Marital lessons on love courtesy of my cat

The Thinker by Rodin

In spite of what you are about to read, this is not “Let’s beat up on my wife day”. I love my wife. Obviously, there are things about her I wish I could change. I am sure she has a list of things about me that she would correct in me if I could somehow reprogram myself. We both are who we are. We are the people we were before we entered into marriage 22 years ago, plus the unique dynamics of those last 22 years. Our fundamental personalities are immutable.

Like many households, we have pets. Actually, we have a pet, one four-year-old male cat named Arthur that we picked up from a no-kill pet shelter about a year ago. Arthur too is a product of his conditioning. He was found on the streets of Lovettsville, Virginia where he probably lived a very scary and Spartan existence. At his core, Arthur is a sweet and affectionate cat, just incredibly skittish.

Arthur gets plenty of attention from us. The basement is his sanctuary. When he needs to escape, he retreats there and sleeps on the couch. When he is awake, he wants our attention, but he does not want to be picked up. When I am at my computer like now, he will often sit on the floor next to my chair. I have to reach down to pet him. This is not terribly convenient for me. It would be much more convenient to have him on my lap, like my last cat Sprite. Perhaps he will achieve this level of trust someday, although I doubt it.

When he deigns to pay us a visit, we greet him warmly. “Hello Arthur!” we generally say and we pet him and he purrs and he wraps himself around our legs. Even though we are confident that he does not understand English, we talk to him as if he understands us. I ask him how his day is going. I know his favorite spots. He likes scratches behind his ears, long belly rubs and to have his tail gently pulled. Generally, we try to keep him engaged but eventually one of us loses interest. He seems content to sit near us. Eventually he will find another human to greet, or will go back to the basement for more sleep. Should he ever feel bored, he has ready access to our screened in deck. Some months back I installed a pet door that insets into one of our kitchen windows. He traverses in and out of the deck dozens of times a day. In short, for a formerly homeless cat he has it made in the shade. The idea of escape does not occur to him.

I find myself more and more envious of Arthur, and particularly my wife’s reaction to him. I keep thinking to myself, why can I not get from her the level of attention that she gives the cat? I guess the same is true with me. I fuss over the cat probably a lot more than I do my wife. All I know is that if I got the same amount of attention from the people in my house that our cat gets, I would feel much more loved.

As an experiment the other day, I bounded down the stairs into the kitchen where my wife was preparing something and I said, “How are you? How is you day so far?” Of course, we had just talked about things a few minutes earlier, so she looked at me puzzled. I told her that I wondered what would happen if I started to give her the kind of focused attention that I gave the cat.

If I got that kind of focused attention from her, I suspect my marital satisfaction level would skyrocket. Oh, we do regularly trade the news of the day. I tell her what is going on in my life. (I leave a lot out actually, knowing that the intricacies of office politics would bore her). She keeps me up on what is going on in her life too. Yet I often suspect that her mind wanders when I tell her what my day is like. Moreover, truth be told, my mind often wanders too. Her boss is a voice I have only heard on the phone. Yet there are all sorts of details about her relationship with her boss and coworkers that she is willing to share. Therefore, some part of me is faking my interest in her non-home life, and I suspect the same is true when she asks me about my day. The reality is we do not care that much because these are separate areas of our lives largely walled off. This interaction may be more about giving the appearance of caring than actual caring.

However, we are both intensely interested in Arthur’s life. Every coming and going in and out of the deck is reported. If Arthur is in a playful mood, we will enjoy his antics. We pay attention to the sheen on his coat and monitor his urinary and bowel habits. We are fascinated with his reaction to bugs. (He plays with them more than tries to kill them.) Particularly as our daughter transitions into adulthood, the cat is becoming our new surrogate child, ever fresh and wide-eyed, recipient of enormously amounts of interest and love.

Perhaps it speaks to a relative paucity of engagement in our own relationship. There are times when after 22 years it feels like we are more like strangers living together than a married couple. Both of us are quite introverted. Our activities in common seem to be diminishing over time. She has little interest in most of my activities. If I can drag her to the Unitarian church I attend, it will not be more than once a year. The church thing does not interest her probably because it was not a product of her childhood. She believes in worshipping God by sleeping in late on Sundays. On the other hand, her fascination for adult fan fiction and in particular slash leaves me cold. I took the time last year though to attend a slash convention in Las Vegas with her. Her friends were all quite interesting people in their own right, but the slash thing bored me to tears. Perhaps in response I infuse more of my spare time in blogging. She has little interest in exercise, and certainly does not want to join my gym, so I exercise alone. Her knees do not allow her to go biking with me so my twenty-plus mile biking journeys tend to be a solitary experience.

Perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps this is the natural state of marriage between two introverted people after more than twenty years. Still, something must be missing because I observe our cat and the love he receives from all of us. I wonder, what would it mean to our marriage if we invested the time and attention in each other that we invest in our feline? Would it be healthy or counterproductive?

Scarier still, is the main purpose of our cat to allow us to express feelings that we find it hard to express with each other? Is it the simplicity of the cat’s life that we find so appealing?

All I know is that I have a new vision of heaven. It does not include God or the choir invisible. It involves in my next life being a spoiled and pampered housecat where human affection is always readily available, I never have to worry about food, water or a dirty litter box. I can bask in the joy of a sunbeam or spend enrapt hours looking out the window as life passes by. Perhaps one such life as a cat would suffice and I would want to go back to the complexity that is human life. I do know there is something very appealing about being this kind of cat. I could deal with hairballs and the occasional urinary tract infection. All I know is I would feel so loved and I would be so happy.

I strongly suspect that this kind of love is simply not available in human experience, at least not for very long. Human life is too complex and our pathways through life are too stressful to allow this kind of love. Still, I want it even though I know it will never happen.

More bad XX chromosome advice from Amy Dickerson

The Thinker by Rodin

Uh oh. Amy Dickerson, the advice columnist is at it again on the issue of men and pornography. And I thought I had said all I had to say on the matter in this entry.

Dear Amy: I’ve been happily married for 13 years. My husband and I have a beautiful daughter.

One thing that bothers me in our marriage is my husband’s need for pornography.

He watches porn on TV and on the Internet.

I’ve confronted him about it a few times.

He pretty much tells me that it has nothing to do with me.

But I’m hurt that he does this, and it makes me feel self-conscious.

I don’t like to be compared to the silicone-enhanced liposuction-ed bimbos.

It makes me wonder about what else he might be doing behind my back.

I think that I’m a smart, strong, beautiful woman.

Am I not good enough?

I try to understand that men are visual beings, and I think that most men think that looking at pornography is normal.

Is viewing pornography cheating?

— Wondering

Dear Wondering: Whether or not pornography is actually “cheating” is beside the point.

What matters is that your husband is choosing to do something that according to you is hurtful. I would also think that as the father of a young daughter, your husband wouldn’t want to engage in activities that are demeaning to women and girls. If he can’t make the connection between his own daughter’s life and how pornography depicts and exploits females, then he’s either not trying very hard, not very bright or hooked on something that has become more important than the people in his life.

A thoughtful husband and father should not be engaging in this sort of exploitation. I hope that the two of you can work this out. If you need to sort through your feelings about this, talking to a professional counselor will help.

The good news is that this column gave my wife and me something to discuss. Not that we necessarily disagree on pornography. Depending on how you define pornography, she likely enjoys a lot more of it than I do. As a fan of homoerotic fan fiction, a.k.a. slash, she both reads and writes the stuff. It can consume hours out of her day.

