The Beachside Resident - February 2010

It happened one idyllic afternoon, over six Valentine’s Days ago.

The sunset flooded in through the church windows and shed a dreamlike, coral pink glow over our clasped hands. We recited our vows and donned the rings. I was 26. She, 21.

At the reception, a friend of my father’s approached us on the dance floor and said, unwittingly, “Cherish it, my boy. This will be the happiest moment of your life!” I thanked him for his gracious words and twirled away to dance with more optimistic folk. I hoped the old codger wasn’t right; after all, marriage was the beginning, not the end of the journey... wasn't it?

We glided through a sea of smiling friends and loved ones, but I thought I detected a tinge of remorse in some of the older couples’ faces. Was it possible that poor devil was onto something? I took care to etch the evening permanently to memory just in case: the sumptuous ballroom with its high, inlaid ceilings, the tables adorned with hydrangea, sweet-smelling lily of the valley... my bright-eyed bride, a delicacy of silk and embroidery in my arms. The music, the spread, the wine, our happy hearts… truly the old fool must be mistaken — marriage was nothing less than a blessing from the heavens! This ecstasy was bound to last forever, and only be enriched with each passing day!

This buoyancy, this hopeful confidence, is not uncommon among freshly-married brides and grooms. Not a one expects the glow to dim away, or (God forbid) vanish completely. Sadly, 50% of all marriages in the United States end in divorce. The other half, as they say, end in death. It is hard to say which is worse, though a bad divorce is commonly accepted to be worse than a good death.

Why then, given equal chance of success and failure, do intrepid lovers flip the coin at such alarming rates? What misconceptions draw so many into doomed marriages? And — more importantly — what can we do to avoid them?

“You only know what happiness is once you’re married, but then it’s too late.” — Peter Sellers

Maybe unreasonable expectations are to blame. Just mention the word "wedding" to a girl of twelve, and she will begin to tremble with ecstatic visions of white gowns, ladies-in-waiting, princes, and roses clambering up stone walls. Bluebirds and sparrows will flutter about her head, eagerly offering white ribbons. Hers is a dream of happily-ever-after, preened and cultivated since early girlhood. No matter that the fantasy is unattainable. This makes it all the more desirable.

A young man’s expectations of marriage might be markedly less picturesque, yet a teenage boy will crow on about “defying the odds,” or how “love conquers.” He, too, has fostered an illusion, a thinly-applied plaster over the emotional impulse to touch her legs, her breasts, and the gentle curve of her neck.

Why do we marry, really? The covenant is as old as civilization itself, or at least as old as first recorded history, when the code of Hammurabi introduced marriage laws to the people of ancient Mesopotamia. (Infractions often resulted in one party or another being cast into the river.) Since then, humans have used matrimony as a stabilizing force, a tool to help propagate the species in an orderly fashion. Logic tells us that the coupling of one male to one female assures no one be left out of the child bearing equation.

But is marriage a man-made construct, or does it run deeper than humanity?

Poets, philosophers, and biologists have long extolled species like swans, wolves, ducks, and prarie voles as examples of other animals who mate for life. The scientific term for this phenomenon is called “pair-bonding.” Some theorize that marriage, like pair-bonding, is an innate instinct. This view has recently been called into doubt, however, by certain scholarly types –– anthropologists David Barash and Judith Lipton, in their 2001 book “The Myth of Monogamy” prove that cheating — or “extra-marital copulations,” as they phrase it — runs rampant even among pair-bonded animals. Their findings seem to conclude that holding a single sexual partner for life is not only a difficult task, but an unnatural one, especially for the more dominant males of the species.

While Tiger Woods may take comfort in these scientific findings, I for one, cannot abide them. I say, when we start looking to beasts for marriage counseling, we may as well go ahead and try out eating our young, or bathing ourselves in feces. No, I do not see marriage as a struggle against our own nature. Rather, I view at it as an elevation of it. Yes, we all have animal instincts. Undeniable, physical instincts. But why not rise above them… mold our perceptions to our will, exalt our own mates over the rest, glory in their imperfections… and tarnish forever the allure of extra-marital copulations?

“Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.” — Oscar Wilde

At the risk of sounding religious, marriage can be a holy, life-altering, magnetic force. A miracle that draws two souls together, and holds them fast.

“Every creature seeks its perfection in another.” — Martin Luther

I have known male couples who loved each other just as profoundly as bi-gender ones. I have seen such couples pair-bonded for long years, and have come to believe that they, too, are married. A religious person might look upon these rapturous heathens and recoil, but who are they try and account for God and his sundry works?

I leave you as a Valentine’s gift five well-trodden phrases which have served me well over the past six years, and which I hope can help at least one more married couple stay together –– thus tipping the scales in our favor.

“Let’s open a bottle.”

“Date night.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll do the dishes.”

“I appreciate you.”

And finally, the most important phrase of all… and you simply cannot overuse this one:

“Yes, dear.”