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The Strengths of Marriage

The Daily Telegraph, 24th August 1989


Gripped by grand passion, I was married not so long after my 21st birthday, on a rainy day in February 1968, to a fellow student I had known less than four months. During that year of student upheaval (when we protested against the examination system as well as the Vietnam war, believing the old institutions would not withstand youth and revolution) Dr Jack Dominion published his book, 'Marital Breakdown'. Wise and sensible, it nevertheless caught the spirit of the age: 'Modern marriage is committed to the goals of independence, freedom and the attainment of the highest possible standards of personal fulfilment'.

Then I would probably have agreed - that is, if I bothered to think at all about the old institution we had entered so precipitously. In truth I was too busy coping with unfamiliar domesticity, learning to cook and (a year later as finals approached) balancing Beowulf on top of the washer in the laundrette as my husband's shirts went round and round, whilst I wondered what I had done. Constantly in search of 'personal fulfilment ' I certainly agreed with the American Edward Shorter who announced in 1975 that marriage was now replaced ' by the free-floating couple'.

Thirty years on, I understand that the laundrette was as significant a part of my development as the Anglo Saxon text, and just as fascinating, complex and demanding. I know that all those notions of 'modern marriage' were pernicious in their self-absorption, and that the floating balloon is so much hot air - dangerous when out of control. Glad to be tethered, humbly conscious of the good fortune of this survival, I suggest that if 'modern marriage' were only about understanding the necessary limits of freedom (especially when children come) and the inevitable shortfall in happiness, many more couples might stay the course.

Anxiety about the state of matrimony is not new . The breakdown of marriage, necessitating provision for divorce, was widely recognised in Hebrew, Greek, Babylonian and Roman Law. At the beginning of this century 'scientific' studies of marriage began. In 1929 Walter Lippman suggested that the difficulty of marriage had doubled, there would be no future compulsion on sexual unions, nevertheless 'the convention of marriage, when clarified by insight into reality, is likely to be the hypothesis upon which men and women will ordinarily proceed.' Havelock Ellis agreed: '...the variations, ancient or modern, in marriage, the family or the home do not in the slightest degree indicate any destruction of any of them.' (1931)

Marriage survives - just. Still white dresses are bought at enormous cost, still receptions and honeymoons planned. Thirty years ago my life-partner and I went to a registry office with minimum fuss and no hostages to fortune; perhaps that is why these days I can rarely attend a full-blown wedding without feeling slightly melancholy, as if the scatter of rose-petals is a premonition of the end. 'How do you cope when the romance is over?', a young bride asked me once. 'You just get on with living', I said grimly, aware that such dour pragmatism would repel.The point is this: far from going together like a horse and carriage, love and marriage have been in opposition for years. Although any study of literature will tell you that human passions change but little, it seems harder than ever to resolve the ancient conflict between passion and contract, the ideal and the reality, when the influence of movies and magazines, combined with a pervasive sexually-obsessed media, conspire to give young couples totally unrealistic expectations. They seem to think it their right to remain on a romantic and sexual high for the rest of their lives. So when the first frenzy is over the horse and carriage drive off in opposite directions, pulling human happiness limb from limb.

Does it matter that the majority of people marrying today will be unable to hold on to this precious relationship? ? Of course, since the institution is a matter of public interest. Let people live and love as they please, until the time children enter the equation. My instincts say it is better that children are brought up within wedlock, and I find it hard to understand why the legal bond of marriage is resisted by happy couples who have lived together for a number of years with children. What are they afraid of? Then again, no sensible and compassionate person would wish a deeply unhappy union to last, but it does seem essential to acknowledge that when there are children a couple should do all they can to stay together, and deserve any outside help possible. This goes far beyond the 'lurrrve' crooned in songs, and has nothing to do with sexual thrills. It doesn't take an anthropologist to know that the social stability of any society depends on family and kinship structures, as well as taboos. So when the divorce figures toll, they toll for thee.