Since I am a male, I am more likely to be turned on by the visual pornography than the written kind. So maybe because her pornography is written, it is not really pornography. Maybe it is “erotica”. I strongly get the feeling though that Amy Dickerson, unless the portrayal is of an airbrushed Vargas Girl, would call any other photographic depiction of women in an undressed state, particularly who are engaged in sexual acts “pornography”.

So if it is written down and marketed for women then it must be erotica. However, if women choose to undress themselves and let themselves be photographed in sexual acts with other people, not only is it pornography but according to Amy, these women are also exploited. By this husband viewing pornography, even if it is only done privately when his daughter is out of the house, he is engaging in activities demeaning to women and girls and exploiting women. Gosh! What a guilt trip! And why? Because, according to Amy, he is dismissive of his wife’s feelings and/or is addicted to pornography.

It’s a good think Amy Dickerson doesn’t come strolling down my street. I would have to throw a big, wet raspberry at her. She can do much better than falling into stereotypes.

Let me try to give “Wondering” some useful advice, instead of rushing to embrace stereotypes.

“Cheating” is whatever you and your husband defined it to be before your marriage. If you agreed before marriage that viewing pornography was the same as cheating then you were cheated on. If you discussed it and it was not an issue with either of you, it is not cheating. If you never got around to discussing it at all before marriage but you assumed your husband felt as you did, this was your mistake. You have the right to bring up your concern to your husband and tell him how you feel, but unless you both agree that he will refrain from it because you feel it is cheating, it isn’t. Instead, your feelings being hurt and you are just upset that you cannot coax or guilt trip your husband into changing his behavior and pretending to agree to your values.

Sorry, you do not have the right to unilaterally add an additional previously undisclosed constraint on your marriage. A marriage contract may not be written down, but it is still a contract. It is exactly what you jointly agreed to at the start of the marriage plus any subsequent amendments to which you both agreed. If you did not discuss it before marriage that was your mistake because it is clearly important to you. Your husband certainly should listen carefully to your feelings and you should listen to his, but neither of you has the right to impose a new unilateral demand or to frame the relationship in a new way. If it is a source of great friction between the two of you, you should both be willing to work through the issue with a therapist. If your husband’s looking at airbrushed pictures of “bimbos” is that dang important to you but does not affect your husband’s feelings for you, there is an alternative. It is called divorce. Your husband has already told you that looking at naked pictures of other women does not affect his feelings for you. What does it say about you that you cannot take him at his word?

As for your daughter, I certainly agree your husband should not be watching pornography in front of your daughter. And if it bothers you, even though it appears that he is being open with you about his interest in pornography, he shouldn’t do it in front of you either. If he has a pornographic stash, and many men do, you should agree that he will keep it in a locked box that is out of the way. If he gets all his pornography online now, which seems to be the modern way of doing these things, he should ensure that his daughter does not have access to his computer or, if she does, that the files are kept in encrypted electronic vaults where only he has the password.

As for pornography “exploiting women”, doubtless some women who get into the business are underage runaways or are vulnerable because of bad or dysfunctional relationships. However, Amy is painting with a very broad brush. Women, like men, are sexual creatures. Pornographers scrupulously avoid hiring underage women. Those women who go into pornography may be desperate for money, or are supporting a drug habit or could be making a very bad choice, but they are still of legal age and get to sort out these issues for themselves. It is also possible, indeed even likely that they get some enjoyment beyond the monetary aspects of being sexual on camera.

Getting back to Wondering’s daughter, parents are doing a disservice to their children if they are pretending they are asexual creatures. I am not suggesting that parents should engage in heavy petting in front of their children, even if they are all grown up. However, children do need to understand that both Mommy and Daddy have a sexual side to them. Is it not it dishonest to pretend otherwise? The parents should express a hopefully real warm and intimate relationship between each other that shows that not only do they love each other, but also that they are passionately physically, emotionally and sexually connected with each other. The son or daughter who does not occasionally hear Mom and Dad squealing behind locked doors is getting an artificial view of life. Parents can help their children through the treacherous waters of human sexuality by showing that they are sexual creatures too and comfortable with their sexual nature. They should communicate the truth: that sexuality in its many variations, including enjoying pornography, is part of the broad spectrum of being a sexual being. To pretend otherwise is hypocrisy.

Since this issue is so important to this wife, it should be discussed. I hope they will get joint counseling on the issue. However, I do think there should be some respect for both the inherent sexual natures of the wife and the husband. There should be some middle ground here. A reasonable middle ground would be some of the steps I outlined. Neither total capitulation to the wife’s demands nor dismissing the husband dismissing the wife’s concerns is appropriate for a healthy marriage. Honest dialog and open communications is the glue that truly binds a marriage together.

Women seem to have a near monopoly in the advice columnist business. They should not. We need more advice columnists like Salon’s Cary Tennis, who can give the male perspective. In any case, Amy Dickerson should be clear that her opinions are just that, opinions, and they align well with the XX chromosome perspective of the world. Nevertheless, they do not necessarily align with those of us in the XY chromosome set. In short, like all people including myself she brings a bias. She should be very mindful not to paint such a broad brush with hurtful advice like, “If he can’t make the connection between his own daughter’s life and how pornography depicts and exploits females, then he’s either not trying very hard, not very bright or hooked on something that has become more important than the people in his life.”

Real Life 101, Lesson 5: Relationship Basics, Part 3

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the fifth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

In my last entry in this subject, I discussed my thoughts on how to create a solid foundation for a committed relationship. I may have put the cart before the horse because there is also this murky area business of sifting through the dating pool for a lifelong mate.

Let me assure you that anyone you hope to hang around with for the rest of your life will have some problems and issues. While dating, couples finding ways to accentuate their positives and minimize their negatives. Consequently, when you are sizing up someone be mindful that what you see is not necessarily what you would get if you lived with them for the rest of your life.

This is of course because when you date someone he or she is not presenting their true self. Because they are likely interested in you or they would not be going out with you, at least some part of them is projecting an image of themselves that they think you want to see. The nice thing about a date though is that it tends to last only a few hours. You can go home, kick the cat and indulge in some habit like picking your toes you would not want to show your date.

Recognizing this I figured one-way around the problem would be living together. Shacking up was actually my wife’s idea. I was somewhat reluctant because I had never done it before. For me it was a further education in real life. Eventually though it wore on my wife. Like many a woman who have tried this arrangement, eventually they feel used. I got all of the privileges, like virtually all the sex I wanted, with none of the responsibilities. Moreover, she was responsible for half the rent, even though I made more money than she did.

Since I loved her and living together was certainly not a bad thing, I eventually agreed to tie the knot. I had a good idea what I was getting into at that point, or so I thought. Yes, the stockings on the shower rail and the collection of medications splayed over the bathroom counters took some getting used to, but these were minor annoyances. I rationalized that if the problems got too bad we could always divorce.

I do not know how typical my case was, but I found that there was a huge difference between living together and actual marriage. Part of it was psychological. For the first time in my life, my assets were legally tied with someone else’s. When we lived together, our biggest joint problem was making sure we both paid our share of the rent on time. Now there was all this other stuff to work through. It ran from the relatively trivial, like deciding how our apartment would look to the very personal, such as how to accommodate differences in our sex drives. I was not in Kansas anymore. Moreover, since we were married, we did not have to wear our masks anymore. I found the first five years of my marriage were constantly full of surprises.

