Sunday, March 02, 2008

Celebrate Your Existence

When friends marry, I always give a copy of Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee’s The Good Marriage as a wedding present. (Often, I include a check as well.) I have blogged about this book before, particularly at the academic year’s ending when AU students who are friends share marriage plans with me.

Wallerstein’s Preface describes the The Good Marriage’s motivation

On a raw spring morning in 1991, I shared my earliest thoughts about this book with a group of some one hundred professional women—all friends and colleagues—who meet each month to discuss our works in progress.

"I'm interested in learning about good marriages—about what makes a marriage succeed," I said cheerfully. "As far as our knowledge is concerned, a happy marriage might as well be the dark side of the moon. And so I've decided to study a group of long-lasting marriages that are genuinely satisfying for both husband and wife." I looked around the room at these attractive, highly educated women—women who had achieved success in our high-tech, competitive society and who appeared to have it all. "Would any of you, along with your husbands, like to volunteer as participants in the study?" I asked.

The room exploded with laughter.

I felt disturbed and puzzled by the group's reaction. Their laughter bore undertones of cynicism, nervousness, and disbelief, as if to say, "Surely you can't mean that happy marriage exists in the 1990s. How could you possibly believe that?"

Many of the women in the group had been divorced. Some had remarried, but a good number remained single. Some had come to feel that marriage should not be taken all that seriously. "Happy marriage doesn't exist," protested one woman, "so I'm going to get on with my life and not worry about it." Yet when their sons and daughters decided to marry, these same women announced the marriages with great pride and accepted heartfelt rounds of congratulations from the others in the group. No one acknowledged the apparent contradictions involved.

When I pondered the meaning of their laughter later that night, I realized I had hit a raw nerve. For many, my innocent mention of a study of successful marriages seemed to strike below the well-defended surface, bringing to life buried images of love and intimacy. For a brief moment, I believe, the women had reconnected with passionate longings, only to confront again their disappointment that their wishes had not been fulfilled. And so they had laughed, dismissing their longings as illusory—vain hopes that could only lead to sorrow.

This duality of cynicism and hope is familiar to me, as it is to millions of men and women in America today. We share a profound sense of discomfort with the present state of marriage and family, even wondering sometimes if marriage as an institution can survive. At the same time, we share a deeply felt hope for our children that marriage will endure. I do not think this hope is misplace

Wallerstein continues:

In every study in which Americans are asked what they value most in assessing the quality of their lives, marriage comes first—ahead of friends, jobs, and money. In our fast-paced world men and women need each other more, not less. We want and need erotic love, sympathetic love, passionate love, tender, nurturing love all of our adult lives. We desire friendship, compassion, encouragement, a sense of being understood and appreciated, not only for what we do but for what we try to do and fail at. We want a relationship in which we can test our half-baked ideas without shame or pretense and give voice to our deepest fears. We want a partner who sees us as unique and irreplaceable.

A good marriage can offset the loneliness of life in crowded cities and provide a refuge from the hammering pressures of the competitive workplace. It can counter the anomie of an increasingly impersonal world, where so many people interact with machines rather than fellow workers. In a good marriage each person can find sustenance to ease the resentment we all feel about having to yield to other people's wishes and rights. Marriage provides an oasis where sex, humor, and play can flourish.

Finally, a man and woman in a good, lasting marriage with children feel connected with the past and have an interest in the future. A family makes an important link in the chain of human history. By sharing responsibility for the next generation, parents can find purpose and a strengthened sense of identity. These rewards take root in the soil of a strong, stable marriage.

Wallerstein and Blakeslee studied the lives of fifty couples in depth and reported on their findings. Couples had to meet the following criteria.

... Both husband and wife had to consider their marriage a happy one. They had to have been married at least nine years, because the number of divorces peaks in the early years, and I wanted my subjects to be past that danger point. The shortest marriage studied was ten years, the longest forty years. The participants had to agree to lengthy interviews. I asked to see each spouse separately and then together in interviews that often lasted up to three hours each. Most people were interviewed at home, and a few at their place of work. I wanted to observe them in the surroundings they had created.

I have been married twice, each time for more than 20 years. My first marriage, entered into when my wife and I were quite young, ended in divorce. When the young marry, they make a lifetime commitment, but most have not the remotest idea of what such a commitment means. When I married for a second time, again pledging a lifetime commitment, I did know. I have taken that commitment seriously, however neither my first marriage (obviously) nor my second would qualify for Wallerstein and Blakeslee’s study.

In fact, I know of only two marriages that do qualify. One of them I experienced intimately because the couple welcomed me into their tiny condominium for extended periods while we were producing a book together. Their gift allowed me to view the joys and vicissitudes of a resilient relationship from a unique vantage point.

In the more than thirty years since Making it Happen: A Positive Guide to the Future saw the light of day our paths have crossed rarely. However each year we have exchanged Christmas newsletters and I have received a Valentines Day greeting that has become a tradition. The Christmas newsletters paint a vivid picture of the joys and anguish of a two personal and professional lives shared richly together. Children have grown, married and produced grandchildren. There have been arduous stretches of physical illness to be endured and surmounted. There have been professional achievements and recognition.
The Valentine’s Day greeting is simpler, always a white sheet covered with hearts surrounding a single phrase. This year’s quote, from William Blake may provide one clue to the resilience of a good marriage and two lives very well lived.


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