Years ago I compiled an anthology of marriage, and then devised a selection of readings from it, which my husband and I 'perform' from time to time, for charity or literary festivals (and fun) - celebrating the wisdom of many voices ( Ogden Nash, George Eliot, Dylan Thomas etc) not our own. After one of these readings at the Edinburgh Festival last weekend, people thanked us repeatedly, smiling and saying it 'gave them hope'. And why? Because the final mood is positive about marriage, whilst emphasising the difficulties. It seems to be a message people want to hear, and inevitably, they ask the secret - like demanding the elixir of life. There are no formulae. Each long-married person will have a hunch, a theory, a faith - like the grandmother who explained that she and her husband had always been 'very kind' and 'polite' to each other. Such sublime reticence is the grammar of deep emotion; the apparently-bland adjectives describe a complexity almost beyond comprehension. The linguistic metaphor is apt. A good marriage does not depend on never quarrelling; it is about using language to reconcile diffferences, then having the emotional maturity to accomodate them. The self-help manuals give some sensible advice - like turning each negative statement into a positive. So, for example, 'Our sex-life is dull now' becomes, 'We've so much to say to each other', and 'We like doing different things' is turned to 'How can we be bored when we can learn so much from each other', and so on. Simplistic though it sounds, it can work - unless, of course, the thing is doomed anyway. Implicit in Milton's definition of marriage as 'the apt and cheerful conversation of man with woman' is the knowledge that communication is at the core. A thousand little shared courtesies, ceremonies, silly jests and statements of affection build up over the years to a positively heroic saga. By the same token, selfish demands, carping criticisms and blasts of public contempt are cues for soliloquoy rather than dialogue in the marriage drama.

The saga we create is indeed, as dark and dramatic as the Beowulf I wrestled with as an undergraduate - a multilayered journey undertaken together, during which monsters have to be slain, and dragons defeated. That they can be beaten requires an act of faith at the same time as an acknowledgement of their danger. For me, one of the first signs of strength in a marriage is the ability to be honest about the terrible times - whether they took the form of infidelity, boredom, workaholism, quotidien resentment, economic hardship, or whatever. Then, instead of dwelling painfully, to glorify the process you endured. Over dinner once in Wales, my husband and I were reminiscing about bad times we had when young, and laughed at the idea of a hidden microphone picking up our conversation and broadcasting it to our respectable fellow-diners. That is not to deny real pain, responsibility and guilt. It is to proclaim that you are stronger than them. 'We were in it together', you say, ' and we still are'.

This takes patience, endurance, courage, diligence - whatever you want to call it. It involves accepting that your marriage will be disappointing some of the time. That disatisfaction is intrinsic to the ambitious attempt to unite two individuals at a time when the social and economic pressures that once would have kept them together no longer apply. My attitude to marriage mirrors my approach to motherhood - involving the realisation that responsibility, duty and affection can metamorphose marriageinto enduring passion (yes, that way round...) in the most miraculous ways. That is, if you lose the need for self-gratification, still maintian your individuality, and realise the truth of James Thurber's quote: 'A lady of fortyseven who has been married 27 years and has six children ... described it for me like this: Love is what you've been through with someone'.

Looking back, I am glad I had no time to think about marriage, because I probably would not have 'done' it, so would have missed the greatest formative experience of my life. How else could I understand what Mary Wollstoncraft means: 'Love from its very nature must be transitory....The most holy bond of society is friendship'.The greatest truth about marriage must be that it can enshrine the deepest friendship known to humankind, encapsulated in the dear face you always want to see, for better for worse, whose silly sayings are always sweet, and whose life matters more to you than your own. All this, it must be said, is beyond sex.

It is hard not to contrast the ethical systems of great religious faiths, which accept pain as a part of development and growth, with secular utilitarianism that demands satisfaction, gratification, happiness NOW - as of right. What is this: the search for perfection 'on the plastic', taking the waiting out of wanting? It can't be done. It is a recipe for divorce. The only way to grow into marriage is to accept that it will never be all it's cracked up to be, but may prove greater and stronger than the cliches - if you hang in there. To adapt Marquez, that is when the conjugal myth turns into the 'congugal conspiracy'. That is when the married couple reach the condition of true, deep cameraderie, as well as intellectual equality - when you like as well as love, and know that your conversation will go on until death binds your tongue. And afterwards too....who knows?




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