My favorite podcast, This American Life, featured an interview with Alain de Botton, an author with what appears to be a very cynical take on love.
We all marry the wrong people, he says, and the key to happiness in marriage is accepting that both spouses will disappoint each other, that many hopes and dreams for the marriage must die for it to survive, and that compatibility is elusive and most spouses will find it hard to live with each other. A good question to ask on a first date, he suggests, is “how are you crazy?”
De Botton is fascinating to listen to, speaks with a fantastic British accent, and has written more books than I have blog posts. I think he’s on to something when he says marriage isn’t the fairy tale that people like to envision when they’re in the throes of early romance.
But in some ways what he seems to be advocating is a viewpoint full of a very conventional wisdom that frustrates me. That conventional wisdom says that marriage is something you do when you’re all done having fun; when you’re an established adult who is ready to settle down and have a few dreams destroyed.
Prepare, this viewpoint suggests, to be underwhelmed, sexually frustrated, lonely, and overrun with children all at the same time.Who would ever want to get married after hearing that?
So here we are, stuck between these dueling worlds. On one side, television bachelors take stunning women on dates in helicopters and propose to them with four-carat diamonds and unrealistic promises of happily ever after. On the other, spouses find a grim satisfaction in knowing marriage is full of disappointment, heartache, and neuroses. Because, well, that’s life.
But perhaps we need to strip marriage down even further than de Botton proposes, dispensing with all baggage and expectations. In its simplest form, marriage is a promise between two people, a commitment to lifelong love in good times and bad. There are no baked-in promises of economic success, or perfect children, or social standing. There is no assurance that your spouse will stay the same, keep the hairstyle you like, or put the toilet seat down. There’s no guarantee you’ll have a certain amount of fun together every week or meet a certain happiness quotient.
Instead, there’s something better. I like the Bible verses from the book of Ecclesiastes that are so often read at weddings.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: If either of them falls down, one can help the other up. But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up. Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm. But how can one keep warm alone? Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.” (4:9-12)
In my short experience of marriage, I have found it’s at its best in the simplicity of living life together. Yes, the challenges of living with another person’s foibles and failings (and your own) have to be worked through. But in exchange, you get an ally, a defender, someone who can encourage you when you feel beaten down and help to shoulder your load.
I remember one night when my husband and I were trying to figure out how to swaddle our newborn daughter so she’d go to sleep. We zipped her into a snug little sleep sack, where she promptly fell asleep, looking like an adorable little mummy with a big head and a skinny, tightly swaddled body. She looked so funny that we started laughing and didn’t stop until tears rolled down our cheeks. In that moment, marriage was having someone to laugh with. And it didn’t need to be anything else.
We’ve disappointed each other in the past, and I’m sure we will again. But I think we have an advantage. Our marriage is not, first and foremost, about our hopes and dreams and plans. It’s about each other, and walking through life as partners. There are lots of ordinary moments. And often, those are the times I wouldn’t trade for anything.