly wretched marriages with which we are all acquainted.
What is it, then, that is wrong with mar-
riage? The answer consists not of one thing but of several things—its mis-application; its too utter intimacy; its commonplaces; its restrictions; its responsibilities.
Let us take its misapplication first.
How many husbands of the present day do you suppose are married to the right women? How many wives to the right men? Very few. Nine people out of ten sacrifice their proper share of happiness by making makeshift marriages. This, however, is not so much their fault as their misfortune. The instinct for home-building is well developed in them, but they cannot find a perfect partner.
If a man knew exactly the sort of girl he needed he might very possibly decide to c ow old—if necessary—in looking for her, but a man seldom even guesses at the quality of his ideal unless he blunders upon her. The poetry and passion in his nature send him out in quest of a mate, but circumstances choose his route. The average man knows, perhaps, a score of girls in his bachelor days, and he may not feel specially attracted to any one of them. But if he cannot withstand the desire to marry, what is he to do? He can meet girls at private and public dances; at social gatherings organized by church and chapel ; at the office or the railway station; in the street. If he is a nice man he does not expect to make the acquaintance of nice girls in an unconventional manner out of doors; and even if by dint of sundry worn-out expedients he manages to increase the number of his girl acquaintances to thirty, he is probably as remote as ever from the discovery of the “golden girl.”
For all its progress in the matter of science, art, and mechanics, the world offers him no material assistance in this the most momentous affair of his existence. He must look for his future wife in the next street, or in the next suburb, for the simple reason that, socially, he is no better off to-day than his great grand-father was ninety years ago.
Environment plays the biggest part in the game of love. A lucky few may encounter their proper mates in unexpected places, but we are not dealing with the lucky few. The luckless many have no alternative but to remain unmarried all their lives or wed with one of the girls in their own microscopical corner of the universe.
The average girl is no better off. Unless she accepts the attentions of strangers in the streets, or on the seashore, her acquaintance with men is extremely limited. She may not particularly like the young
man with the red hair who is always talking about himself, but if he is the most attractive of the men who woo her, she must either accept him or remain a spinster on the off-chance of a real mate one day stepping into her circumscribed world.
Gan you expect happiness from a marriage wrongly compounded? It would be as reasonable to expect the exhilaration of champagne from a draught of weak cold tea. Yet these makeshift lovers bring themselves eventually to believe that they are devoted and suited to one another. Their temperaments and tastes may be opposed, but imagination drugs their reason, and their real selves are not revealed till too late.
No woman really knows a man till she has been married to him for six months; no man really knows a woman till she has become his wife. There is nothing honest about courtship, though there may be nothing intentionally dishonest about it. Men and women alike endeavor to appear at their best, and cloaking their natural, normal selves with romance, meet on their best behavior. Even when they quarrel, they quarrel artificially, and mainly about insignificant trifles—a fact which their elders ascribe to their state of mind, though really and truly the mere inclination to quarrel when there is nothing but their idiosyncrasies to quarrel about proves them ill-assorted.
Disillusionment is part and parcel of the early days of all marriages, but it need not necessarily beget disagreement and misery. If the marriage is not misapplied the revelation of their true characters will result first of all in a sense of disappointment, but ultimately in a more lasting, practical, wearable affection than the thing we call “love” which brought them together.
Love is not only the expression of passion, it owes much of its intoxication to the fascination of the unknown. Marriage means intimacy—the elimination of the unknown—and intimacy injures when it is ugly. If a husband and wife can love one another for their very faults and failings, then it is scarcely likely that there will ever be anything radically wrong with their marriage, for intimacy does not permanently injure when it is not ugly, and the most perfect form of marriage is that in which familiarity does not breed contempt.
But one of the things that is wrong with matrimony is undoubtedly the utter intimacy into which so many couples blindly rush. The barriers erected by convention between the sexes are removed by the wedding-ring, but that is no reason why all the
little illusions of life should straightway be destroyed—why two who have hitherto displayed themselves at their best should make haste to exhibit themselves at their very worst.
Nearly all women embark upon marriage with “nice” instincts and excellent ideals, and it is nearly always the husband’s fault (and folly) if these instincts and ideals are spoiled or destroyed. Brute passion may not frighten a woman, but the abrupt termination of all the privacy to which she has been accustomed through the years certainly murders her romance and mars her wifehood. One can only approach a delicate subject with delicacy, but if husbands realized how much they lose and how little they gain by denying their wives every vestige of the sanctity of sex, every right to personal seclusion, they would have a dressingroom of their own from their wedding-day onwards, even if that dressing-room (through lack of accommodation) contained the bath.
It is the ugly intimacies of married life that beget its dreary commonplaceness. Only exceptionally matter-of-fact people can find content in an existence which is utterly void of romance, and wives who prove unfaithful are often driven to wrong-doing, not so much through any latent evil in their natures, as through a craving for the poetry of life. The dull, stupid daily round of housework is too much of an anti-climax to the picturesque days of courtship in the majority of hemes. A woman who is worth he** salt will do the most nem'al Avork for the man she has married, but he must continue to love her, he must continue to tinge the grey monotony of household cares Avith the glow of his affection, exhibit an appreciation for the woman as well as for the housework she accomplishes, or something will speedily go irretrievably wrong.
