"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Is Marriage Outdated?

One of the best American plays of the 20th century is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, a brutal look at marriage and the relationships between men and women. The first scenes of the play display a savagery between George and Martha that signal not only a bad marriage, but the bad marriage.  Anyone who has seen Elizabeth Taylor as the harridan wife can never forget her portrayal as a screaming, eviscerating, emasculating wife.  She is cruel, vicious, and unstoppable.

As the play goes on, however, it is clear that she likes George if only for his complicity in their savage games.  She admires his wit, his own cruel ripostes, and his humor.  He makes her laugh.

By the end of the play, the audience realizes that this apparently hateful and spiteful marriage is nothing of the sort.  George and Martha may not love each other in any traditional sense, but they need each other.  In the final scene of the play, as both lie battered and beaten, they understand that only together can they face the future.  They have flayed each other not just to the bone, as George says, but to the marrow; and only by having reduced themselves to this primal state, to Lear’s bare forked animal, stripped of any pretense or illusion, can they go on.

Without the confines of marriage this revelation would never have happened.  Without years of battle in a theatre of fantasy and deception; without decades of frustration, anger, disappointment, and resentment could this final mutual epiphany have come about.  One could never imagine such a drama in a society without marriage and without the demands it imposes. Without marriage George and Martha would have left each other long ago and never would have had the chance to get to know each other and more importantly, themselves.

The Taming of the Shrew is Shakespeare’s pre-take on Virginia Woolf. Kate is Martha.  She is a vixen, a woman possessed, and a succubus.  No man wants to go near her because of her savage attacks, her uncontrollable rage, and her evil temper.  She ties up and beats her little sister, Bianca, and is disrespectful and dismissive of her father.

She treats Petruchio no differently and is as hostile and demeaning to him as any man.  But Petruchio is different.  He understands difficult women and sees that Kate can be ‘tamed’.  He can help her release the frustrations which have driven her to such exasperation, let her enjoy herself and him.  Their relationship is not unlike that of George and Martha where both couples go at each other with a vengeance.  Both George and Petruchio are in control.  George has always been the puppet-master.  He has invented their son.  He creates the cruel games; and he is calculating in his methods.  He does not want to destroy Martha, but to save her.  Petruchio is no different. 

Neither the resolution of George and Martha or Kate and Petruchio would have happened if marriage were not at stake.  Marriage for Albee (in Virginia Woolf, A Delicate Balance, and An American Dream) and for Shakespeare is the crucible within which people are forced to become themselves.

It is impossible to imagine O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra or Long Day’s Journey Into Night without marriage; or Miller’s Death of a Salesman. The original family drama of all time, Oedipus Rex was about a mother, father, and their son; and the dramatic consequences of their passions.  Hamlet is all about the Danish prince’s incestuous love for his mother, jealous hatred of his stepfather/uncle, and desire to avenge his father.

We all have wished at one time or another that we could simply walk out the door and leave our husbands or wives behind.  Dramatic denouement aside, marriage can be a tough, painful slog without much to show for it.  Those of us who have the money to have mistresses, a pied-à-terre in the city, and wives with their own lovers and trysts in Paris, can cruise the marital waters like the Caribbean; but most people who work two jobs, come home to a double-wide, four kids, and a dog; and who wake up to the same fat, hairy, and warty partner every morning have no such luxury.

Tauriq Moosa writing in The Guardian (1.5.14) has suggested that there are really no good reasons to get married; and all the usual excuses are lame and outdated – tradition, public declaration of love, better parenting, and legal and financial benefits.  He is right that in today’s modern society, there are few practical benefits to marriage.  Once one gets past the concerned parents, life should be an easy sail.  Individual tax returns,  investments, home ownership, and business proprietorship are all routinely handled nowadays.  There is no compelling economic, financial, or legal reason to get married.

Public declarations of love have been passé for decades ever since the divorce rate passed 50 percent.  Who can take such avowals of life partnership and devotion seriously with those kind of numbers? And there is no such thing as tradition anymore in 21st century America; and there perhaps never was in a country for which Manifest Destiny was a better motto.

Moosa, however, misses three less tangible but far more important benefits from marriage. The first I have discussed – the crucible, cauldron, boxing ring, proscenium, cabin fever hothouse in which we all face our weaknesses, faults, and desires, and grow up. The second is stability.  At some point in one’s mid-thirties, cherchez la femme becomes less exciting than it used to be.  Bars, clubs, and singles soirees no longer get the sexual juices flowing like they used to; and the image of cooking dinner together becomes more appealing than another pork belly and scallops at Delfina. It would be nice, we think in the din of the hottest place in San Francisco, to just be with someone.

There is no doubt that not only can people live together outside of marriage, they do it in increasing numbers.  Yet, there is something about that legal contract or religious vow which changes the relationship – transforms it from a casual sharing to a serious commitment.  Marriage, for better or worse, forces you into an obligatory relationship; changes the rules of engagement; and by setting boundaries and familiar parameters, you are able to eliminate the noise of choice and get on with more important things.

Hindus have the right idea.  Marriage is so important that it should never be left to chance.  In a way it is similar to the Catholic idea of marriage as a sacrament, and the Householder phase of life is the longest, the most trying, but the most important in terms of preparation for spiritual renewal.  In other words, practical considerations are not paramount in marriage.  Relationships are.

The third essential argument for marriage is parenting.  Yes, as Moosa suggests, more and more women are raising children as single mothers, but it is bloody hard to do.  I cannot imagine doing everything from diapers and cooking to adolescent discipline, drugs, and drop-outs by myself.  Even more important is the presence of a male and female parent.  If a hundred-and-fifty years of psychiatry and psychology have taught us anything, it is the primal bonding between mothers and sons and fathers and daughters; and the sexual competition of the family. These sexual dynamics, in fact, provide the energy for later marital relationships.  Martha would not have been Martha if she had not had a subliminal sexual relationship with her father, the revered President of the college and renowned scholar.  Kate’s frustrations came at the hand of her obsessively protective father. People marry their mothers and their fathers all the time.

The final argument is security. After a certain age, dying alone becomes a frightening thought. It is no doubt that even bickering couples mellow after a while when they have made peace with the fact that this is as good as it gets and that it is better to have someone you know plump up your pillows than a Ghanaian nurse.

Moosa concludes:

My point isn't eradication of marriage, but rethinking marriage's importance and assumptions. This could help open all people up to different kinds of sexual and romantic interactions they might otherwise never experience – or, at the very least, increase tolerance, since society isn't rewarding only one kind of relationship.

While these notions of choice, sexual liberation, and experimentation are tempting (as I mentioned above, who has not thought of stepping out the door, if only for a while), they are false idylls. What is the point, after all, of diversity and newness?  At least the point of marriage is clear – stability, security, children, and a crucible. A single life of endless sexual smorgasbords gets old after a very short while; and the tolerance bit is way overrated.  I have had Indian, Palestinian, Romanian, Swiss, and even gypsy lovers in my lifetime.  So what?

I am a child of the Sixties so perhaps I have simply gotten old and crusty and have forgotten the promise of free love, communal living, and flower children.

I think often of former lovers, less because of the importance or depth of my relationship with them than the sense of renewal and promise they offered; but I never think of loosing my moorings and heading out to sea again. A bit of a dangerous passage these days.

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