A new and dear friend recently took the plunge – for the second time. He and his new wife met in church and are very spiritual. I planned to give him a wedding gift of “The Gift Of The Magi” – my favorite O Henry short story, which always symbolized to me what marriage is about; devotion, sacrifice, self-less ness – and – pure love. It’s set in the early 1900s and is about a newlywed couple. He decides to sell his prized possession – his father’s watch – to buy his wife beautiful combs for her beloved hair. She decides to cut her hair – her prized possession – and sell it to buy him a beautiful chain for his beloved watch. This is the gift I gave my husband when I naively and ecstatically married him. 13th 1991 would have been our twentieth anniversary. He didn’t get O Henry. Another missed cue.
I entered marriage blindly. My parents were married for over sixty years. They went through everything and survived. They fought, they threatened divorce, they were miserable – and happy? They came out of the Depression and are Jewish so what is happy? And they just hung in there. They survived tragedy, job loss, three daughters, women’s lib, and addiction. They did marriage encounter, the enrichment program focusing on each other – which was major. I am sure it was my mother’s idea. It was the seventies. My father went through the twelve-step program over forty years ago when I was just in elementary school. He had a gambling addiction but learned to deal with his feelings – which the recovery process forces you to do (and has not gambled since) so we went to the Gamblers Anonymous family program – and I learned a little about therapy. I was thirty-seven years old when I met, fell in love with and married my “prince” and thought I was prepared to work on our marriage and never take it for granted. And of course, I thought it would be forever.
But now. Wow. Now of course, I see. What I missed during that dizzying endorphin filled insanely romantic courtship. Two months after our first date, we attended a wedding and got engaged when I caught the bouquet and he caught the garter. (He was separated from his first wife at the time). It was a love cloud of ignorance and selective vision. He was so smart, handsome, charming, British and Jewish. There were signs, but I didn’t see that he was running away – from his country, his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and his debt. I believed him when he told me that he was the victim of England’s bad economy and a horrible wife who did not understand him. I was, like a criminal’s mother, in denial. MY child/friend/school/government…. would – could NEVER do…. THAT!
Twenty years later, he has done it now in reverse: Run back to his country and away from his responsibilities – and massive debt – here.
I did not realize the LEGAL implications of marriage. Really. Of course, HE DID. HE is a lawyer who knows how to work the system and he is masterful at it. And the family legal system is so dysfunctional and pathetically easy to manipulate. I did not understand that we were bound together. Legally. And of course a year and a half after we married when I gave birth to our first daughter, and three years later to our second, my legal and financial fate was sealed. Yes, motherhood sealed my financial legal bond with him – according to the court – at least until the children turned eighteen.
So I have thought so much about marriage since my divorce seven years ago. I hate to watch weddings on TV and am completely conflicted about the institution itself. Do I believe in it anymore? I don’t know. I have many – MANY – unhappily and apathetically married FEMALE friends who I have heard say they could walk away and be OK. I watched and watch them work and struggle and argue and suffer and weigh the pros and cons of their marriage. And I am jealous. But many times I think, “I am SO GLAD I am not married!”
When I think, “I will never have that married forever, intimate, shared historic familial togetherness,” I am so sad. Especially when I think about the future – looking through rose-colored glasses and seeing; the kids come over with the grandchildren and we all have dinner that I beautifully prepare with fresh herbs from the garden that maybe they planted in the same house they grew up in. What a lovely fantasy. And I am so envious at back to school night or a religious event, or a high school soccer game where I see couples that I have known for as long as I have been a mom. I envy them their togetherness. Then I look again and I wonder: “Are you happy? Are you having sex? Does that matter? Do you resent and/or appreciate your partner? Is it a good partnership? Are you on the same page morally? Have you grown apart? IS IT WORTH IT? Do you fantasize (as I did) about leaving your marriage”? These discontented married and mostly mothers – woman friends – not all – but enough – are – and have been (as I was) feeling unappreciated, undervalued, lost, unsatisfied, and the BIGGIE – TRAPPED. Trapped. Just as Betty Freidan’s wives and mothers felt when she wrote about them in the groundbreaking The Feminine Mystique back in the sixties. The book came out of writing a magazine article on woman’s roles based on a questionnaire she gave to her sister Smith College graduates at a fifteen-year reunion. They were not happy. They felt trapped. Betty Freidan famously identified it as The problem that has no name.
Well, Victoria Woodhull – the first woman to run for President in 1872 – had MANY names for marriage. Slavery, monarchy, injurious, and the most terrible curse for which humanity now suffers entailing more misery sickness and premature death than all others combined. Ok, that was more than one name. And she married three times!
And Frances Wright – the first woman to speak in public in 1828 (and got crucified for it) said: Marriage, where the law allows robbery and all but murder against the unhappy female, who swears away, at one and the same moment, her person, and her property, as but is too often, her peace, her honor and her life. She succumbed in her thirties to the marriage myth and married a French man who promptly took her vast fortune and daughter when they divorced.
And Julia Ward Howe – 1860s poet/writer/activist and mother of six who wrote The Battle Hymn of The Republic (for five bucks!) said… Marriage, like death, is a debt we owe to nature, and wrote in her diary that she
had never known her husband to approve of any of the activities that she herself valued. She woulda divorced him but back then would have lost her children.
As a Cultural Herstorian – I could go on.
So does marriage work? How much do you have to give up? IS IT WORTH IT – the compromise, sacrifice, constant negotiating? I LOVE the idea of having a partner. And I want one. I am pretty sure I know what it takes and how to be – a good partner. I was one for thirteen years. I worked hard. I kept my vows. I was a good wife. I have had enough therapy, especially marriage counseling, to know that you have to take the whole package. Figure out what you can live with, what you need – or as I think of it – pick your pain.
I am leaning toward what Katharine Hepburn said: Sometimes I wonder if men and women really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and visit now and then. She was the daughter of a suffragist, a great actress and quite the adulteress.
So what to give my friend for a wedding gift? Oy. I just cannot decide between “The Gift of The Magi” or a California Pizza Kitchen Gift Certificate.