Ball and chain

In the new anthology "Committed," male writers from Jay McInerney to Colin Harrison explain their decision to finally settle down. Salon asked their partners for the other side of the story.

Published February 17, 2005 7:37PM (EST)

On Feb. 14, Bloomsbury published an anthology of essays titled "Committed: Men Tell Stories of Love, Commitment, and Marriage," in which 17 men share their perspectives on settling down. The prospect of reading the male take on matters of the heart is always alluring thanks to the widely held cultural assumption that men cannot speak in complete sentences when talking about feelings. (The ancillary assumption being that women never stop gabbing about them.)

Indeed, Jay McInerney, in his introduction to "Committed," promises that many of the essays in the book "deconstruct [the] stereotype of male commitment aversion (not to mention the stereotype about men being emotionally inarticulate)." But in some respects, "Committed" does little to dispel the notion that persuading a man to marry is like stuffing a tomcat into a pet-carrier: a lot of scratching and hissing leads to grudging submission and admission of defeat. Many of the writers, even while extolling the virtues of their chosen partners, take a moment to fill readers in on their very, very successful sexual histories.

What's interesting, and sweet, about the "Committed" essayists is their explorations of the aspects of partnership not simply pertaining to monogamy. Many of the pieces touch on more nuanced examples of the compromises and sacrifices we make for love. David Sedaris allows his boyfriend to lance a boil on his ass; Chip Brown rousts himself from sleep to smear self-tanner on his wife's back; Rick Moody learns to love his girlfriend's cats; Tad Friend gets rid of a well-used mattress.

The majority of the "Committed" contributors are media machers, as are many of their partners. And as one reviewer put it, so many of the essayists are New Yorkers, Brooklynites even, that "they might as well have called it Committed in Cobble Hill.'" Salon sought out some of the local women of "Committed" -- the partners of McInerney, Colin Harrison, Jonathan Mahler and Rich Cohen -- to get the female perspective on relationships. For a change.

In "Conversion," New York Times Magazine writer and Jew Jonathan Mahler writes about falling in love with his shiksa wife, New York Times editor Danielle Mattoon. (Both are friends of this reporter.) Mahler describes the tricky religious negotiations of their engagement: Mattoon's enrollment in "Jew school," his horror at the Christmas-tree ornament with his name on it at her New England family home, their discussion of conversion and wrangling over whether she'll violate Jewish tradition by accepting gifts at a baby shower.

Salon: So what was your reaction when you read your husband's essay?

Danielle Mattoon: Well, I knew about the idea and he kept me in the loop about how it was going. So it wasn't a surprise.

What is your take on the religious issues you've had to come to grips with in your marriage?

I think it's portrayed pretty accurately in this piece. Subsequently we've had a baby and the religious issues that surrounded the marriage have raised their head again concerning Gus. I'm glad I took classes and glad we had a Jewish wedding. The conversion issue is still unresolved, but the more dogmatic he becomes, the less interested I am in capitulating because I don't want it to be -- and think it shouldn't be -- a capitulation. It should be something I want to do because I want to do it.

Was religion the major stumbling block in the decision to commit to each other?

I'm not sure it was a stumbling block at all. I think that by the time we became serious I'd given up the notion of ever having a Christmas tree in the house and he'd given up on the notion of marrying a Jewish woman. I mean, I mentally got rid of the Christmas tree on the second date. And then the more subtle parts of the negotiations evolved from there.

Why were the negotiations always about your conversion and not his?

Because I didn't have a very strong religious upbringing and I don't have a relationship that I care about with the Episcopal Church and I didn't really feel like I'd be leaving anything behind. It's much more of a cultural identification than it is a spiritual one for me. So I was actually interested in adding a spiritual element to my life. I'd be really happy if Judaism turns out to be that spiritual element. However, it turns out that Jonathan's relationship with Judaism isn't a spiritual one; it's much more a cultural and political one, so I need to find my own path. I'm not going to be turned on to Judaism by Zionist editorials. Whether I agree or disagree, it's just not going to be my route. It's going to be a more searching, spiritual thing.

A lot of the "Committed" guys write about giving in to notions of commitment. Did you feel like you sacrificed by getting married?

