A Marriage on the Rocks

The daughter of Nunally Johnson, and a novelist and critic in her own right, Nora Johnson is the author of The World of Henry Orient and A Step Beyond Innocence, both published under the Atlantic-Little, Brown imprint.  

The moment when it first becomes apparent that one's marriage was a mistake is the beginning of probably the longest, darkest period in the human lifetime. It sets in motion the profound thinking that should have taken place during that easier and happier time, the engagement, when all the trouble really started, and it brings into the situation many more people—children, if there are any, funereal parents, doctors, lawyers, marriage counselors, psychiatrists, and well-meaning friends, each of whom makes it his personal business to rush in and try to save the marriage. Everyone is ready to moralize, grieve, and bend every effort to increase the burden of guilt on the two people who, in most cases, are already carrying an almost unbearable load. Keeping the marriage together is regarded as the desired goal no matter what the circumstances, even though the two people might well be on their way to destroying each other, and being tied together for the rest of their days might be, for them, a death sentence.

The exhaustive and completely personal search for what is right can be carried on in only one mind at a time, in an atmosphere of privacy, something hard to come by in a land where the virtuous voices of Main Street keep repeating themselves with the typically American predilection for noisy morality. Being such a nation of faith healers, we really think that we can solve others' problems from our own pedestals of perfection, and what we like to call an objective point of view. I doubt if there is one married person on earth who can be objective about divorce. It is always a threat, admittedly or not, and such a dire threat that it is almost a dirty word.

A whole bundle of our cherished tenets contributes to this situation. Marriages are made in heaven; togetherness is the answer to everything; if we cannot adjust, we might as well be taken out and shot. For a country with so many of the accouterments of sophistication, we remain astonishingly innocent about marriage. We believe in it with a faith that is almost touching, a boundless hopefulness that is rather like the way we feel about new presidents, new face creams, or anything new that promises to change our lives. With our uncritical enthusiasm for playing house, we are deeply and sincerely shocked by the continually rising divorce rate.

But because we are serious and self-analytical and hardworking, we see no reason to assume that emotional problems cannot be solved in the same way as business problems, by lining up all the facts and reaching a sensible solution. Marriage seems to have a certain corporate structure, and we proceed accordingly. Working hard for virtue is for us a foolproof method. A friend of mine, consulting a psychiatrist (not an analyst) about her marital problems, was given a lecture on what was wrong with her approach to her husband, and her attitude in general, which wound up with a brisk "Go home and work on your marriage." The psychiatrist, like most marriage counselors, made the mistake of thinking that he could really be of use to my friend in some way other than as a sounding board.

Admittedly, there must be forbearance on both sides when a marriage is under strain. But making a project out of marriage seldom works. It presupposes a failure of communications between the two people and suggests that they are simply running out, are not facing the problem, and are being generally irresponsible. It is also based on the fantastic but popular assumption, probably dreamed up by unhappily married people, that leaving is easier than staying. Of course, communications do fail, but what we are concerned with here are marriages like that of my friend, made between intelligent people in good faith; and a communications failure is less likely to be the problem than a good many other things. What counts in this situation is the emotional truths, and the two people know those better than anyone else. A sounding board is useful to analyze the emotions and to articulate them, if only the sounding board would refrain from judging, from charging irresponsibility, from a virtuous urge to save the marriage, at all costs.

Instead of expending all this missionary zeal in saving marriages, we might do better to make it harder to get married in the first place. Most people get married in a state of emotional blindness. Thereafter the family concept is torn between glorification and degradation, and both parties to it suffer from the discrepancy between expectation and reality. We are so deluded by the mass communications glorifying love and marriage and parenthood that we believe solutions to our problems will be found in the institutions rather than in ourselves. It is a fearful age; we fear ourselves as much as anything else, and trying to build love on fear never works.

The disintegration of a marriage is a curious and painful phenomenon. The two partners are spared nothing from the moment that one or both of them first realize consciously that something is wrong and that something should be done about it. The first realization is easier to take than the second, and in between ensues a series of half-truths and rationalizations. Several wives have said, "I know my marriage isn't very good, but probably no marriages are any better, and anyway I haven't got the nerve to leave." This, at least, is honesty of a sort—the known is safer than the unknown. Some women consider it mature to spend their lives in an unhappy situation because they are preserving the family and sacrificing themselves for the children.

A good many men hang on because the pride of possession outweighs anything else, because the sense of failure would be more unbearable than the present unhappiness. It seems psychologically advantageous to both parties for men to be the breadwinners and support their families. For the man, it is a confirmation of male importance and female subservience, and for the woman, it provides economic security, an established place in society, and the leisure to pursue an interest or vocation while avoiding the necessity of supporting herself or entering into competition with her husband as a wage earner. Psychologically, the man retains his masculinity and the woman can have both her femininity and her masculinity, as a slight disadvantage to both—an unbalanced picture, but these are the values of our age, and even at the cost of happiness, they save a good many marriages.

