catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 15 :: 2005.07.29 — 2005.09.08


The metamorphosis

When Vicki and I announced our engagement 16 years ago, I started to notice a pattern in the responses of male relatives and friends who?d been married for a while. Two or three of them said exactly the same thing: ?So you?re getting married, huh? Are you sure you want to do that?? They were trying to be funny, of course, but there was usually this plaintive undertone to the statement that made it sound like there was more to it than that. I told Vicki, ?I feel like asking them, ?What?s wrong? Don?t you love your wife???

The humbling irony is that now, when people in their twenties tell me they?re getting married, one of my immediate?usually unspoken?responses is, ?Have you really thought this through??

Let me make it clear: I?m not much of a romantic. True love, to me, means holding your partner?s head while she or he is vomiting with so much force that liquid is squirting out his or her nose, and soft pieces of yesterday?s dinner are sticking in his or her sinus cavity. I?m appalled when people tell me about mothers and friends who wake up before their husbands to put on make-up and fix their hair so they?ll never be seen as less than immaculate: they remind me of people who go to the pool and yet never get in the water because they don?t want to get their hair or their bathing suits wet. Marriage is about plunging into the down and dirty of life. If you?d like to maintain meticulous control of the way you?re perceived, if you?re not willing for that special someone to see you at your most vulnerable and humiliated, you have no business getting married.

As a way of illustrating a point about Romantic poetry that I?ve long forgotten, a professor offered this example: ?It?s like your wedding vows. Even if you change your mind later, you mean them at the time.?

Even though he was probably making a statement about the collapse of his own marriage, the insight holds true for all marriages: we take our vows on faith, knowing far less than we think we do about the person we?re marrying and marriage itself and temptation and happiness and love and struggle and sacrifice and our own capacity to think well of ourselves against mountains of evidence to the contrary. At the last few weddings we?ve attended, Vicki and I have looked at each other and smiled at the spectacle of two astonishingly young people making enthusiastic, mad, life-long promises to care for each other out of ignorance and hope and lust and, more often than not, conformity and greed and bravado and an unrealistically optimistic view of their own capacity for unselfishness. What these people are promising each other is outlandish and courageous and intensely beautiful. What we feel above all else, I think, is gratitude?before you get married, you?ve glanced casually at a map, but after you?re married you find yourself in country; before, you?ve pored over pictures of marriage, but, after, marriage bucks you and throws you and does its best to step on your head. It?s not that marriage isn?t good?it may be one of the best things about human life?but it?s strong: after the first few years, you may start feeling like a patient who?s made it through several rounds of chemotherapy. Some of the unhealthiest parts of you have been burned away, and you?re thankful to have survived.

When we first got married, Vicki felt she was fortunate to have ended up with somebody who was so good for her. And I thought, naively, that she was right. After a first year of marriage that included door slammings; differences of opinion carried out at the top of our lungs; people crashing out of the apartment and driving around to cool off only to come back as angry and resentful as before; people locking themselves in the bathroom; people climbing out of the car at a red light in the middle of a heated discussion and saying ?I?ll see you at home?; people getting furious at the comments their spouse has made about a paper they?d written for a graduate class and hissing, ?Don?t you dare treat me like one of your students!?; outraged, offended shrieking (?How can you think that about me!?!?); and insanely melodramatic posturing (one person attempting to make a long forgotten point by lucidly trying to smash a case of soda against his or her head, one person holding up a chef?s knife while shouting something like, ?If you?re going to talk to me like that you might as well slit my throat!!?), I started to get the feeling that Vicki wasn?t so lucky, and I wasn?t nearly as good a catch as I?d thought. Marriage showed me I was rigid and selfish and unkind, reluctant to share my feelings, resistant to change, critical, sullen, not that much fun. I comforted myself. oddly, with the thought that it wasn?t that I?d married a person I shouldn?t have but that I wasn?t made to be married?trying to fit my life together with another person was too much work, a task for which I had no natural gifts. Maybe, I thought, I might have been better off as a monk.

