The art of staying together
BILL CAMERON WITH ELAINE DEWAR
Marriage is sometimes having to say you’re sorry
They have been married for seven years; according to the biologists, almost every molecule in their bodies has been replaced since they met. They are literally no longer the same people as when they married.
They have managed an alliance of ideas. He speaks, and she finishes the thought, without competition: a completion.
“By the time we got married . . . well, it was the ultimate pledge we could make to each other. But it had very little effect on the way we lived... we have become more settled, perhaps, we’re 30 years old, or almost, but no sense that we become more married as we go on. We talk, perhaps not as much as we did — there are nonverbal ways of communicating, ways to touch. We’ve become more like each other than we were ...” An attractive couple: they work in the theatre but are not theatrical. Their apartment is a product of their taste, quiet and careful. He is tall, solid, bearded; she is slim, with the clear beauty of a cherished woman. They look good together.
“We don’t fight, we aren’t battlers. There’s no real ambit:on; as long as we can live comfortably, it doesn’t matter if we can get to some space in the sky, to become rich and famous. So that’s not a problem ... just occasionally, though, there’s a sense of strangeness. We look at each other and think ‘Who is this person I married, anyway?’
“We are occasionally attracted, both of us, to other people, sexually, but not enough to consider doing anything about it.lt usually smacks of, well, just being more work than it’s worth. It would be a bother. So we don’t distrust each other. “We’re best friends, really. There’s a blending, somehow.”
And they look at each other, and smile.
You understand, this is what marriages are supposed to be: a serenity. That is what we have been told, directly and subliminally, by most of the literature and art and advertisement of this century. There is only one person in the world for you, and you will find him or you will find her, and everything will be smooth and comfortable and together after that. Somebody once called it the experience of finding a missing part of your own body.
Still. In 1960, the Canadian rate of divorce, per 100,000 people, was 39.1; in 1970, it was 137.4. The divorce laws had been rewritten, and perhaps many of those marriages officially breaking up in 1970 had been over for years. But something was going on, is still going on. Something in the institution of marriage has been dislodged.
Before, a decision to divorce was an act of courage. Now, it seems, a decision to stay together, an attempt to be together, demands an equivalent courage.
Robert, 39 years old, a salesman, a man of some introspective talent. He talks in his office.
“I separated from my wife two years ago. We had been living in another city, and then we came back ... I had been in a tremendously exciting kind of work there, living with a lot of speed and momentum. I got emotionally involved with a woman I knew there ... I told my wife abolit it and we separated.
“The affair didn’t last. It wasn’t me, it was out of joint with everything I’d believed in before. There was an element of
zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzhorror to it, like being in a traffic accident, or waking up after a weekend drunk and finding a body on the floor and knowing you’d done it, but not knowing how or why.
“The worst part was being alone. I was drinking a lot, and taking pills — and one night I had hysterics, I walked into the bathroom and I could see myself in the mirror, screaming but not making a sound . . .”
It is difficult. He picks up a pencil, turns it in his fingers. He had come apart, his marriage had come apart; the discovery was that they were one and the same thing. He had never realized it. He had never intended it.
“I had really just drifted into my life, I’d never really wanted to be a salesman, I never really wanted to get married, I just drifted into both. Well, marriage was what a man did. He worked, had a wife and a family. He accepted his station in life. All he had to do was find the woman, the house . . .
“But when we separated I knew — a wife is marriage, it’s 18 years of sharedness. I had to come back, I had to convince her that we could build something better . . . and it has been.
“The other thing was unreal. This is real.
“I take her less for granted now, and I don’t expect the same kind of subservience. Marriage is companionship. It is your only real security. Life is terrifying without it.
“The affair was a Peter Pan thing to do. A way of denying I was what I was, that I was growing older . . .
“Out of 10 marriages I know, maybe one or two are working. A few are still intact, but the rest are all gone. Perhaps the others fell apart because people felt trapped, the Peter Pan thing. And it’s easy to get a divorce now, it’s cheap. But shared experience is binding. The companionship is supremely important. I’d rather do something with my wife than with anyone else. She is my best friend. That isn’t necessarily profound love. I like her. I’ll go on liking her.”
The new images of marriage: compression, diminution. Life With Father becomes Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Feminists write about cutting loose, getting out; socialists argue that marriage is a vehicle of social control, a way to get people to consume more efficiently.
All right. But marriage, constricting or liberating, is increasingly popular. Between 1960 and 1971, while those divorce figures were climbing, the figures for marriages were also climbing, if not as sharply: 7.3 per thousand people married in 1960, 8.9 per thousand in 1971.
The idea of marriage, if not the experience, is gaining strength. The impulse persists.
Those who get married under the age of 20 are about twice as likely to divorce as those who get married over the age of 25. Those figures, of course, are about as clumsy as figures can be; but there’s some truth hidden there.
