The Marriage Book
Even at its very best, marriage is not for the faint of heart. It can be founded on love or property, faith or geopolitics, the urge to procreate or the unexpected realization that you already have. But no matter how or why it begins, marriage demands an improbable journey, the private, perilous, hopeful journey from I to we.
The route is by nature serendipitous, marked by rocky terrain and peaceful coves, murky troughs and dazzling summits. There will be unfamiliar languages and unaccustomed currency; treasured souvenirs and dirty laundry; things you lose by accident, and—as with any kind of travel—pleasures you could never have known just by looking at the pictures. Of course, the exact destination will be different for different travelers. But for most readers of this book, the ideal will probably be some version of a landscape filled with contentment and passion; help and forgiveness; honesty, patience, promises; and, let’s not forget, love that never dies.
How do you plot your course? If you’re not married, you might want to know what makes a marriage succeed or fail. Does everybody get cold feet? And how cold is cold enough so that you should pivot and flee? When people say marriage takes work, do they mean break-your-back, build-a-pyramid work, or do they mean be-a-grown-up-and-think-before-you-talk work?
If you are married, you might want to ponder the peculiar mathematics by which love can be spent and replenished at the same time; how it’s possible to be thrilled, or at least delighted, by a body you’ve seen naked too many times to count; how to repair a hurt ego; how to
understand failings but resist disdain; how to give without feeling used; how to need without being needy.
You won’t find a single answer in this book; you will find hundreds. Countless writers—whether of books, movies, poetry, jokes, songs, letters, or fortune cookies—have had something to say about marriage. Grecian urns depicted it, as did Egyptian hieroglyphics and Archie comics. Google the word “marriage” and any other noun, and you’ll find some connection. Marriage and “pasta.” Marriage and “car.” Marriage and “bathroom sink” (first hit: “Bathroom fixtures that will save your marriage”). In the pages that follow, you’ll find proverbs and tweets, poetry and photographs, ads and cartoons, plays and sitcoms, movies and eulogies, and one memorable wedding toast, from Mel Brooks: “Never give your real name.” What you’ll find is an A to Z of some of the wittiest observations, as well as some of the wisest.
Is marriage a legal contract or a religious sacrament? A romantic ideal or society’s bedrock? Look no further than yesterday’s news for fervent debates about what the true purpose of the institution is, was, and should be. But this book is not a history of marriage and doesn’t pretend to settle such questions. Rather, it is an attempt to capture the myriad ways in which marriage has been experienced and explained.
Over the ages (and these pages), marriage has been defined as a cage (Montaigne), a fruit (Finnish proverb), a tomb (Casanova), an ordeal (Joseph Campbell, but he meant it in a good way), a debt (Julia Ward Howe), and a dream (or rather a “dweam wiffim a dweam,” The Princess Bride). Like love, death, and happiness, marriage seems to beg for a metaphor (see “a journey,” six paragraphs up), and giving marital advice seems to be an almost atavistic need.
How-to books and how-to lists have abounded through time. Sometimes the titles seemed to say it all, like the 1886 How to Be Happy Though Married. Back in the thirteenth century, an Italian mother gave her daughter a list of a dozen prohibitions, beginning with the somewhat quixotic “Do not be joyful if he is sad, or sad if he is joyful.” In 1902, a Pennsylvania wife compiled a set of twelve “commandments,” including one involving the frequency of her husband’s bathing, another the removal of his mother’s cow. In 1936, the British author of How to Be a Good Husband cautioned in one of his many instructions: “Don’t think that your wife has placed waste-paper baskets in the rooms as ornaments.”
Naturally enough, one recurrent theme in marital advice has been what to look for in a husband or wife—and perhaps more frequently, what to avoid. In 1969, Martha Gellhorn, ex-wife of Ernest Hemingway, wrote to her son: “No woman should ever marry a man who hated his mother.” An African proverb warned men against marrying women with bigger feet than their own. And sometime around 500 BC, a Hindu text advised: “[Do] not marry a girl who has red hair or an extra limb [or] is named after a constellation, a tree, [or] a river.”