How much of what I experienced would happen to you is of course impossible to predict. What is true is that both my wife and I are different people. There was no way to really know how things would work out until we worked through issues as a married couple. I am confident though that stuff will happen in any such relationship that will surprise, upset you or be of concern. When this stuff happens, you learn where the friction points in your relationship really lie. How you navigate through them will tell you volumes about yourself and your spouse.

Most of us though want to minimize that stuff. We want to feel harmony with our partner ten or twenty years into a relationship, not strife. Given that most marriages eventually devolve into divorce (and arguably many that remain are not that happy) finding that harmony without surrendering your self-identity and self-respect can be one of life’s thorniest problems.

As I mentioned in the first entry in this series, the best thing you can do before getting hip deep in the dating pool is to work on addressing your own issues. Granted, this is not an easy thing to do. We all come with baggage, but young adults do not tend to come with much money. Therapists are not cheap. Anything you can do to address what you feel are your biggest relationship problems before you get too far into intimate relationships will be time and money well spent. If you do not, you will be tackling them later. Moreover, if you are in a lifelong relationship, they will affect your spouse too.

Although hardly anyone bothers, simply writing down what you are looking for in a partner will make you more mindful of people who may meet your needs. It will also tell you a lot about yourself. Virtually all of us on some level will crave a partner who is attractive. However, your ideal partner is probably someone on roughly the same attractiveness scale as you. If you examine the standard deviation for the human population, after all, you will find relatively few 1s and 10s. Most of us are in the middle and that is perfectly okay. If you are one of these types for whom looks are paramount, you can save yourself a lot of grief by adjusting your standards. Not only is a perfect 10 likely saddled with their own baggage, if you were married to one of these people your life may be much more stressful than you can imagine. (For one thing, if you were the jealous type, you would be constantly worried about the competition eager to snatch him/her away.)

When your significant other suggests it is time to meet the family, rather than run away from this activity, you should embrace it. You will learn volumes about the person from their family. Let us say that you come from a family where your parents have a happy, comfortable and mutually fulfilling marriage. You discover that both your girlfriend’s parents have been divorced twice and she has known two sets of stepfathers. You find out that her brother is also divorced or had a child out of wedlock. You discover that Aunt Mabel hates Uncle Jeff. One or two incidents like this in a family is excusable, but still a caution flag. A family rife with these issues should be ringing your claxon bells. Know that if you marry this person the odds are your marriage will likely be full of similar issues.

I suspect you came from a family that had issues too. Full disclosure is the best policy. Let your boy or girlfriend shake out your family too. If you have concerns about her reaction to a particularly toxic person in the family, tell her about it in advance. Tell her what you have learned from of it, and how a long term relationship with you would be different.

It should go without saying that if your potential partner is evasive then claxon bells should be going off too. It is fine to be evasive if you are dating casually. It is another thing entirely if you are both seriously contemplating a lifelong relationship.

Indians have a rigid caste system that has endured for millennium. While I certainly do not endorse the system, the best partner for you is likely to be someone who is in a similar socioeconomic class. If your background and outlook is blue collar, you probably carry those values with you. Most likely, you will feel more comfortable with a partner who is also blue collar. Mixed marriages are fine, but the ones that are more likely to endure occur when both are from the same socioeconomic background. I dated two black women during my dating years. One was a pediatrician and the other the daughter of an Air Force general. I am sure a mixed marriage would have been full of challenges, but they would have been less so because both women came from solid middle class households where the parents were in stable marriages, like mine.

Your best guide is likely your gut instinct. If you feel uneasy about your potential partner, trust your instinct. He or she may be attractive and on the surface, everything may seem terrific. Wait for that someone who, when the flush of infatuation fades, still fills you with a warmth and contentment. He or she is likely the right partner for you.

Real Life 101: Lesson 4, Relationship Basics, Part 2

The Thinker by Rodin

This is the fourth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

I am 21 years into my marriage. I do not know if my marriage is typical or atypical, nor would I claim that my wife and I have a model marriage. However, we are still hanging in there. I do know that after all these years that I still sometimes find myself baffled in my own most intimate relationship. I suspect my wife feels the same way. Just who is this weird person I married? is what I am sure she often asks herself. What happened to the man I knew? I often have similar feelings. I view the current state of my marriage and compare it with a time when it seemed to me to be at its most wonderful stage, which was around 1986, and certain aspects of the way it is today are a let down. In 1986, we were childless and had few obligations. Since then lots and lots of life has happened. All these normal things that happen to normal people over 21 years put stress on our marriage. Just as a waterfall will erode the rocks at its base, life will tend to erode even the most solid of relationships.

Since you are likely young, you are probably not a homeowner. However, I think you can understand that if you were a homeowner that basic home maintenance is not just a good idea, it is required. Life sucks when your roof has a hole in it or the air conditioner dies in the middle of summer. Most homeowners quickly learn to anticipate these things. Your house, like your marriage or any partnership arrangement you get into, will also have to fight the forces of entropy. Unfortunately, just saying, “I love you” to your partner every day will not be enough.

My wife and I have learned through painful experience that complacency is not a great marital strategy. In any committed relationship regular spadework must be done. I suspect that marital complacency is likely the number one reason that marriages fail. If you do not place much value in your relationship, then go ahead and be complacent about it. Just do not be surprised if you end up divorced, or unhappy, or upset because your feelings are not being addressed. If you do value your relationship, you and your spouse need to regularly invest your most precious asset: time. This does not necessarily mean if you are a guy that going out with the guys is now out of the question. It does mean that that satisfying your partner’s needs for intimacy comes first. When that cup is full and if there is time left over, then go hang out with the guys.

If you are already in a committed relationship, I hope that your better half feels the same way you do about your relationship. If he or she does not, you should be hearing the deafening sounds of claxon bells. Now is the time to run, not walk and get some joint counseling. No positive relationship can remain in imbalance for very long. No relationship that is worth keeping should be one sided. The premise behind marriage is that the relationship is very valuable. Just as you would make sure a precious heirloom is protected, so should you and your partner work to ensure your relationship stays optimal.

I have written about marriage before. For me one of the key lessons that I have learned is that the participants actually define the scope and meaning of their relationship. A marriage certificate may offer some legal protections, but otherwise it really means nothing. Only you and your partner can judge the value of your relationship. If it feels dead, it is dead. You can both stay together for the sake of the children or to spare hurt feelings, but neither of these things changes the fact that the relationship is dead.

The good news is that unlike actual death, which is final, it is possible to bring a marriage back to life. However, it has to be done before the body cools. In addition, it requires the sincere commitment of both partners. Sadly, there is no guarantee that it will work and unfortunately, the odds are against you.

Since presumably you are starting out on this committed relationship business, you can learn best practices for building and sustaining healthy, long-term relationships. It starts with a solid foundation. Do you and your potential partner share the same vision and goals? What is your idea of a successful long-term intimate relationship? What are your partner’s ideas? Under what circumstances would you break up? It is far better to discuss these things candidly before you tie the knot. Do not assume that you can read your partner’s mind. If during this discovery phase you find that you have different expectations and agendas then it is far better to move on rather than deal with the carnage many years later.

I once posited in an online forum in dead seriousness that parents should be licensed. I also wish that couples planning marriage were required to wait at least six months and attend a rigorous premarital counseling course as well. A marriage should be given the same respect you would give a firearm. For marriages can kill too. When they go wrong they typically kill or wound a person spiritually, but sometimes they can actually kill you. If you examine homicide statistics, the person most likely to murder you is your spouse. Spouse abuse, be it physical, emotional and sexual (or often a combination of the above) is so common that it is likely someone within a few hundred feet of where you live is currently a victim. The NRA will strongly encourage you to take a gun safety course before owning a firearm. I am encouraging those of you contemplating a committed long-term relationship to make a very wise investment and get relationship counseling.

