The marriage partnership

by Warren Gray

We seem to be caught in a position something like answering feminism's assertions that marriage is a form of slavery for women with, "oh yeah, well marriage is slavery for men too" - both sides ignoring the fact that any institution voluntarily entered into cannot really be called slavery or anything similar. But, we're told, young men (and young women) are seduced into marriage by romantic nonsense in a culture which fails to educate them about the ramifications of a lifetime commitment, the changes which occur, the compromises and sacrifices that need to be made, the mutual inter-dependency created. All of which is true in some measure.

And if a frog had wings. . . .

The fact is that young people do almost everything they do without having much of an idea about the real consequences. They drink and drive. They go to college. They commit suicide. They get pregnant. They fall in love. They go to war. They live, and they learn.

The Roman Catholic church in America now grants annulments (not divorces) for a variety of reasons which translate to "they didn't know what they were getting into at the time." Well, none of us knew. No one knows what a lifelong commitment is like until they've already made it. It is good, very good, to try to educate young people about marriage beforehand. It is stupid, very stupid, to expect them actually to understand or to be swayed in any fundamental way by that education. There is a lot of talk about equal partnerships these days - sharing everything equally. It rarely works out that way, does it? My wife has borne ultimate domestic responsibilities, and I haven't helped out around the house nearly as much as I could have. I have borne ultimate financial respons ibilities, though she has worked most of the time. We have shared child-rearing responsibilities, though not equally in every area and at every stage of growth and development.

Both men and women have a tendency to lose themselves in a marriage. Whenever your partner tends to perform certain duties, your ability to perform those duties suffers the same fate as an unused appendage. In order to raise a family, you have to lose part of yourself; you have to give up a lot. So far, I think the sacrifices have been well worth it. But I know that I had no concept of what those sacrifices really were when I was 21. Neither had I been sucked in by a lot of romantic nonsense. But we did not have any real idea of what we were giving up, or what we were gaining, when we stepped to the altar 26 years ago. Marriage was indeed a commitment we wanted to make; we were willing to pay the price, but we did not understand the price, any more than we understood the benefits.

It's been a struggle all the way. There have been times when we were "mother" and "father" to each other, and we've gone through phases when we took responsibility for each other's well-being, or at least shared it. We have never really had the support of my wife's family; they boycotted our wedding, and our marriage grew stronger more quickly because of it. We have sought out the elements within our community - mainly the church - which are supportive of the family and marriage, rather than waiting for the community to come and support us.

We started with religious differences (a strict Catholic girl and a backsliding liberal Protestant boy). Regardless of our love and good intentions, religious fights started before the wedding and extended through the baptisms of our two children. But eventually, my wife grew tired of Catholic dogma, and I grew a bit more conservative, and we are now active members of the Methodist church.

Our first pregnancy was unplanned, and it required me to cut short my education and go to work.

For a couple of years, we were traditional, in that my wife stayed home with our son while I worked. But she has worked most of the time since then, and at several key junctures, when I might otherwise been forced to stay in jobs I hated, or in which I was being royally abused, her full-time work has enabled me to quit, be unemployed for a while, care for a toddler, go back to school.

We each do things which drive the other crazy. I don't help enough around the house. She criticizes what I do too much. We have had arguments which would have qualified as domestic violence under some of the really stupid survey definitions of that term - mutual verbal abuse, compounded by her pushing me and me hitting and kicking things. There are times when I know we would have split up, at least temporarily, except for the cementing effect of the children. I find it frustrating that this admission tends to get me lumped in with people who are basically miserable with each other and "staying together because of the children." What I am talking about is two people who love each other, but who might succumb to the many pressures which drive people apart these days, if it were not for the presence of children.

Now I am looking at all this from the second generation. My daughter is only 17 but very serious about a young man the same age. I like him a lot. But I know she's too young. I don't want to see her make a lifelong commitment (maybe in 10 years!), and I don't want to see her become financially dependent on a man. Nor do I want him him to give up his dreams. I don't want her to suffer, and I don't want her to make the mistakes I made. I'm really torn. But I know that they will do what they want to do - not because of Hollywood and Motown's romantic images, or because of what we want or don't want, but because of what's inside them.

Most men seem to have to come to some crisis point before we seriously re-examine our lives and our roles as men. Many of us reach middle-age, realize we gave up too much, and try to re-capture a lot of it. For so many men, that crisis takes the form of a divorce or a miserable on-going marriage. My crisis was work- and career-related, but it lead to the same kind of self-examination and the same kind of internal crisis. So it's hard for me to fit in with much of what is written and said in men's groups and writings. Sometimes I feel out of place because I'm still married and a defender of the institution of marriage.

Increasingly, I hear women and men saying that they're going to forego having children and getting married and just devote themselves to their careers. Too many such decisions gives us no future as a people. But beyond that, I have to say that marriage and family have given meaning to my life in a way that no job ever could. I come home from a job where people routinely stab each other in the back, and I'm safe among people who love me. I may have to deal with a wife who's hurt because I forgot to do something again, a son who's skipped class, or a daughter who's let the boyfriend in the house with no one else home. But they all love me, and I love them, and it makes a lot of the crap at work much more bearable. They've shown me my own capacity for unconditional love.

Our wedding was a simple affair in my parents' house. We invited about 50 friends and family members, I played the wedding march, and my wife made her dress. Nowadays, people spend an incredible amount of time, energy, and money on a big wedding, when they could put that time and energy into teaching the young couple what marriage honestly involves. The couple would not understand much of it, and they would go their own route anyway. But maybe they would gain some understanding of the fact that our grandparents were able to sustain lifelong commitments for reasons other than shackles.

And then they would get married and grow. They would grow together; they would grow apart; they would grow parallel to one another. They would hit bumps, and they would have accidents, but they would not give up on driving because of the accidents. They would not split up over the least bit of trouble, nor would they let deeper problems build up over a matter of years, saying little or nothing, then walk out one day with no warning. They would not be too selfish to sustain a commitment to a spouse or a family; they would find ways to maintain their identities within these structures.

If all of that sounds too idealistic, we need to really think about the direction our society is taking. How can our society be cohesive without an increased dedication to our commitments to marriage and family?

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