Weddings and wedding nights have been other popular topics. In these pages, you’ll find a 1901 suggestion on what a best man should do with a groom’s hat, Margaret Sanger’s pragmatic suggestion that “a Pullman car is hardly . . . a proper setting for the first conjugal embrace,” and W. F. Robie’s solemn and surprising 1920 plea for honeymoon foreplay:
Young husband . . . Don’t say much; but slowly and carefully feel your way. Kiss without shame, for she desires it, your wife’s lips, tongue, neck; and, as Shakespeare says: “If these founts be dry, stray lower where the pleasant fountains lie.”
Indeed, what would marriage be without sex? (Just marriage, some couples might be quick to answer acerbically.) You’ll find plenty of thoughts about sex under “S,” naturally: how, when, and why it’s a good idea to have it. Much of it is directed at women, with the assumption that they’re the ones who have to keep things interesting. But back in 1829, no less a thinker than Honoré de Balzac addressed his advice, refreshingly, to husbands: “Just as ideas go on increasing indefinitely, so it ought to be with pleasures. . . . Every night should have its own menu.”
• • •
When we started compiling this book, we thought it would be a compendium of only such direct advice. We were enchanted, as we certainly hope you will be, by the way that so many recognizable questions—and so many varied answers—have come down through the ages. But we soon realized that we were missing the kinds of insights that come not from rules or maxims but from experience and stories. In other words, to extend our marriage-as-journey metaphor, we wanted to produce an anthology that would be both a travel guide and a travelogue.
So when it came to looking at proposals, for example, we were amused by the trendy suggestions of contemporary “engagement planners,” not very different in spirit from a 1907 advice column called “The Ticklish Art of Proposing Marriage.” But how could any section on proposals exclude the unrivaled cluelessness of William Collins’s approach to Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, or the half-romantic, half-cynical deal Rhett offers Scarlett in Gone With the Wind? Likewise, thinking about conflict, we found it fascinating to read the how-to rules for “fair fighting” that were offered at a Los Angeles marriage clinic back in 1969. But we also wanted a glimpse of famous fighters like Liz and Dick, Napoleon and Josephine, Ralph and Alice. And we couldn’t forget the acid line of Martha to George in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: “I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you.”
With the exception of Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s suggestion in 1955 that spouses take separate vacations, we found little direct advice about the benefits of spending time apart. But a lot of inspiring entries were the result of just such separations. Despite his drinking and general
debauchery, the poet Dylan Thomas, on his first trip to America, wrote to his wife with passionate longing:
Why oh why did I think I could live, I could bear to live, I could think of living, for all these torturing, unending, echoing months without you, Cat, my life, my wife, my wife on earth and in God’s eyes, my reason for my blood, breath, and bone.
Gladys Knight and the Pips sang it more succinctly in 1973: “I’ll be with him / On that midnight train to Georgia / I’d rather live in his world / Than live without him in mine.”
So often, the experiences we read about defied our expectations and may even have surprised the men and women who wrote about them. How poignant that, for all his many witty and wise instructions and aphorisms about marriage, Mark Twain was never more profound about the institution than when, after the death of his wife, he boarded a steamer from Naples to New York, and wrote in his journal:
June 29. Sailed last night, at ten. The bugle called to breakfast. I recognized the notes, and was distressed. When I heard them last Livy heard them with me; now they fall upon her ears unheeded. The weather is beautiful, the sea is smooth and curiously blue. In my life there have been 68 Junes—but how vague and colorless 67 of them are contrasted with the deep blackness of this one.
And how shattering that the brilliant theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, a man who helped the world understand the nature of reality, would write a letter to his wife two years after her death and apologize for not having her current address.
• • •
Editing this book together supplied us with our own leg of a marital journey that began in 1987 with a blind date and a really good kiss. We got engaged just a few months after that, and phone calls from friends and relatives soon followed, with an understandable refrain of the three words “Are you sure?” And then, after a wedding most memorable for the way that even the flowers in Lisa’s hair shook as her father tried to pilot her toward the center of the aisle, we began to receive our own share of marital advice:
• You don’t have to tell each other every thought you have.
• Never go to bed angry.
• Combine your bank accounts.
• You can trash your own relatives, but never your spouse’s.
• Have a
weekly date night.
• Share your love with the people around you.
Some of this advice was truly helpful. Some of it we even followed. But one piece of advice we obviously ignored was:
• Never work together.
Why did we tempt fate?
