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Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Essential Keys To A Happy Marriage

Researchers have studied marriage and divorce for decades and have tried to determine those factors which most contributed to success. Emily Esfahani-Smith writing in The Atlantic (11.11.14) reports on the latest studies which conclude that kindness and generosity are the two principal factors leading to lasting relationships. Such Christian attributes are apparently in short supply since the majority of marriages end in divorce; and in those that remain in tact, only one-third are ‘happy’.

If these figures are correct, barely 15 percent of married couples are happy; and if we can trust the researchers, it is because they brought kindness and generosity with them to the marriage. According to the researchers, in order for the chemistry to work both partners have to share the same values.

Kindness, on the other hand, glues couples together. Research independent from theirs has shown that kindness (along with emotional stability) is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in a marriage. Kindness makes each partner feel cared for, understood, and validated—feel loved. “My bounty is as boundless as the sea,” says Shakespeare’s Juliet. “My love as deep; the more I give to thee, / The more I have, for both are infinite.” That’s how kindness works too: there’s a great deal of evidence showing the more someone receives or witnesses kindness, the more they will be kind themselves, which leads to upward spirals of love and generosity in a relationship.

However, this sweetness and light describes only the most unusually treacly marriages, those in which sexual passions have been muted, sexual dynamics blunted, and the deep psychological compulsions behind the best couplings ignored.

No one after seeing Act I of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf can possibly conclude that George and Martha have a happy marriage. Martha is a vixen, a succubus out to humiliate, denigrate, and castrate her husband.  George, more patient and academic tries to break the formidable Martha by alluding to her unhealthy ties with her father, her deformed relationship with their ‘son’, and her sluttish ways with men.

By the end of the play, however, when their young guests have gone and George and Martha sit together, one realizes that this marriage is a good one.  Although they have stripped each other ‘down to the marrow’ as George says; and are as emotional naked as Lear on the heath, they are two ‘bare forked animals’, not one; and it is clear that this devastating emotional battle and final resolution has brought them closer together.

Martha in the play says that she needs George, and it is clear that for all his excoriations of her, he is dependent on Martha.  Their relationship has never been based on kindness and charity, but on the more fundamental power of need.  Albee does not explain George’s emotional lassitude or Martha’s volcanic temper and destructive actions.  He only comments that one can never judge a marriage by what one sees.  The truth lies far within each of the partners, and it is rarely understood or acknowledged by them.

Freud was only one among many observers who said we all marry our mothers and fathers and that we play out our most elemental infantile jealousies, fantasies, and dependencies.  It all began with Oedipus but did not end with him.

Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest and certainly most popular play because he wrote about these incestuous passions.  Hamlet, particularly as interpreted by Laurence Olivier, cannot deal with his mother’s quick marriage to his uncle after the death of his father, the King.  In the famous arras scene, Hamlet is like a wounded and disappointed lover who pleads with his mother to leave her new marriage bed not so much because she is sleeping with a murderer, but because she is not sleeping with him.

Hamlet’s emotional destruction of Ophelia is a result of his frustrations with his mother. All women are irresponsible sluts and the sweet, innocent Ophelia is no different.  Hamlet cannot avenge his father’s death and kill his usurping and murdering uncle because of many possible reasons; but the most compelling is because his real animus is with his mother.

In all of Shakespeare’s 37 plays there are only two in which the couples are ‘happy’ – Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew.  Romeo and Juliet’s love is romantic, innocent, sweet, and na├»ve.  They are children, after all, and haven’t had the time to realize the sullying demands of adult marriage so commonly portrayed in Shakespeare’s other works.  Although the play is lyrical, dramatic, and an exciting potboiler, it is still perplexing.  Shakespeare’s other women are all willful, demanding, savvy, and purposeful.  All the heroines of the Comedies – Beatrice, Viola, Portia, and Rosalind – all settle for men far beneath them in character and intellect; and every playgoer who has seen these plays assume that once the marriage scene is over and the play ends, the real sexual dynamics will begin and the marriages will not last.

