The Mystery of Marriage

A new book is a cultural scrapbook on the resilience of a fraught institution.

A British postcard from the early 1900s advises, “When he deserves it, kiss him.” (Simon & Schuster)

My husband and I got married last fall because we wanted to have a party. I doubt our friends, our family, or anybody else we know would have been surprised if we’d never done it at all: if we had continued living together, loving each other, one day having children, all without exchanging rings. The wedding was ideal—great cake, accessible by subway—but our life didn’t change after it was over. It never occurred to us that I would take his name; I didn’t want to (and didn’t) get pregnant. We live in the same small Brooklyn apartment we’d lived in before, and our finances are still only haphazardly half-combined. We weren’t expecting that our affection would either grow or diminish, and it hasn’t. Getting married wasn’t a romantic leap; neither was it merely, or even mostly, a pragmatic step. Whatever it was—delightfully unnecessary wrapping on an already very good present, perhaps—we made sure that there was more than plenty to drink.

We represent the demographic (white, heterosexual, college-educated) that looked poised to lead an exodus from marriage and its fusty shackles as the family-values debate raged. But now, when data suggest that fewer Americans—across the income spectrum—are getting married than ever before, our cohort is playing the opposite role. We are the group most likely to wed, as marriage rates among lower-income men and women without college degrees rapidly decline. We’re also among those who count least on the symbolic and actual benefits of the institution: my husband and I aren’t battling for social validation of our love or for the conditions of middle-class stability.

In the spring issue of the Washington Monthly, a surprisingly diverse array of voices pronounces the moment ripe, thanks to the swift acceptance of gay marriage, for tackling the “class-based marriage divide”—or at least for finally talking about the once polarizing topic. “Marriage can’t thrive as a gated community or an elite perquisite, and that’s where it’s headed if current trends don’t change,” warns David Blankenhorn, a co-director of the Marriage Opportunity Council, a bipartisan group eager to spread the message. In the worthy (and wonky) cover story, he and two fellow members urge broadening access to marriage as a strategic move in the battle against social inequality.

Arriving not just at the peak of wedding season but also amid this newly vocal worry over the marriage gap, The Marriage Book: Centuries of Advice, Inspiration, and Cautionary Tales From Adam and Eve to Zoloft is an especially well-timed counterpoint to all the earnest, alarmist policy talk. Scaled for an oversize Restoration Hardware coffee table, the glossy anthology presumes to be preaching to a converted, yet far from reverent, audience: readers ready to examine, from an amused anthropological distance, the best, worst, and most equivocal aspects of marriage. The book’s editors, the long-wedded writers Lisa Grunwald and Stephen Adler, aren’t wringing their hands over a cultural crisis or a precarious social rite, or trying to hammer out a marriage-promotion agenda. Rather, their trove of artifacts, collected over six years, is a revelation of the resilience, persistence, and capaciousness of, to quote Gabriel García Márquez, “the conjugal conspiracy.”

Crammed with everything from a Mesopotamian legal contract to New Yorker cartoons to modernist prose, the book’s 500-odd pages (lots of them illustrated) describe the many, often discordant, faces of marriage. Grunwald and Adler have organized their primary sources thematically: Rings, Honeymoon, Passion, Devotion, Food, Violence, Second Marriages, etc. The Odyssey makes a predictable appearance, as does The Feminine Mystique. There are prescriptions for housewives (“don’t despise the domestic potato”) and husbands (don’t kiss your wife “just after her makeup has been applied”) that seem as dated as they do eternal. You’ll discover the private patois of world leaders in its startling variety. “You are a wretch, very clumsy, very stupid, a Cinderella,” wrote Napoleon jokingly to his wife upon receiving from her, by post, only “six miserable lines”; Winston Churchill called his wife “Clemmie Kat,” and she called him “Pug.”

The editors include contemporary sociological statistics (“If you have two sons, you face a 36.9 percent likelihood of divorce, but if you have two daughters, the likelihood rises to 43.1 percent”) and a postcard from an Oregon hotel that once boasted a circular bed. There is an excerpt from Mrs. Bridge, Evan S. Connell’s masterful portrait of interwar marital ennui, along with one of the most famous fictional scenes of overwhelming post-wedding disappointment: Dorothea Brooke’s. “How was it that … the large vistas and wide fresh air which she had dreamed of finding in her husband’s mind,” George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, “were replaced by anterooms and winding passages which seemed to lead nowhither?”

You won’t find traces of the many sorts of loving relationships—homosexual, interracial—that over the millennia would have probably manifested themselves in marriage had they been allowed to, and produced their share of pining love letters, clever nicknames, perceptive compliments, vicious accusations, and life-ruining mistakes for a volume like this one. Yet the haunting absence of what might have been useful models for our era is matched by a heartening discovery for the anti-sentimentalists among us—the 20-somethings like me as well as the experts soberly advocating pro-marriage policies. If we sometimes wonder, a little uneasily, how we ended up viewing the institution more instrumentally than romantically, The Marriage Book offers reassurance that marriage has for a long time inspired a dizzying mix of pragmatism and passion.

For anyone looking to illustrate the historical materialist’s blunt vision of marriage as an economic transaction involving human property, it’s hard to get more vivid than the type of personal ads placed in now long-defunct Boston newspapers. One from 1759 requests the hand of a “young Lady between the Age of Eighteen and twenty three of a Midling Stature; brown Hair, regular Features and a Lively Brisk Eye” with “3 or 400£ entirely her own Disposal.” The Swedish playwright August Strindberg put a gentler notion of solid domesticity front and center: “a marriage without children,” he believed, “is not a marriage at all.” The view lived on in an ad for a fertility medicine from 1896 that caught Adler and Grunwald’s attention: “A healthy baby is the real jewel for which the wedding ring is only the setting.”

But the most illuminating documents are those that upend facile stereotypes of traditional marriage as a sexist, reproduction-oriented convention, above all a bulwark of social cohesion. As an enamored newlywed no more taken with that matrimonial legacy than I am with saccharine expectations of blissful ecstasy forever, I was relieved and happy to be confronted, again and again, with evidence of a third way: marriage as an estate long rich in individualistic arrangements, private fulfillment, and intimate familiarity. Almost two centuries ago, Nathaniel Hawthorne and his bride etched their names into a windowpane with her diamond ring and shared a notebook in which they recounted their love. When a friend lost his wife, Samuel Johnson, also a widower, wrote to him: “He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes and fears and interest … The continuity of being is lacerated.”

It’s telling that in discussions of marriage these days, the word that comes up most frequently is recognition rather than love. For my husband and me, our marriage feels more like a public affirmation that subtly changes strangers’ perception than a loud declaration of private desire and devotion. Putting it that way may evoke the hardheaded view of the enterprise; it pays tribute to matrimony as a socially entrenched institution aimed at promoting prosperity and domestic stability—and, the Marriage Opportunity Council hopes, greater equality.

But recognition has an important personal dimension, too, and if marriage is to avoid becoming an exclusive enclave, those more individualistic stakes are worth trying to articulate clearly and widely. To get married today is to announce, to yourself and to the world, your belief that you are a coherent person capable of extrapolating your current wishes, priorities, and motivations into the future. To get married today is to recognize yourself as grown-up at a time when other ways of enacting adulthood are notably limited. Such an opportunity shouldn’t be out of reach for anybody who wants it, although throwing open the marital gates doesn’t guarantee a secure and serene future. Then again, as Adler and Grunwald remind us, that’s never been part of the deal—which you could say only makes marriage more romantic.