Star struck lovers often have little idea what a long-term relationship is all about. Sometimes they do know, but simply do not care, since their body is awash in love hormones. Trust me, the infatuation phase will end. While love and mutual respect should be the foundation of a committed relationship and sex its spice, on a daily basis relationships like marriage are far more prosaic. What it amounts to, frankly, is they tend to be a whole lot of work. It works much better though when the partners are in a harmonious relationship based on mutual understanding.

Through premarital counseling, you can garner vital insights and perspectives. If you receive good counseling, you will discuss those issues that tend to be given short shrift in the flush of a romantic relationship. What are your expectations about children? Who should do what housework? How will the money be managed? Should you have separate bank accounts? What are your needs for sex? What are your needs for privacy? How clean should the house be? How will chores be allocated? What does fidelity mean to you? Knowing you agree on similar values and have common expectations means that you can enter a relationship like marriage with a solid foundation. You may learn a lot about your partner from these sessions. Indeed, you may very well discover that the person who you thought would be your ideal lifelong partner has very different needs and expectations than yours.

I believe that more marriages would succeed if there were sets of older, experienced marriage veterans to act as mentors for the young couple. Having a couple ten or twenty years ahead of you in their marriage to discuss marital issues would provide the wisdom and perspective that so many couples lack.

Finding such resources may prove challenging. If you are religious, your place of worship may offer such a service. Any marriage counselor can provide this service and a few sessions are likely all you will need. They would probably be thrilled to have a couple anxious to avoid mistakes for a change. Most marriage counselors learn from experience that by the time a couple makes it to their office, the marriage is usually over and they end up in the role of facilitator. However you get such counseling, it is an excellent investment. While having a facilitator like a marriage counselor is ideal, there are no lack of self help books on premarital counseling too. A counselor is a better choice than a book but if you are financially challenged a book may suffice.

Divorce is likely the most traumatic and costly event that can happen in any life, but living in a bad relationship can be equally damaging as well. Taking proactive steps to ensure your relationship is solid before starting a long-term committed relationship is just common sense.

Love’s End Game

The Thinker by Rodin

I spent part of my weekend in Boulder, Colorado with my brother and his fiancé. My visit was short but sweet. It included relaxing in a hot tub and snow shoeing for miles in the Rocky Mountains through a gentle snowfall. I felt relaxed and pampered.

My brother, who is in his early forties, is marrying late, but marrying well. My sister in law to be is a wonderful woman. She learned some hard lessons from her first marriage on what not to do in a marriage. My brother will be the fortunate beneficiary of her experience. I suspect my brother learned some things too in his long quest for a spouse. Ms. Right, when she finally appeared, did not come from meeting someone on eHarmony or one of the many Internet dating sites out there, but inadvertently through friends at work.

Of course, neither my brother nor his fiancé want or expect their marriage to fail. She knows the heartache of divorce. My brother knows the difficulty in finding the right person to marry. They inquired into my thoughts on marriage, from the perspective of someone who has been in one for 21 years.

I have written about marriage before, so I will not attempt to repeat myself. I have written a bit about love too. However, this latest conversation helped me clarify in my thoughts on the meaning of love. It made me believe that love’s mission is not what we think.

Love, if you can find it in its modern manifestation, is a wonderful experience. However, the word “love” does make me grit my teeth from time to time. I think it does because the word comes loaded with all sorts of baggage which can turn love from something joyful and freely given from the heart into an albatross around the neck. Keeping love joyful, particularly throughout a long-term relationship like a marriage, is a trick worthy of Houdini.

Like pornography, love is hard to define. Just as you can tell pornography when you see it, you will know love when you feel it. One person’s pornography though is another’s erotica. Similarly, one person’s experience with love will not be the same as another’s. The book, The Five Love Languages: How to Express Heartfelt Commitment to your Mate, and its many variants by Gary Chapman, suggest that most of us feel and broadcast love in different ways. For me I feel most loved when my wife spends quality time with me, and just me, in ways that I find meaningful, such as working on a joint project together. Her way of expressing love might be to buy me gifts, but such expressions of love would largely be lost on me. It would not take too much behavior like this to conclude that she may be trying to love me, but she does not really love me, because if she really loved me she would express love in a way that I would feel as love.

Most couples expect their lovers or spouses to be mind readers. Chapman is one of many marriage therapists out there who suggests this is folly, and divorce statistics would probably bear him out. Nonetheless, after 21 years of marriage I think I have become something of a mind reader. I truly believe that at this point I know my spouse better than she knows herself. Moreover, I am convinced she knows me better than I know myself. This is a bit of a problem because after 21 years neither of us are the idealized creatures we found when we fell in love. Now we see each other’s warts, blemishes and fallibilities, much the way a doctor can focus in on a symptom and ignore an otherwise remarkably healthy body. In addition, what we see in each other has become, not so much an accurate picture of the other, but a darker image of ourselves. It is the phenomenon of projection that has been so well studied by psychologists: we see in our intimates the unacknowledged deficiencies in ourselves.

This is a tough lesson to learn. Now, whenever my wife does something that irritates me, I try to turn it around. What is it about me that makes this aspect of her behavior irritable? That she does X or Y does not mean that she is unlovable, but it does mean that there is something about X or Y that irritates me, and which I need to resolve.

I think in the natural course of events, that love moves from the infatuation stage to the stage where love becomes this mirror that shows you yourself in the form of your spouse. The challenge then becomes to move beyond this phase. It involves being psychologically naked to yourself and your spouse and seeing the warts on yourself and your lover. The real trick is to move past them.

I think love fulfills its mission when you are both stripped naked of all pretenses. Love is not about having all your specific needs expertly met by some other human being. It is about a new stage of growing up. Rather than being an end in itself, love is a means toward another end. The end game of love is understanding that your notion of love was all wrong. Perhaps “love” was just a trap. For I believe that the purpose of love is to give you an intimate encounter with yourself that would not likely occur any other way. It is there to find a way to help you tackle your deepest fears and deficiencies.

For most of us, this becomes too daunting a task. That is when the marriage devolves toward superficiality. We press what we think are our spouses buttons in order to keep them docile, so they do not give us an intimate encounter with ourselves. For it becomes easier to do this than acknowledge our shortcomings. However, marriage by design puts you in a long-term intimate space. Rather than acknowledge and work through our issues because they can no longer be avoided, it becomes convenient to project them onto our spouse instead.

If it becomes too acutely uncomfortable, we will seek someone else. For we will need someone else who will give us the illusion of love, but not its reality. What we really want in a spouse is someone who continually places Band-Aids on our self-inflicted cuts, rather than helps us to the doctor. We want a spouse that can distract us from confronting some fundamental and disagreeable facts about ourselves. It seems that the ideal spouse must lie shamelessly to us. In short, we desire the spouse we want, not the spouse we need. The proper spouse is like eating a glazed donut: it brings us a sugar rush and makes us feel wonderful. Unfortunately, what we really need is a spouse that tastes like a serving of vegetables instead. To get there we must convince ourselves that our spouse makes vegetables taste like glazed donuts. It can be devilishly difficult to maintain perspective when inside a positive romantic relationship.

