We’ll veer off the beaten path today for a short sojourn into the subject of marriage and relationships. While not my usual beat, I found myself captivated this morning by an essay in the New York Times under the byline of Gabrielle Zevin. She’s the author of numerous books I’ve never read, as well as the screenplays for a few movies I’ve never seen. I don’t say this as any sort of criticism of her work. You could fill an ocean with books I’ve never even heard of and I probably watch less than three new movies per year on average. I’m sure the work is wonderful. It’s just not in a genre that would normally catch my interest.
The title of the essay is what initially caught my attention. The Secret to Marriage Is Never Getting Married. I can hear what many of you are thinking already. Oh, Good Lord. Here we go again. But is that what this is all about? Just another diatribe from some opponent of traditional marriage pushing a free-wheeling lifestyle?
Reading through the bulk of this lengthy and well-written piece you’d tend to say no. In fact, I had quickly convinced myself that the title was simply some clever editor’s hook, designed to bring in more clicks and display more adverts by momentarily pushing the outrage button among conservatives or the needy-greedy buttons of the lovelorn who have given up on ever finding Mr. or Mrs. Right and are looking for company in their misery. The story itself reads as something very different.
This essay is the story of Ms. Zevin’s 21-year non-marriage to her non-husband Hans, who she met at the tender age of 18 when they were attending college together. The piece weaves together a series of touching vignettes from their life together, engaging, charming, heartwarming. (And for those who are familiar with my usual work and style I feel the need to stress here that this isn’t my normal, callous snark and world-weary sarcasm. It’s a beautifully written piece.) Perhaps it was the author’s reference to their 21 years together which locked my eyes on the screen. It was only two days ago that I returned from a celebratory, second honeymoon trip with my actual wife from our actual marriage which, coincidentally, also just hit the 21-year mark.
Ms. Zevin describes not only their beautiful, though occasionally challenging life together, but the reasons they didn’t wind up marrying. Financial problems initially were followed by other logistical challenges, with the months and years rolling by, eventually arriving at a stage when they, “had been together too long to bother.” She also details her exasperation at being constantly asked by friends and relatives why they’d never made the trip down the aisle. I imagine this is similar to the experience of married couples who are continually asked why they haven’t had children yet.
It’s a beautiful story of a beautifully normal life and two people who found a way to carve out some happiness together. As I said above, it’s almost enough to lead one to believe that this isn’t an indictment of marriage at all.
But after all of the sweetness and light, at the very end of this lengthy sermon on love and devotion, we reach the author’s premise at last. And when we do, we see that the title of the essay wasn’t just a dodge to generate clicks from haters. It’s actually the cornerstone of the entire discussion. Please read her brief summation carefully. (Emphasis added)
When I say I don’t believe in marriage, what I mean to say is: I understand the financial and legal benefits, but I don’t believe the government or a church or a department store registry can change the way I already feel and behave.
Or maybe it would. Because when the law doesn’t bind you as a couple, you have to choose each other every day. And maybe the act of choosing changes a relationship for the better. But successfully married people must know this already.
I wake up in the morning and I look at Hans and think, I love you. I choose you above any other person. I chose you 21 years ago and I choose you today. I believe you to be a constant in my life, and I, a constant in yours. Loving you is the closest thing I have to faith.
Therein lies the rub, as the saying goes. Choosing. And this, in essence, is what makes marriage such a fundamental block in the edifice of society. Ms. Zevin is fortunate indeed to have found Hans so early in life and to have melded into a relationship where their worst fights generally end, with him throwing up his hands and saying, “I’m not a handyman!” (That’s a quote.)
Not everyone is so blessed. In fact, I don’t personally know anyone who was. Relationships between people crammed into close quarters from an early age and locked into this eternal dance as they grow older and their personalities evolve tend to be rough at times. Occasionally very rough. The challenges you can present for each other in terms of understanding and compassion can, for some, be dwarfed by what the rest of the world throws at you. And for many, there are going to be mornings or even weeks or months where you wake up, look at the person sleeping next to you, think of the question of whether you would choose them all over again and the answer just might be… not so much. Not forever, mind you. But just for that time.
And for far too many in our society, having the convenient option of not making that choice to say yes makes it all too easy or even tempting to pack up your half of the various goodies you’ve acquired over the years and walk out the door. The cost of doing so in our society is far too low. But marriage is an institution that wasn’t only developed to bring us together, but to keep us together, even when the going gets rough. There’s a cost to bailing out. Several costs in fact.It can be ruinously expensive financially, but it’s also whatever the opposite of a badge of honor is. Your marriage failed. On some level, you failed. It gives one pause.
If the relationship is a total disaster you can still pull the plug. In fact, some might say that our no-fault divorce system still makes it far too easy to do so. The escape hatch is available if it’s truly needed, but it just takes a bit more work to unlock it and dive through. And that bit of work, for so many married couples, is what gives them enough of a pause to remember why they chose their spouse in the first place and find the strength to stick it out a bit longer, work together to fix the problems in the relationship and – hopefully, and by the grace of God – get back to the joy and happiness they shared before.
So no, Ms. Zevin. I fear I must beg to differ. The secret to marriage isn’t “never getting married.” It’s quite the opposite in fact.