Monday, December 28, 2015
Marriage–A Matter Of Will, Marx, And Sexual Contract
Elizabeth Todd had had many lovers by the time she was thirty and began to think of settling down. It wasn’t so much the idea of clipped wings that bothered her, but the seemingly likelihood of choosing the wrong partner. Women were too complex for any man. We want love, consideration, and respect, she said. We have had enough of sexual deprivation and submission and slavish obedience to men; but we also want their strength, determination, and sexual will.
Most men, she thought, can’t deal with these essential feminine contradictions. They are flummoxed by women who need to dominate and be dominated; who need hours of foreplay one day and who want to be taken the next; by women who want to rule the roost but who also like to cluck with the chickens in the barnyard.
Men understand pregnancy and childbirth in only limited ways. Few men appreciate that childbearing is the fundamental difference between men and women, the great divide between those who do and those who do not have them, and the biological imperative that determines when and with whom a woman mates.
Men are diffident if not indifferent about having children when women are defined by the act. Men expect change after a child is born, but never see the new and very disruptive mother-child dynamics that are to come.
Men may support women’s liberation and economic and social advancement; but cannot possibly appreciate how difficult it is for them to forget Daddy, generations of patriarchy, and emotional conflicts about work and home.
Choosing a man, thought Elizabeth, was a crap shoot, a shot in the dark, the blind leading the blind. How to calibrate a man’s desire and measure his sincerity? How to rate his intelligence against his emotional sensitivity? His will versus his ability to compromise?
Given men’s simplicity and lack of nuance, what was the algorithm for judging marital potential? As far as she knew, there was none; which was why she was hesitant at best to pick and choose. Given a woman’s many needs, complex biological and emotional mechanisms, historical baggage, and often befuddling sexuality; and men’s seeming inability to get past the sexual act, it seemed better to go it alone.
The women in Elizabeth’s office were either ‘in a relationship’ and unhappy or uneasy about it or desperately searching for a man. Online dating, speed-dating or old fashioned smiles and comments over Vermeer at the National Gallery never seemed to work. Men were always on the prowl and were interested in a woman’s worth only after they had gotten her into bed and then only maybe. Many men had polished the art of seduction and knew enough stereotypical information about women to make a good impression, so particularly hungry women were easy prey and after a few weeks left, licked their wounds, and laid low.
So what was a woman to do? There was Tricia Barker, the staff attorney, who had become an old maid before she knew it. Resentful, unhappy, and scrambling to put some kind of order in her life before it was too late and before she ended up alone and desperate, Tricia was a woman of tics, twitches, and a barking laugh who foundered as one adopted family after another became impatient with her need.
Jeannine Martin spent all her time with her niece and her young children. She was a loving, solicitous Auntie who never realized how many times she stepped over the line, assumed her niece’s children were also hers, and alienated her niece’s husband who finally demanded that she back off and leave them alone.
Betsy Longworth tried one blind online date after another, misreading, misjudging, and badly assessing the profiles and propositions made by prospective dates. She was groped in her hot tub so many times, spent so many wasted hours with men with bad teeth, receding hairlines, and lounge chair paunches, and went to so many middle-age mixers, community walks on the Canal, and volunteer work in Anacostia with little to show for it, that she finally gave up and gave in.
Women were marrying their fathers, spiting their mothers, mimicking their sisters, operating on flawed assumptions about masculine value, and throwing down the gauntlet in battles of sexual will, so it was no wonder that they settled for the dregs or just plain gave up.
Even the best-seeming marriages fell apart; and although this was not at all surprising given the near impossibility of choosing a mate who responded to even a fraction of a woman’s needs, it was discouraging. The whole world was based on coupling, marriage, children, and family. The single woman was the outlier. Men who remained single were easily forgiven. Bachelorhood was a term that could be extended far into a man’s fifties or even early sixties if he cut a good figure; but an unmarried woman was always suspect – a dry, desiccated, supernumerary; and we all would be better off without them.
If a woman was still single after a certain age, she was unceremoniously pushed aside. There had to be something wrong with her. Despite the disillusionment that women feel in their marriages, most make a deal with themselves.