The women in the Histories and Tragedies are already married and exerting their power and will.  The wives of Henry VI, King John, Richard II all take over for their weak, venal, pious, or inactive husbands.  Tamora is a Nietzschean juggernaut of destruction. Dionyza kills for superficially motherly reasons.  Volumnia sells out her own son, Coriolanus, as we assume she did her husband.

Kate and Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew are an odd couple and one which rankles modern-day feminists more than any other serious work of literature. In the early scenes of the play Kate is indeed a shrew – so much so that even her father has given up on her as a vixen and unmarriageable harridan.  Petruchio, a sexually confident nobleman says that he wants to ‘tame’ her, and it appears, to subject her to his will and have a complaisant, obedient wife.

Yet by the end of the play, just as in Virginia Woolf, we realize that is the best match Shakespeare ever made.  Petruchio finds the willful and demanding Kate exciting; and Kate sees Petruchio as her rescuer from an abusive father and as a dominant man who can satisfy her sexual passions.

In other words, a marriage far from the happy, generous, and understanding ones described above; but one built on more important, vital, and necessary sexual, emotional, and psychological needs.

Albee hated American bourgeois conventions and saw the family as a very destructive institution; and yet he understood that it was a crucible for maturation. Because the convention of marriage obliges men and women to argue, defend their emotional territory, and even to flay each other to the marrow; it beats a free-for-all world of sexual anarchy which consigns all of us to a life of immaturity.

Ibsen and Strindberg created strong, dominant, and attractive female characters who understood that marriage was a battlefield for the war between men and women.  Although Hedda Gabler and Laura, wife of the Captain (The Father) are dismissive of their husbands and aggressively try to destroy them; one sympathizes with them.  Few men are up to them.

Miss Julie was brought up by parents to be ‘half-man, half-woman’, and because of her conflicted sexual nature is sexually drawn to a virile, Tennessee Williams-type man; but first needs to play out charades of S&M dominance with Jean, the valet.  She challenges the social order by sleeping with Jean and in the end he is not up to Julie’s independence, and demurs and retreats when he hears the footsteps of his master.

Julie commits suicide, and we feel sorry for her because she did not find the right partner – not someone who would charitably understand her, but who would stand up to her in the arena of sexual dynamics.

In the ‘happy’ marriages described in The Atlantic article, one cannot imagine wandering husbands, lustful wives, or anything primal, dark, and sinister. In the best marriages I know, there is always a friction, a sense of the unsuspected and unpredictable.  Women who marry sexually alluring men, ‘bad boys’ who excite them, tolerate or incorporate their waywardness.  Ordinary, routine men cannot live without the excitement their more theatrical and exciting wives bring to the marriage.  My father loved my mother because she was difficult, theatrical, impossibly selfish, gifted with both insight and armed with a sharp rapier that could deflate the ego of any man and humiliate any woman.

I am very glad that there are ‘happy’ marriages out there; but I am just as glad I don’t know any.  Such harmony, understanding, and sympathy would bore me to tears.

Most marriages become comfortable and boring because too much individuality has been conceded to ‘kindness and generosity’.  A close friend of mine is struggling with the demons of death and dying, is becoming more reclusive and withdrawn; but he is far more excited, if nervously so, with facing extinction than he has been about anything. Plays, Tolstoy, the treatises of Augustine, Kant, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer mean something now.  They are no longer the academic artifices of his youth.

His wife confided that she didn’t know who her husband was anymore.  The youthful and exuberant optimist, traveller, and sexual adventurer was now in very unfamiliar ground.  Although she recognized that his engagement, enthusiasm, and intellectual hunger were certainly recognizable, the terrain he was exploring was unthinkable and frightening.

Even late in life, his unpredictability and inwardness were still exciting to his wife, and their marriage was never dull.

There is no doubt that marriages which are based on unexplainable attractions have more fissures and fractures than the more harmonious ones.  Most couples have unwritten marriage contracts whose codicils specify the boundaries of behavior and lines that cannot be crossed.  The happy couples rarely have to go to emotional court; but the dynamic couples often do.  However, mediation and arbitration are usually successful, for as different as these dynamic individuals may be, there is always respect; and one of the other retreats behind the line.

So, bah humbug! to ‘happy’ marriages.  I’ll take the wild and wooly kind any day.

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