In fact, the ideal spouse will love us in spite of our faults, and we will honestly love them in spite of their faults too. They will not lie to us. However, they will help us find the courage to acknowledge and tackle tough issues within ourselves. Moreover, they will be there to reassure us that they love us in spite of these flaws. The ideal spouse will be more coach than critic, and do so in a loving, firm but gentle way. In doing so they help us move through our issues into acceptance of who we are as human beings. In the process, we will grow in understanding of ourselves and eventually put these issues behind us. As a spouse it is our mission to do the same.

I wish my brother and his fiancé the very best in their upcoming marriage. Deep, intimate and caring communications seems to me to be means to achieving a long, lasting and healthy marriage. This kind of communications though will be a challenge for any couple. They will probably be moving through a minefield of sorts on a journey of joint self-discovery. If it works out right, I suspect it will be a journey of self-exploration through the lens of someone who will be a partner with them on this most intimate of journeys. I suspect (though I will never know) that marital love will complete neither of them, but instead it will be a conduit: a swiftly flowing journey of the soul into brave, uncharted worlds of self-understanding.

Co-opted by the gay agenda

The Thinker by Rodin

While out in Denver this week I read that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist was so concerned about gay marriage, that he made the Senate debate a constitutional amendment that would prohibit states from legalizing gay marriages. Naturally, our extremely moral president also petitioned for the amendment to “protect marriage“. Yet for some inexplicable reason, the bill failed in the Senate 49-48. It could not even attract a majority, let alone the two-thirds majority needed for approval as a constitutional amendment.

This suggests that our Congress, rather than being the upstandingly moral human beings are instead a nest of brooding vipers. Okay, you knew that. However, politicians also know what side of their bread is buttered. Therefore, it is surprising the Senate could not find much enthusiasm for this amendment. Could it be that Senators judged correctly that most Americans just do not care that much about gay marriage?

Because I live in the great homophobic state of Virginia, I should be less worried. The law protects my God-fearing heterosexual marriage. However, Massachusetts, where gay marriage is already legal, is only a few hundred miles away. Virginia law and our soon to be approved state constitutional amendment permanently banning gay marriage should make me feel less concerned. Yet who knows? Maybe, as our Congressional leaders see it, gay marriage is like the bird flu so a mass inoculation is in order. One state like Massachusetts catches it and before you know it, even Baptist ministers are performing gay marriages. Such wide scale sin and debauchery would simply be more proof that the end of times is almost here. Perhaps because I am in a traditional marriage I am one of the elect without knowing it. Perhaps as a result on Judgment Day (which should be any day now) I will sail into heaven because of my heterosexual marriage. (Presumably, my many wife beatings will be excused.)

With encroaching gay marriage, and particularly since social conservatives assure me that our sexual orientation is a choice, how long before I try out the gay lifestyle? Massachusetts allows gay marriage, Vermont permits civil unions and now Washington State may allow gay marriage too, even for couples coming from out of state! Oh, the horrors! While I was in my hotel room the other night, I caught Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and I confess I enjoyed the show. I was impressed by how well groomed and articulate the gay men were. Perhaps, this is the first step toward my future homosexual lifestyle. Although I cannot recall any sexual feelings for my gender in my 49 years of life, I have been known to look at pornography now and then. I have noticed that male genitalia figures prominently in it. Moreover, I do not necessarily find the presence of male genitalia in heterosexual pornography disgusting; in fact, it can even be a turn on. What does this mean? Is there an inner homosexual in me yearning to get out?

And what about my wife? She is into homoerotic fan fiction, also known as slash. She spends much of her free time reading and even writing the stuff. Many of her friends now come from the slash community and most of them are gay. Maybe she has been faking it with me all these years. If she is heterosexual as she claims, how long before she succumbs to the temptation of her own gender, divorces me and takes a wife in Massachusetts?

We must be close to faltering. After all, homosexuality is a choice. Seemingly normal heterosexuals wake up every day and decide, “Hey, I want to try out this gay thing today. In fact, I want to be gay the rest of my life.” Maybe that is me. After all, my marriage is a bit stale after twenty years. You only live once. It is probably watching that episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy that will do me in. It probably starts innocuously, like that first puff of a joint. You find yourself laughing along with Ellen DeGeneres. You start to admire gays. Before you know it, you are hooked. Perhaps I will start by reading motorcycle magazines. Then I will want a motorcycle and a fancy leather-riding outfit. Soon I am spending my weekends with the Hells Angels. Then I am spending them with one of the many gay motorcycle clubs out there. Yes, homosexuality is a choice, social conservatives tell us. Since it is a choice and because I can choose to switch on that side of my personality whenever I want (although it has lain strangely dormant all my life) I am vulnerable. My wife is vulnerable too. In fact, we are close to slipping. Sin is a slippery slope, and Satan will use all his wiles to get me. Extreme vigilance is required. I need to keep reading General J.C. Christian’s blog. Just as importantly, I need the state to keep me from falling by protecting my marriage from all threats, foreign and domestic.

Then thank goodness, I live in the Commonwealth of Virginia. It has a no tolerance policy for gay marriage. No gay marriage ever. Because of our zero tolerance policy for gays, I feel more secure in my heterosexuality. If I have the stray thought to try out the homosexual lifestyle, well, just knowing that the state will not allow me to have a gay marriage means I am less likely to try it out. Don’t you see? I say hooray for that. I feel protected by the wise citizens of my state. My wife should too. Since my marriage is so well protected, I should never, ever let my lurking homosexual side out of its closet.

Yet in truth, there is one wee little problem with this logic: I have never felt the least bit inclined to try homosexuality. I cannot speak for my wife, but I trust her enough to take her at her word that although she has many gay and bisexual friends, she too is not attracted to her gender. Therefore, what I am thinking is that for heterosexuals like my wife and I, you know, us moral Americans, heterosexuality is not really a choice. We are hardwired this way.

As for those homosexuals (not to mention the bisexuals, polysexuals or the whole polyamorous community), well, things must be different for them. Maybe they did not get enough attention from Mom and Dad growing up, or skipped too many Sunday school lessons. For some bizarre reason these folks though claim that their sexual orientation is hardwired too. Moreover, they want equivalent rights because, get this, it is the fair thing to do! Somewhere in their American history lessons, they learned that all citizens in this country have equal rights and responsibilities under the law. They missed the asterisk that certain rights only applied to heterosexual couples only.

Anyhow, perhaps I am delusional but I have given their perspective considerable thought. So I would like to inform any social conservative out there reading this that I am confident that even if gay marriage were to be legal in the Commonwealth of Virginia (perish the thought!) that my marriage would not be endangered. In fact, there is simply no chance that I will ever choose the homosexual lifestyle. If my wife and I are to end up divorced some day, I am afraid it will be for more prosaic reasons, like we fell out of love with each other. That apparently still qualifies as grounds for divorce.

If protecting my marriage is truly this important to the commonwealth, perhaps our legislature should outlaw divorce. Yet for reasons I do not wholly fathom, they are much more concerned about keeping homosexuals from getting married than making sure I stay permanently married to my wife.

In addition, neither am I offended by gays getting married. Back in the 1980s, we lived in a townhouse community. We had two guys up the street who were openly gay and kept a townhouse together. Their townhouse was the most well kept unit in the complex. I found them to be warm and interesting people. I know I should have been afraid of them. The state and many ministers tell me so. I know they must be living the immoral lifestyle. Yet still, I never felt the least bit threatened by them, or worried that my community was on the road to hell, even though they probably practiced regular oral and anal sodomy. In fact, I thought they were terrific neighbors. Not having them as neighbors was one of the downsides of buying our single-family house.

