To a greater extent than we perhaps realise, when it comes to what sort of relationships we are allowed to have, our societies present us with a menu with only a single option on it: The Monogamous, Cohabiting Romantic Relationship, usually served with a Side Order of Children.
To be considered remotely normal, we are meant to develop overwhelming emotional and sexual feelings for one very special person, who will then become a combination of our best friend, sole sexual partner, co-parent, business associate, therapist, travel companion, property co-manager, kindergarten teacher and soulmate – and with whom we will live exclusively in one house, in one bed, for many decades, in substantial harmony and with an active tolerance for each other’s foibles and ongoing desire for their evolving appearance, till death do us part.
But what is striking, for an arrangement supposed to be entirely normal, is just how many people cannot abide by its rules. At least half flunk completely, and a substantial portion muddle along in quiet desperation. At best, only around 15% of the population admit to being totally satisfied, a thought-inducingly low figure for a menu option vigorously claiming universal validity.
In our societies, those who can’t get on with Romantic Monogamous Marriage are quickly diagnosed as suffering from a variety of psychological disorders: fear of intimacy, clinginess, sexual addiction, frigidity, boundary issues, self-sabotage, childhood trauma etc. We powerfully imply that someone might be psychologically ill if they don’t want to keep having sex exclusively with the same partner, or seek to spend every other weekend apart or want to develop a close friendship elsewhere.
But there might be another approach, this one drawn from the pioneering work of advocates of gay rights, namely that any taste or proclivity must by definition be acceptable and non-pathological, except in so far as it might hurt the unwilling or unconsenting. From this perspective, while many ways of life might be different to society’s presently preferred option, it cannot be right to judge, correct, amend and seek to re-educate all those attracted to them.
With this in mind, the menu of love we should use starts to look very different. Aside from Romantic Monogamy, all kinds of alternative ways of living could be devised, including (to kick-start a list):
The Parenting Relationship
A union oriented first and foremost towards the well-being of children, where parents are free to form unions with other parties, once the welfare and security of off-spring are assured.
The Separate Spheres Relationship
A union which understands that no two people should ever be expected to be in total proximity night after night – and respects the role of certain kinds of privacy in contributing to emotional well-being and a robust sense of self.
The Yearly Renegotiated Relationship
A union which is accepted by both parties as having only a one-year assured lifespan, after which it must be re-negotiated but without any presumption that it will necessarily be so or resentment if it is not – a source of insecurity with surprisingly fruitful and aphrodisiacal side-effects.
The Love-or-Sex Union
A union which recognises the difficulty of fusing love and sex in one couple, and makes the possibility of dividing the two, and seeking fulfilment from alternative sources, non-tragic, unshameful and predictable.
In love, we accept an absence of choice that would be intolerable in other areas of life. We consent to wearing a uniform that cannot possibly fit our varied shapes, and without daring to make even minor moves to assemble our own wardrobe. All our collective energies go into creating astonishing varieties of foods, machines and entertainments, while the entity that dominates our lives – our relationships – continue in a format more or less unchanged for 200 years.
It would be a genuine liberation if, whenever a new couple came together, it was assumed that they almost certainly would not go along with the romantic monogamous template, and that the onus was therefore on them to discuss – up front, in good faith and without insult – the arrangements that would ideally satisfy their natures. Extra marks would be awarded for innovation and out-of-the-box schemes – while protestations of satisfaction at the standard model would raise eyebrows.
Once upon a time, male offspring of the European upper classes had only two career options: to join the army or to join the church. Such narrow-mindedness was eventually dismissed as evident nonsense and eradicated, and the average citizen of a developed country now has at least 4,000 job options to choose from. We should strive for a comparable expansion of our menus of love. We are not so much bad at relationships, as unable – presently – to understand our needs without shame, to stick up politely for what makes us content, and to invent practical arrangements that could stand a chance of honouring our complex emotional reality.
Our society typically devotes huge attention to the start of a marriage – and particularly to the actual wedding ceremony. We’re correct that a great deal of thought is needed somewhere. But it’s the continuation of marriage that is – of course – the real challenge and here we are too often left on our own. This essay is The School of Life’s guide to the rest of a life together, containing twenty central ideas on how to make a relationship work over decades beyond the wedding day. It is filled with suggestions on coping with the monumental challenges that any couple will face as they build a life together. Love is ultimately not just a feeling but a skill that has to be learnt. This is a small manual of sorts.
No one can ever disappoint and upset us as much as the person we marry – for of no one do we have higher hopes. The intensity of our frustrations reflects the scale of our expectations.
A solution to our agitation and the bedrock of every good marriage therefore lies in a curious area: with a philosophy of (lightly-worn) pessimism. It’s initially an odd thought. Pessimism sounds very unattractive. It’s associated with failure, it’s usually what gets in the way of better things. But when it comes to marriage, a touch of pessimism is one of the guarantors of success.
The only way to make a marriage work is – curiously – not to expect everything from it. Some of the happiest marriages have been between people who knew that they would, despite their best intentions, make each other a little bit miserable sometimes.
There are deep-seated reasons why happiness will not always be present. Each partner’s character and mind is hugely complex and convoluted. We all had childhoods that left us less than ideally equipped to communicate honestly, to confront our awkward thoughts, to remain calm and to avoid sulking. A marriage forces a partner to play an unfeasible number of roles in one’s life: they must be a best friend, sexual companion, household manager, chauffeur, cook, accountant, perhaps co-parent, travel-mate… No wonder if we inevitably all fail at a few of these.
Expecting that there might be problems is not to wish that there would be some, nor does it mean bringing problems into existence. It simply means taking a few sensible precautions. If we suffer around our spouse at points, it won’t be a sign that our lives have gone wrong; rather that our relationship is revealing to us the beautifully complicated nature of true and lasting love.
2. Why We Married who we Married
Part of making a marriage work involves understanding why we picked our particular partner. There could have been quite a few others, after all. The standard answer is that we picked them because they were exceptionally well-suited to making us happy. The more complicated, psychotherapeutic answer is that we picked them because they felt familiar.
All of us look to re-create, within our adult relationships, some of feelings we knew well in childhood. That means care and tenderness of course, but very often, the love we tasted was blended with a few trickier dynamics: perhaps a bad temper, constant busyness, gloom, fickleness…
It’s almost inevitable that we’ve married someone who carries echoes of some of the faults of the parent whose gender we’re attracted to. Fortunately, this doesn’t have to be a catastrophe. We simply have to direct our efforts to changing the way we characteristically deal with the difficulties we are attracted to. The way we tend to approach them is in the manner of the children we once were. For example: we over personalise issues, we don’t explain our distress, we panic, we retreat into silence. We go in for attention-seeking antics.
But there is an opportunity to move from a child to an adult pattern of response to our partner’s most challenging sides. There is a properly grown up – less agitated, less fragile – way of handling them that would solve the problem of having married (as we all do) a fascinatingly complicated person.
3. Being a Good Teacher
A good marriage depends on odd-sound skill: that of being a good teacher. There can be few less Romantic-sounding ideas than that you should teach your lover things. And yet, because all of us are so imperfect, being taught is a fundamental part of love.
However, very sadly, most of us are appalling teachers. We’re so panicked that our partner is flawed in certain ways and will never learn what we need them to know, we take to getting irritated with them and blaming them for not already understanding what we’ve probably been too furious to articulate adequately in the first place. We try to ‘teach’ at moments when we’re most upset, panicked by the background thought that we may have married the wrong person – and so ruined our lives.
Teaching is a skill. It requires patience, an ability to put oneself in the shoes of another and a certain good-humour around the resistance and ill-will of the person in the student role.
We should never feel ashamed of instructing or of needing instruction. The only fault is to reject the opportunity for education if it is offered – however clumsily. Love should be a nurturing attempt by two people to reach their full potential – never just a crucible in which to look for endorsement for all one’s present failings. Love can and should sometimes be a classroom.
4. Being a Good Student
We’re often encouraged to believe that someone who truly loves us should approve of everything about us, should love us (as we put it) for who we ‘really are’. This is folly. The only people who should be loved for who they really are are perfect people – who don’t exist.