Hedda Gabler, the heroine of Henrik Ibsen’s play of the same name understood that the expression of individual will was the only validation of life. She married for the usual social and economic reasons, and knew that she was not getting a man but a disposable, temporarily useful item. Her real interest was the writer and intellectual Lovborg – a weak but talented genius she wanted to mold in her image. When he failed shamefully and disgracefully, she urged his suicide as the only act which would atone for his weakness and shame. When that failed, she killed herself – better dead than humiliated, subservient, and useless.
Many women have at least some Hedda Gabler in them, and Elizabeth Todd had more than most. If she could find a man who was attractive, intelligent, and complaisant – i.e. who loved her far more than she loved him – she could be the dominant partner in the relationship and have her cake and eat it too. It was only a matter of sexual politics, she reasoned, no different from the power politics of the marketplace, the bar, Wall Street, or Washington. Partnerships between companies or political parties like between men and women had nothing to do with mutual attraction or even respect, but a calculation of risk and reward. The right takeover or political sleeping arrangement was to everyone’s benefit.
Albert Tillich should have known better. Elizabeth hid nothing and if her character was intimidating, her personality was honest. He fell for her beauty, her brains, her humor, and sexual mastery. He, Elizabeth thought, was an ideal mate – good family, good genes, accommodating, and willingly under her sexual spell. With a little care, she could have whatever she wanted. She knew that Albert would follow her to the ends of the earth.
Only the idealistic or myopic believe that marriage is an equal partnership. It is always a matter of parity, contractual obligations rules and regulations, risk and reward, negotiation and intimidation. Why should that be a surprise? Marx was right, if only in one thing, when he said that man is an economic animal. In other words all human behavior can and should be viewed and assessed through the lens of economics. The personal dynamics that one associates with marriage – dominance, submission, fidelity, honesty, wealth, influence, etc. – are equally in play in the marketplace.
Elizabeth Todd understood this; and knew like any good investment banker that there are no perfect contracts, only advantageous ones. Since love was a Petrarchan illusion; since human behavior operated according to universal economic laws, then she was quite right to choose dispassionately and objectively.
Indians had the right idea – arranged marriages based on caste, wealth, economic potential, status, and family recognition. For millennia Hindus understood marriage as part of the Householder Phase, one of the four on the path to spiritual enlightenment. One was obliged to perform one’s mundane, practical, and biologically necessary functions; but only within the context of a more important goal. Given this functional if not mechanistic understanding of marriage, then love played no part.
Yet Elizabeth also knew that that such constructed marriages were only partly possible in America today. There were no standards, no obvious boxes to check, no easy markers. One would have to rely more on wits, savvy, and native intelligence to suss out potential partners. Even more difficult was the job of judging a partner’s will and character. She, in other words, would have to arrange her marriage based on her own unique criteria.
Her marriage to Albert turned out to be a good one. She took charge and led the way; but Albert was more than happy to let her do so. She was sexually dominant, but to him that was as excited as the obverse. He willingly followed her lead because he had no particular social, professional, or economic ambition. His brains, simple charm, and character would always be enough; and for the rest, he championed his wife’s causes.
Albert and Elizabeth were a happy couple. Did they hold hands, embrace, and smile at each other? No, but it never mattered because the contractual arrangement governing their sexual dynamics did not include affection.
It is never good to judge a marriage because nine times out of ten you will be wrong. At first glance the marriage of George and Martha in Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was a destructive, nasty one. For the entire play they hurt each other mercilessly, finding weak spots, boring in, the more pain and damage the better. It is only in the final scene does one realize that the marriage was a good one – two people who ‘flayed each other to the marrow’ to get to the truth – an intimacy shared by few couples anywhere.
The marriage of Albert and Elizabeth was neither as punishing as that of George and Martha; certainly not as idyllically happy as the couples of Shakespeare’s Comedies; and not as damaged or cynical as those created by O’Neill or Hellman; nor as desperate as those of Miller. A bit of each, but as all marriages unique and unknowable.