February 13, 2003
Is There Love After Marriage?
Forty days before a child is born, a voice from heaven announces: "The daughter of this person is destined for [so-and-so]." -- Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 2a
We want company. We don't want to be alone. This is the beginning of everything. God made a companion for Adam.
If you look at the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times online, there's a hotlink to personals. Pick the most obscure zip code in Vermont, or the center of Manhattan, and see how many people are looking for someone, anyone, and how simple, how modest are the ambitions for love. Walking, talking, sharing movies, sharing breakfast, reading the paper, going for a hike -- and for these simple daily activities, men and women put their faces in view of strangers and those who might know them. They do it because in their own circle, or just in the accidental crossings of the day, no one dares come out of the fog to say, "It's you that I want. You for all the reasons you want me."
The rule of the screwball comedies is that the boy and girl meet, have an early affection which familiarity destroys, each then sees the other at his or her worst and then, knowing the truth about themselves and the other -- and with the victory of awareness -- they consecrate a new vow. In the screwball comedy of Genesis, it is only after eating from the tree that Adam and Eve can be a real couple, have a real marriage.
Marriages, like movies, have a structure. In my psychotherapy practice, I have heard many scripts that went like this:
You've Found Your Beshert
SHE: (Liltingly) You like hard pears too?! That's amazing!
HE: You want me to pick you up at the airport at 3 a.m.? How fun!
SHE: Sex for the third time tonight? Absolutely!
HE: I love the way she speaks so slowly!
SHE: I just love the way he clears his throat all the time!
HE: I can't believe I've lived my whole life without snorkeling!
TOGETHER: I can't believe we might never have found each other!
Act One is both cosmic and chemical. Like your own baby, your beloved is uniquely alluring, beautiful, charming, pure of soul. This is not rational. The phrase is "falling in love" for a reason. Your reaction is like a drug, a chemical action to ensure continuation of the species and the tribe. You believe that you've known this person all your life because, in a sense, you have. The idealized loved one embodies the best of what you've had -- in a parent, a beloved tanta or a sixth-grade English teacher who cherished you, who gloried in your specialness -- and all you ever longed and wished for from a critical, cold or clueless parent. Your partner is on a pedestal, and you are in a giving mode. Your similarities are magnified, you delight in your differences.
The Drug Wears Off
Or, as the psychologists say, "Recognition of differences sets in."
SHE: You voted for that evil man? You stopped at McDonald's on the way home before dinner? You ate a cheeseburger there? That throat clearing is getting a little annoying. You call your parents every day? Those are your friends? Those are your parents?
HE: Could you say that a little faster? You've never read "Doonsbury?" You never call your parents? Taxi drivers are meant to do 10 p.m. airport pick-ups, not boyfriends. If humans were meant to swim underwater, God would have designed them with little plastic breathing tubes already attached.
All right, so it's not as perfect as it seemed at first, but there's hope. Together, you can create a new little perfect person, someone to love without reservation. Someone who likes any kind of pears you feed him.
We Are Parents
SHE: (Scornful, impatient) You let her go to the park in her party shoes? You want to have sex when we could be getting some sleep? You got all those groceries and you forgot the one thing I sent you for? And this is 2 percent milk, not 1 percent milk. What do you mean she said she didn't need a jacket so you let her go without one? She is 4 years old and you are 40.
HE: You keep saying you want me to be involved in raising Nicole and Sam, but you criticize every decision I make. Just forget it.
Like Titania in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," you've awakened to see that Bottom is an ass.
You Write the Ending
Yes, 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce. But 50 percent don't. What do we know about those that make it through? Living in reality is hard, but living in fantasy is worse. The movies really trip us up. Our culture oozes seductive popular myths about marriages. If you want a shot at not being part of the half that doesn't make it, beware -- be very aware -- of falling for these myths:
1. We should always think alike, enjoy the same things and be happy together. Romance should last forever. Intimacy is warm and fuzzy.
2. If you really loved me, you would know what I think without me having to say it. If I take a risk and tell you what I want and feel, I'm entitled to get what I want from you.
3. You should know what I like sexually without me telling you. You should never fantasize about anyone else. We should have the same level of sexual desire at the same time.
4. Our children are more important than our marriage.
5. You should make up for everything I never had in childhood, rid me of existential doubts and provide all meaning of life.
Judaism is a religion of deed, not creed. Rather than grand declarations of love we are encouraged -- in fact commanded -- to work hard to create shalom bayit (peace in the home). But how?
Moses Maimonides knows that we can only form a union if we first separate from our own parents. In his 12th-century work, "Laws of Marriage," he writes, "A husband can prevent his wife's family from entering the house if it bothers him. She can make the same demand on him."
But beyond that first crucial separation, shalom bayit must come through deeds. We show our love through small, daily acts of respect and enthusiasm. We don't necessarily do for our spouse what we want our spouse to do for us. Instead, we do what honors our spouse most.
Torah teacher Shira Smiles recommends that you get off the telephone when your spouse enters the house or the room you're in. If you're at home when your spouse arrives, go to the front door to greet him or her. Instead of turning on the television, take your spouse for a walk around the block.
Marriage has great potential for boredom, chronic resentment and misery. It also has a greater potential for deep satisfaction, intimate friendship and sexual pleasure than any other adult relationship. Consider your marriage as another child. It, too, needs care. You started out together, and after the children leave you'll be alone together again.
The movies tell us to believe in love. But the Hebrew word emunah, Smiles teaches us, is not merely "belief" or "blind faith," but a commitment or faithfulness based on actual knowledge.
The best way to keep marriage from being too hard is not to believe for a second that it's easy. Take time, act wisely, guard your words, get help before you need it: You write the ending.