The rest of us should accept that a partner may legitimately want to teach us how to become a better version of ourselves. Unfortunately, many of us, at the first sign that the other is adopting a pedagogical tone (maybe pointing out something that we said rather too loudly at dinner, or mentioning a habit that is cropping up again at work), tend to assume that we are being ‘attacked’ and betrayed – and therefore close our ears to instruction, reacting with sarcasm and aggression to the teacher.
We should stop judging these attempts at instruction so harshly. Rather than reading every lesson as an assault on our whole being, as a sign we are about to be abandoned or humiliated, we should take it for what it is: an indication that someone cares about us – even if they aren’t yet breaking the news perfectly (our friends are less critical not because they’re nicer, but because they don’t need to bother: they get to leave us behind after spending a few hours in a restaurant with us).
In love, we are liable to be, by instinct, ferocious sulkers. It’s not a terribly nice thing to own up to but the impulse is quasi-universal. Behind the sulk lies a deeply interesting, problematic and almost touching conviction. The sulker is gripped by the idea that being properly loved means being perfectly understood by someone else.
Sulking builds on some occasional deeply wonderful moments of childhood – typically repeated in the opening days of love – when we have the astonishing experience of being intuitively grasped by someone else in small and large areas. When we sulk, we’re silently referring to this beautiful notion and insisting that our partners live up to it. They naturally cannot. We wanted to tell them about our day, but they went on about the plumber. They went out and bought the wrong kind of ironing board without asking us – and it cost too much; they were deep
in conversation when we were ready to leave the party… All these errors we may punish with vibrant and extensive sulks.
Ungracious though a sulk can seem, it is in fact a hopeful expression of love because when we sulk, we are assuming that the other person has an almost magical insight into our minds. This is sweet but – in the long-term – very dangerous. We should never hold it against our partners that they need to have our intentions and feelings explained to them very patiently and without aggression. The real sign of love is not magical insight; it is the willingness to explain and to listen calmly.
6. Sex in Marriage
Sex is meant to be wonderful, of course. It might have been for a while a driving force in the relationship. Furthermore, our culture is endlessly promoting the idea that great sex is the primary sign of closeness. ‘They haven’t had sex for a while’ is taken to be the leading sign of the death of love.
Yet a more accurate account of human sexuality would normalise the sorrows that almost inevitably attach themselves to sex in marriage. It is almost impossible to be married and, in the long-term, enjoy an extraordinary sex life. There are deep-seated reasons for this. Relationships naturally become very complex arenas of compromise and negotiation; we have to be circumspect, and careful, we have to measure our words and reign in our feelings. However, sex ideally demands the opposite: an uncensored, carefree version of ourselves. It’s hard to submit to being harshly taken by the person you’ve just been disagreeing with about a utility bill. It’s awkward to revel in calling one’s partner rude words when you’ve recently been rather prickly that they didn’t display enough sympathy around your mother’s broken ankle.
The very forces that keep a good enough relationship going – patience, kindness, compromise, biting one’s tongue – work systematically against the raw drama of sex. The waning of sex is – far more than we collectively admit – a sign that a marriage is stabilising, not failing. If we more publically admitted this, we’d be less panicked, less ashamed and a little less resentful when the sex got less intense and less frequent. And we’d be less haunted by an unreal, secret tantalising idea: that is could all be so different with someone else. It wouldn’t be. The fault isn’t us or our partner: our condition is mostly the strange, necessary price of genuinely sharing a life.
It can be a deeply private and very thrilling experience. We’re married and caught up in the routines of daily life – when we start to focus on someone else who strikes us as properly extraordinary. They might be someone near our office; or who goes to the same tennis club or who moved into the house opposite. We may hardly have met them but something about them – their smile, their clothes, they way they flick their hair – speaks deeply to our imagination. Our minds elaborate: it would be so wonderful, if only we could be with them; they wouldn’t nag or get shouty; we’d be so happy together. We’re in the grip of a crush.
We tend to secretly compare our partner very unfavourably to our crush and might get snappy at home as a result: but what really separates our partner from the object of our crush is simple: knowledge. We simply know our partners very much better. Any person, who we get to know across the full range of their being will emerge as terribly flawed. The biggest single asset of the person we have a crush on is our extremely limited grasp of what they are really like. We’re encountering a stringently edited version: the rest we are elaborating from our imaginations.
The truth about the crush is, of course, that they’d drive us crazy too; we just haven’t as yet discovered in what deep ways they would irk, annoy and upset us if we actually did try to share our life with them. As we got to know them, their ideal nature would fade to be replaced by a stark, honest, unflattering portrait. They wouldn’t be appalling, but not wonderful either. Just human. And therefore we should consign crushes to their proper place – the hidden recesses of our fantasy life – rather than deploy them as a deeply unfair point of comparison to our real-world marriage.
8. In Praise of Compromise
The word compromise sounds deeply miserable; the ideal is to be with someone we don’t need to compromise with at all. There’s a special scorn for couples who stay together not because of great and powerful love for one another but for unromantic, pragmatic reasons: for the sake of the children, because they’ve realised there’s no-one better out there; or because they don’t feel they could cope very well on their own.
This sounds bad only when set against a soaring vision of what a marriage might be: a union of souls, an ever more perfect emotional symbiotic tie. Yet such marriages are desperately rare. So it’s not really a fair benchmark. We don’t compromise because we’ve given up on love, but because we’ve got a more accurate idea of what relationships can realistically be in the long term.
A wiser option sees marriage as rightly and honourably having a practical dimension: it is an economic alliance, an arrangement for bringing up a family, a domestic management team, a social partnership, an insurance policy for old age. These are deeply serious and dignified human projects. It isn’t our duty to sacrifice them because the flame of mutual delight has died down.
The dignity of compromise, and the burden of maturity, is built around the idea that in order to do certain important things we have to give up others: not everything nice is simultaneously available. Of course we always know this is true, but we push it out of our minds around marriage. Couples who compromise are not the enemies of love: they may be at the vanguard of understanding what lasting relationships truly demand and what they are for. They deserve admiration, not condemnation.
9. The Ironing and the Bins
We know – of course – that we have to pay the bills, clean up, manage the laundry, make the bed, cook some meals, keep the fridge stocked and take out the rubbish. These issues take up a lot of our attention and time but they are rarely at the core of what we think marriage is about. We’re supposed to be with our soul-mate, our ideal other-half.
The notion that practical matters have no legitimate place in love makes our lives harder than they need to be. We get irritated around what seem like maddeningly minor details: is it wasteful to take the shirts to the dry cleaner? Should there be a roster for taking out the bins? But not only are we annoyed. We’re annoyed that we have ended up so annoyed about something so utterly petty.
Frustration doesn’t just stem from things being difficult – only from them being unexpected and difficult. Nobody complains that it’s quite hard to climb Mount Everest. But our culture has for decades encouraged the idea that domestic matters are beneath the dignity of the sophisticated individual: we should be out working or having fun. We under-budget for domestic issues and feel they shouldn’t be things we have to take our spouse up on again and again. When we understand that an issue is important and complex, we take it for granted there will disagreements that will take time to clear up, that there will need to be a lot of explanation, negotiation and debate.
The small, bounded, repetitive tasks of domestic life in fact play a great part in the essential task of living well. The great themes come into focus in them.
We should accept the fundamental dignity of the ironing board and the bin roster.
10. Reading Side-by-Side in Bed
For once we’ve taken an early night. Even if it’s just for a little while, we’re side by side, each absorbed in a different world. One of us might be in a submarine beneath the arctic ice floe, the other is flitting through the salons of 18th century Paris, but our toes touch every so often, we stretch a hand back to briefly massage the nape of our partner’s neck before turning a page.
It’s very nice – modest, comfortable and rather sweet. We’re not in the midst of a heart to heart conversation, we’re not engaged in passionate sex, we’re not celebrating each other’s triumphs or heading to the airport for an exciting mini-break. But reading in bed together represents a major achievement. There’s not really anyone else we could do it with.
