Amid all the bad press marriage has been getting recently — from Sandra Tsing Loh’s admission of adultery and refusal to do the “work” necessary to keep her marriage together, to Cristina Nehring’s dismissal of boring companionate marriages in favor of rash flings, to the very public ruin of the marriages of every governor ever elected, to Caitlin Flanagan’s flaccid defense of marriage as something to hang onto for the sake of the kids — I’m starting to feel like there is something wrong with me, because I actually enjoy being married.
My wife and I have been married anywhere from seven to 150 years (I’m not good with dates). During those years we have moved six times, and each move was like an exotic gift that happened to be covered in shit. We have each had multiple jobs, and multiple uniforms with name tags. We’ve been broke, we’ve been well off, we’ve been broke again. We’ve bought our first house together, and it has a giant hole in the kitchen ceiling and sparks come out of the third-floor outlets if you hold anything metal too close to them. We have fought, raged, nearly cheated, and been totally out of sync with each other during chunks of our time together. We’ve also produced two enormous redheaded babies who are as terrifying to us as Mothra and Godzilla were to Japan in the ’60s. We have been depressed, we have wanted more, we have wanted different, we have wanted out. The years since we got married have been the most challenging and at times most frustrating years of my life.
They have also been the most productive, happiest and most hilarious.
When I met my wife she was a tough and self-sufficient 25-year-old bartender working in lower Manhattan. When she looked in the mirror she saw a beautiful young woman with a rock-solid personal-trainer sculpted body and a collection of lingerie that would make Fredrick of Hollywood himself go cross-eyed.
I was a 22-year-old slow-getter navigating the medium-paced world of entry-level positions at failing entertainment companies. When I looked in the mirror I saw someone who looked like a cross between Wallace Shawn and Koko the sign language gorilla. (Yes, I know Koko is a lady ape, but the resemblance is uncanny.) I saw someone who hadn’t quite gotten comfortable with the fact that he wasn’t 14 anymore, but who had endless amounts of time and energy for being as selfish as possible and enjoying every possible instant life had to offer.
The world was our oyster, and we slurped it. We slurped it often. We slurped it hard.
We had so much fun slurping with each other that we thought we should make a life of it.
Nowadays when my wife looks in the mirror all she sees are stretch marks and soft spots. I don’t see these things with the clarity or critical eye she does; if I do notice changes in her I chalk them up to a life full of laughter, good food and fat babies. In my mind, my wife wears those marks with as much style and beauty as she wears everything else. In her mind it is a different story.
When I look in the mirror I see pretty much the same thing I’ve seen for the past 17 years: I still see a big hairy monkey smiling back at me and grunting, and I still feel like I’m 14, even if the energy and time aren’t necessarily there anymore. Sure, I notice the effects of ape pattern baldness slowly ravaging my once glorious mane, and perhaps I’ve eaten one too many bananas and slurped one too many oysters.
But these maladies that my wife and I face when we look in the mirror are not symptoms of a crappy marriage. They are a symptom of getting older, and I have a sneaking suspicion that they would not be worn as gracefully if we were not a part of each other’s lives.
And while I have many daydreams regarding me and Tina, the 20-year-old soccer-playing sophomore who serves me my ice cream and indulges me in my forced attempts at conversations about her school and career goals, I know that ship has long since sailed. I had my time with the Tinas of the world. I married one. I don’t want to think about getting hair plugs and a Camaro in order to keep up with the new batch.
My lack of hot Tina action doesn’t eat away at me, nor does it act as some sort of wedge issue in my life or marriage, because I know a secret.
As hard as marriage can be, it only really sucks if you don’t love the person you’re married to. If you don’t love the person you’re married to all the other crap seems insurmountable — the scary large children, the lack of money, the fantasy sexual partners (who I like to imagine was wearing a particularly low-cut top today in my honor but, in reality, was not), the falling-apart house, the weeks where you just don’t click, the ridiculous arguments about nothing, and most important, the fact that you’re getting older and still haven’t magically achieved your life goal of becoming Randall Cunningham or Patti Smith or whatever.
If you love the person you are married to then all the stuff that’s your problem and not actually a problem with the relationship, stays your problem (for the most part), and you can focus on what’s great about marriage.
At 8 p.m. on the 4th of July my wife and I found ourselves with two sleeping children and an unusual amount of energy for that time of night. We capitalized on the opportunity by having sex on the couch (we are usually relegated to quickies in our pantry/coat closet during episodes of “Dora”). We were enjoying this moment of sexual liberation from the tangling tentacles of the jackets we still haven’t put away for the summer when we realized that the music coming from the TV had changed, and we were suddenly working in time to a particularly jaunty instrumental rendition of “You’re a Grand Old Flag” (not exactly Marvin Gaye). In my compromised state, the song crossed with “Stars and Stripes Forever,” and I found myself singing that line about “a duck being somebody’s mother.” It’s hard to overstate the absurdity of the moment, as I whispered poultry origins from the wrong patriotic anthem to my incredibly sexy wife during intercourse.
Everyone has laughed so hard their stomach hurt, but I don’t know how many people have had that opportunity while they are inside someone else who is laughing that hard too. It is sort of like riding on the teacups at Disneyland during an earthquake. It’s an unusual sensation and one that I’m not quite sure I’d describe as sexy. It certainly shares little in common with the urgent and dramatic gymnastics of our youthful physical relationship, but it was fun, it was intimate, it was something that I’m glad I had the chance to do, and it was something I would only feel comfortable sharing with my wife of 150 years.
I’m sacrificing our privacy on the altar of public opinion for a simple reason: We talk about our marriages so seriously and with such reverence; we talk about our sex or lack thereof in the same way. Maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we shouldn’t treat the institution and its dirty little companion as some sort of precious Fabergé egg that is either shattered and worthless or pristine, untouchable and priceless. Maybe it’s more like Silly Putty and the plastic egg it comes in. Sometimes the egg is open, allowing for hours of stretchy, flexible fun; sometimes the egg is closed and kind of boring, but as long as the Silly Putty remains inside the egg it’s still full of as much potential as your imagination allows, and the value of the egg is not diminished no matter how often or vigorously the egg or its contents are fingered or played with. (And yes, I was staring at a Silly Putty egg on my dining room table when I came up with that extended metaphor.)
Maybe if we all had a better sense of humor about our relationships, our sex, and most important, getting older, our marriages wouldn’t be in such crisis. As appealing as doing tequila shots with out-of-work strippers sounds sometimes, the reality of it (for more than an evening) would probably not make me any happier than I am curled up on the couch with my wife drinking watered-down Scotch and watching TiVoed episodes of “General Hospital.”
I’m not arguing that people shouldn’t get divorced. I’m all for it. What I’m sick and tired of is divorced people speaking as though they are oracles from the future who know how the rest of our unions will turn out. All the marriage bashing going on out there feels like a way of shedding a certain amount of personal responsibility. By telling the world the institution is flawed, or that we’ve somehow outgrown it, nobody has to own up and admit that it was their interpretation of it that was screwed up.