It is only when the unhappiness becomes unbearable that people are willing to give up the whole situation. The end of marriage is always painful because it gets down to the lesser of two evils, that of staying and that of leaving. Both seem equally bad, in different ways. Staying means the endless opening of the wounds, the horror of watching oneself and one's mate turn each other into monsters, the necessity of capitulating one's beliefs, of adjusting oneself to a dismal and baneful workable compromise; staying can mean self-destruction. Leaving is bleak survival, and the terrible feeling of having no one around on whom to blame everything. From here on, the only source of reward and punishment is oneself, and wisdom warns that the pasture will never be greener, and that blaming things on someone else was the source of trouble to begin with.

If there are children, the difficult choice must be made for them, too: whether it will be worse for them to grow up as captive witnesses to a bad relationship between their parents or grow up with only one parent in the house. There is no one answer so this, either, even though it is popularly assumed that the children will necessarily be better off with the two parents. However, just as many neurotic people have come from unhappy marriages as from divorced parents, and the choice must be made in the context of the particular situation.

And there is always guilt. There is guilt if the two people have mutually decided to part, because they have failed to make a success of the marriage; there is more guilt if there are children, because other lives are being affected; but if one person takes the initiative and clears out, that person will have to pay dearly. One woman said of her husband, "I could only stand it if he left me; but I could never leave him," It is easier to feel wronged by another person than to carry the burden oneself. We are very low, in mid-century America, on the ability to take responsibility. We pass the buck. The office boy blames the clerk, the clerk blames the manager, the manager blames the president and the president blames the system. Nothing is ever one's own fault. We must feel virtuous because usually we are not.

Its a time of public immorality when old standards are constantly being compromised before our eyes, it is our conscience that is being threatened, and conscience is the only thing that holds off chaos.

So when the dissolution of a marriage seems possible, and the issues begin to take shape in their true gravity, panic frequently sets in. The two people revert to their old childhood devices as everything else around them fails. They light; they sulk; they try to woo each other back; they torture each other with minute knifelike thrusts that land in all the old wounds and weaknesses. They plead and weep and threaten and call each other names, Every good quality is turned into a vice. If things really get bad, the children are pulled into it and used as foils or bargaining material or pawns for creating more guilt. This can be torture for all.

It is at this point that the faith healers step in, in the form of marriage counselors, ministers, priests, or rabbis, moralistic psychiatrists, doctors, lawyers, parents, and friends. Most of the discussion centers on how to keep the marriage together, rather than on finding out if the marriage should be kept together—that is, if the benefits of the relationship seem to outweigh its disadvantages, if the disadvantages could be lessened at relatively little detriment to either person, and if the two people really want to stay together. But usually the faith healers pull social institutions into it, using them to make the guilty feel even guiltier: the church, the law, marriage, and motherhood; or else the abstract values that are being violated: duty, maturity, obligation, responsibility. These are accompanied by the ancient admonitions: Think of the Children, Life Alone Is Lonely, Your Poor Mother, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, Where Will the Money Come From?, and so forth, like a list of song titles. Now, of course, all of these things are important, but who is not aware of them to begin with? They are confusing because they obliterate the already fuzzy line between violation of conscience and the psychiatric false guilt, along with some appeals to expediency.

What may do some good, during this period, for a number of people is psychoanalysis, by a qualified analyst, not by a friendly lay therapist who tells the patient all his problems. Analysis is an objective, nonjudging, minute dissection of the patient's emotions. Analysis is a very optimistic business, because it assumes the best for the human being: it takes for granted that we all have the equipment to be happy and control our own destinies; it dignifies our standards; and it manages to humble us and make us feel unique at the same time. The faith healer shakes his finger and says, "Naughty, naughty, you haven't worked out your marriage''; the analyst is willing to grant that you might have had good reason for not working on it. The faith healer, by treating us as a parent would do, keeps us children; the analyst makes us grow up. In an age when the traditional values seem to shift and change and become meaningless before our eyes, our only salvation is in ourselves and the things that we have found, usually the hard way, to be right. It is no easy job to find them. Some people were born knowing themselves, and some people learn by living, but a lot of us are not that strong, and we need some help.