Before we marry, we assume the person we love is, at bottom, just like us?the strange habits and reactions we?ve noticed in them are just surface characteristics, easily changed. Only after we?re married do we discover that our new spouse is an alien landscape, with perceptions and expectations that are nothing like ours. We go into marriage thinking our differences are superficial, that underneath the quirky fa?ade our beloved is just like us, but what we find is that these differences can?t be discarded like clothing: the quirk goes to the bone. When we were first getting to know each other, Vicki thought she appreciated my tendency to ruminate over things, weighing every word carefully to make sure I didn?t inadvertently say something that wasn?t true: ?I know you won?t tell me you love me unless you really mean it,? she said. And yet, post-wedding, many of our arguments have involved her exploding with a variation on, ?I asked you a yes-or-no question! Why do you have to talk to me for fifteen minutes before I finally get a straightforward answer?? And I have gone from appreciating her openness and straightforwardness to sometimes feeling oppressed by her expectation that I can be as direct as she is: most of the time, it seems impossible for me to confine my range of conflicting thoughts and reactions to a single word.

There?s a season in marriage when we look at each other with bewilderment and hurt: ?I didn?t know people like you even existed. How could I have joined my life together with somebody like this?? We?re more wary of each other, suspicious, bruised by this intimate stranger?s failure to love the same things we love or express themselves the same way we do or allow our thoughtless assertions to go unanswered. We think a little bitterly of the promises we?ve made to cherish each other: we feel distinctly uncherished ourselves and less than completely enthusiastic about cherishing this mass of stupid filth, unless we can loosen the definition of ?cherish? to something like ?grudgingly endure this maturity-challenged soul?s ungrateful idiocy by restraining ourselves from yelling at them about half the times they actually deserve it and graciously eschewing the application of blunt force trauma.? Had we known they were going to turn out to be this way, we might not have been so quick to make those vows.

One of the problems we have with the Biblical ?one flesh? metaphor is that it seems at the same time comforting and claustrophobic. It conjures up the image of artificially-conjoined twins: two formerly separate people now fused together at the side or head or even somehow all over. At times, that kind of permanent closeness can seem enviable; in other moods, however, we might find it grotesque and cruel, an abomination that two people with separate identities and interests could be imprisoned in each others? skin. Think of the movie The Fly, after the teleportation accident fuses the fly into Jeff Goldbloom?s body, and he starts metastasizing into something lumpy and alien and hideous. Is it any wonder some people are afraid of losing themselves in another person? Or, having joined with someone else, they decide they want to be surgically detached before they?re completely absorbed, a scalpel redefining them, tissue by tissue, as independent of the monstrous organism they?ve become.

It could be, of course, I?m reading too much into the metaphor?for the Biblical writers, ?one flesh? was meant to refer to nothing more than sexual congress, forming what D.H. Lawrence calls ?the beast with two backs.? But I?m hesitant to claim that sex inevitably brings people into some kind of emotional and spiritual union?it isn?t hard to find people who started having sex thinking it would make them feel connected and fulfilled only to find instead they felt lonely and alienated, invaded. Andrea Dworkin was met with howls of protest in the nineties when she published a book stating all intercourse was a version of rape, but we?d have to be heartbreakingly na?ve not to acknowledge there?s a grain of truth to this: many people understand their sexual partners as little more than a convenient source of friction: their bodies join together in various permutations, but their inner lives never even brush up against each other. Thirty years into the sexual revolution and many people are still enduring sex for the sake of having a relationship while many others are enduring relationships for the sake of having sex. Maybe one of the reasons the Biblical writers hold up the ideal of intimate connection is that it?s so easy to avoid.

Ultimately, the one-flesh metaphor is a call for us to relinquish power. A friend once told me she?d noticed most relationships have a basic imbalance: one of the people is the lover, the first one of the pair to be attracted to the other and the most deeply in love; the other person is the beloved, the object of affection whose love is more tenuous and problematic. This disparity admittedly holds some attractions: who wouldn?t want to be involved with someone who has lowered all of his or her barriers without expecting we lower ours as well, someone who will give us anything we want out of the relationship without demanding equivalent sacrifices in return? The one flesh metaphor implies this satisfying inequity isn?t an option for us?the pancreas and the kneecap can?t hold themselves aloof from the body or exploit the body for their own purposes, and any notion that there are boundaries between these members and the rest of the body is obviously a self-serving hallucination.

