Marriage has been compared to prison. Getting ‘hitched’, and ‘tying the knot’ have negative connotations. Men (and some women, I suspect) refer to ‘the old ball and chain’. Men call their spouses all manner of unflattering things: The old lady, or the warden, or worse. They refer to collaring, and chaining, and castration. They complain about restrictions on their financial, social and sexual freedom. Is it any wonder people speak of avoiding marriage?
Here’s the truth of the matter. We don’t avoid it. We Americans marry–a lot. Fully 95% of Americans marry at some point in their lives. Second marriages, too, are ubiquitous: 95% of people who divorce remarry within two years. However much we protest and whine about restrictions in marriage, we keep coming back to it. Why would we do that? Is there something about marriage that we find appealing? There must be, or we’d stop doing it.
It seems there is something that keeps us asking for marriage. And, odd as it sounds, it isn’t the ease of finding a date for Friday night, or not having to be on our best behavior all the time, though that’s part of it. It’s not even the easy access to sex, which access exists for singles these days with little or no effort.
Marriage is simply part of who we are, a status we find appealing despite our protestations to the contrary. Could it be that marriage is a secret formula for real happiness, and we instinctively know it? It does appear to be true. Oscar Wilde wrote that every tragedy ends in a death; every comedy ends in a marriage. He’s right; there’s a connection between happiness for ourselves, and increased pleasure in society. Call it communal contentment. Marriage is part of who we are.
In my own marriage, the gratifying essence of it is just its constancy. In our society, we’re programmed to move from one thing to another–the next (bigger) house, new car, new wardrobe, latest vacation spot. We’ve even codified this national restlessness, calling it our right to ‘the pursuit of happiness’. Not happiness itself, mind you, but only its pursuit, almost as if, getting there, we’re expected to move on and try again, the old carrot on a stick thing.
But marriage solidifies this itinerary of the soul. The institution has been around forever, it seems. It’s always been associated with solidity, and stability, two attributes that seem to oppose our need for constant change. Indeed, the ball and chain description may be entirely accurate–if we allow it to be. Since words, and therefore attitudes are critical in life, those who use such terminology to describe their union necessarily experience dismal, prison-like marriages.
But a study of truly happy marriage reveals something quite different. Happily married couples are in a constant, and purposeful, state of change. The more change and variety we find in a marriage, the happier it is. Joyful marriages are identified with the new idea to please; the latest twist in greetings and adorations; the avant garde method of recognizing one’s spouse; yes, even the newest and possibly most exotic sexual endeavor, or at least intimate interaction. Changes in a marital state are what make it happy, not the other way around.
Happy marriages are innovative, fresh, surprising. They create, by their very nature, the ongoing happy challenge of ‘getting there first’ in the marriage with a heretofore unexperienced gift, acknowledgement, or titillation. It’s the hidden note card in a spouse’s luggage, a flower delivery at the office for no reason, the preparation of a favorite meal when they least expect it. Happy marriage is the tender greeting, with words that penetrate a spouse’s soul because of their delivery, and the depth of their feeling. Happy marriage is attention through focused listening, the almost lost art of truly hearing what the spouse is saying–or not saying. Happy marriage is the ability to anticipate what a spouse will do, say, want, need and ask for next, and the ability to provide it. Happy marriage is…happy, because it’s a recognition that a spouse is happy, and, maturity being required, it’s knowing we’re only part of the union. Happy marriage is its own reward, and our ability to change that keeps it fresh.
Additionally, happy marriage is currently evolving to include everyone who understand this description, and that means–everyone. This new understanding of what constitutes a happy marriage has little to do with gender, or children, religion or socially accepted traditions. It’s an acknowledgement that people marry the person they love, and that includes everyone, gay or straight. Indeed, the evolution of marriage is looking more and more like a flood of affirmation for the real reason marriage makes us happy. And opposition to this marriage equality tide, even though futile, is beginning to seem anti-marriage by its focus on narrow definitions. If marriage makes two people happy, it appears to be performing its role, and we need to celebrate that.
It’s no secret, then, why we continue to marry. It’s simply because we want to be happy. So tell your spouse you adore them. And if you’re not yet married, come on in, the water’s happy.