Commonplace work, commonplace cares, commonplace leisure, and a commorplace husband—these factors are sufficient to bring ruin into any marriage. Yet they are the most commonplace factors of the commonplace home. The wife endures them till they are no longer endurable, and then — well, what can be expected when everything is wrong with marriage, and some other man comes along? The intruder may be less worthy than the husband, but he offers what the husband has denied—novelty and romance.
Sometimes, it must be confessed, it is the wife who is in fault, and not her spouse. She has, perhaps, the mind of a servant, the soul of a housekeeper, and makes the home a place of torment to him. He wants a wife
—a human little woman—but the Avoman offers him only a spotless homo and unending conversations about ways and means. There are many married couples in one or other of these plights; but there would not be, had all the marriages of the universe been properly contrived from the first day of the honeymoon.
It is the earliest appearance of the wife in curlpapers at the breakfast-table that matters more than all her protestations of love ; it is the first piece of thoughtless commonness on the part of the man that matters more than all the presents he can heap unon his domestic partner.
The restrictions of married life are numerous, but they need not be galling. However tied a woman may feel to the home over Avhich she presides, she should hasten to accept her husband’s invitation to a theatre, a concert, a dance, or even a walk; for once he has acquired the habit of going out alone, the unity of the marriage is at an end. He loses sight of the fact that she needs him, despite her reluctance to accompany him, and he is prone to seek what he calls “consolation” out of bounds. The wife who becomes a slave to the restrictions and responsibilities of marriage loses the consideration of her partner. He comes to accept her slavery as a thing more essential to her than to himself, and ceases to find any great pleasure in her society. Better a bad housekeeper than a bad Avife.
On the other hand, a woman’s extravagance is often a fruitful cause of matrimonial misery. The restrictions of marriage should not be studied too exclusively, but they should not be ignored to the extent of getting into debt, for debt spells the doom of happiness. Debt leads to deceit ; distress and desertion. Ignorance of financial matters is quite a forgivable defect in a wife, but she should show a readiness —even if an aptitude be impossible — to learn how to control the domestic expenditure. Innumerable marriages have come to grief simply through the uncalculated, illadvised efforts of a wife to proAude for husband Avith pleasures beyond the common purse, and the indulgence of vanity in the shape of new frocks and hats and shoes, involving preposterous bills to be settled sooner or later, has soured many a husband’s temper. It is part of a wife’s province to please, but not by plundering.
The tendency of husbands and wives to flirt and frivol with people other than their lawful partners is another defect of modern marriage.
This is an age of irresponsibility and pleasure-seeking, but marriage is a respon-
sible state and cannot be trifled with. It is because so many people marry before they have come to realize the seriousness and significance of marriage that so many subsequently rail against its bonds. According to Max Nordau the perfect marriage lasts only for seven years, but other less famous philosophers might very well venture the opinion that if marriage were less lightly and casually undertaken, even an imperfect one would last a great deal longer. If a man and a woman can bold an affection for one another for the space of seven years they can continue to hold it for a lifetime. Statistics show that the first three years of married life form the most crucial period; after the third year the parties to the bond have either grown together, or drifted asunder. And perfect marriage—if such a thing were humanly possible—would surely continue for life at least, without the aid of any legal compulsion.
But a husband should be older than his wife. Women grow old—in appearance at all events—sooner than men, and the elderly wife is liable not only to lose the admiration of her youthful husband, but to lose him altogether, if a younger, more attractive woman challenges him with bright eyes when his lawful partner has become passé. Let women, therefore, avoid the danger of unhappiness which lies in marrying mere boys and growing old while the boys themselves are growing up.
So far I have made no mention of children, but children are a frequent cause of domestic dissension and matrimonial disaster. They are a blessing in the eyes of sane men and women, and they perfect hundreds of imperfect marriages; but they are a responsibility, and they increase the cost of the partnership. There is no defensible reason why these two drawbacks should mar a marriage when children begin to arrive, but the fact remains that children often estrange their parents. Even the first
innocent little baby, coing on its young mother’s knee, has sent the father jealously out of the front door; and children of an older growth have caused almost as many separations as the more understandable things thrt are wrong with matrimony.
This article would be incomplete without the inclusion of one other factor in the destruction of marriage—the modern sexproblem novel.
The fairy tale that pleased us in our childhood invariably ended with the gratifying information that the prince and the princess married and were happy ever afterwards. We had a notion, as children, that one was inevitably happy once one was married, even if the case of our own parents failed to support that notion. But hundreds of modern, novels have waged war with our healthy childish belief. These books begin with the wedding-bells, which used to end the old three-volume novel, and proceed to revel in the dissection of tortured souls united by irksome bonds.
It would be difficult to estimate with any degree of accuracy the extent to which such vile productions have deterred men and women from marrying, but with this side of their influence I am not just now concerned; for, what is even worse, they fall into the hands of girl-wives, who read them by the dozen and unconsciously absorb their venom. They teach these wives to suspect their husbands; they encourage them to look for the insignificant acts of neglect which are alleged by the authors to be so sure a sign of infidelity and lost affection.
Books such as these preach the insidious gospel of discontent, and make martyrs of married women who should be happy. For the sake of marriage as an institution, for the sake of public decency, the so-called psychological sex novel should be suppressed. It encourages a low standard of morality and exaggerates the things that are wrong with matrimony.