Happily ever after and other lies


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Category: Women Date: 16 Jun 02

We were speaking about marriage.

At one point in our telephone conversation, my 30-something divorced friend left me speechless when she said bitterly: “These older women, when they encouraged us to get married, stitched our pre-Raphaelite cream silk dresses, made us clutch roses, baked our snowy cakes, never told us what marriage was really going to be like. It was so mean of them to draw us young women into that spider’s web of marriage. Don’t you think so?”


I was silent because I thought so.

Ironically, the real victims of this misinformation aren’t the younger, unmarried professional women who can bring the bacon home to the apartment they own, thank you very much. (These young women suffer from their own kind of disillusionment - a realisation that men of a marriageable age, even in this century, prefer women who are less intelligent than themselves and more malleable. But they will do all right despite their anxiety about the biological clock because they know their rights, are not marrying to be taken care of, can call a sperm bank if desperate and won’t take any crap.) It’s the bewilderment that can be seen in the eyes of middle-aged women, who really bought into the innocence, passivity and stupidity of ‘happily ever after’ and other lies, that I find sad.


I’m talking about women who are too old to begin again with careers, savings, salvage their neglected bodies or even remember sacrificed dreams. The deliciously uninhibited writer Erika Jong explains that look and asks the question, “Would most women get married if they knew what it meant?” in her book Fear of Flying written in the early 1970s.


“I think,” said Jong, “of young women following their husbands wherever their husbands follow their jobs. I think of them making babies out of their loneliness and boredom and not knowing why. I think of their men always harried and exhausted from being on their make. I think of them seeing each other less after marriage than before. I think of them farther apart in the first year of marriage than they ever imagined two people could be when they were courting. And then I think of the fantasies starting. He is eyeing the 14-year-old post nymphets in bikinis. She covets the TV repairman. He is having an affair with his masochistic little secretary who reads Cosmopolitan and thinks herself a swinger. Not: When did it all go wrong? But: When was it ever right?”


My friend fell somewhere in between through the cracks of the old innocence and the new hope of having it all: Love and a career, babies, and a supportive, loving friend who was beyond “me Tarzan, you Jane,” and would share with the housework.


But in case you think I’m slagging off marriage, you’re wrong.

Despite initial reservations (that admittedly lasted for a full seven years, surpassing any notion of a single itch on the seventh), I have come to see the value of this institution. I have also discovered marriage is as interesting, as complex, as futile, as risky and as fulfilling as attempting to trawl the entire breadth of an ocean - that some aspect of it will be as mysterious as the patterns of waves - now it drowns you, now it gives you pleasure, now there is darkness, now flecks of light. Like a wave, it just is.


Ironically, it took us seven years to figure out that to have a decent marriage, both partners have to act almost full time, as if we are still unmarried. The hardest things about marriage are the simplest - to look at one another with new eyes every day, to have something different to talk about in the evenings, to surprise one another, to be perpetually curious about one another, to make an effort to be attractive to one another, to allow one another mental and physical spaces, to remain a bit elusive.


Marriage also comes with an enormous shared in-law/children/mutual friends infrastructure that remains largely invisible but grows definite shapes and springs to action with emergencies and major events in our lives. A child’s sickness, weddings, calamities, when you can’t imagine anyone else at your side.


Then there is also the comfort factor of knowing someone’s seen you at your worst and loves you anyhow.


In a couple of decades when I am a middle-aged woman, I want to whisper those few simple things under the confetti to the bride, and some subversive things besides: Remain fit and ready to battle with the outside world on your own; learn a martial art to protect yourself; find an occupation other than husband, and children to keep you self-contained; save some vex money (in case he decides to run off with the silly secretary) each month in a single account.


I’ll tell them, too, the dark waves will never stop overwhelming you no matter how long you are married. But if you manage not to go under, to remember the glorious flecks of light, it will be worth it, after all.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur