Marriage is a State of Mind – Cedar Sanderson
I have long been a fan of Dorothy Sayers. I don’t recall when I first read one of her books, but I know that I just recently read one of her essays on feminism and it sparked a thought – several thoughts, really – in my head. I wrote some of it down in Are Women Human? which is a composite of her essay of that title and my own thoughts.
As I was reacquainting myself with not only the fictional romance between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, but the true life of Dorothy Sayers, I was forced to reflect on my own life and relationships. There are some parallels to where I am now, and looking back, I can see clearly in hindsight where my path has taken me. You don’t see it, while you’re walking it. It’s only later that you can piece it together fully, no matter how well planned you think you have your life.
I was married relatively young. I met the man I would shortly marry when I had just turned 19, and he was 32. I was, as I joking say now, insane. Not literally, just a very sheltered young woman who fell for the oldest trick in the wolf’s book: I don’t have time to waste on dating. Will you marry me?
Do I regret it, looking back with clarity? No. I have four beautiful and smart children I love that would not exist as they are had I not decided that I would be a dutiful daughter and become the housewife I was supposed to be. I’d been discouraged rather firmly from following my chosen career paths – from science, by the brute force of being told that I would not be allowed to graduate highschool until I did what was expected of me – and from the military by being told that enlistment was the last thing I should do (and this coming from two people I trusted implicitly). So I did what everyone wanted. I thought.
I went to work, he went back to college. He’d finish his degree, and then I would finish mine, turn and turn about. I’ll skip the long tortuous story, because anyone who has half a brain knows how this story ends. I’m going to finish my degree in a little over a year, 21 years after graduating high school. He never finished his, dropping out of school again six months into the marriage.
Marriage, if it’s done right, is a beautiful friendship. It is two souls in support of one another. Friends first, then lovers. I still believe that, with all my heart, because it is a truth that transcends all the bad marriages in the world.
I can’t say why all marriages fail. I know what I have seen, and experienced.
You can’t do it alone.
If only one person is carrying all the weight, the precious bonds of matrimony are going to attenuate, and in time, fail. The marriage might not dissolve, but there is a gulf between the partners that deepens and widens.
You are alone if the other person in your life tells you that you are worthless, that you are crazy, that you aren’t pulling your weight. You are alone if they demand constantly, but refuse to meet your needs. Even worse than flat refusal, if they constantly promise, but never fulfill those promises. “You can do that in five years.” Becomes never, and you stagger on under the load until one day you collapse, pressed flat, and under your feverish cheek the floor is so cool and you close your eyes and pray for the end to come quickly as you try to breathe.
Personal Honor comes with a reset button.
Lois McMaster Bujold’s stories about Ekaterin and Miles may have saved my life. I’ll probably never talk to her in person, and I wouldn’t tell her this, because it’s very personal and sounds overdramatic. But it was in the story of a woman married to a man who left her wondering ‘am I crazy, or am I crazy?’ that I began to find the clarity to see where I was and who I had become. Then, in a scene set in a dusty attic, when Miles gestures toward his belly button and asks ‘doesn’t your honor come with a reset button?’ I finally understood. It was not the end of me, of my honor, if I broke my vows under duress. To continue would be the end of me, and I had already come to grips with that. To die to self in the service of others is necessary and even good. I’d held that as a mantra for years at that point. To risk my children? To know that even if the other person in my life ended his as soon as I walked away, it was not my fault?
I pressed the reset button.
Having reset my honor, I needed time to grieve, to heal, to come to grips with my brokenness. Not that you ever are restored to what you were. That you can, in time, aspire to kintusukori. During that grieving time I tried to tackle another relationship, and made the same mistake. I was too loyal. I overlooked the little lies, until I was confronted by big lies. I walked away again.
I swore I’d never do that again.
I’d intended to live out the rest of my life alone. My children, my father who shared a house with me (my parents were divorced for years at this point), so not physically alone. But there was still a hole in my life.
I leaned on the support of my friends as I struggled to support my family. My once-partner had survived our breakup and seemed to be turning his life around but had no interest in supporting his family. I worked and worked some more, and at night when I was too tired to sleep I talked with my fingers to friends all over the world. One of them, an acquaintance for years, was going through a similar process, escaping a toxic relationship that had all but killed him in spirit if not in body.
We talked, a lot, but it was friendship, a meeting of the minds. He encouraged me to write, something I had been stunted in for years. It was like watering a wilted plant. I encouraged him to get away from the situation he was in, reminding him as I had learned – honor is important, yes, but when the other side of the equation has no honor? – and he did make a break.