David is 32 now, a writer, carefully groomed, tanned, almost a perfect bachelor. He left his wife three years ago, and is now in the final process of divorce.
“The whole culture tells people they’re grown up in their early twenties. But most people are very immature at that age. Most people really don’t grow up until they’re about 30, those who grow up at all. So, really, the people who get married at 20,25 are looking for solutions to problems, to their own problems ... and you have two totally different sets of expectations about the marriage.
“One of the main problems with our marriage is that she depended on me, lived vicariously through me. I was going to be a famous writer, and there was this pressure on me to be successful for her sake, so the identification with me could feed her ego ... the worst sort of pressure.
“You get a major part of your ideas about marriage from your parents. Mine had a complex, neurotic marriage, and it was successful for them; there was a lot of emotional assault between them. I realized later that if I was around a woman who was crying, I’d think, well, that’s a natural state of affairs, women cry. So we fought a lot. We could always fight about things, but not deal with them . . .
“Well, I didn’t anticipate those problems before we married. It’s incredible that an intelligent person of 25 could marry without thinking about things like that, but I didn’t. The romantic ideal, I suppose.”
He says that casually: the romantic ideal, I suppose. But the romantic ideal is what we look for, the other part of the body.
“Don’t forget that before we married we got on fabulously well with each other. Marriage changed me from a docile sort of chap to a raging beast.
“In a mature relationship, talk of love equals loving behavior. I know people who say they’re in love, but there’s no loving behavior going on. Love is an emotional swamp divorced from the transaction of living. I had to learn loving behavior.
“And she — she could satisfy herself by being an adjunct to a person who was really the person she wanted to be. Her background .. . her mother waited hand and foot on her husband, she was very much the housewife although she was an educated and intelligent woman. My wife assumed that role, and it didn’t satisfy her. It enraged me. Somebody sitting there
waiting when I came home, and ‘What did you do today?’
“I’d marry again. But it would be a relaxed relationship, it would really be a minor step in a relationship that was solid already, we’d have lived together for a period of time.
“Good marriages . . .? It’s difficult to generalize, there are so very few of them, and they’re so different, so individual. One thing I’ve noticed: there’s an absence of sexual role-playing, the masculine and feminine roles are more interchangeable in good marriages than in others. There’s an absence of game-playing . . . and a degree of apartness, the partners don’t slop all over each other in public. There isn’t a constant demonstration of physical affection and sexuality...
“Marriage is splendid if it works. If I met someone I dug, I’d try it again.”
Even the casualties feel protective about their marriages. They are willing to be quoted, identified, on any other subject — but marriage, for most, is still a deeply personal matter, to be hidden even if it’s over. No names.
Michael and Fran just married; in fact, the day before the interview. They’re 22, and soaked in the new culture of sexual freedom and peculiar vocabulary. Small people, physically, jeaned and meticulously casual; perfectly young. They could be expected not to get married at all; if the rhetoric meant anything, they could be expected to live on a farm and raise babies and wait for the revolution.
But she was pregnant. Some things do not change. Michael: “I have to deal with the establishment. If I ever wanted to get a job with the government, or something like that — well, ‘You have a kid, you’re not married, ah . . .’ You stand a better chance if you’re married.”
Fran: “We’ve been living together for two years. But when I got pregnant, we kind of felt the pressure . . .”
Michael: “There were subtle threats from my family. ‘How can you do this to us? How am I going to introduce you? This is my son and his girl and their illegitimate child . . .’” Fran: “I became a little, maybe, spiteful toward his parents. It wasn’t my truth — if they couldn’t accept the child, just for being a child . _ . We argued about it once. I felt really angry about the idea. I felt, well, if I decided to have his child, that should be enough for him.”
Michael: “We’re not committed to staying together if it’s a hassle. If I wanted to, say, become a policeman, and she felt she couldn’t handle that . . .”
Fran: “It’s not a question of for better or for worse, regardless of where the old man’s at.”
Michael: “It depends on better what and worse what.” Fran: “Yesterday morning, I was just grinding inside. I thought, I can’t stand up in front of a man and say I’m going to adore you for the rest of my life. I was disappointed in him ... but we had found, in the two years before, that we really cared for each other’s well-being. We enjoyed being with each other more than being with anybody else. There was nobody else we could be alone together with.”
A liberated relationship. Each being and doing, dependent and independent. Maybe. How far can you stand outside traditional patterns? Perhaps there’s a nostalgia for the old arrangements: the strong, silent man, the pliable woman, each comfortable in a solid sense of the old character of people.
Michael: “We’re still into the old masculine-feminine patterns in certain respects. Or maybe we aren’t. I cook and she cleans, because that’s the way it happens. I chop wood, because it’s easier ... I feel more responsible since the ceremony. It’s a responsibility for me because we have the same name.” Fran: “I feel a little different. It’s hard to say why. I’m happy that it makes everybody happy. It was maybe a sellout, but — wow, this is my husband. I like that.”
