Wednesday, July 8, 2009

"to speak of woe that is in marriage"

There's been a lot of material posted on marriage lately, from Sandra Tsing-Lo's "Let's call the whole thing off" to Caitlin Flanagan's "Is There Hope for the American Marriage?", not to mention Meghan O'Rourke's "Crazy in Love", a review of Cristina Naering's A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-first Century. Flanagan argues that the traditional marriage is best for children's well-being and quotes a number of scholars who purport to show this. The data may indicate such, but Flanagan does not demonstrate exactly how. (See her earlier piece "The Wifely Duty" for an exploration of the sexless marriage populated by two career professionals who just don't have the energy for sex after a twelve-hour work day and absorption in their children. Also see "Put your marriage before your kids" by David Code, Episcopal minister and life coach.) Tsing-Lo, on the other hand, questions whether a lifelong commitment is somewhat quaint in today's times; "Sure, it made sense to agrarian families before 1900, when to farm the land, one needed two spouses, grandparents, and a raft of children. But now that we have white-collar work and washing machines, and our life expectancy has shot from 47 to 77, isn’t the idea of lifelong marriage obsolete?"

Well, is it? I don't know. I don't have the answers for countless couples. From my two experiences of it, it is "work" (an expression for which Tsing-Lo expresses humorous distaste.) I get criticized. I make mistakes. I do selfish things. I sit and smoke instead of doing the laundry. My wife doesn't often initiate sex, and recently revealed that my girth made it difficult for her. Also, she's tired, and the fact that I willfully refuse to wear my CPAP mask makes her more tired and less interested in sex. I don't think we have the emotional distance that was characteristic of my first marriage (and not uncommon to many couples, as Code discusses in "How emotional distance ruins marriage." There's lots of emotion; my wife is expressive and out-there. I wouldn't say her rejoinders "break like the Atlantic ocean on my head." I try not to take it personally. I have my own baggage, quirks, failings. There's an anti-social streak in me that's gotta make a joke, no matter how inappropriate. Code advises: "Recognize that we've already chosen the perfect spouse. Instead of a No, we would NOT choose better next time." And further, Code elucidates: "As long as you believe your life is your spouse's fault, a new partner will always seem attractive. But once you begin to see your role in the ongoing, lifelong problems of your marriage, you'll recognize that if you started over with a new partner tomorrow, you'd still be carrying all your personal baggage into that relationship." I identify with that; I've followed the same patterns of behavior in both marriages. I'm passive and I don't take the initiative. I'm not a stand-up guy; I'm a lay-around guy.

I'm grateful for the skills Cassie possesses; throwing a party, organizing an outing or a vacation; making a beautiful home; getting shit done; getting people to do shit; her powers of observation. I am leery of her desire to control. So maybe I react passive-aggressively by not doing what she wants. It's complicated. We tried to blend families, but it didn't work, due in large part to my unavailability. So I tell myself there's always more work, even as I try and grab a bit of rest.

Update (7/9/09): Salon's critique of Caitlin Flanagan's Time piece.