Holding on for dear wife
I've been in a relationship with a lovely woman for two years. Six months ago, she gave me an ultimatum. Now I have two weeks to make my decision: marry her or break it off forever. She's crazy about me, and my family and friends adore her, and all would be ecstatic if I took the plunge. The problem is, I am just not passionate about her. A friend's father once told me "it doesn't matter who you marry." I find that really sad, but if it's true, what am I waiting for? -- Down To The Wire
Romeo and Juliet were overprivileged freaks. Until 200 years ago, according to historian Stephanie Coontz, "the theme song for most weddings could have been 'What's Love Got to Do with It?'" Sure, sometimes love did follow, but for thousands of years, writes Coontz in Marriage, a History, people married for sensible reasons, like keeping peace between France and Spain. For commoners, matches typically were not made in heaven, but in three inches of manure: "My daddy's pigs and your daddy's cows forever!"
Back in the 1550s, when it took two to do a lot more than tango, divorce was about as common as cell phones. In those days, putting food on the table meant chasing it, killing it, skinning it, then turning it on a spit over a fire, and there was a bit more to housework than de-spotting the water glasses and wiping down the microwave. Since the laboring class usually married in their late 20s, according to Lawrence Stone and other historians, and "growing old together" could mean making it to 40, a marriage might have lasted 10 to 15 years, at best. These days, with some gerontologists predicting that living to 120 will soon be the norm, if you pledge "till death do us part" at 25, you could be promising to spend 100 years together. (You might serve a similar amount of time if you murder several of your neighbors.)
Love isn't the answer, it's the problem. As Coontz observes, once people started marrying for love, they started getting divorced for lack of it. Nobody wants to ask whether it makes sense to tell another person you'll love them until you drop. Yes, it can happen. Everybody's got a story of that one couple, still madly in love at 89 and chasing each other around the canasta table. Guess what: They lucked out. You can't make yourself love somebody, or continue loving somebody after the love is gone; you can only make an effort to act lovingly toward them (and hope they don't find you too patronizing). Love is a feeling. It might come, it might go, it might stick around for a lifetime. It's possible to set the stage for it, but impossible to control -- which is why people in the market for durability should stop looking for love and start shopping for steel-belted radials.
I've always thought a marriage license should be like a driver's license, renewable every five years or so. If your spouse engages in weapons-grade nagging or starts saving sex for special occasions -- like leap year -- well, at the end of the term, give them bus fare and a change of clothes, and send them on their way.
But, what about the chi-l-l-ldren?! Maybe people who want them should sign up for a "delivery room to dorm room" plan, with an option to renew. It's counterproductive to preserve some abusive or unhealthy family situation, but maybe more people would buck up and make parenting their priority if they knew they just had to get through 18 years on family track: "We're very sorry you're in love with your secretary, but there are children involved, so zip up your pants and take the daddy place at the dinner table."
Some people do have to settle. They're afraid to be alone, or they aren't brave or creative enough to thumb their nose at convention, or it's closing time in the egg aisle, and if it's male and willing, they'll take it. According to your friend's father, "It doesn't matter who you marry." Maybe it didn't matter to him because he's one of those guys who really just wants a tidy house, regular sex and hot meals -- and he never figured out he could come close with carryout food, topless bars and a cleaning lady. Do you have what it takes to hold out for a woman who really lights you up? You might, provided you don't need another half to be whole. If you let this girl go, you may feel empty, bored and lonely for a while -- but it beats marrying her and feeling that way for a lifetime. Maybe you can't order up "happily ever after," but if you try for "realistically ever after," you might find "happily ever now."