We thought it would be fun. Back on Valentine’s Day in 1997, a flirtation with the notion of editing a collection of love letters evolved into the idea of telling the century’s history in letters. Letters of the Century: America, 1900–1999 was the result, and along the way, we reveled in the treasure hunt and the pride in a double byline. The book was enough of a success that it spawned another: Women’s Letters: America from the Revolutionary War to the Present, and in finding the voices of those women in that research—so often frank and confiding—we ended up thinking that a book about marriage would offer further emotional and admittedly voyeuristic pleasures. Reading about other people’s marriages, we figured, would be a lot like going to a series of dinner parties where the couples have a little too much to drink and you get to spend the ride home dishing about what’s really going on with them.
Frankly, we anticipated that lifting the veil (or the covers) would reveal more lost illusions than fairy-tale moments. What surprised us was the persistence with which the crazy optimism of marriage kept coming through, and the extent to which some of the most distant examples—whether in time or place—held a personal resonance for us. The story of Rachel Calof, for example, seemed thoroughly remote at first: a Russian immigrant homesteader, she was the bride in an arranged marriage who wrote about making lunch for her new husband by gathering garlic, grass, and mushrooms from the untamed North Dakota land, making dough from flour and prairie water, and coffee from ground barley.
Never was there a more delightful dinner than that one. The food was delectable and our shanty was filled with happiness. After we finished our meal, Abe insisted on knowing all the details of my accomplishment. As he listened, his gladness became tinged with a sadness that our condition was such that I was reduced to searching the prairie for food. But nothing could destroy the magic of that hour.
The struggle for the bare necessities of life was something we had luckily never had to experience during our marriage. But Rachel’s journal entry struck a very personal chord. We were moved by the resilience with which she had faced the necessary tasks and by the pride she felt in making
her spouse happy. Mostly we were reminded how the most sublime moments in a marriage can come at the most unexpected times. For us, it’s never been garlic soup on the prairie, but eating Indian takeout while watching Mad Men on TV has come pretty close.
Then, too, unless you count the adulterous heroine in one of Lisa’s novels (about whom Stephen has caught no end of flak), neither of us has had any personal experience with adultery. But this book’s entries about famous cheaters—from Hester Prynne to Yves Montand (“I think a man can have two, maybe three affairs. . . . After that, you’re cheating”), as well as the cheated—like Nora Ephron (“the man is capable of having sex with a venetian blind”)—turned out to have personal resonance as well. As cautionary tales, those entries steered us back to the inspirational examples of the two great Homers: the Greek poet who described the fidelity of Penelope as she wove and unwove a burial shroud to keep her suitors at bay; and Homer Simpson, who, when faced with the temptation of a hotel tryst with an office colleague, answered the catcalls of a bellhop with “All I’m gonna use this bed for is sleeping, eating, and maybe building a little fort.”
We are hopeful that readers of this book will be able to build or reaffirm their own marital credos from its pages. For what it’s worth, here are ours:
We believe that “to love and honor” really means to support and, if necessary, forcibly extract the best of each other. Not always simple. It doesn’t just mean remembering to inspire and cheer; it means remembering what to inspire and cheer—especially when your spouse falters or forgets. The great poet William Butler Yeats never got to marry the love of his life, but in 1909 he wrote a journal entry that perfectly described how a marriage could uphold this kind of promise:
In wise love each divines the high secret self of the other and, refusing to believe in the mere daily self, creates a mirror where the lover or the beloved sees an image to copy in daily life.
When asked recently what he considered his greatest accomplishment to be, Stephen King said: “Staying married.” We readily concede that many marriages go terribly, even tragically, wrong; that some should never have taken place; that many must end. But we also believe that the vow “as long as you both shall love” (which we heard at several weddings some years back) is not a vow but a timid, silly, New Age, cover-your-asses tautology. We believe in “as long as you both shall live”—in staying on the marriage journey if you possibly can. For all the probable detours and delays and wrong turns, the challenge and promise of this journey is perhaps best evoked by Tennyson in his 1867 poem “Marriage Morning”:
Heart, are you great enough
For a love that never tires?
O heart, are you great enough for love?
I have heard of thorns and briers.
Over the thorns and briers,
Over the meadows and stiles,
Over the world to the end of it
Flash for a million miles.