When we think of what marriage is for we don’t often think of the small pleasures like this: buying a cheap old vase at a market and a few flowers on the way home; sitting on the floor together and sorting the socks after the wash; watching a TV drama together episode by episode; rinsing and drying the glasses when the friends who came round to dinner have left; assembling a flat pack bookcase and realising you’ve both got the instructions wrong and that it doesn’t matter.
A marriage will inevitably contain serious problems – because two complicated, independent people can’t join their lives without friction. We tend to be more aware of the troubles than of the pleasures. Not because the pleasures aren’t there but because we don’t always see what an impressive and important element they really are. We take them for granted, we don’t properly appreciate their uniqueness. It may lack glamour, but being able to read in bed together is a major feat; and a sign of deep love. We may be doing better than we think.
11. Marriage Therapy
Marriage therapy looks like something we could only be interested in when a relationship is failing; in fact, it is the single greatest tool that can help to prevent it from doing so.
Marriage therapy works its magic because it is a safe forum in which to discuss issues that, when handled by the couple alone, can too easily spin into ill-temper and recrimination. The feeling that we haven’t been heard in too long is what prevents us from listening. But in a consulting room, a good therapist becomes the wise broker, allowing each person to have their say, sympathising with both parties, while taking neither of their sides. Therapy becomes a safe diplomatic back channel, away from the conflictual atmosphere of domestic life. The therapist can help the couple to see that behind one person’s rage is pain and a history of despair in childhood. Or they might make someone aware of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of hostile silence or controlling inquisitions. They can hold both parties back from one another’s throats for just long enough that they may start to understand what their previously caricatured opponent is going through.
One of the key tasks of the therapist is to expose us often enough to a more sane, respectful, reasonable and realistic outlook than our own. The therapist’s kindly, wise voice should become our own. We begin to intuit what they would have said in a given situation, and when they are no longer there, at moments of crisis and loneliness, can learn to say some of the important, calming and kind things to ourselves.
Far from a self-indulgence, undergoing therapy is one of the most generous things we could ever do for all those who have to live around us. Those who have spent time in therapy are ever so slightly less dangerous to be around: a little better able to warn those who depend on them of how frustrating and peculiar they might sometimes be. We owe it to ourselves, and just as importantly, those who love us, to take our courage in our hands – and to go and ‘see someone’ forthwith.
12. Date Night
We’ve co-ordinated our diaries, maybe got in a baby sitter, found a restaurant we both like. Perhaps it doesn’t happen so often these days. It’s an important moment. But then we can end up being rather silent or talking about how nice the mozzarella salad is or what a colleague said in a meeting that morning. We’ve got the opportunity to really talk, for once, but then can’t quite rise to the occasion.
It is no insult to a relationship – or to our intellects – to realise that it may be hard to summon up the questions that are truly going to reopen the channels of feeling between ourselves and our partners. We may require a level of artificiality to get to the sort of conversation we could most profitably have.
Here then are some of the more intimate, frustration-releasing questions that we might systematically ask one another as we work our way through the courses:
– In what ways have I hurt you?
– When do I satisfy you?
– Where do you feel underappreciated?
– What would you like me to apologise for?
– How have I let you down?
– What do you need from me?
Such conversations, handled without recrimination or defensiveness, can save love. They can also help sex to go better, given how often a desire not to be touched is – at heart – the legacy of pent-up irritation and hurt.
For a couple of centuries our culture has been feeding us a very alluring, Romantic vision of what a good marriage is meant to be like: we’ll understand one another deeply and intuitively; we’ll have great, loving sex and neither of us will want to go to bed with other people; we’ll be busy of course, but there will be plenty of time for us just to be together, happy in each other’s company; we’ll be soul mates; we’ll love each other just as we are.
This story is particularly powerful because, early on, a relationship really can be a bit like this. But, over time, every marriage seems to change: there are running disagreements, points of deep tension, sex is patchy, we wonder if our partner might be flirting too much with someone else, there are things we definitely wish we could change about each other, we nag and criticise, we seem to just grunt and sulk instead of having deep conversations. We start to resent each other. This isn’t what a good marriage was meant to be like, we feel, and we secretly (and at times openly) blame our partners for having let us down.
We get angry, but in the background is a less readily acknowledged truth. The ideal was never actually a real possibility for the long term – and not just for us but for pretty much anybody. We should be sad, but not angry or bitter. We must blame our partner and ourselves a little less. It’s not our fault or theirs. We’ve been judging our relationship by the exaggerated standards of fiction, rather than by the more more modest, and much fairer, benchmark of reality.
14. Other People’s Marriages
Our sense of whether of our own marriage is going well or badly is subtly but powerfully dependent on our mental picture of what marriages in general tend to be like. We’re naturally very given to comparisons. (Whether we feel well off or rather poor always depends on how much money we think other people have).
Unfortunately, there’s a fearsome asymmetry at work which makes us judge ourselves harshly. We know our own marriage from the inside – while we generally have only a heavily edited, limited and sanitised picture of the marriages of other people. Mostly we see others in social situations – where a degree of politeness is the norm. But we’re intently aware of our own sorrows: the cold silences, harsh criticisms, furious outbursts, episodes of door slamming, bitter late night denunciations, simmering sexual disappointments and the times of aching loneliness in the bedroom. Very understandably, we come to the conclusion that our own marriage is uniquely cursed and much darker and more painful than is usual. In times of distress, we might even fling an accusation at our spouse: ‘no-one else has to put up with this.’
Getting a much more accurate idea of what other people’s marriages are really like isn’t prying or cruel, it’s a priority in love because it reveals the true nature of the task we’re undertaking. It’s not that we as a couple are strangely awful or damned: it’s that marriage itself is an essentially and inescapably difficult project. If we could properly see – via tenderly accurate films and novels and honest chats with older honest couples – the reality of pretty much any marriage we might arrive at a surprising and rather heartening conclusion: that our own marriage is – in fact – really quite OK and certainly very normal.
15. For The Darkest Days
There will be times when we feel very bleak about our marriage. Those moments won’t necessarily last long but they are bound to arise – and we need to be a little prepared.
Here, therefore, are some bits of stiff, kindly consolation for the periods of agony.
Why did you marry this person? How did you get it so wrong?
In short: it’s not your fault. Everyone when known properly turns out to be unbearable in some central ways. There is no-one you could be married to that would not – at times – leave you feeling desperate. You too are tricky, we should remember.
Many people suffer in similar ways now, have done so in the past, and will do so again in the future. It’s miserable, but you are participating in the common experience of humanity. Maybe they don’t talk about it much – but millions would sympathise deeply with what you’re going through. You feel completely alone; yet you are in a vast (shy) majority.
A thoughtful, well-read surgeon screamed at his partner through the bathroom door late last night and woke the children. Right now, a level headed, nicely dressed IT consultant lives in dread of her partner finding out she’s been having an affair online.
The feeling that you wouldn’t mind if your partner were to die swiftly and painlessly leaving you to start again doesn’t make you a monster: it’s very normal. It doesn’t mean you wish them harm. It will pass.
No-one really understands anyone else. That your spouse doesn’t grasp you in central ways is entirely unavoidable.
Yes, you would like to have an affair. It’s so reasonable and natural to want to. It would be wonderful to be wanted, to be held and loved and properly appreciated in bed. But an affair wouldn’t solve the underlying issues.
Your anguish is very real at this moment. But later it won’t seem quite so bad. We get used to things. We can cope better than we think.
A marriage should be a place where people offer each other comfort. But an intention doesn’t always automatically translate into a ready capacity for true assistance. Two people can long to be supportive and generous to one another and yet lack all the skills to deliver on their good intentions – and therefore end up feeling isolated, resentful and unloved.
We cause ourselves trouble because we are too slow to recognise an odd, largely unmentioned phenomenon: how varied and particular our notions of help can be. We take our own preferred style of being soothed as the natural starting point for how to soothe others – but we may be very wrong. An urgent task is to try to understand the particular way in which we, and our partner, need love to be delivered in order to feel that it feel real.
We might be types who, when we are sad or in difficulties, need first and foremost to be listened to silently. Then again, love might not seem genuine unless it is accompanied by precise and concrete solutions. Or we might need to be held or a large dose of optimism or consolingly gloomy pronouncements.
