When I was a kid I was always highly amused by reading Agatha Christie characters refer to it as “The Marriage State” instead of just “being married.”
Yesterday here someone mentioned taking relationship advice from Agatha Christie which might be marginally better than taking relationship advice from Heinlein, but not by much. And yet I did both and it turned out okay, though it could be said that is partly because I was solidly embedded in a married-people culture. A culture where everyone married, unquestioningly, oh, and didn’t divorce. I knew happy couples, and unhappy couples and couples who had lived apart after a few years or a few days or in one case a few hours* of marriage, and who sometimes lived with someone else and had for so long that the scandal had worn off, but were married, nonetheless.
One of my own uncles had left his wife after a few years, and lived with another one. The family was at a loss for whether I should call her aunt or not. She of course was more obsequious than all my other aunts in her observances and gave me a pearl brooch for my third birthday. I loved it because it had two little birds made of pearls, but it caused my mom (it was her side of the family) some heartburns whether I should wear it around her family. In fact, I suspect she eventually traded it in on something else, because thought it was one of my favorites, it’s the only piece of jewelry I remember from that young age that I don’t have. And what I have includes some I wore when I was so young I chewed it out of shape.
Anyway, so marriage was a constant and even when the village women said “He beats me but he’s my man” one couldn’t detach the couple with a crowbar. It was assumed to be the law of nature, coming or going, good or bad.
And to give you an idea of how unenlightened the times were, one of our cleaning ladies (mom had a succession of them, because she had a successful business and no time to clean, or shop) told me when I was ten or so, that if I thought I’d get a man who didn’t at least slap me every now and then, I was air dreaming.
This was a weird perspective, as men in my family (on dad’s side. Mom’s dad had issues) never raised a hand to a woman, their own or not, and at that never raised a hand to a kid if they could help it. The women were always the disciplinarians, and the men … well, dad could stop my worst tantrum with the words “I’m very disappointed in you.”
Someone in one of my groups on facebook was complaining about marriage, specifically that person’s own marriage. Well, not complaining so much as baffled and confused as to how it’s falling apart despite his trying to do his best.
I sort of know why it’s falling apart.
Take that overlay above, and the fact when I was born/grew up Portugal still issued family passports, and if a woman wanted a solo passport, she had to have her husband’s signature. For that matter, if a woman wanted to have a paying job outside the home (cleaning house didn’t count. In that time and place you were often paid in produce and eggs and a chicken or so.) she needed permission from her husband. I know this because I remember vividly (yeah, mom had her own business and worked in the kitchen, then in her workshop after they moved when I was 7, but she was the principal earner in the family) being astonished at a neighbor who wasn’t too sure of his letters coming over for dad to help him fill that form, so the neighbor’s wife could get a job in the textile factory and they wouldn’t starve.
Then put on it that every one of my teachers was a “feminist” and if you think that it’s only feminists here who went running off the deep end, way past equal work for equal pay and into turnip (the currently popular movie is not ALL about women, so it’s sexisssssss) you’d be shocked.
We’re talking a country where wife abuse was rampant, where men did have legal holds that prevented women from making an independent living, where a woman in her twenties would be treated by the police as a runaway kid and brought home to parents. (One of my cousins whose father took after less than sane granddad.) Unless she was married when she’d be taken home to husband.
You’d think fighting wife-abuse and trying to get laws/culture altered would make sense, right?
You’d be wrong. Oh, Portugal never went far down the “Let’s reform language” partly because it’s a Latin country. I mean, sure, you can make up a pronoun to refer to women, or a pronoun to refer to men, or call men and women something stupid, or claim we shouldn’t have gender in language because oppression. But that doesn’t pass the laugh test when your house and your garage, your tree and your cart and your plow are all female pronoun and your cheese, your car, your sweater and your dress are all male pronouns. You can’t say it’s oppressive to have pronouns when they’re used for objects and in a way that defies logic too. (The tree being feminine and the boat masculine are two of those that make you go “uh.”)
I don’t know mind you, since the first wave of feminists were about ten years older than I, that they didn’t try the pronoun thing, but if they did the gales of laughter led them to drop it.
Other than that once you left the village school — where the teacher merely, rightly, taught that intelligence doesn’t lie in the generative organs and that males or females can be smart, so shut up, stop dreaming of a husband, and learn to use your head — I passed on to teachers about ten to twenty years older than I, mostly female (as mom would tell me “such a pretty job for a lady”) and mostly having learned from whatever theories were passing around other countries in the sixties.
