Friday, June 11, 2010

Why Get Married? (part 2)

Yesterday, I broached the complicated question "Why get married?" in response to my friend and my impromptu book club meeting regarding Elizabeth Gilbert's Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage. I confessed how embarrassingly marriage-obsessed I was in my early twenties and how I have a much more practical perspective on marriage now. Strangely, I find that confession of practicality somewhat embarrassing too, since I feel like we're supposed to maintain the illusion that marriage is just sunshiny, candles-and-violins, hearts-and-flowers romance.

Most of us who have been married any period of time know it is hard work and that commitment is often more of a decision than a feeling. We've chosen to create a family unit, and we choose daily to invest in that family unit. As Lori Gottleib says, "Marriage isn’t a passion-fest; it’s more like a partnership formed to run a very small, mundane, and often boring nonprofit business. And I mean this in a good way."

Matt and I began this morning with a matter-of-fact assessment of Kate's bowel movements in the last 24 hours. It's not romantic, but it's part of the "family business," so to speak. The most heartwarming moments for Matt and I these days are when we're snuggling Kate between us; we smile and sigh and say sentimentally, "We're a family." We are a bonded--if boring--family unit, with our own values and priorities.

Interestingly, it is this "family unit" concept that eventually convinces Gilbert of the value of marriage--or at least of why marriage doesn't mean you are becoming a suburban clone in the service of the state. She picks up a book called Subversive Family, by Ferdinand Mount, which she assumes will be about couples who legally wed and yet maintain their hippie, anti-establishment lifestyle. As it turns out, Mount asserts that every married couple is subversive, in that the secret, intimate family unit is the most threatening thing there can be to a government that seeks to control its people.

This reminded me of Neil Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. Postman says that while most apocalyptic conspiracy-theorists think the world will go the way of 1984, with a totalitarian Big Brother regime limiting all free thought and action, we are more likely to go the way of Brave New World. (flashbacks to high school English class, anyone?) In Brave New World, the authorities aim to distract everyone with sex and entertainment, and to break down any private, personal attachments. Promiscuity and birth control are encouraged, and what children do result are raised communally. All this to break down personal loyalties and the possibility of an intimate, committed couple sharing their own ideas and their own values in the privacy of their own bedroom--a possibility that Mount considers the most subversive act of all.

So it is this that helps Gilbert make peace with her inevitable marriage. She feels forced to marry by the government, and assumes that marriage is the government's way of controlling people. Through all her studies, though, she realizes that marriage isn't something the government (or religion--another fear of Gilbert's) forces on people. Rather, people have always been inclined to create intimate family units--to marry, whether affirmed by the state or not--and the church and state adapt along the way, making rules and regulations about who can and can't get married, what papers you must sign, how long you must wait, etc., so they can feel like they have some element of control.

Always a fan of marriage as I've been, I never worried about the government trying to control me through marriage or whatnot, but I still agree that the private circle cultivated in marriage is the most alluring and valuable part of the institution. I think of the close bond Matt and I share, and I know that the most painful part of any breaking of that marital bond would not be the the sharing of passion with someone else, but the opening of that closed circle of trust. We share the best and worst parts of ourselves, and rest assured we will still be loved and accepted, for better or for worse.

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