Michael: “I like it.”
They are very happy, or at least they think they are. They are going back to a farm to have their baby and to live unmolested. They are 22 years old. Perhaps they are the future of the romantic ideal.
We all know, for we have been told often enough, why more people are getting divorced these days: a movement of people from the country to the city, a shift from the extended family, with a number of generations living closely together, to the nuclear family: husband, wife, and 2.2 children.
Dr. Norman W. Bell, the head of the Family Studies section at Toronto’s Clarke Institute, is skeptical. For one thing, there’s no evidence that an extended family pattern has ever been the norm in this culture: people used to live significantly shorter lives than they do now, and so a really extended family, involving grandparents and grandchildren, was a difficult thing to maintain. Furthermore, there’s na real reason to believe that city dwellers are more isolated and alienated than country people; Bell thinks they may be different, subject to different social patterns, but doesn’t believe they’re necessarily less happy or poorly adjusted.
The significant thing about the new pattern of divorce, according to Bell, is its visibility. Twenty or 30 years ago, people
didn’t talk about divorce much. Now they do. The great social revolution is largely a matter of talk — or largely a matter of the things we’re willing to talk about. That’s fine. Bell thinks that “a certain number of divorces is healthy and a necessity for any society.” The element of fission in a dynamic mass.
John and Sarah, a young farm couple, originally from the city; they went to the country, hot to improve the relationship they had but to maintain it.
Sarah: “Strangely, I feel a lot more independent here. I seem to spend more time on my own ... maybe because there are so few people around — I’m not nervous about long walks, there is so much to do that we can’t do it all together.
“I think that here we will be stronger, healthier, less afraid. You don’t depend on anything or anyone else, just each other.”
He has a beard; she’s slight, quick, direct. They look as though they could have lived on the farm all their lives.
John: “I don’t worry about being happy. We’re casual. We don’t talk about things a great deal, we don’t really analyse the elements that make us happy. Our friends find fault with us because we spend so much time together. But they put the definition on the relationship — we don’t define it.
“She’s my mate and my companion, my best friend. I can’t imagine living without her, I can’t anticipate what it would be like. It’s gone very well, just the way it stumbles along.”
Shifra Nussbaum is a counselor at Toronto’s Jewish Family and Child Service, an agency that encounters families, marriages, in a process of deterioration. She constructs an image of a satisfactory marriage by reversing the patterns that don’t work, like reversing a photographic negative into a print.
“A good relationship should have room for growth, as well as including mutual support. It’s possible to have a relationship involving a person with placating tendencies (‘I’m nobody, and I will say yes to anything you want’) and a person who’s a blâmer (‘everything you do is wrong’). That’s a reasonable match, on the outside, but it means that the partners are offering support for each other’s faults, not their strengths — there’s no room for growth in a marriage like that.
“There must be room for dependence and independence. The partners should have some life of their own.
“I really distrust techniques for a happy marriage. The artificial ones, the rituals: go back to the same restaurant, your restaurant, once a week, to keep close . . . that’s artifical. You don’t change problems in a relationship by fixing, or focusing
on one thing. This whole idea of “fixing”; a lot of families come here expecting us to ‘fix’ things for them . . .
“We are living in an age where we have so much, but we always want more. When I was young, you didn’t marry to be happy. Love could happen later on, after a marriage. The whole notion of marriage, the expectations were different.
“But we have dared to dream about happiness. We want more, we learn to get more; people five wider lives now, and this brings the urge to experience more, to react to the lack of experience. When you’re stifled, you kick out for liberation.
“This will mean more changes. People are going to have greater self-awareness. They will find out what they want, and how to get it. That will mean more variety, different compositions in marrriage arrangements. The momentum of change will go on. There will be more planning, more responsibility.”
He came to see me about a year ago, at three o’clock in the morning: an old friend, a man I’d worked with and sat in parks discussing Life with, a man I’d seen married. She had thrown him out of the apartment. Or he’d walked out. I got dressed, and made coffee, and he talked. “It’s just been coming apart for two or three months now.” “What do you mean, coming apart? You’re not talking to each other?”
“No, we talk, we talk more than ever, but it’s always fighting, always this distrust. ‘Why are you doing this, why did you say that, you don’t react, you don’t feel anything . . .’” “That’s what she says?”
“That’s what we both say. She isn’t there, you know, the way she used to be . . .”
The next day he went home. He’s left since, and come back, and so has she; I meet them occasionally, and watch them circling around each other, fascinated with each other, loving and mistrustful.
It’s been that way with most of my friends. I know three good marriages well, have some knowledge of two or three more. The rest are casualties.
And yet there is that impulse in all of us, maybe stronger than it’s ever been before: find somebody who will know you and love you and trust you more than you do yourself. Find the missing part of your body.
Marriage is not a subject that allows for many generalities. The good marriages are individual, specific, resemble each other only in happiness. It’s always been that way. It always will be. ■