were speaking about marriage.
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?”
was silent because I thought so.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
in case you think I’m slagging off marriage, you’re wrong.
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.
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.
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.
there is also the comfort factor of knowing someone’s seen you at your
worst and loves you anyhow.
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.
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.