The misfortune lies in how easily we can irritated with the wrong offer of love – and in turn, how quickly we may be offended when our efforts go unappreciated. Recognising that there are different styles of help alerts us to the severe risks of misunderstanding. Instead of getting annoyed at our lover’s sometimes widely misdirected effort, we can grasp – perhaps for the first time – the basic truth that these blundering companions are in fact attempting to be nice.
17. The Partner-as-Child
It can seem like an insult to think of one’s partner as being in certain ways like a child. They’ve got a job and a credit card and can drive a car. But there’s a powerful motive for adopting this strange-sounding stance.
We’re noticeably patient and forgiving around children. They might tip the pasta we’ve nicely prepared on the floor, but we don’t shout. They say it’s our fault when the blades snap off their toy helicopter – and we tease them kindly for their condemnation. They have a tantrum because it’s bedtime, but we don’t get too worried because we understand they’re tired or teething or frazzled after an emotionally taxing morning at kindergarten. We soothe, we distract, we calmly try another tactic. Our ego stays intact.
How different to what typically happens when our partners frustrate us. Here, in a heartbeat, we shout, suspect, complain. If we were to regard our partner as a young child however, the mood might soften. This isn’t condescending. We’re tapping into a constructive way of interpreting the less lovely elements of someone’s character and conduct. We’re seeing them not simply as rational, sophisticated adults who – from sheer malice and selfishness – are behaving badly. Instead we’re recognising how vulnerable they are to hunger, tiredness and their own griefs, anxieties and regrets.
We are so alive to the idea that it’s patronising to be thought of as younger than we are; we forget that it is also, at times, the greatest privilege for someone to look beyond our adult self in order to engage with – and forgive – the disappointed, furious, inarticulate or wounded child within.
We should take care to pin to the fridge door a picture of our partner at the age of three or four, looking especially endearing, and glance over at it at moments of crisis.
18. The Weakness of Strength
We get drawn to people because of their good qualities: we’re attracted by their warm sympathy or intelligence; their brisk efficiency around money or their relaxed, unhurried style.
But as a relationship progresses, we often find that it is our partner’s shortcomings that most occupy our attention. We realise that they’re too bossy or regularly shirk responsibility; they’re always picking us up on little details or have a cynical, world-weary attitude. We wonder how we could have made such a big mistake.
Yet, behind their negative behaviour, there is a powerful logic at work. Every strength a person has is also – in other situations – a frustrating and possibly irritating weakness. Someone may be often very kind and tender – but the same gentleness will sometime means they don’t assert themselves or show much initiative. The determined capacity to stay on top of money and domestic administration can be an enormous advantage, but it will mean that a person will also tend to nip our wilder dreams in the bud.
We should always strive to see people’s weaknesses as the inevitable downside of certain merits that drew us to them, and from which we will benefit at other points (even if none of these benefits are apparent right now). What we’re seeing are not their faults, pure and simple, but rather the shadow side of things that are genuinely good about them.
Our minds tend to hive off strengths and see these as essential, while deeming the weaknesses as a freakish add-on, but in truth, the weaknesses are part and parcel of the strengths.
This theory usefully undermines the unhelpful idea that – if only we looked a bit harder – we would find someone who was always perfect to be around. If strengths are invariably connected to failings, there won’t be anyone who is remotely flawless. We may well find people with different strengths, but they will also have a new litany of weaknesses. It’s always calming to take a moment to remind ourselves that perfect people simply don’t exist.
An odd feature of relationships – which we have to be ready for in ourselves and our partners – is how difficult it can be to ask for closeness. We often want reassurance but feel so anxious that we may be unwanted, we disguise our need behind a facade of indifference. At the precise moment where we would love a cuddle or a warm touch, we say we’re busy, we pretend our thoughts are elsewhere, we get sarcastic and dry.
Or else, anxious about being rejected, we may get controlling and bossy. We feel our partners are escaping us emotionally, but rather than admitting to our sense of loss, we respond by trying to pin them down administratively. We nag them about the state of the kitchen. We upbraid them for being six minutes late.
We should have sympathy for ourselves. Admitting to need is inherently frightening. It’s not surprising we should badger or behave coldly rather than simply own up to our fragility.
Yet we should create room for regular moments, perhaps as often as every few hours, when we can feel unembarrassed and legitimate about asking for confirmation. ‘I really need you; do you still want me?’ should be the most normal of enquiries.
We should uncouple the admission of need from any associations with the unfortunate and punitively macho term, ‘neediness’. We must get better at seeing the love and longing that lurk shyly behind some of our own and our partner’s most frosty, distant or managerial moments.
We know by instinct that humour is pretty important in relationships. But the reasons are often left a little vague. It isn’t that we crudely want entertainment. We don’t just seek relaxation. We want to find a way to be annoyed with, and criticise, one another’s most maddening sides without eliciting a drama, with a special kind of diplomatic immunity that is the gift of comedy. We need our partner, whom we love and yet find extremely difficult to live with, to understand what is so disturbing about their characters – and perhaps to want to amend them. That is what it means to get the joke.
Spending time closely around someone inevitably exposes us to departures from normality or balance. Our partners are always a little crazy in areas – as we, naturally, are too. We need to say something, but doing so directly and in a serious voice can be painfully counter-productive. Too often, the partner just swiftly feels attacked and refuses the insight.
This is where a certain kind of humour comes in. Exaggerating the exaggeration is a tool for criticising another person without arousing their irritation or self-righteousness. And the laughter we elicit isn’t just a sign they have been entertained; it’s proof that they have acknowledged an attempt to reform them.
George Bernard Shaw understood this very well. ‘If you want to tell people the truth,’ he remarked, ‘make them laugh, otherwise they will kill you.’
There will be times when you will feel very bleak about your marriage. You will wonder why you got married. You will feel you made a disastrous mistake in tying your life to this person. Those moments won’t necessarily last long but they are bound to arise – and we need to be a little prepared.
Here, therefore, are some bits of stiff, kindly consolation for the periods of agony.
1. Everyone when known properly turns out to be unbearable in some central ways.
There is no-one you could be married to that would not – at times – leave you feeling desperate. You too are tricky, you should remember.
2. Your sorrows are very normal.
Many people are suffering in similar ways, and have done so in the past, and will do so again in the future. It’s miserable, but you are participating in the common experience of humanity. Maybe they don’t talk about it much – but millions would sympathise deeply with what you’re going through. You feel completely alone; yet you are in a vast (shy) majority: a thoughtful, well-read surgeon screamed at his partner through the bathroom door late last night and woke the children. Right now, a level headed, nicely dressed IT consultant lives in dread of her partner finding out she’s been having an affair online.
3. Your worst thoughts are only thoughts.
The feeling that you wouldn’t mind if your partner were to die swiftly and painlessly leaving you to start again doesn’t make you a monster: it’s a very common thought that passes through the heads of obviously sane and reasonable people. It doesn’t mean you wish your partner any harm. It will pass.
4. No-one really understands anyone else.
That your spouse doesn’t grasp you in central ways is entirely unavoidable.
5. It’s not strange if you would like to have an affair.
It’s so reasonable and natural to want to. It would be wonderful to be wanted, to be held and loved and properly appreciated in bed. But an affair wouldn’t solve the underlying issues, which have to do with frustration and lack of connection.
6. Your heightened feeling of despair will probably pass quite soon.
Your anguish is very real at this moment. But later it won’t seem quite so bad. We get used to things.
We cope better than we think. This too shall pass.
Unfortunately, tradition has encouraged the idea that the night of the wedding should be filled with heroic sex. This might happen but there are plenty of good reasons why it probably won’t after the drama of the wedding and a long party and partly, as well, because stringent expectations are alien to sexual intensity.
But the idea that sex is crucial is obviously not wrong – and the basic motive is right: the first night should be devoted to helping the couple with their sex-life.
The question is how to do this. The assumption has been that great sex is the goal. But realistically what the married couple is preparing for is a life together in which sex will often be less than great and in which – increasingly over the years – sex will fade from view almost entirely. Instead of being spontaneous, inventive, impassioned and constant, sex will almost inevitably end up being intermittent, guarded and fraught.
This isn’t a lovely prospect; it’s just what’s very likely to happen. And the couple will have to cope with it, if their marriage is to be bearable. At this great symbolic moment – in the special night after the wedding – a couple should ideally make together a series of vows around the attitudes they will try to adopt towards sex.
Wedding Night Vows
Vow one: I understand that sometimes, perhaps tonight, sex will be disappointing; that there will be times when I am really longing for sex and you will be busy, probably with a book or a phone. I promise to try not to see this as your fault.
Vow Two: I admit that it’s deeply unlikely that two people will be perfectly in harmony around what kind of sex they want. I promise to try not to see this a special curse on us.
Vow Three: I admit that if there are children they will often claim our attention at the least convenient moments. Our love for them will quite possibly inhibit us sexually; we’ll feel strange unleashing our stranger, more exciting desires – knowing how sweet and innocent they are. I promise to try to accept that if we have a child it will change our sex life probably for the worse and I won’t blame you.
Vow Four: I want to you to know that that I’ve been seriously turned on by you: I’ve found you at points monstrously and incredibly sexy. Probably sex will eventually become rare; but I promise I’ll try to remember how much I’ve lusted after you.
Vow Five: I understand that sex will only be as good as it can be: it won’t be everything I might fantasise it could be; I acknowledge that there will be areas of my sexuality that don’t make a great deal of sense to you; I promise I will try not to make you feel bad about this.
The point of these mutual vows isn’t to diminish sexuality. By keeping the realistically bad prospects in view and anticipating them, they give a couple a better chance to find the best sex they can together. The danger isn’t that there are going to be challenges – that’s inevitable. It’s that the challenges will be seen as unfair and unreasonable and that resentment will build up to disastrous levels. The wedding night and its vows are aimed at reducing rancour.
You don’t just need your close friends – because they will usually be indulgent to your failings; you need quite an intimidating audience – people who have travelled a long way; people you are slightly in awe of; people whose good opinion is important to you; people who are a bit sceptical of you. You might ask along some senior people from work (especially if you are not personal friends with them); a teacher from your school days that you admired and wanted to do your best for would be perfect; a crotchety aunt or a forbiddingly impressive friend of your parents might be good people to invite. The point isn’t that you should feel comfortable around them – but rather that you should feel especially uncomfortable at the prospect of quitting the relationship after having said, in front of them, that you never would.
There’s a growing trend, often driven by financial concerns, towards slightly smaller weddings but a big crowd is, in fact, supremely important (even if the budget only stretches to a sandwich for them later). One needs a maximum number of people there for a simple reason: so as to cause maximum embarrassment in years to come at the idea of having to call them all up and announce news of divorce. The larger the crowd, the slower one will be to pick up the phone.
This gives due recognition to an important fact about marriage: it’s a social institution, in which we often stay for reasons that go way beyond our own emotional desires. It involves us, but it’s not just about us. It’s about the dog, the children, the grandparents, the friends who got married in imitation of us and whose own relationships would suffer if we split… This sense that the marriage isn’t just about us should come as a huge source of relief. There’s nothing harder than to be required to be happy in and for ourselves. What relief to know we will, with time, also be living for others and that our own frame of mind won’t always be such a big deal.
There are many reasons why we might be planning to build a life with someone. But within our culture not all reasons are deemed equal. We could divide our motives into the categories of Romantic and Pragmatic:
|Romantic reasons for marriage||Pragmatic reasons for marriage|
|Mutual sympathy and tenderness||We like the same kind of furniture/house design|
|Soulmates: they grasp the poetry of our hearts||We have similar attitudes to childraising|
|They understand our sadness||We will have financial security|
|They finish our sentences||We will have status among our social group|
|The same music touches us both.||We like each other’s bodies.|
At present, our culture hugely favours the Romantic reasons – and leaves us to feel guilty and soiled around the pragmatic ones. It can be shameful to think that a major motive for marrying someone is that we find them extremely attractive. Or to recognise that if they didn’t have their present income, the pull would be far less intense. We would be unlikely to admit to a friend that we were thrilled to be cojoining our lives with someone who had hugely compatible views on how to keep a kitchen.
But that is only because we are in denial about who we really are. We are, of course, creatures who delight in the union of two hearts, who long to find our feelings of melancholy and purpose reflected in the eyes of another, who have tender and vast thoughts under a star-filled sky late on Saturday nights. However, we also have our nine on Monday morning identities, when we are practical, resolute, uninclined to pathos and flights of fancy and highly appreciative of punctuality and good order.
A sound marriage requires an adroit blend of romantic and practical sympathies. Much of what we are attempting to do will rely on logistical talents that support rather than undermine our romantic concerns. The point of having a bit of money is to enable us to stop thinking about it all the time. The point of an ordered house is to prevent us having to spend hours rooting at the backs of cupboards. Our lives become a lot more boring when we stubbornly refuse to pay any attention to ‘boring things’.
Furthermore, agreement on pragmatic issues can sustain us when agreement on romantic ones proves elusive. It is easy to lose patience with someone’s soul, but perhaps slightly harder to lose sight of the importance of clean linen or a reassuringly administered bank account. Prosaic, materialistic thoughts are there to help us stay together while we learn to cope more maturely with the emotional conflicts which will in any case accompany us throughout our lives.
A marriage is a deeply practical project. It is akin to an attempt to run a small business together, one that involves dealings with property and household management, serving meals, planning holidays, entertaining friends and raising children. If we see our partner’s organisational skills, their financial acumen or their prowess as a host as simply ‘low’, we won’t recognise the very genuine contributions these are making to our existence.
It’s strategically useful to get more explicit about identifying the most pragmatic reasons why we have picked our partner – and perhaps sum these up in a (secret) list we keep in a bedside drawer. Ideally we’d return to it at points of crisis for reminders of just why we ended up choosing as we did – until such time as we succeed in the always tricky task of recovering admiration for, and connection to, our partner’s soul.
In so many areas, we’re used nowadays to questioning the status quo – and exploring alternatives. It would be odd, therefore, not to try to perform the same exercise around marriage. Here seem to be our main options for how to arrange our personal lives:
1. Standard Marriage
Upsides: Firm Possession of one prized person, Continuity, Resolution, Children Reassured, Economic Stability, Social Prestige.
Downsides: Sexual Boredom, Exasperation, Lack of Appreciation, a suspicion of Better Alternatives Out There.
Upsides: New possibilities for Sexual Excitement, an End to Cycles of Exasperation, past problems had been Their Fault.
Downsides: Perturbed Children, Economic chaos. No one Better Out There. In fact: Our Fault Too.
3. Sunset Clause Marriage (renegotiated every 10 years)
Upsides: Prospect of Sexual Excitement, More Appreciation and Effort, Children somewhat Reassured.
Downsides: Insecurity, Jealousy, Terror of Abandonment, No One Actually Better. Difficult to pioneer.
4. Marriage with Secret Affairs
Upsides: Fragile Stability with Partial Excitement.
Downsides: Deceit, Jealousy, Cowardice, Shame.
Upsides: Constant Sexual Possibilities, Not much Exasperation.
Downsides: Socially non-prestigious, Jealousy, Children in Turmoil, Discontinuity, Exhaustion, Career Chaos.
6. Serial Non-binding Monogamy
Upsides: Sexual Possibility.
Downsides: Moth-eaten loneliness & insecurity.
7. Communal living
Upsides: Shared Child-Care, Sexual Variation.
Downsides: Utopian, Jealousy, Factions, Bickering.
Upsides: Time to work and think.
Downsides: Loneliness, Sexual Humiliation.
We see a recurring theme, a struggle between Loyalty and Freedom. We can invest in more Loyalty but must then risk suffering from Boredom, Lack of Appreciation and Sexual Frustration.
Or: we can invest in more Freedom and risk Chaos, Irresolution, Exhaustion, Jealousy and Humiliation.