Time passed. I managed to get a week to myself, with the plan of writing. I knew that if I stayed at home I would have a million distractions and the kids would come home early… I went to stay with my friend. A writing retreat, and it was. But it was also the beginning of an Odd courtship. Because we are both Odds. We fit well together, mentally (minds out of the gutter!).
Never From Gratitude
You’re wondering where I was going with Dorothy Sayers, now that I have wandered through most of my adult life. As I was reading her this last month, I realized that the reason Harriet Vane would not marry Peter, despite him being desperately in love with her, was that she thought she was only grateful to him, and gratitude is not enough for a marriage.
I found myself living with my dear friend rather suddenly. The plan had been for a summer spent working, making money with my business nearer cities – and serendipitously, we would find out if we were suited to one another. We knew that we were in love – I never doubted that – but I was afraid that he wasn’t ready, and I was being pushy, or clingy, or… Or that I was making a mistake again. But there I was, with no place else to go, and he took me in.
It could have been a bad scene. Up above I sketched out a few lines, and I could practically see my audience on the other side of the screen wincing as they read the set-up. He could easily have come to resent me being pushed on him with little warning (two weeks!) and nowhere else to go, and because I had started school and given up one of my jobs, no money to go anywhere else. I spent months asking him if it was ok. Did he mind my having come to him like this?
Sarah told me once that she had known the moment she saw us together, that we were meant to be together. I’d laughed. It had taken me nearly a year to even admit I was in love with him, and longer before he told me he’d loved me for…
It worked. Marriage, you see, is a state of mind. The legalities aside, which are picayune in the scope of things, knowing that you have a true partner, one that will pick you up when you trip and fall, who will love you unconditionally no matter how you make his sandwich… that’s the important part.
I’d never thought we would get married-married. We were already husband and wife in our hearts and souls. Honor, after all, is what you know about yourself, and reputation is what others know about you. Another truth from Lois McMaster Bujold (wise woman, and one whose writing I study). He’d reached a certain age without ever giving his hand in marriage. I had, and after thirteen years had forsworn myself. Simply having gained a partner was enough, and a sufficiency to the end of our lives together. Not that I wanted to be able to walk away. I am not capable of that sort of lightness.
When he asked me to marry him, in an oblique way with a casual tone, you could have knocked me over with a feather. As I was driving at the time, I settled for being grateful there was no traffic and a clear sky. I realized something in that split second. It does matter.
We speak oaths in front of witnesses for a reason. This is a tradition since before men made words on paper, or even stone. Speaking only one to another, we can use the same words, and mean the same things. We can hold ourselves to the words, and the one we spoke to, we are accountable to.
In the presence of witnesses, the words gain a gravity, a force, that causes them to bind tighter. We can chafe against those bonds, or recognize that they give us a certain freedom.
“I am free, no matter what rules surround me. If I find them tolerable, I tolerate them; if I find them too obnoxious, I break them. I am free because I know that I alone am morally responsible for everything I do.” –Robert A Heinlein
Marriage is not a prison. It is a home, with two hearts in it. Later this week, my First Reader and I will sign the deed, so to speak, of that home. As we stand up in front of witnesses and repeat oaths that bind us, so also are we joined not only that we know, but all others do, as well. It’s not gratitude, nor is it coercion. It is friendship, and mutual admiration, and a thing so lightly called love.
Love is ever elusive to define. I was taught, years ago, that love was wanting only the best for the one that is loved with no expectation of anything in return. I was also taught that there are three loves, as defined in Ancient Greece. Philos, brotherly love, was the love between friends, siblings, comrades in arms. Agape is a holy love, the love of God for all mankind, a pure love that transcends any worldly concerns. And Eros is the love of sensuality, the attraction that sparks and leads to passionate embraces.
A marriage, I was taught, should combine all three of those into a cohesive whole. It’s not, I know now, easy. You must work at it, and you cannot do it alone. There will be days when the oaths you swore – before witnesses or simply in the dark of night to one another – are all that keep you together under one roof. If both of you aren’t holding tight to that, if all of this is based on gratitude for a home, for friendship, for sex; if that all there is, then it will fall apart.
In the end, it’s all come down to this. I am his, and he is mine. We are two, yet one. We live, and in living, love. Scars knit, baggage balanced, we take our chances that life holds more joy than sorrow, if only we can be in it together.
“Dum vivamus, vivamus!”