As a Christian, I?m inclined to understand love as primarily self-forgetful and sacrificial. There are counterfeit versions of this, of course: some relationships seem driven by somebody?s Messiah complex, characterized by their operatic sacrifices accompanied by the steadfast refusal to accept anything at all from the person from whom they?re sacrificing. That strikes me, again, as having more to do with power than love. I?m thinking, instead, of the down-to-earth, almost-unconscious response to someone else?s need, where the person being sacrificed for realizes only in retrospect, oh, that action must have cost my friend . . . something.

I read a quotation from a famous chef who said the quality that defines a chef, beyond skills with knives and saute pans, is this idiosyncratic sense of satisfaction when people are eating something you cooked. And I think it?s this sense we should be aiming for as spouses: feeding that other person feeds me and I think of feeding the other person as no more of a sacrifice than I would of making myself a sandwich when I feel hungry. What marriage has taught me is that I love to have my sacrifices recognized with speeches and dinners and modest plaques, that the longest I can go without resenting that no one is respecting my sacrifices is thirty-six hours, give or take. And that what I need to strive for is the sense of being genuinely delighted by someone else?s well-being, something different from being someone else?s modeling clay or the steamroller of happiness who relentlessly crushes the other person?s every gentle protest or nuanced suggestion. Ideally, what we?ll find when we?ve become absorbed in feeding someone else is that they?re feeding us, too?our happiness gives them joy, and we?re able to loosen our hold on the psychosis that wants to always give and never receive, and just accept.

Unfortunately, what these rather scattered thoughts on marriage seem to imply is that marriage is a package of knowledge and skill that Vicki and I have come to master over the years?we?ve moved past the rough adjustment of our first few months and now we communicate perfectly and accept each other?s differences with ease. That?s far from the truth. I?ve learned some lessons, mainly about my own shortcomings, but after 16 years, five moves, two states, three kids, and hundreds of repetitions of two or three basic arguments, I still feel like an amateur. Sometimes we speculate about how we?ve managed to stay together when many of the couples we?ve known have split up or are struggling with feelings of resentment or indifference?we don?t think we?ve done that much differently. My parents didn?t get married until they were in their thirties and always seemed grateful they?d managed to find each other?that might be a part of it. She?d been in a bad relationship with somebody who lied to her and cheated on her before she met me?maybe that?s another part. It?s a mystery. Sometimes I think taking credit for a reasonably happy marriage is like being praised for cooking a reasonably tasty dish?the recipe and the flavors and textures of the ingredients were just handed to you, and all you?ve done in making the final product is not screw up the various steps too badly.

A little more than a year after Vicki and I were married, we had the opportunity to travel through Europe together?backpacks, rail passes, waking up in the morning with no idea where you?re going to sleep that night. I felt almost completely useless?I?d barely been out of the country before and at no time during the trip was I given the opportunity to use the dozen words I half-remembered from high school Spanish. But Vicki was amazing?Parisians, legendarily rude, were transformed into genial, helpful Samaritans at the sound of her fluent, perfectly-accented French, and ticket agents, hotel clerks, restaurant owners, even strangers on trains scurried to make the path clear ahead of her, while I followed close behind, the mute, useless Dante to her articulate, accomplished Virgil. She dove into each encounter with confidence and zest?at a wedding reception in Vienna she pulled out her patchy German for an animated conversation with a gentleman in the Austrian diplomatic corps, astonishing the people around her: despite their superior command of German grammar and vocabulary, they couldn?t communicate nearly as well. I watched her shine, feeling proud and awed and abashed?how had someone this lively and sharp and expressive ended up with somebody as reticent and awkward and difficult as me?

After a few weeks, my paid vacation ran out and I flew back home, leaving Vicki to visit friends and sightsee on her own. I should have been delighted?for the first time in more than a year, I didn?t have to consult anybody about where to go; I could sit down and read a book without worrying that someone would feel I was shutting her out. Instead, I felt as though I was in suspended animation. Whenever I wasn?t at work, I unpacked boxes in our new apartment, trying to get the place ready for when she would return; when I visited friends, I was distracted and subdued?someone told me later I seemed sad and lonely, a shell of myself. Somehow, beneath the cover of arguments and strain, my chemistry had surreptitiously changed, and I was, unexpectedly, no longer the autonomous soul I?d been when I made my vows?my life was an ocean away.

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