Here is the most amazing part: despite this gay couple living in our townhouse community full of children, not once did they molest any of the children on the playground. We sure were lucky!

I must be one of the fallen though. I must have been co-opted by the gay agenda. Really, I just do not care about gays getting married. Shoot me, but I agree with them: I think there is nothing more American than for everyone to have equal rights and responsibilities. If gays want to get married, I say more power to them. In addition, as long as the government requires that my marriage be legal, I cannot see why gays should not be able to have their unions legally sanctioned too.

The Measure of a Marriage

The Thinker by Rodin

How do you measure a marriage? I feel that on the occasion of my twentieth wedding anniversary this week I should take stock of the state of my marriage. Like it or not this anniversary is a big milestone. I have chosen to spend the last two decades married to the same woman. Perhaps it should be an occasion for romance, or for sweaty sex, or reflection. Since at this point we are really just a couple of old, married farts perhaps we should just make it another Hallmark anniversary and otherwise forget it.

While we were married on a Saturday, our anniversary this year falls in the middle of the week. This makes it difficult to celebrate. We may make time for a dinner at a nice restaurant. When we want upscale dining, we usually choose The Hermitage in Clifton, Virginia. We may end up there, or we may defer celebration until early November. On our tenth anniversary, we went to a honeymoon resort in the Poconos. We will do so again, but the timing works out better for us in early November. We are parents now and we have learned to be pragmatic. In early November, our daughter has some days off from school, so she can be shuffled off to a friend’s house for a few days.

No doubt, things have changed for us in twenty years. We are kind of, sort of the same people we were back then. I was skinnier, poorer, and full of hormones. I had done the bachelor thing for a decade and was sick of it. I felt ready to settle down. I cannot speak for my wife but she was definitely skinnier and poorer back then too. I was 28 and she was 25. We had vague plans of perhaps having a child someday, but I could not imagine it happening for a long time.

Back then, my ideas of marriage were a mixture of the well informed and fanciful. I did not expect happily ever after, but I did come into the marriage with the expectation that it would be more happy than not. Otherwise, what was the point of getting married? Unquestionably, there were happy years. Unquestionably, there were miserable years too. Sometimes the misery was self-inflicted. More often, it came from unexpected directions.

In our fourth year of marriage, to our surprise, our daughter was conceived. Parenthood was thrust upon us along with hosts of other issues you expect young couples to deal with. These included buying houses, deaths in the family, psychotic bosses, babies with chronic ear infections, a hysterectomy, a variety of traumatic surgeries, finding our house flooded the day after we closed on it, and both of us going to college at the same time while working fulltime and managing a daughter in elementary school. (I completed my graduate degree in 1999. My wife finished her bachelor’s degree the same year.)

In addition, there were sweet times. For our first year together, we lived a simple life in an apartment in Reston, Virginia. We had many a pleasant evening walk hand in hand around Lake Anne in Reston. We went horseback riding on a ranch in a faux-western town outside of Phoenix. We cackled together watching bad movies on TV. We went whitewater rafting (twice). For me the sweetest parts about my marriage are the more mundane. There is something wonderfully intimate about being in bed with another woman, and snuggling up to her at night. The daily hugs, kisses, caresses and sweaty moments beneath the sheets are all part of the daily dance of intimacy that I have enjoyed during my marriage. For me this is a kind of addiction. I hope that it is a healthy addiction. Because (and I suspect most marriages are like this) there were many days when you felt like you were hit by a brick. You wondered how to keep a marriage going when so many forces are conspiring to bring it down. No matter how crazy or challenging times got, having a few constants like being able to snuggle with my wife made difficult days/weeks/months/years easier to endure.

I am definitely twenty years older. I hope I am a little wiser. Through marriage, I have learned a lot about myself and other people that I doubt I would have experienced in any other way. No question about it: intimate relationships are challenging. Moreover, it is hard to imagine a more intimate relationship than a marriage. For me, marriage has at times been like going through a crazy hall of mirrors. It is thrilling, chilling, fun and exasperating at the same time. The mirrors of course often distort the reality around you.

I have found that, like it or not, a marriage will peel away many masks. You sometimes in retrospect wonder that if you had known certain things about your spouse before marriage whether you would have gotten married in the first place. On the other hand, I was not quite the person I presented myself to be on my wedding day either. Now, if nothing else, I think I really know my wife, and believe that she knows me. If we have black boxes of secret thoughts and desires that we have kept from each other, they are likely just a few.

In addition to being older I am perhaps more sanguine too. Both my wife and I laugh when we hear people calling to protect the “sanctity” of marriage (from gays, naturally). Whoa! If marriages like ours are “sacred”, there is not much sanctity to protect. Here is the reality of marriage to anyone who has been in it for a few years. There is no entity called “the marriage”. There is no “us”. There are no sets of universal truths about marriage. The dynamics of each marriage are unique and cannot be duplicated. There is only you and your spouse, two unique human beings with attributes, issues and foibles who choose to try this squirrelly institution called marriage. Rather than being sacred, marriage can be like a karmic facilitation engine. It seems to force you to address one thorny issue after another. If you do not then you suffer the consequences for not having your real needs for intimacy addressed. Marriage means as much as it means to the people in the marriage and nothing more. You should know as a result of marriage what you want or do not want. However, do not expect that marriage will necessarily turn you into a happier or healthier human being. This is a delusion.

I will agree that marriage can be the incubator for a lot of personal growth. I say, “can be” because that is often not the result. Rather than learning lessons from marriage, many spouses do not learn a thing. Instead, with the wrong dynamics it can act as a means to retard personal growth, or even turn its participants into screaming Alice and Ralph Kramdens. I can certainly understand why many who observe married people would say “this is nuts” and choose to remain single.

After twenty years, I still love my wife and she seems to love me, in spite of the warts that time has revealed. We take some comfort in our warts, and having them known to each other, because we do not reveal them to very many people. Perhaps our love is real because by showing our warts to our intimate we still feel safe and loved.

After twenty years, the romantic flush of the marriage comes out less frequently. Yet for me it is still enormously comforting to have an enduring intimate relationship with someone for this long. Despite the hardship and chaos that life has thrown at us somehow we are still here and we are still married.

Our alarm will rouse us from bed early tomorrow to begin yet another day. One thing is a given: we shall share its joys and travails together.

Celebrities Trapped in Immaturity

The Thinker by Rodin

Oh big yawn! Tom Cruise is getting hitched again, this time to Katie Holmes. She’s 16 years younger than he is but that’s no problem for the 42-year-old Cruise. I will give him credit for making it through ten years and eight months with Nichole Kidman. In that sense he beat the statistics, certainly for both celebrities and for the American marriages that last on average seven years. But his second marriage to Penelope Cruz lasted three years. So I hope Katie Holmes is not naïve enough to think that she will succeed where Nichole and Penelope failed. Enjoy your time together with Tom, Katie. It’s likely to be fleeting.

But Tom Cruise is hardly alone. Jennifer Lopez lasted eight months with Cris Judd and thirteen months with Ojani Noa. Angelina Jolie made it two years each with Jonny Lee Miller and Billy Bob Thorton. Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt survived five years, but I’m willing to bet they shared residences for less than half that time. Drew Barrymore and Tom Green: 5 months. Drew and Jeremy Thomas: 19 days. Since apparently so many celebrities can’t maintain a real marriage I hope they, or at least their lawyers, have brains enough to insist on stringent prenuptial agreements.

