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Rosemund Handler

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Archive for the ‘Lifestyle’ Category

The mysteries of marriage

Married people are like insects, though that’s not what the movies tell us. The likes of Kim Kardashian, who leapfrogs marriage like a flea, and Angelina Jolie, the queen bee who stays put in her union and extends it to the children of the world, are not typical; yet thousands of variants agilely reinvent themselves for some and for others, solidify in concrete. The diversity of the institution is the enigma, and for this reason alone, I advised myself to stay away. But recent encounters with married people compelled me to change my mind – and to speculate yet again as to why on earth people get married.

Back in the day, marriage was the only realistic choice of partnership, certainly if you wanted to have children. Now anything goes when it comes to partnerships, yet still, people get married. The real question is why. Is it about hope, high expectations, belief in an elusive, illusory goal of fulfilment and joy?

Despite its track record, marriage has endured, which means the institution works for some (fewer as I grow older!) but not for others. I’m told on good authority there would be many more divorces if people didn’t choose to stay – for reasons beyond my ken – in moribund marriages. On the other hand, many who are widowed or divorced go back for seconds.

Shakespeare, Jung, Jane Austen and a countless host of renowned writers and thinkers have liberally covered the marriage ground with their views. Feminists balk – and who can blame them? – at many of the classic male writers, who often portray the little woman as the honey trap who turns sour and becomes a parasite. ‘A young man married is a man that’s marr’d', says Shakespeare, and Lady Macbeth, wife and mother, is murderously marred; in Hamlet, it is ‘with mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage’. But in All’s Well That Ends Well, Shakespeare takes a different view: ‘Get thee a good husband, and use him as he uses thee.’ And in Much Ado About Nothing, he advises ‘Thou art sad; get thee a wife, get thee a wife!’

Jung believed we are unconsciously influenced by our parents in our choice of partner; that children are driven in a direction that must compensate for what was missing in their parents’ lives, including the so-called dream partner – an imagined ideal of a loving relationship. He defined conventional marriage as an instinctive choice, ‘an instrument for maintaining the species’, claiming that in the second half of life marriage begins to move from passion and duty to ‘an intolerable burden – a vampire that battens on the life of its creator’.

I thought of an acquaintance I bumped into who had just arrived home after a long flight. The tip of his nose was red and swollen and I asked if he’d picked up a cold on the plane. He shook his head. ‘No, that’s from my snore mask. I alternate between two different masks each night because my wife can’t sleep if I snore and I can’t sleep if I don’t.’

We said our farewells, and disturbing images of ‘battening’ hove into view. He was clearly the kind of guy who sleeps in the bed he has made, no matter what, and if sleeping in a separate bedroom seemed like worse torture than wearing not one but two medieval-type masks to silence himself, who was I to question his choices?

Charles Dickens fell out of love with his wife, Catherine, after 20 years of marriage and 10 children. Without informing her in advance, he had the marital bedroom divided in two, and then demanded a legal separation from her. Although he supported her well, he described her as ‘an incompetent’ mother afflicted with ‘a mental disorder’. In fact, Dickens was already involved with Ellen Ternan, whom he met when she was 17, and with whom he remained involved until his death in 1870.

I can only imagine the feelings of Dickens’ abandoned but ‘well supported’ wife, though reams have been written about her husband, who was dictatorial, selfish and intolerant in his personal capacity while amply demonstrating his social conscience in his writings. Perhaps taking care of his repudiated wife and children salved his conscience in the same way another man, married for 43 years, salves his. Bored and out of love with his wife, whose friendship he claims to enjoy, he has indulged in numerous affairs over the years. The marriage has creaked on, despite his wife’s sporadic threats. Lately, he has begun to feel that he needs to make reparations in some way. Since they both steer clear of confrontations these days, not to mention religion, his way is to find voluntary work which will make a contribution and (pointing skywards) ‘improve his chances’ up there’.

Maybe Katharine Hepburn was right when she wondered if men and women ‘really suit each other. Perhaps they should live next door and just visit now and then’. Like the married couple who share a home, yet dislike each other and have very different interests. Their solution is they each have their own study, and conduct most of their communication via email.

In Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen’s character abjures ‘Lizzy’ not to marry without affection; in the same book, she writes ‘happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance’. I’m not so sure: Graca Machel comes to mind, her grace and devotion in the face of multiple pressures; also the woman in Woolworths who smilingly overhears my husband and I engage in one of our more civilised skirmishes. Eighty-plus, she tells us she was married to her husband for 58 years. She took Jane Austen’s advice and did not marry without affection, but she says marriage is a combination of luck and hard work. ‘My husband and I argued often, shared everything, never got bored and trusted each other implicitly. He made me promises for 58 years that he never broke. Except for one: he promised never to leave me, but he did. He died last year. I still haven’t forgiven him for that.’

Friedrich Nietzsche would have understood: ‘Happy is the man who finds a true friend, and far happier is he who finds that true friend in his wife.’

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