It seems that whatever we choose is going to be very painful. The option is not between error and happiness but between what varieties of suffering we would ultimately prefer. This is why our very favourite quote is Kierkegaard’s playfully, bleakly exasperated outburst from Either/Or:
“Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both. Believe a woman, you will regret it; believe her not, you will also regret it… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.”
We do, however, have one suggestion: that humanity’s efforts should be spent not so much on retooling the external structure of relationships, as on rethinking the humbling central problem we’re grappling with all the while beneath the surface: why other human beings are so hard to love and why we are – by extension – so difficult to live around.
In other words, perhaps the answer lies not in a new kind of relationship as in improved capacities around emotional skills. The solution to the dilemmas of relationships should be to increase our understanding of love – rather than merely to make it easier to find and fire new lovers.
Modern societies are deeply invested in the idea of big, glamorous weddings. We have evolved highly-detailed collective ideas about what a proper wedding is supposed to be like, down to the specialised floral arrangements, seat covers, presents for bridesmaids and the correct order of the speeches.
These belong to our culture’s current way of expressing the notion that a wedding is an important event in terms of the success of a marriage.
But the results don’t seem very encouraging: the link between the quality of the wedding and that of the subsequent relationship is tenuous at best. However grand the ceremony might be, marriages break down at an alarming – yet predictable – rate.
What we know as the wedding day emerged historically out of a variety of motives: it was an event designed to show off one’s status, to embed one in the community, to invite God to witness one’s union… These ambitions don’t now feel particularly relevant. Therefore, it’s sometimes argued that we don’t need wedding ceremonies at all. Let’s junk the whole idea. We don’t need to waste so much money and go to so much trouble. A piece of paper at the registry office would be enough.
But this seems to overlook the benefit of rituals. In theory, rituals serve a hugely important function, for they orchestrate and give public expression to a sequence of emotions and actions that it would be too tricky for any one set of individuals to arrive at on their own. They give structure to interior life – and best reveal their advantages in religious rituals like the Jewish Day of Atonement or the period of mourning known as ‘iddah’ following a Muslim funeral.
The problem is that the wedding day is – in its current form – an appallingly badly designed ritual. It needs a thorough overhaul, guided by a mature, modern understanding of the underlying purpose of the occasion, which is simply to help a marriage go better.
Of course, redesigning wedding days sounds odd. We fully accept redesigns and novelty when it comes to technology. No one would think it was a good idea to keep driving a hundred-year-old car. Yet when we’re dealing with social practices, we strangely cling to the ancient with deluded fervour.
We do so out of fear: because marriage is such an uncertain business, we quell our anxieties by following what people have always done, attempting to insure ourselves against some new follies we might commit, but thereby ignoring that marriages have been rather catastrophic throughout history and therefore that sticking stubbornly to precedent has all the wisdom of adhering to the methods of medieval plumbing or brain surgery.
In redesigning the wedding day, we should wipe the slate clean and ask simply: what kind of ceremony would help a marriage to survive? How could one design a day that would make a proper contribution to the maintenance of a union?
One: The need for new vows
Vows are promises we make on behalf of people who don’t yet exist about circumstances that we can’t yet fully imagine. Still, they serve an important function in at least attempting to guide our responses to the tensions of the future.
The problem with current vows is their optimism, which should be radically tempered, so as to avoid rage and resentment. Vows should accurately anticipate what will make us want to get divorced – and confirm to us that our subsequent sadness will not be an unusual or personal curse. Here is a selection of vows that would be made by a couple in the utopia:
I accept that I am – in countless ways I don’t yet know – very hard to live with.
We accept not to panic when, some years from now, what we are doing today will seem like the worst decision of our lives.
When you are mean, when you call me a c*** and a fucking bastard, I will strive to remember that at heart, it is because you are hurt – not that you are fundamentally nasty.
Everyone has some very significant things wrong with them. We promise not to look around. There isn’t anyone better out there really. Once you get to know them, everyone is impossible.
Being allowed never to insert one’s penis into a new person, or have someone else new insert their penis into oneself, is one of the tragedies of existence. I apologise that my jealousy and your jealousy have made this peculiar, but entirely necessary self-immolation necessary.
[Silence from the audience, followed by a melancholy rendition of Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, during which an asparagus and a lemon, symbols of free sexuality are buried in a three-metre-deep hole in the ground covered with marble or concrete.]
The couple then repeats: We accept to witness the slow death of our sexuality. We realise we won’t be doing it that often from now on.
I won’t have affairs, not because you’re so perfect, but because I’ve decided to be disappointed by you, and you alone, and you’ll be disappointed by me, and me alone, rather than both of us foisting our troubled selves on innocent members of the community, who would be deeply annoying too once one got to know them.
[In unison with the audience] Many days we’ll be unhappy; many days, we’ll suffer, many days we’ll regret we ever did this crazy thing. It’s not congratulations we need, it’s commiserations.
Two: Lots of guests
There’s a growing trend, often driven by financial concerns, towards slightly smaller weddings but a big crowd is, in fact, supremely important (even if the budget only stretches to a sandwich for them later).
One needs a maximum number of people there for a simple reason: so as to cause maximum embarrassment in years to come at the idea of having to call them all up and announce news of divorce. The larger the crowd, the slower one will be to pick up the phone.
This gives due recognition to an important fact about marriage: it’s a social institution, in which we often stay for reasons that go way beyond our own emotional desires. It involves us, but it’s not just about us. It’s about the dog, the children, the grandparents, the friends who got married in imitation of us and whose own relationships would suffer if we split… This sense it isn’t just about us should come as a huge source of relief. There’s nothing harder than to be required to be happy in and for ourselves. What relief to know we will, with time, also be living for others and that our own frame of mind won’t always be such a big deal.
Three: Different sorts of presents
In a Utopian Wedding, the guests would offer the couple different sorts of presents. Primarily, they would arrive with accounts of why their own marriages were difficult and why they were themselves awkward people to live with.
Nothing makes us happier than news of the troubles of others, as these presents would implicitly recognise. At dark moments in the marriage, one would turn to these gifts and flip through descriptions of the marital troubles of one’s friends and relatives – and would come away feeling that one was cursed certainly, but – importantly – in no way alone.
If single guests were unable to produce such things, they would arrive with vouchers for couples’ therapy, to contribute to the enormous sum that will have to be spent on therapy over the lifetime of any decent marriage.
A typical marriage recognises the key role of parents and gives them a platform. The father of the bride often makes an elaborate speech telling the world how great his daughter is. This is sweet, but in no way protects the daughter he claims to love.
Parents are in command of some vital information that can help a marriage. They know how disturbed they themselves are and the particular family patterns of emotional neuroses which they have witnessed and then unleashed on their own children.
The wedding day offers a stellar opportunity for the parents of both the bride and the groom to stand up and address their children and their friends on the subject of: ‘The particular ways in which we have messed up the children.’ There would be an added speech on the topic of: ‘How we think our children will be hard to live with, given what we know of them.’
This will be crucial information, far surpassing childhood photos and home movies in utility.
Five: A certificate of marriage worthiness
In the Utopia, you would get married by a philosopher/psychoanalyst (rather than the two useless current figures, a priest or a local government official). The wedding ceremony would be a passing out celebration for a couple who had been through a substantial course (no less than 12 months) of self-knowledge and mutual education in the psychology of relationships.
Romantic culture suggests that relationships are essentially founded on emotional states: like tenderness, the feeling of missing the other person and sexual passion. This is evidently reckless and in the utopia, there would be a new more logical, classical approach which would recommend strenuous conscious attempts to achieve a mature understanding of love. Many of the skills of marriage would overlap with those of a bomb disposal expert.
In the Utopia, the wedding day would be like a graduation ceremony, a culmination of a year of intense study of one of the trickiest and most academic subjects in the world.
The symbols currently associated with marriage (silver horseshoes, bells, white dresses, confetti) can seem to fall somewhere between the merely charming and the obviously superstitious. Few people feel a bridal veil offers robust protection against evil spirits. It’s tempting to think we should jettison symbolism entirely.
But the point of a symbol is to make an idea stick in your mind. In the Utopia, the couple would accept small sealed boxes from each other. The box would represent the idea that there will be parts of the other person one will not understand – or perhaps even know – and yet one will have to accept.