Why do they bother? Why do they cheapen marriage for the rest of us? There needs to be some sort of special marriage certificates issued to Hollywood celebrities that gives the appearance of marriage but none of the actual expectations. Because it is pretty obvious that most celebrities have the emotional maturity of Ferris Bueller. (Bueller was played by Matthew Broderick who, incidentally, may be the exception: he is eight years into a first marriage with Sarah Jessica Parker.)

Okay, granted Americans in general talk a good talk on marriage, but aren’t great at following through on the ideal. The statistics are pretty sobering. But as bad as our overall marriage statistics are, Hollywood celebrities are far worse. Three quarters of celebrity marriages end in divorce. And I don’t know if there are statistics out there for the average duration of celebrity marriages but I suspect it is a lot less than seven years. Seven months is likely closer to the reality.

I think I understand what is going on. Basically most celebrities while very attractive and talented tend to have the emotional maturity of teenagers. When you are a perfect 10, when you ooze with talent, when you have more than enough money to live an opulent lifestyle, when great looking women/men are constantly clamoring for your body, it is easy to succumb to temptation. Just ditch the current spouse and pick another perfect 10 from the gene pool. Repeat as necessary but don’t absorb any karmic lessons. In short you don’t have to ever grow up. You get to act like Michael Jackson just limit your lovers to adults!

Admittedly there will come a time when their fame diminishes and their looks fade. And then it will be rough. At that point it is likely that any dwindling fortune and residuals is all that will win them a spouse. Unless they are very lucky they shouldn’t expect that that they will ever encounter anything resembling genuine love.

Married old farts like myself (twenty years this October, thank you very much) know that marriage is not so much about joy as it is about constantly working through relationship issues. While it has its virtues, hard work comes with the territory. That I have survived twenty years in my marriage does not mean that I am a marriage expert. Like a fingerprint, each marriage is unique. But like all marriages mine has had its ups and downs. It has rarely felt like being on a cruise ship. Rather it’s been more like being on a sailboat in the midst of a tempest with periods of relative calm. But basically I’ve grown accustomed to the rough seas. We’ve spent a lot of time bailing water keeping the marriage afloat. I am sure there were many times when we were tempted to chuck it all. For both of us I don’t think the reality quite met our reasonably well-grounded expectations. But at least they were grounded in some reality. We both knew we were flawed people with our own issues. And we had an inkling that when bad things happened we had an obligation to work through our issues as best we could. Sometimes we did a bad job of working through them and sometimes we did a good job. But we hung in there.

In short marriage requires a lot of accommodation, talking and perseverance, something that seems in short supply in Hollywood. It also requires a lot of humility, something virtually unknown in Hollywood. And it requires two people to actively work at the relationship, rather than be passive participants.

The truth is that being attractive and talented is more of a curse than a blessing. I have to infer that it gives a person a very skewed picture of the real world. Eventually though those glamorous stars are revealed to their glamour spouses as just another guy or gal with issues and dealing with the issues is, like, no fun. And that’s when the temptation often becomes irresistible. Their marriages, which were tentative artifices anyhow, quickly crumble. Likely there are some hurt feelings but my bet is that they are easy enough to plaster over. There is an endless supply of others who want to get embroiled in their glamorous world.

So, truly, I am glad to be ordinary. In some ways despite all their talent, looks, and money I have some sympathy for our celebrities. The kind of marriage the rest of us know seems to be unknown to many of them. But it has its virtues and comforts along with its constant challenges. And for better or worse many of us who survive in long term marriages grow a lot spiritually from hanging in there. We may be battle scarred, but at least we have encountered the reality of two people bound in a long-term intimate relationship. Now let’s see a movie on that.

$1.5B Proposed for “Healthy Marriage”

The Thinker by Rodin

News item, courtesy of the New York Times (registration required):

Administration officials say they are planning an extensive election-year initiative to promote marriage, especially among low-income couples, and they are weighing whether President Bush should promote the plan next week in his State of the Union address.

For months, administration officials have worked with conservative groups on the proposal, which would provide at least $1.5 billion for training to help couples develop interpersonal skills that sustain “healthy marriages.”

Full disclosure: through February 19th I am employed by the Administration for Children and Families. These views are, of course, my own and do not represent those of my agency. Our agency, under the direction of Wade Horn, would be in charge of implementing a healthy marriage initiative for the government. Mr. Horn is not too worried about this $1.5B initiative, which is to be spread over five years. CNN quotes him saying:

“A billion dollars sounds like a lot of money, and it is … but you need to place that in context with the rest of the funding of a whole host of other services that will continue to be available to families,” Horn said by telephone, adding that his agency will spend $230 billion in the next five years.

I guess $1.5B is cheaper than putting a manned colony on the moon or sending a manned mission to Mars. But I suspect we’d do a more effective job establishing a base on the moon than fixing this nation’s marriage problem. $1.5B is a lot of money to flush down the drain. In terms of results, failure is the most likely outcome for this money. I would also not be surprised if most of it ends up in the pockets of “faith-based” organizations. The real agenda here might be to find a way to reward Bush’s religious friends with more taxpayer dollars.

I do agree in concept with the idea of healthy marriage. Who wouldn’t? But isn’t there perhaps just a tad bit of condescension in this proposal? It’s primarily oriented at low income couples. The implication then is that people with money, or who are God fearing Republicans, are much more likely to have healthy marriages. It’s those Andy Capp and Flo types that need to learn about healthy marriage. I guess living in those trailer parks and row houses just brings out the beast in you.

I note we won’t allow gays to marry because we insist that marriage is a “sacred” institution. Umm, yeah right. It must be hard for even Bush to say this with a straight face. Apparently marriage can be spontaneous and cheap in some places, like in Las Vegas. Britney Spears (who had to be high on something) found she could suddenly decide to marry her old boyfriend at 5:30 AM in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Once she sobered up and less than 40 hours later she was able to arrange an annulment. While not all states are as liberal as Las Vegas in their wedding requirements, in general it doesn’t take much time or money to get legally married. Some states, like here in Virginia, don’t even require blood work.

I’ve already proposed an innovative idea that will help healthy marriages, or at least stem the divorce rate. Long time readers will recall my proposal for term limited marriages. But even my own siblings were quick to pounce on me for my creativity.

We probably won’t see this one from the Bush Administration but here’s my new innovative idea on healthy marriages: let’s make marriages a lot harder to get into. Let’s start with a mandatory and uniform six month waiting period.

But let’s go further. Let’s require all couples to undergo premarital counseling. Instead of having government-funded counseling, let’s require engaged couples to get their own marriage counseling. Considering how expensive divorce can be, a couple should be more than willing to pony up some money up front to reduce the risk of divorce later on. If couples want to get the counseling from their house of worship or a non-sectarian place that’s fine, but it should be a real premarital counseling, not something rubber stamped. Perhaps it could include discussion sessions with successful long time married couples. My hope is that these old married folk could give couples a realistic idea of what marriage is really all about. Anyhow, let’s require, say, 40 hours of counseling and course work.

During premarital counseling let us insist the proposed couple put together a plan for living together. It should include a proposed budget; discuss how they plan to raise children or whether they plan not to have children; and how they will dissolve their marriage if it doesn’t work out. Particularly if they are of child bearing age let us make sure they take classes in parenting before they tie the knot. A few weeks working in a day care center wiping snotty noses and changing poopy diapers would be a good wake up call. Couples should jointly submit all this evidence to a family judge. Once certification is complete and the six months have elapsed, they could be legally married.

