Given the reputation marriage has for destroying spontaneity, deadening the libido, widening the waistline, and replacing intellectual stimulation with long conversations about laundry and breakfast cereal, it’s not surprising that many people question the value of such an arrangement in today’s society.
I myself have wondered why so many of us willingly condemn ourselves to this infamous fate. Revealingly (in retrospect), I spent a lot of time wrestling with this question in the period before and during my first, brief, incredibly unsuccessful attempt at marriage.
And yet, for some reason, I decided to give it a second chance. Despite everything, marrying my (now) husband felt like absolutely the right thing to do, and it still does. The fact is, marriage fulfills a need that it’s hard for the modern urban young person to acknowledge even having.
I just finished a fantastic piece in the The New Yorker (“The Yankee Comandante”) about an American man who left his family to join Castro’s revolution in the jungles of Cuba in the 1950s. I don’t usually read The New Yorker, and I’m not particularly interested in the Cuban revolution, but a friend insisted and oh, it was worth the weeks it took me to get through all 23 digital pages.
To get to my point, it was this article that perfectly illuminated for me the nature of the need that a good long-term partnership fulfills:
“When Robert Jordan is overcome with love for a woman during the Spanish Civil War, he fears that they will never experience what ordinary people do: ‘Not time, not happiness, not fun, not children, not a house, not a bathroom, not a clean pair of pajamas, not the morning paper, not to wake up together, not to wake and know she’s there and that you’re not alone. No. None of that.’”
(The bolding is mine. The article is David Grann’s. The author of the quote, I learned later, is Ernest Hemingway in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” which I’ve just added to my Goodreads queue.)
How perfectly essential is that? The need that marriage fulfills for each of us is comfort. A sense of safety against the uncertainties, evils, and scarcities of the world. The ordinary.
Ironically, it’s this safety that eventually leads to feelings of smothering boredom. After all, we humans do have a natural urge to explore, don’t we? It’s also not very cool to admit that as adults we still crave the emotional and physical comforts that are found primarily in the arms (or the womb) of a mother. It’s needy, dependent. Un-American.
But how beautiful is it to acknowledge that incredibly childlike and vulnerable desire and to actually reach out to another person—another secretly vulnerable, lonely, childlike person—to help you find the comfort you seek?
I’ve been reflecting a lot on the wonder of unconditional love lately, which I’ll save for another post. I don’t think that marriage is a perfect example of unconditional love. After all, we sometimes fall out of love and get divorced. There are certain conditions in marriage.
But more than any other relationship we enter into as adults, marriage (or an equivalent long-term commitment for those who cannot legally marry) approximates the comfort and safety of a parent’s unconditional love for his child.
And in a world, and country particularly, where people are expected to repress their feelings of fear and vulnerability as they age, those mundane comforts of married life can nourish the weak, hidden parts of our souls. They can allow us to go on creating, feeling happy, acting morally. Even in a world that sometimes seems engineered to break our spirits.
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence or purely the result of gender difference that so many of the mass killings of the past few years have been perpetrated by single men.
People are attracted to each other for evolutionary reasons, yes. Without mating there is no propagation of species. But marriage and monogamy, both relatively modern social constructs, exist outside of the evolutionary imperative. They’re here because we need them as a deficient society.
That is why people continue to put a ring on it, despite the minor annoyances, the sexual sacrifice, the love handles. The comfort of clean pajamas and a morning paper help us act like the people we want to be. Even when it’s hard.