The box would be accompanied by a ‘Tolstoy’ – a brief, but very honest, confession of one’s failings and weaknesses. The Russian novelist gave his wife a written account of his earlier sexual life and an ample description of the flaws of his character, so she would know what she was letting herself in for. The content would be prepared and discussed in the lead up to the marriage; the book would stand for the willingness to listen to – and bear with – one’s partner’s troubles. The exchange of Tolstoys would symbolise a shared ability to cope with the other person’s confusion and distress.
Six: Wedding photos
The aim of photos is to bottle the essence of the wedding and make it available to us when we need it later.
But a wedding album should not only or even primarily be a visual record of a particular day, and evidence of who was in attendance. The task of the photographer is to create a series of works of art, made on many days, and perhaps not at all on the day of the wedding itself, that would remind the couple of answers to some key questions:
(i) Why did we get together?
(ii) What virtues did we see in one another when we got married?
(iii) What impact does each person’s family have on the relationship?
(iv) How normal are marital problems in society at large?
Looking back at one’s ‘wedding photos’ in subsequent years would then take its place within the overall purpose of the wedding: it would help, in a small way, to persuade us to stay married.
The idea of a wedding – and the elaborate rituals that surround it – do not at present have our real needs in focus. But that doesn’t mean to say that we’d be better off jettisoning the whole ceremony. We still need ceremony and institutions, just better ones. We should take very seriously – and be collectively ambitious about – what wedding days could and should be.
Utopian thinking sounds like dreamy stuff. But in truth, one of the uses of Utopian thinking is to move us away from silly fantasy. Instead of seeing the ‘dream wedding’ in terms of palm trees and infinity pools, we should be asking what a wedding would be like if it properly helped marriages to go better. That should give us inspiration as we set about reforming the mediocre marriage practices we currently have.
It used to be when you’d hit certain financial and social milestones: when you had a home to your name, a set of qualifications on the mantelpiece and a few cows and a parcel of land in your possession.
But when, under the influence of Romantic ideology, this grew to seem altogether too mercenary and calculating, the focus shifted to emotions. It came to be thought important to feel the right way. That was the true sign of a good union. And the right feelings included the sense that the other was ‘the one’, that you understood one another perfectly and that you’d both never want to sleep with anyone else again.
These ideas, though touching, have proved to be an almost sure recipe for the eventual dissolution of marriages – and have caused havoc in the emotional lives of millions of otherwise sane and well-meaning couples.
As a corrective to them, what follows is a proposal for a very different set of principles, more Classical in temper, which indicate when two people should properly consider themselves ready for marriage.
We are ready for marriage…
1. When we give up on perfection
We should not only admit in a general way that the person we are marrying is very far from perfect. We should also grasp the specifics of their imperfections: how they will be irritating, difficult, sometimes irrational, and often unable to sympathise or understand us. Vows should be rewritten to include the terse line: ‘I agree to marry this person even though they will, on a regular basis, drive me to distraction.’
However, these flaws should never be interpreted as merely capturing a local problem. No one else would be better. We are as bad. We are a flawed species. Whomever one got together with would be radically imperfect in a host of deeply serious ways. One must conclusively kill the idea that things would be ideal with any other creature in this galaxy. There can only ever be a ‘good enough’ marriage.
For this realisation to sink in, it helps to have had a number of relationships before marrying, not in order to have the chance to locate ‘the right person’, but so that one can have ample opportunity to discover at first hand, in many different contexts, the truth that everyone (even the most initially exciting prospect) really is a bit wrong close up.
2. When we despair of being understood
Love starts with the experience of being understood in a deeply supportive and uncommon way. They understand the lonely parts of you; you don’t have to explain why you find a particular joke so funny; you hate the same people; they too want to try out a particular sexual scenario.
This will not continue. Another vow should read: ‘However much the other seems to understand me, there will always be large tracts of my psyche that will remain incomprehensible to them, anyone else and even me.’
We shouldn’t, therefore, blame our lovers for a dereliction of duty in failing to interpret and grasp our internal workings. They were not tragically inept. They simply couldn’t understand who we were and what we needed – which is wholly normal. No one properly understands, and can therefore fully sympathise with, anyone else.
3. When we realise we are crazy
This is deeply counter-intuitive. We seem so normal and mostly so good. It’s the others…
But maturity is founded on an active sense of one’s folly. One is out of control for long periods, one has failed to master one’s past, one projects unhelpfully, one is permanently anxious. One is, to put it mildly, an idiot.
If we are not regularly and very deeply embarrassed about who we are, it can only be because we have a dangerous capacity for selective memory.
4. When we are ready to love rather than be loved
Confusingly, we speak of ‘love’ as one thing, rather than discerning the two very different varieties that lie beneath the single word: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and are aware of our unnatural, immature fixation on the former.
We start out knowing only about ‘being loved.’ It comes to seem – very wrongly – like the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent is simply spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, clear up and remain almost always warm and cheerful. Parents don’t reveal how often they have bitten their tongue, fought back the tears and been too tired to take off their clothes after a day of childcare. The relationship is almost entirely non-reciprocal. The parent loves; but they do not expect the favour to be returned in any significant way. The parent does not get upset when the child has not noticed the new hair cut, asked carefully-calibrated questions about how the meeting at work went or suggested that they go upstairs to take a nap. Parent and child may both ‘love’, but each party is on a very different end of the axis, unbeknownst to the child.
This is why in adulthood, when we first say we long for love, what we predominantly mean is that we want to be loved as we were once loved by a parent. We want a recreation in adulthood of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret part of our minds, we picture someone who will understand our needs, bring us what we want, be immensely patient and sympathetic to us, act selflessly and make it all better.
This is – naturally – a disaster. For a marriage to work, we need to move firmly out of the child – and into the parental position. We need to become someone who will be willing to subordinate their own demands and concerns to the needs of another.
There’s a further lesson to be learnt. When a child says to its parent ‘I hate you’, the parent does not automatically go numb with shock or threaten to leave the house and never come back, because the parent knows that the child is not giving the executive summary of a deeply thought-out and patient investigation into the state of the relationship. The cause of these words might be hunger, a lost but crucial piece of Lego, the fact that they went to a cocktail party last night, that they won’t let them play a computer game, or that they have an earache…
Parents become very good at not hearing the explicit words and listening instead to what the child means but doesn’t yet know how to say: ‘I’m lonely, in pain, or frightened’ – distress which then unfairly comes out as an attack on the safest, kindest, most reliable thing in the child’s world: the parent.
We find it exceptionally hard to make this move with our partners: to hear what they truly mean, rather than responding (furiously) to what they are saying.
A third vow should state: ‘Whenever I have the strength in me to do so, I will imitate those who once loved me and take care of my partner as these figures cared for me. The task isn’t an unfair chore or a departure from the true nature of love. It is the only kind of love really worthy of that exalted word.’
5. When we are ready for administration
The Romantic person instinctively sees marriage in terms of emotions. But what a couple actually get up to together over a lifetime has much more in common with the workings of a small business. They must draw up work rosters, clean, chauffeur, cook, fix, throw away, mind, hire, fire, reconcile and budget.
None of these activities have any glamour whatsoever within the current arrangement of society. Those obliged to do them are therefore highly likely to resent them and feel that something has gone wrong with their lives for having to involve themselves so closely with them. And yet these tasks are what is truly ‘romantic’ in the sense of ‘conducive and sustaining of love’ and should be interpreted as the bedrock of a successful marriage, and accorded all the honour currently given to other activities in society, like mountain climbing or motor sport.
A central vow should read: ‘I accept the dignity of the ironing board.’
6. When we understand that sex and love do and don’t belong together
The Romantic view expects that love and sex will be aligned. But in truth, they won’t stay so beyond a few months or, at best, one or two years. This is not anyone’s fault. Because marriage has other key concerns (companionship, administration, another generation), sex will suffer. We are ready to get married when we accept a large degree of sexual resignation and the task of sublimation.