My guess is that if we did this at least half of these marriages wouldn’t even start. I don’t pull that number out of a hat. About half of marriages in our country end in divorce, with the average marriage surviving about seven years. Before those starry eyed couples end up screaming at each other and keeping the neighbors awake, before they start popping out children who bear the emotional wreckage of their immaturity, let them test their mettle a bit. This is the stuff that is at the heart of marriage. Love, sex and commitment are the lures of marriage. But those of us who are old married farts know that at best these are decent foundations for a marriage. Successful marriage is really about two people learning to work through both the everyday and very tough issues together. If you can’t do that before getting married, you are likely to find marriage very daunting.

Across Europe marriage is a dying institution. If a man and woman want a long term relationship they just start living together. If they have children they are both held responsible for their upbringing. In many ways I see this as a better system. It has the virtue of at least being honest. If anyone can leave a relationship at any time then both spouses have natural incentives to work on their relationship. I am not sure that is true in traditional marriage. If anything the marriage contract feels both like a ball and chain around the feet and a reason not to work on relationship issues. “He won’t leave me! He takes our marriage contract seriously!”

For those who want and value marriage I say go for it. But given that we contend we are failing as a country in the marriage department (it’s probably always been this way) let’s make marriage more difficult to start in the first place. Let’s make sure couples go in wide eyed and sober. They need to understand that even for the best and most committed of couples that the failure rate is going to be significant. A successful marriage will require a lot of luck, but it will also require tenacity, an open heart, and a lot of determination.

I don’t think marriage is an institution in need of promotion. If anything it needs to be surrounded by lots of caution signs. It is not for everyone. If we are serious about healthy marriage let’s make it more difficult.

Aging Parents

The Thinker by Rodin

As much as I dislike thinking about my own aging I like thinking about my parents’ aging even less. I know mortality is the price we pay for life but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept, particularly when it happens to people you love so intimately.

Some say that God gives life, but it is the parents of a child who fill the child with the structure, aspirations and some suggest the phobias that will form the core of the adult to be. I am truly a product of my parents, in both the biological and the spiritual sense, and I constantly find aspects of each running around inside me. Since to some extent they are an extension of me, and I of them, naturally the thought of their deaths fills me with anxiety and apprehension.

From my father I have learned many valuable life lessons. I have learned the values of hard work, of patience, of quiet love and of sticking to my decisions. Foremost I have learned to how to be an excellent father. Because, for example, he read to me as a child, I could do nothing less than do the same for my daughter. Although there were eight of us he managed to make me feel special and unique. This was no small accomplishment because in many ways my father is also acerbic and very much the linear-thinking engineer. For better or worse, because I am his son I cannot not be safe about anything. I cannot drive to the store without a safety belt. I cannot cross the street without making a risk based assessment of the probability of reaching the other side unhurt. I have always felt more bonded to my father than my mother for reasons I don’t wholly understand.

My mother is a far different creature than my father. But in many ways she is far more interesting. It is only in the last ten years or so, as my mother wrote her biography, that I began to understand her. She grew up in a large Catholic family in about the most impoverished circumstances imaginable in the midst of the Great Depression. It is clear this experience in poverty shaped who she is. It didn’t help that her mother was a mental case and would frequently walk out on her own children when the stress level got too high. I am convinced she did not get the quality of attention she needed from her mother and to some extent this shaped a self esteem problem she has always had. Somewhere along the way she developed a shyness that has kept her from having most of the close relationships, outside of family, one would expect for a woman. And yet in many ways she triumphed over adversity. Somehow she not only graduated high school, something pretty unusual in the 1930s for a woman, but completed a degree in Nursing at Catholic University where she met my father. She managed a mentally ill mother while pregnant and morning sick with my first sister, Lee Ann. Her mother died around the time her first child was born.

From my mother I learned to appreciate good cooking, a clean house, and the value of having an ex-nurse when we got sick. I could do nothing but marvel at the endless energy with which she attacked motherhood and raising a large family. She never stopped. There was no vacation for her, even on vacation. She was busy from before we got up until after we bent to bed. Evenings were quieter when we were in bed but she was still there, working on the sewing machine or darning socks. But it was also clear that it exacted a heavy price. I strongly feel that as much as she loved all of us, eight of us was at least four more than she could comfortably handle. Perhaps because she grew up in a loud and emotional household, she was a loud, emotional and controlling mother. From our perspective she was the general and we were the privates. It took me much longer to understand that she was also emotionally vulnerable, and that while my Dad is a terrific person she glorified aspects of him and denigrated aspects of herself. On some level she has never felt worthy of being married to him, and that she should be subservient to him and give him the final say on all matters. My Mom seems to equate high intelligence with being able to make the right choice, an opinion at odds with my life experiences.

The dynamics of each marriage are unique and as they aged they have evolved patterns that seem to be comfortable for both of them. The raising children pattern worked for much of their marriage, until we had all left the house. In 1989 my father retired from engineering and they moved to Midland, Michigan. It is clear then that a new relationship pattern emerged. This is not too surprising because my Dad was now a 24/7 inhabitor of the house, rather than someone who spent nights and weekends. The resulting retrofitting relationship seems to have been hard to reengineer but eventually they developed patterns that seemed to work for them, although it was clear that it was often grating to both of them to have each other around so much.

Now that pattern is coming to an end. Neither is in the best of health but my mother, perhaps from being 6 years older, has the more chronic health problems. She is currently in the hospital, having fallen repeatedly. It looks like when she comes home she will be using a walker, and it’s not clear whether she can move from level to level anymore. Her health is “in decline” and is unlikely to improve.

It’s clear to my siblings and I that the retirement phase of their lives is over and all of us are struggling to figure out where to go from here. Three of my sisters have been to Midland recently to help out. It is likely that I will leave this weekend to do my part to provide logistical and mental support, staying about a week.

I know the situation is scary and frustrating to both my parents. How could it be otherwise? As if death weren’t scary enough, the business of dying seems perhaps scarier. My Dad seems overwhelmed with his caretaker responsibilities and is probably holding a lot of feelings about my Mom’s decline. My Mom, of course, wants the independence she cannot have. The old relationship patterns are not working so well in the context of the new situation. We all hope of course that they will find a new pattern that works for them. But it seems likely that something will have to change soon. We don’t know if this means my mother will have to go into some sort of assisted living, or whether a nurse’s aide will be needed, or perhaps they could be persuaded both move in with one of us. Clearly my Mom will need a lot of attention, as will my Dad who has to cope with the decline of a woman he has been married to for 53 years.

What is clear is that we are all at a role reversal stage. It’s always been my parents who have catered to us. That paradigm will no longer work. Rather my siblings and I must struggle into a caretaker role for them. We will have to step in and help them make choices. My sisters report a new willingness to listen to us and to allow us to help out.

It’s a tough phase in life. But I am struck by an observation that in every phase of life, including the ending phase, there is a chance for personal growth. The role reversal is an entirely natural phase for this time in their lives and needs to be accepted with as much grace and dignity as possible. It is now our duty, our obligation but also in some ways our great privilege to be there for our parents, even in such a limited way, when they were there for us for so very long.

I likely leave for Michigan more than a little upset about the situation, but also determined to do my part to help out and to provide my parents with the physical and emotional support they need to navigate through this stage of life. In a way it is a privilege that they have made it to this stage. My siblings and I are feeling our way gingerly through this process, but somehow we are determined to make it work and to be there for our parents despite our families and our hectic lives.