Of Marriage

In choosing marriage partners [people] solemnly and seriously follow a custom which seemed to us foolish and absurd in the extreme. Whether she be widow or virgin, the bride-to-be is shown naked to the groom by a responsible and respectable matron; and similarly, some respectable man presents the groom naked to his prospective bride. We laughed at this custom, and called it absurd, but they were just as amazed at the folly of all other peoples. When men go to buy a colt, where they are risking only a little money, they are so cautious that, though the animal is almost bare, they won’t close the deal until saddle and blanket have been taken off, lest there be a hidden sore underneath. Yet in the choice of a mate, which may cause either delight or disgust for the rest of their lives, men are so careless that they leave all the rest of the woman’s body covered up with clothes and estimate her attractiveness from a mere handsbreadth of her person, the face, which is all they can see.

Sir Thomas More put it pretty well in his Utopia, a bogus and sort of pedantic travelogue whose title (meaning “no land”) coined the word we’re all familiar with. In more bizarrely anachronisic modern terms, “Try the milk before you buy the cow.” Or at least, before you buy the cow (or bull) make sure the cow’s teats (bull’s balls) aren’t cankered and thus indisposed to provide what you expect from the cow (bull).

What brings this to mind is a discussion over lunch with some of my coworkers recently in which a couple of them were bemoaning marriage. If he were ever to get divorced, one of them said (the other seeming to agree), he wouldn’t marry again. In fact, when his brother, recently divorced, had been about to marry again, one of my coworkers had commented that the brother must be crazy indeed to go down that road again.

One of the predominant concerns seems to be with the stereotypical spending of money by unemployed wives (stay-at-home moms in this case). I’ve heard this complaint from coworkers across multiple employers. It’s not a novel complaint, in other words. When I countered, at lunch, that I must be lucky indeed to have the frugal wife I do, my coworkers said that it wasn’t just the money. They didn’t elaborate about what else it could be that drove them to speculate that they’d never marry again, however.

Granted, they’ve both got about ten years on me, though I think they both got a later start on marriage than I did. I celebrated three years of marriage (add that to a couple of years of shacking up) this weekend and so can’t be too far behind them. Maybe something happens after four or five or seven or nine years of marriage that I can’t even imagine now.

I’m more inclined to think, though, that, as by and large rational and thoughtful people, my wife and I both made smart decisions about our mates. We declined to be slaves to convention (we met over the Internet before it was common to do so) or to the standard restrictions of Judeo-Christian doctrine and assessed one another based on personal valuations.

If I hadn’t valued my then-girlfriend, I wouldn’t have moved to Tennessee. After the trial period following my move, if I hadn’t determined that I still valued her, I wouldn’t have bothered to spend money on an engagement ring. And if, after the engagement, I hadn’t resolved that she was a good match for me, I wouldn’t have gone through with the marriage. I’ve heard of many couples who were for whatever reason (usually religion) reluctant to try before they bought (so to speak). And I’m not talking just sex here. There are all sorts of compatibility issues that can pop up once a couple’s been living together for a while, and they can stress the relationship. These couples have a harder time of it, I imagine, than I’ve had. The most popular argument rebutting my point probably suggests that marriage is all about compromise and getting through the hard times. I’m not sure I buy that, though. When I’m making a large purchase, I don’t think of its downsides as things that demand compromise — I simply don’t purchase what doesn’t please me. Why should picking out a mate be any different?

Given my coworkers’ comments, I can’t help wondering if women don’t automatically turn into hydras after three or so years of marriage. My coworkers seem to be smart, by and large reasonable, people, after all, and I don’t mean to suggest that they weren’t as diligent as I was in vetting their wives or that I was more rational about it (and thus somehow superior). It just seems odd that so many people see marriage as a sort of trap or unpleasant obligation, while I see mine as a partnership characterized by mutual respect with benefits to both parties. Maybe I’m just lucky.

Some of the negative perception of marriage has to do, I suspect, with the fact that men are supposed to roll their eyes about their wives, much as women are supposed to nag their husbands. There is definitely a ’50s atmosphere at my work. Most of the men, I get the feeling, go home each night to rest with a beer in front of the TV while their wives, many of whom have also worked a full day, cook dinner. I overheard one woman say the other day that her husband didn’t allow her to watch a particular show because he didn’t agree with some of its content. It’s not at all uncommon for me to hear comments about women’s driving (“Boy, look at that dent in Larry’s car. He must have let his wife drive it”) as if I’m expected to chuckle in agreement. And then there’s the fact that women from several departments have been trained to spell our receptionist when she needs breaks; no men have been recruited because that job is perceived as women’s work (were I not terrified of the phone, I might volunteer, just to shake things up a bit). I’m at times a little surprised that women are allowed to wear slacks to work rather than skirts or dresses.

So it really shouldn’t surprise me too much that my coworkers, raised in a man’s world and working in what is very much a man’s company (and one filled with conservatives, at that), are inclined to toss off comments about what burdens their wives are. I think a lot of it is just talk, and what I’m ultimately trying to get around to here isn’t that these guys should be condemned for indulging in this sort of male-bonding talk, but is rather that it’s a shame that we haven’t come far enough yet that chauvenism and good-ole-boyism are still considered worth a slap on the back from a coworker.

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