Beyond expert advice, there is a secret formula for marital bliss.
I don’t know anything about marriage. It’s a complete mystery to me.
My wife and I just celebrated our 33rd anniversary.
Marriage is a much-talked about subject in our culture. Magazines, newspapers, TV and books are filled with discussions on how to have a happy marriage.
Change magazine has run more than one article about it. All of us should be grateful for the advice the experts give. If we just follow the rules they lay out we can all have good and happy marriages. It’s that simple.
Unfortunately for me, being “The Contrarian,” I don’t see it that way. Sometimes what I read strikes me as true and profound. Often I scratch my head and mutter: “They’re missing the point. They’re not getting to the heart of the matter.”
Sure, there are some general rules. (If you’re a guy, don’t cheat on your wife, don’t beat her, don’t come home drunk every day, and appreciate her and let her know you do.) But if I look into my own marriage, much of what makes it work—if it does work—is so idiosyncratic, so particular to the two of us and our own unique personalities, that there is no way I could extract general rules. It wouldn’t even make sense to describe some of those things; they would be unintelligible to anyone else.
But I’m no expert and I should humbly hang my head and acknowledge the experts lock on the truth. Heck, I know so little. Ask me: Do you have a good and happy marriage?
I don’t know.
I’m happy as a clam; after all, what do I have to complain about? I get great meals. (My wife is the best cook in the world.) I have an attractive woman walking around the house. She did a great job raising our four kids and she’s doing a great job taking care of the fifth child she’s married to. She’s my good—and in some sense, only—friend. Last, but certainly not least, as a writer, I have something better than a muse; I have my own private editor. I don’t need inspiration; I need someone to fix my sentences.
Like I said, what have I got to complain about?
On the other hand, what about my wife? Is she happy?
How do I know? Am I a mind reader?
Our youngest child is about to finish college and go off to grad school. We’re basically done raising kids. Since my wife’s not talking about leaving me I guess she can’t be too unhappy. She even seems to share my dream of retiring to an RV and travelling around the country like nomads. Still, you never know what’s in someone else’s mind. Never!
We’ve all seen the Hollywood stars interviewed by credulous TV personalities breathlessly asking these stars to share with the rest of us how awesome their marriages are. A few years—or even days—later we read about the breakups of these marriages. Not long after, these people go on to other short-lived awesome unions.
Many of us know couples who seem so happy together, couples who then go on to divorce. Other couples that seemed destined to break up in fiery animosity go plugging along. Who knows? In either case, what is really going on?
I’m certain that if the experts had been around when I met my wife they would have warned us against getting married so quickly and would have predicted an early end to the marriage if we did.
I met her overseas. She spoke limited English; I spoke even less of her language. She lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone else. I came from New York City, where I didn’t even know the people who lived in the next apartment. She was outgoing, sociable, and friendly. I was an extreme introvert.
The first time we met we spent about an hour-and-a-half talking. The second time we met, a week later, we talked about getting married. The wedding was seven-and-a-half weeks after that first meeting. Within two months I brought her to New York, an alien place with different customs where she knew no one. To make matters worse, she conceived a month or so after we married. Our first child was born one year and three days after we first met. It could have been a disaster. The experts would have been right to warn us. It certainly hasn’t been a smooth relationship. Some of those differences did cause problems in the beginning. Some of them still do.
But would the experts have taken into account the bond created because we were both artists? And would they have taken into account the magic?
Now, I’m not a guy who believes in magic. I’m a strict materialist. If you can’t measure it with some kind of meter, then it doesn’t exist. But the magic is there, even if I can’t explain it, even if I have to logically admit that you can’t measure it. I experienced the magic between her and me as real, and I still do.
I don’t know this for sure, but I suspect that there was once magic for many people when they first joined together. While there are no general rules for keeping that alive, there are specific examples and stories that show how and why the magic lives. Social scientists might call these anecdotes from which we cannot draw general truths. But you can pull bits and pieces of those stories together to keep your own magic alive.
The experts list their rules, and have their manuals for successful marriages, but they never seem to talk about the magic, the wonder, the mystery. Sometimes I want to ask these experts what the hell they really know about marriage. But I know they’d shoot back: “What the hell do you know about marriage?”
And I’d have to reply sheepishly: “Nothing. Not a damn thing.”
I decided to take a break from a heavy, serious column studded with obscure quotes and footnotes. I also figured this column’s subject would be a good tie-in with “Summer Read,” this summer’s three-part short story of mine—“A Fine Day for a Divorce.” If you have any thoughts of guidance on this subject, please leave a comment below if you’re reading this online. If you’re reading this in Change magazine’s print version, you are welcome to visit the magazine’s website and leave a comment. And you are welcome to read my short story, “A Fine Day for a Divorce,” on p.42. Thanks.