Is Marriage the Answer?

Elizabeth Berg (credit: Curt Richter)

Novelist Elizabeth Berg wonders whether a walk down the aisle helps — or hurts — a couple’s future

Many years ago, when my daughters were maybe four and nine, it was a slow summer day, and I suggested we liven things up by having a wedding. The bride and groom were teddy bears, and I went all-out for the impromptu celebration. I made a multi-tiered white cake, and when it was cooling, my girls and I went to the party store for decorations. We got the requisite white double bells to hang from the kitchen ceiling light, a lace-like plastic tablecloth, paper napkins with entwined silver hearts, and silver plastic cutlery. The bride wore a hanky veil and I believe the groom wore a nice looking vest. We may have put blush on the bride; I can’t remember if this is a true detail or if my imagination is just begging for it. But what the heck, we’re talking about a wedding between two stuffed animals over 25 years ago; let’s say we did put blush on the bride. Let’s say we put blush and lipstick on her, and that she carried a bouquet of lilies-of-the-valley and white ranunculus from the garden, tied together with a length of white satin ribbon. (This last I know isn’t true, but hey.) The sudddenly-betrothed were helped to walk down a hall aisle which had been formalized by a runner of white paper towels.

The bears exchanged vows before the minister whom I believe might have been a stuffed animal elephant, and were made to kiss, and the three of us offered applause. Then the bears and we were seated at the decorated kitchen table where ginger ale was served in plastic champagne glasses; a most excellent (if I do say so myself) cake was served on wedding paper plates; and a good time was had by all — especially, I like to think, by the bears, who surely were beneficiaries of the most stress-free wedding in the history of the world. It’s the only wedding I’ve been to where I didn’t watch someone getting married and think, Oh god, I hope this one works.

I am struck by the number of people who have told me they got married knowing it was wrong. They walked down the aisle, Mendelssohn’s march playing second fiddle (so to speak) to brain-bound strains of “How can I be sure?” or maybe even “Stop! In the name of love.”

Do love and marriage really go together like a horse and carriage? Or is marriage the surefire way to make love grind inexorably to a halt? I’m sixty-two years old now, and I can honestly say I don’t know. I can honestly say, as does Ray LaMontagne, in his achingly beautiful song “Jolene,” “Still don’t know what love is.” Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I don’t know if marriage is the right thing to do with love.

Here’s what I do know. Marriage takes an enormous amount of work, and it takes willingness and vulnerability. When I look back on my marriage, (I was married for 24 years, have now been divorced for 15 years) I have to admit I didn’t try hard enough at any of those things. I felt I was doing the wrong thing when I got married, but it seemed a better alternative to staying alone. I was twenty-five, which I thought was the right time to get married so as not to be an old maid. (Such were the times.) And anyway, my ex-husband was a great catch, a really swell guy, as the woman he’s married to now would likely confirm. But I? I was not so swell. I was always wanting something else, something I think now might have been a life lived alone.

Still, there’s one good thing that came out a marriage about which I was constantly ambivalent: my two daughters, whom I love fiercely and completely unambivalently. And who I want to succeed in love and marriage in a way that I couldn’t.

As of this writing, one daughter is married and has three children (oh, those children!) The other is in a serious relationship. Here’s the advice I have given each of them, and please withhold judgment:

To my daughter in a serious relationship, I’ve said, Look. If you’re not sure, get out. If you’re truly in love, then have the courage to truly commit. Grind you teeth and hunker down for the hard parts and say out loud — and often — that you love the good parts. Say that to each other. Keep love alive. It’s fragile. It’s needs a particular blend of oxygen and elbow grease. Give all you can to your relationship so it can give to you.

Now here comes the part where I ask you to reserve judgment. To the married daughter, I’ve said, Okay, you know what? You can’t get divorced. You can’t ever get divorced. Because you have children. If you ever feel like you want to get divorced, do what you need to do to stay together. You cannot get divorced.

I know. I know. What am I going to do if my daughter ever really does want a divorce? I’ll support her, that’s what I’ll do. But first, I’ll say, Oh, honey. Are you sure? Be so sure.

That’s something I could never be, is sure. Not in love and not in marriage. In the way of all parents, I suppose, I want better for my children. I want them to understand and embrace love in a way that seems as simple and spontaneous and a teddy bear wedding. Can they achieve that? Of course not. Will they think it’s worth constantly trying for? I hope so.

Editor’s Note: Bestselling author Elizabeth Berg’s latest novel, Once Upon a Time, There Was You, is all about love and marriage. And life.


5 Responses so far.

  1. avatar HauntedLady says:

    Interesting. I never married and have never regretted it. I think some people just are not the right kind to get married. Those who do marry and are happy, I’m glad for you. If you’re unhappy, you are the only one who can do something about it.

