American beauty

Are all marriages destined for the doldrums?

Cary Tennis
June 10, 2004 11:23PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I have a brief but immense question which I don't think you have addressed directly to date. It has been nagging at me for a while now, but it came back when I started rewatching "American Beauty" tonight. In fact, I paused the DVD 15 minutes into the movie to write you this e-mail.


My history isn't particularly relevant to this question, which I think is pretty universal. But just to be thorough: I am in my early 30s and was raised in households of High Drama (many parental fights, of the screaming, throwing-things, raising-bruises sort, between my mother and father, mother and her boyfriend, father and stepmother, etc., although never toward me).

My relationships (up until the current one) were similarly Dramatic and typically dysfunctional. At a certain point I realized that this wasn't what I wanted, so I took about five years off from all relationships to work on myself and clarify what I wanted. I am pleased to report that my current boyfriend and I have been living happily together for the last six months, after having been good friends for about a year and a half. He is an intelligent, kind, decent, funny and mentally stable man who's also had his share of bad relationships and is motivated to avoid falling into another one. When there's a problem, we are both able to take a break, then come back and work things out rationally. (Hooray!) He's my best friend, we do everything together, he makes me unbearably happy.

Now for the brief question. It seems like all relationships, over time, naturally degrade in either one of two ways: High Drama (as seen in my childhood), or complacent alienation (c.f., "American Beauty"). Surely there must be a third option? What is it, and how do I get there?


I know so many couples who started out just like us, young and happy, and 20 years down the road they wake up and realize they're trapped in a sterile, loveless marriage. They look back and think, "We were so happy back then in the beginning!"

What happens? And how best to avoid it? I have learned how to avoid High Drama, but how do I head off the "American Beauty" scenario? It terrifies me to think that one day I might look back at myself today and wonder, "What happened?"

Needing Insight


Dear Needing Insight,

There are workshops where you can exercise your relationship to give it bigger muscles and more stamina, but my relationship tends to walk by those kinds of things and look in the window and go, ooh, that's scary what they're doing in there. My relationship is kind of shy about working on itself. So instead, each of us in the relationship tends to work on ourselves separately so that when we come together we're more interesting to each other than we would be otherwise. I don't know if that's what it says to do in the book. We didn't buy the book. I'm not even sure what book we're talking about. What I'm talking about is trying to have a rich and full relationship with another person by first being true to yourself.


Being true to yourself these days pretty much means joining the resistance. My wife and I belong to the resistance. We communicate with our friends by Morse code on old-fashioned crystal radio sets. We hide out in church basements and French farmhouses. That keeps us focused on what's important: overcoming the Nazis, fighting tyranny, finding good cheeses.

It's hard to remain independent and quirky. The Vichy regime has so many inducements: healthcare, vacations, cars and boats. But look at how you have to dress to have those things! The uniforms! Look at the way they talk in elevators! So you have to join the resistance. Otherwise they'll beat you down and your marriage will become loveless and sterile. You will look at your partner one day and you'll wonder if he isn't working for the Vichy.

So how do you stop loving someone? Do you just run out of person? Is a person like a jam jar and you finally get to the bottom? If we are like jam jars, then we have to keep filling ourselves up, so when they stick the knife in and start scraping around, there's something sweet to put on toast. You're never out of everything. Rummage around. You've always got something. You have to always be refilling yourself.


Don't assume you're enough as you are. Who could possibly be enough? Superman, maybe. The rest of us have to work at it.

Stay desperate. Make that your motto: We're desperate. Get used to it.

Stay one step ahead of the law. Don't ever get too clean. Disguise yourself when you visit the drugstore for a prescription. Live like a happy, contented spouse, and wait for your moment ... be mad but not out of control ... be contrary but not reflexive ... write incomprehensible verses deep in the night while everyone else is sleeping ... Take long walks by the river before they arise ... resist assimilation ... pass notes to strangers in the park ... remain obdurately convinced of the rightness of your most controversial beliefs ... occasionally be inconsolable ... refuse to name your sources ... stay silent under torture ...


... beware of existence fatigue ... do not believe anyone who calls himself a spokesman ... question yourself mercilessly about your recent whereabouts ... organize yourself for maximum speed ... refuse to use the cruise control ... neither fear nor trust your neighbors ... have a suitcase always packed ... keep your passport handy ... learn a little Arabic ... do not discuss John Ashcroft with anyone. Learn to operate the crystal radio set, and locate the finest cheeses.

In this manner you may survive, and avoid a loveless, sterile marriage.

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Cary Tennis

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