To be happily married requires a maturity that most of us do not have; marriage proves difficult, sooner or later, and particularly when entered upon immaturely. To be happily married two people must like each other, which means accepting each other as they are and knowing in what ways to leave each other alone. Most of the unhappy marriages which hang on and on, undermining the potential of two human beings, are based on weakness and fear, pity, obligation, sadism, guilt, all of which are things that beset both people in one way or another and make for distrust and dislike. These are the saddest marriages of all, sadder than the ones that end in divorce. The partners are mutually destructive. Such people cannot resist wanting to own each other, use each other as acquisitions, while deceiving themselves about their real motives. The fear of seeing the truth is one reason why so many people resist analysis. As Mary McCarthy puts it, "What passes for love in our competitive society is frequently envy ... we cannot, in the end, possess anything that is not ourselves. The vivacity, money, respectability, talent which we hope to add to ourselves by marriage are, we discover to our surprise, unassimilable to our very natures. There is nothing we can do with them but destroy them, deaden the vivacity, spend the money, tarnish the respectability, maim the talent, and when we have finished this work of destruction we may even get angry—the wife of the poet may upbraid him because he no longer writes poems, or the dull husband of the gay girl may reproach her for her woodenness in company."

While this silent, deadly battle is going on, togetherness is cultivated at the price of somebody's integrity. How often do we hear married couples say "We think —" when actually only one of them thinks and the other agrees out of self-defense? Such marriages stay together at the cost of partial or complete self-deception. The self-deception is a natural human reflex, to keep the horrors under cover, but there is a safety limit on it.

There are certain possible aids to this repression, usually thought of as escapes, but really substitutes for lack of love, or incomplete love. One is liquor. A good many couples survive their evenings together with the help of quantities of martinis, ceremonially pouring the first one when the husband comes home from the office. Almost everybody needs a drink, but some of us need lots of drinks. If both people enjoy this, followed by tumbling into bed with most of the barriers down, it goes a long way toward saving the marriage for a few more years, until the drinking becomes a problem or else is stopped.

Another possibility is compulsive, loveless affairs, and loveless they are if entered upon as an answer, a substitute. But sometimes a happy love affair can teach a man to love his wife, or a woman her husband. As Christopher Morley said, the man who loves once has never loved at all. But this is not usually well thought of by the marriage partner, who is jealous of any other source of knowledge, since it indicates a personal failure. The frigid wife will be more jealous than the passionate one, since she fears the consequences of her own inability to love; the passionate woman can afford to be understanding.

But the most tragic substitute is the children, who become the victims of their parents' frustrations. The inability to love extends to them too, and they will be either neglected or guiltily overpossessed. The mother, whose life centers upon them, often to the exclusion of anything else, resents them as being another threat to her own effectiveness. Frequently both parents superimpose each other's infuriating faults on the children and punish them for no reason at all. And so the chain goes on, unbroken, from generation to generation.

All these horrors emerge, in dramatic and primitive form, in the bed where male impotence and female frigidity intensify the marital problems. Now that sex is accepted as pleasurable, as healthy, and as not necessarily for the purpose of propagation, we are afraid we will not be able to live up to that ideal and so usually we do not. Worrying about sexual performance is the quickest road to not performing at all and, as we regard it, to failure. But it is not so easy to stop worrying. To most of us with only the normal faults, sex is heavily dependent on the whole personal relationship, and unless that is a good one, the sexual situation does not improve.

Sex, which ideally is the perfect form of cooperation, is our most vulnerable area, and people who do not like each other can have a field day acting out all their unexpressed hostility and fear by denying gratification to themselves or their partners. One can make love without making love at all, or while really making love to someone else. In bed, we envy and destroy; we envy because of a felt lack on our own part; we are acquisitive rather than generous toward the other person. Sex becomes a contest for pleasure, and not even pleasure for its own sake, but pleasure as another prop for our unsure egos, like our mate, our house, our possessions, and even our children.

And yet all of us have the freedom to marry for love and only for love, it has not always been so, and it is a fantastic and wonderful thing that our society believes in our capacity to arrange our own destinies. We have the potential to become the greatest lovers on earth. We can choose each other of our own free will; we are romantic and practical and eternally hopeful; the possibilities for education and work and self-expression are almost limitless. We women can always make money, which frees men from marrying women who look as though they could work in the fields and frees women from marrying to escape from home. We women have the leisure and the opportunity to travel, to meet new kinds of people, to better ourselves. We are healthy and vital and sociable, and innumerable industries devote themselves to making us beautiful. We have all the raw material yet we do not believe in ourselves a bit.

All this freedom and opportunity are breathtaking. Do we deserve them, and can we possibly live up to their obligations?

One happily married woman described love as "a sense of the other." It is this fascination with another person and an almost uncanny awareness that are the real material of love. The feeling that no matter what he does, I know why he does it, and I am interested. I may thoroughly disapprove, I may be exasperated with him for it, but I know why without even thinking about it or possibly being able to explain it. I am absorbed in all his reactions. All of his complexity, all of his contradictions simply fall into place for me, even if everyone else thinks he is mad. As Cathy said in Wuthering Heights, "Nelly, I am Heathcliff! Not always as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself; but he is always, always in my mind." This is love in the grand manner. It is beyond advice columns, beyond the dogged search for happiness. This is what it is all about.

But to have it, we have to know ourselves to begin with, and believe in it when we get it.