  2. avatar Chris Glass` says:

    Elizabeth you are right when you say that marriage takes work. There is a huge leap between dating, being engaged, living together and marriage. One of the largest hurtles to overcome is remaining your own person within the boundaries of wedlock. You don’t lose yourself once you become half of a couple. Marriage does not make us think alike or automatically agree with each other. It is learning to compromise on the important things and ignoring the petty issues so they don’t become a power struggle. I loved my husband when I married him and I still love him because we have grown into the marriage together.
    Your comment on marriage when a person knows it isn’t right struck a nerve because so many women I knew were afraid of being a spinster. I applaud the young women of today for launching themselves before plunging into marriage. They know they can care for themselves so they are choosier about future partners.

  3. avatar lshell says:

    Thank you for sharing this insight.  Very good for the soul! 

  4. avatar annieb603 says:

    if marriage is the answer, i think someone needs to rephrase the question…….

  5. avatar Briana Baran says:

    I married once without living with the man, after a one year engagement. I didn’t love him, but I didn’t know that at the time. I was young, desperate and also oddly determined to make it work. I cooked, cleaned, kept a budget when we were way below the poverty line, was the sole provider for long periods of time…and encouraged him, boosted his ego, and did my best to be everything that makes a woman The Superior Wife. He took complete advantage of me, abused me emotionally and verbally…and, just once, physically. That was the breaking point. By then I had gone from having a drinking problem to being an alcoholic and drug addict, and having catatonic breaks. When he hit me, I laid him out on the floor. I stopped all of my substance abuse cold turkey a few months later, and left him within a year.
    I married a second time after living with the man for several years. I was in love. I was the main provider, the cook/cleaner/car mechanic/accountant/home maintenance person…everything. I thought he was happy to marry…we discussed it extensively. We also thoroughly discussed becoming parents…and, as soon as our son was born, our marriage crumbled. He wanted to smoke pot and opium in the house. He wanted to go on water-skiing, snow-skiing, and extended house-boating trips with his much wealthier brother. He wasn’t working, but would leave our toddler with me for hours while I was at work so that he could run around with his friends. When he finally started working…he was too tired to even put his greasy work clothes in the separate basket I had provided and labeled so that my few dresses for my job wouldn’t be ruined. I was playing The Superior Wife again. I tried so hard to accommodate him, and make him happy, that I lost myself. He wanted sex two or three times a day…but it was totally impersonal, as if I were a love-doll with a pulse. If I was tired or sick, too bad, he had a high libido.
    Finally, I crashed. Then I took a serious inventory my life, and my son’s, and I knew we couldn’t continue. I firmly invited the man to leave, by a certain date, with or without his stuff. I did seek any vengeance in the divorce (or in the first one), and I paid almost all of our outstanding bills, asked for no spousal support, and the minimum child support (which was never increased over 15 years). He had full visiting rights (which only his parents took advantage of for years) and was never denied access to our son, nor did I ever criticize him or his family to our son.
    I am now married for the third time, going on 17 years. I have worked even harder at this relationship…but the difference is that R. has worked, and continues to work, just as much as I do. Besides love, we have mutual respect, honesty, trust, passion, tenderness and comfort. We communicate well, understand each other, have both similar and different interests, outside friends…and very close personality types (less than 1% of the population falls into our “introvert” group…by which I don’t mean shy or withdrawn or antisocial), but very different ways of viewing the world.
    I never thought, after the second debacle, that I would marry again, or even have a serious relationship. I was clearly unable to choose wisely, or to make a marriage work. I have never thought that marriage was an answer to anything, only that once entered into, it should not be tossed aside lightly. Neither my first or second were easy to walk away from…I felt like an epic failure, especially the second time. I am not in the least bit religious, or traditional…I simply don’t believe in a throw-away life-style. My parents’ marriage was a 27 year train-wreck, and I had no friends or older siblings to advice me, or warn me, or try to dissuade me. I truly was in a desperate situation the first time…lost, terrified, nihilistic and not trusting in anything or anyone. I didn’t believe in happily-ever-after; I’d settle for surviving till the next day.
    I don’t think that marriage is an answer, a solution or the end of anything. It may be a beginning for some people, in certain circumstances. My current, and, I know, last marriage changed by life…but that isn’t why I married. I was hopelessly in love, and I loved him, and something tiny, embryonic and barely known to me said, “He’s been here for 9 years as your friend, through everything…let me be born”. Even so, we nearly failed…and I made myself be strong for the sake of what I wanted so very much…and 17 years later here we are, still so very much in love, and so loving.
    I don’t think that there is any way for there to be any correct answer for every person. Marriage is something different to everyone. Thinking of it as an answer or a solution, or worse, a cure or remedy, or most terrible of all, an escape…may be the worst mistakes an individual can make. To each his or her own, an their own terms…but whatever you choose, do it wisely, take your time, and do a great deal of introspection before making your choice. The why’s are so very, very important.