Both parties must therefore scrupulously avoid making the marriage ‘about sex’. They must also, from the outset, plan for the most challenging issue that will, statistically-speaking, arise for them: that one or the other will have affairs. Someone is properly ready for marriage when they are ready to behave maturely around betraying and being betrayed.
The inexperienced, immature view of betrayal goes like this: sex doesn’t have to be part of love. It can be quick and meaningless, just like playing tennis. Two people shouldn’t try to own each other’s bodies. It’s just a bit of fun. So one’s partner shouldn’t mind so much.
But this is wilfully to ignore impregnable basics of human nature. No one can be the victim of adultery and not feel that they have been found fundamentally wanting and cut to the core of their being. They will never get over it. It makes no sense, of course, but that isn’t the point. Many things about us make little sense – and yet have to be respected. The adulterer has to be ready to honour and forgive the partner’s extreme capacity for jealousy, and so must as far as is possible resist the urge to have sex with other people, must take every possible measure to prevent it being known if they do and must respond with extraordinary kindness and patience if the truth does ever emerge. They should above all never try to persuade their partner that it isn’t right to be jealous or that jealousy is unnatural, ‘bad’ or a bourgeois construct.
On the other side of the equation, one should ready oneself for betrayal. That is, one should make strenuous efforts to try to understand what might go through the partner’s mind when they have sex with someone else. One is likely to think that there is no other option but that they are deliberately trying to humiliate one and that all their love has evaporated. The more likely truth – that one’s partner just wants to have more, or different, sex – is as hard to master as Mandarin or the oboe and requires as much practice.
One is ready to get married when two very difficult things are in place: one is ready to believe in one’s partner’s genuine capacity to separate love and sex. And at the same time, one is ready to believe in one’s partner’s stubborn inability to keep love and sex apart.
Two people have to be able to master both feats, because they may – over a lifetime – be called upon to demonstrate both capacities. This – rather than a vow never to have sex with another human again – should be the relevant test for getting married.
7. When we are happy to be taught and calm about teaching
We are ready for marriage when we accept that in certain very significant areas, our partners will be wiser, more reasonable and more mature than we are. We should want to learn from them. We should bear having things pointed out to us. We should, at key points, see them as the teacher and ourselves as pupils. At the same time, we should be ready to take on the task of teaching them certain things and like good teachers, not shout, lose our tempers or expect them simply to know. Marriage should be recognised as a process of mutual education.
8. When we realise we’re not that compatible
The Romantic view of marriage stresses that the ‘right’ person means someone who shares our tastes, interests and general attitudes to life. This might be true in the short term. But, over an extended period of time, the relevance of this fades dramatically; because differences inevitably emerge. The person who is truly best suited to us is not the person who shares our tastes, but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently and wisely.
Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate difference that is the true marker of the ‘right’ person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.
We have accepted that it is a truly good idea to attend some classes before having children. This is now the norm for all educated people in all developed nations.
Yet there is as yet no widespread acceptability for the idea of having classes before getting married. The results are around for all to see.
The time has come to bury the Romantic intuition-based view of marriage and learn to practice and rehearse marriage as one would ice-skating or violin playing, activities no more complex and no more deserving of systematic periods of instruction.
For now, while the infrastructure of new vows and classes is put in place, we all deserve untold sympathy for our struggles. We are trying to do something enormously difficult without the bare minimum of support necessary. It is not surprising if – very often – we have troubles.
For more, please see Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love.
It’s tempting to think of marriage as old fashioned. Why not just live with someone and be done with it? What need for a public ceremony? Why the weird traditions that people normally keep away from: all those churches, temples, hymns, vows and prayers? Marriage must be a silly relic from the religious childhood of humankind, not designed for the more logical modern world.
And yet it survives.
The essence of marriage is to tie our hands, to frustrate our wills, to put high and costly obstacles in the way of splitting up. Why do we do this?
Originally, we told ourselves that God wanted us to stay married. But even now, when God is not invoked, we keeping making sure that marriage is rather hard to undo. For one thing, you carefully invite everyone you know to watch you say you’ll stick together. You willingly create a huge layer of embarrassment were you ever to turn round and admit it might have been a mistake. Furthermore, even though you could keep things separate, marriage tends to mean deep economic and legal entanglements. You know it is going to take the work of a phalanx of accountants and lawyers to prise you apart. It can be done, of course, but it will be ruinous.
It is as if we somewhere recognise that there might, rather strangely, be some quite good, though uncomfortable, reasons why making it difficult to split up a union can be an advantage for its members.
One: Impulse is dangerous
The Marshmallow Test was a celebrated experiment in the history of psychology designed to measure children’s ability to delay gratification – and track the consequences of being able to think long-term. Some three-year-old children were offered a marshmallow, but told they would get two if they held off from eating the first one for five minutes. It turned out a lot of children just couldn’t make it through this period. It was too tempting; the less immediate benefit of gobbling the marshmallow in front of them was stronger than the strategy of waiting. Crucially, it was observed that these children went on to have lives blighted by a lack of impulse control, and fared much worse than the children who were best at subordinating immediate fun for long-term benefit.
Relationships are no different. Here too, many things feel very urgent. Not eating marshmallows, but escaping, finding freedom, running away… We’re angry and want to get out. We’re excited by a new person and want to abandon our present partner at once. And yet as we look around for the exit, every way seems blocked. It would cost a fortune, it would be so embarrassing, it would take an age.
This isn’t a coincidence. Marriage is a giant inhibitor of impulse set up by our conscience to keep our libidinous, optimistic, desiring self in check. What we are essentially buying into by submitting to its dictates is the insight that we are (as individuals) likely to make very poor choices under the sway of strong short-term impulses. To marry is to recognise that we require structure to insulate us from our urges. It is to lock ourselves up willingly, because we somehow acknowledge the benefits of the long-term.
Marriage proceeds without constant reference to the moods of its protagonists. It isn’t about feeling. It is a declaration of intent that it is crucially impervious to our day-to-day desires. It is a very unusual marriage in which the two people don’t spend a notable amount of time fantasising that they weren’t in fact married. But the point of marriage is to make these feelings not matter very much. It is an arrangement that protects us from what we desire and yet know (in our more reasonable moments) we don’t truly need or want.
Two: We grow and develop gradually
At their best, relationships involve us in attempts to develop, mature and become ‘whole’. We often get drawn to people precisely because they promise to edge us in the right direction.
But the process of our maturation can be agonisingly slow and complicated. We spend long periods (decades perhaps) blaming the other person for problems which arise from our own weakness. We resist attempts at being changed, asking to be loved ‘for who we are’, with all our faults – as if this could ever be a good idea…
It can take years of supportive interest; many tearful moments of anxiety, much frustration, until genuine progress can be made. With time, after maybe 120 arguments on a single topic, both parties may begin to see it from the other’s point of view. Slowly we start to get insights into our own madness. We find labels for our issues, we give each other maps of our difficult areas, we become a little easier to live with.
It is too easy to seem kind and normal when we go out with someone new. The truth about us, on the basis of which self-improvement can begin, only becomes clear over time. Chances of development increase hugely when we don’t keep running away to people who will falsely reassure us that there’s nothing too wrong with us.
Three: Investment requires security
Many of the most worthwhile projects require immense sacrifices from both parties, and it’s in the nature of such sacrifices that we’re most likely to make them for people who are also making them for us.
Marriage is a means by which people can specialise – perhaps in making money or in running a home. This can be hugely constructive. But it carries a risk. Each person (especially if one person stays at home) needs to be assured that they will not later be disadvantaged by this.
Marriage sets up the conditions in which we can take decisions about what to do with our lives that would otherwise be too risky.
Over time, the argument for marriage has shifted. It’s no longer about external forces having power over us: churches, the state, the legal idea of legitimacy, the social idea of being respectable…
What we are correctly now focused on is the psychological point of making it hard to throw it all in. It turns out that we benefit greatly (though at a price) from having to stick with certain commitments, because some of our key needs have a long-term structure.
For the last fifty years, the burden of intelligent effort has been on attempting to make separation easier. The challenge now lies in another direction: in trying to remind ourselves why immediate flight doesn’t always make sense; in trying to see the point of holding out for the second marshmallow.