So we got the full fledged feminist instruction, and as with gun control, I was raised in Europe, for a while I believed all this.
The gist of it seemed to be “you won’t do anything for any man. Because a man asking you to do the simplest thing is aggression and oppression.”
Well, they never quite convinced me to stop making dad his coffee. (Yeah, he has the same dark eyes my younger son has, and this way of saying “Only you make it so well” — and yeah, it’s irresistible.) However, I remember the rip roaring fight when mom ordered me to continue cleaning up after my brother. (This was absurdly unfair, as he was much older than I, but if he left a banana peel in the living room and it discolored the table I was the one punished, because my job was to clean up after him.) Yes, I DO still think it was ridiculously unfair. I also sort of understand that’s how mom was brought up and she completely didn’t “get” why I had objections.
So Alvarim, showing a grace I still sometimes strive for, got tired of my being in the dog house and made a deal with me. If I cleaned up after him he’d pay me from his tutoring money (I think the equivalent of $20 a month. Enough for three paperback books.) And we wouldn’t tell mom. (I wonder how much we puzzled mom, because now that he was a CLIENT I felt obliged to do proper stuff, so I bought little chocolates and left them on his pillow after turning down the sheets at night, and I gave him periodic gifts. Anyway…)
BUT some of it wasn’t funny. The “you shall serve no man” thing sank deep, as well as the idea that marriage was slavery, which accounted for a string of turned down proposals and also for my learning very little of HOW to keep house (because I was NOT going to do it.) This led to years later my standing in the middle of Dan’s apartment looking at a box of pasta and wondering how we turned it into the soft stuff you ate.
It took me years to stop resenting doing the housework, after I was married, and if it weren’t for my sense of fairplay I might have wrecked my marriage. But fairplay came in. When we got married both Dan and I had both jobs and artistic pursuits. My training/former job didn’t apply at all here. So he said he’d support us, while I tried my hand at writing for a living.
Mind you, Dan was also raised in “enlightened” times so he never came home and said “Yo, woman, where’s dinner?” (He still doesn’t, though he’s been known to make puppy dog eyes.) And if I hadn’t cooked, he’d make his and my food.
But the sense of fairplay got to me. He was out working (computers, eighties) twelve to fourteen hour days so I could write, and I wasn’t even cooking, despite being home all day. So I learned. (And we each gained 100 pounds. I CANNOT figure out how to cook for two people. When last boy is out, we might very well have to have me cook for several days.) And I learned to do other things, because I still wasn’t making money when the kids were born, and all our friends had two jobs, and, well… I didn’t want the kids to live like paupers.
We’re not over-bothered about who does what, mind. I turn my hand to carpentry as well as to sewing. He does car repair as well as accounting. But we each try to do as much as we can for the other. I think if you were to tally it, he still does more than I do, and I’m trying to figure out how to do some more to give him time to write, because I too want the sequel to his book.
We make do.
But the point was to stop thinking of him as a male oppressor. As far as I can tell my husband, personally, never oppressed anyone (kids’ claims to the contrary notwithstanding.)
However those of you of a penis persuasion, not to count those of you who are older women and didn’t get the full brain washing indoctrination, might not realize how hard that is to do; how hard it is to let your guard down and think of the man you love as an individual. It took me probably a decade to get fully over the indoctrination. Because they don’t teach you that life was hard and most people had no rights at all. They make all history before the late twentieth century a morality play where men oppressed women, because they’re just villainous that way or something.
And ninety percent of the time when I see a marriage headed for divorce (of course there are exceptions, and as I said the remedy for “he beats me but he’s my man” is to get out as fast as you can and before he starts in on the kids. I’m not talking about those, but the cases where the woman is vaguely certain the husband is “oppressing” her, often by keeping all the “fun” of a day job to himself or something) something like this is going on. The woman resents the man not for anything he’s done, but for the presumed mind set of ancestors that never existed and is sure if she doesn’t keep him low and humble with constant attacks, he’ll crush her under his boot.
Then there’s the reverse of that, as a lot of entertainment portrays women as putting an end to Lads being Lads together. Women are brought in as “adults” to stop sprees of video gaming or pie eating in sitcoms. That sort of thing. So men associate women with killjoys. And women associate men goofing off with oppressing women by making them be the adults…
When we were newly married, for instance, we stopped watching Married With Children, because it seemed designed to foster mutual marital resentment.
But in either case, in most of these divorces, the problem is not the spouses so much as not keeping crazy culture out of their relationship, and not looking at who they married AS INDIVIDUALS.
My mom is fond of telling that her grandparents used to share a plate (apparently an old Portuguese custom for married couples. It strikes me as bizarre, but I don’t even see why. After all married couples normally share a bed, right?) And after they got elderly, he had dentures while she still had her own teeth, and he’d complain she ate faster than him and got the greater share of the food.
These were her maternal grandparents, and as she told it, her grandfather never even raised his voice to scold his wife, so it was a gentle reproof and it became a family joke. Whenever my dad was doing something that mom thought was excessive, she’d say “you have good teeth, you’re taking all the food.” (Though they DIDN’T share plates.)
Anyway marriage is like that. It’s impossible to draw a line in the middle of a marriage and weigh in exactly what you do for whom. I used to do the lion share of the work when the kids were little, and I often thought I’d break under it. But Dan now is picking up on housework, as I also have work that pays, and there are no kids. It’s probably about equal, save for stuff I’m really good at like cooking, and stuff he’s really good at, like accounting.
But the point is, you go through phases where metaphorically speaking one of you is eating all the food because he has good teeth. It’s okay, it equalizes, eventually, somewhere else. It’s no reason to call it quits, particularly if you’ve been at it for more than twenty years.
The solution is to stop weighing who does what or thinking he’s a natural-born oppressor. You’re just people. If the burden is too heavy, figure it out. Don’t assume he’s out to dominate you just because he has a penis.
And I say this because — this is important — in our day the Marriage State has become not the default but (particularly in its happy mode) a rarity. If this continues, the cultures that will inherit the earth are the ones where women aren’t even second class citizens, but something more like domestic animals.
I don’t have daughters, but I might have an adoptive granddaughter soon, and maybe by a miracle blood granddaughters later. I don’t wand this for any of them.
In a state of nature, where marriage doesn’t exist, for biological and psychological reasons, women are always the losers. The opposite of “He beats me but he’s my man” is not a state of freedom, but a state of the woman having to kill herself to support the kids, or if there are no kids, of the woman (or man) becoming old and grey and lonely. Yeah, in extreme cases, you should get out as soon as you can. But in cases of vague dissatisfaction? Remember he’s a person. And remember you’re one too. Work it out. It’s not his job to treat you like royalty because some putative ancestor beat some putative ancestress. It’s your job to learn to pull together at the same yoke and either raise kids or set money by so you’re not a burden on strangers in your old age, and more importantly, so you’re not resoundingly, echoingly lonely. Because there will come a time the rest of the world will have no use for you. And your kids will be too busy to spend time with you. This is not a threat, it’s the inevitable tendency of the flesh. And humans are social animals. You need someone. Or you will. No matter how free an independent you are. Friends, or spouses are difficult to cultivate when you’ll not put a hand to do a favor for any male.
Remember that. Remember the present doesn’t last forever, and that the past was not as bad as they painted it in school.
He might at times eat all the food in the plate, but if you remember kindness and common charity to each other (love is an unreliable thing that comes and goes, or seems to, till you learn to see it always there, in different forms) then sometimes he’ll push aside most of the chocolate cake, and say he’s full because he knows you like it better.
And that’s marriage at its best state. And it’s worth everything. You know how your parents loved you when you were little? This is a hundred times better.
I know. I’ve been at this for thirty years. And mostly it works.
*Almost forgot… yeah. The “few hours.” This woman in the village, whose dad had died when she was a toddler, got married, and the newly married couple moved in to her mom’s house (supposed to look after her mom and all.) I guess the mom had forgotten to tell daughter what marriage entailed. So in the middle of the night, daughter cries out “Moooom, he’s interfering with me.” At which point, mom throws the husband out. They remained married and separated for the rest of their lives.
I know this because being village kids, and lacking video games, when we walked by their house (mom and daughter’s house) on the way from school, we’d scream “mom, he’s interfering with me.” This never failed to bring the mom out like a jack-in-box, to call us names and throw sticks and stones at us, which we OF COURSE thought was the funniest thing in the world. (Yes, we were VERY bored.)