It hasn't been a sacrifice. Something that's become more clear to me since I had a baby is that I think for women -- at least for me, and I find myself a more clichéd example of my gender every day --- as they find commitment and gain a family they feel more contented. Women find a sort of solace in a certain amount of solidity; they eagerly move toward these things that bind them to the world, like a husband and family. And men see it as a taking away of their freedoms; for them, each step is a reduction of their liberties, whereas women find certain amount of liberation in knowing where they stand.

Did you like being single?

I felt much more at loose ends, more anxious. I didn't feel like there was this world of opportunities and "Oh, I can just go sleep with anyone in a bar!" That didn't do it for me. But men have fantasies that they can just take off, and those become less of a possibility with certain passages of life like marriage and having a child. Not that Jonathan is ever going to jump on a plane and go to Rome on a whim, but I think he always thinks it would be nice if he could.

We were once watching television at some bar and there was a college basketball game on TV and Jonathan was looking at the game and said, "Wouldn't it be great to be back in college?" And I thought that was ridiculous. When I was in college I was so lost and depressed and in such a psychic panic about "whither me." But he regards that time as just full of liberty; he could go to bars with strangers, he didn't have to be home at night. It's a romantic fantasy about that kind of freedom that I just don't get. One thing I have never ever wished is that I were younger. I think things get easier and I get happier as I get older.

Do you think that's about a female willingness to take on responsibility and a male eagerness to evade it?

I wouldn't say that's true of Jonathan. Both of us revel in all the little responsibilities in taking care of Gus. Not to get sappy, but they don't really feel like responsibilities. I think it's more of an abstract kind of "I'll never be that person again" thing.

So what changed about your relationship after you decided to commit for good?

I pretty much hate the way anyone chews their food. And with Jonathan I just decided: Everyone chews and I've got to live with it.

Had this chewing thing been a deal-breaker in earlier relationships?

I just hate eating noises, and it's always a problem with the person you're dating because you have to eat with them. But if you're in a relationship you want to get out of and you hate the way your partner chews, that's as good a reason as any to get out of it. But not anymore.

Colin Harrison's essay "Incision" closes "Committed." Harrison's piece is not so much an exploration of his own marriage as it is a look at the end of another. He writes about the slow and painful death of his father, his recognition of the impact it has on his mother, and the way he and his wife, author Kathryn Harrison, expand their own relationship to absorb the grief and responsibility of mourning. Central to his tale is his wife's choice to look at an unhealing gash down the middle of his father's belly, and her warning to him that he should not do the same.

Salon: Did you learn anything about your husband from reading his "Committed" essay?

Kathryn Harrison: No, I knew him in that way already. I knew he was thinking a lot about his parents' marriage when his father was dying. For better and for worse, both of us are terribly earnest people who are not at all ironic about marriage. I think we took our marriage vows very seriously and believed we were and are together till death do us part. I never went through any process of struggle or decision-making before we got married. I knew this was my husband on the first date. And at that point I wasn't somebody who was looking to get married.

How did you meet?

We met in grad school at the Writers' Workshop at Iowa. We were at a reading together briefly. Then one day we were standing in the graduate lounge at the mailboxes and he came up to me and said, "So why don't we have lunch? How about next Tuesday?" And I said, "OK, sure." And he said, "Well aren't you going to write it down?" I was a little taken aback both because it seemed weirdly bossy and also sort of sweet. As if I'd forget. So we had lunch and agreed we'd have a real date the following Friday, which we did, and on Monday he handed me his house key and I moved in and that was it. I had just turned 24. He was the same. He was a year ahead of me, so he entered a doctoral program he had no intention of completing [in Iowa] to hang around me. Then we moved to New York and got married. I was pregnant a year later with my first child.

Did it ever bother you to live here in New York in the land of single women as a married woman?

No, I've often thought I must be really lucky. Certainly having that huge question of one's life settled early allows you more time and energy to work on other things. I've never looked at it as a question of how many people I won't be involved with. But I never was somebody who dated. I had one serious relationship and then another. I guess I'm somebody who's commitment-inclined.

Why do you think that is?

I don't know. My mom and dad were divorced when I was an infant so the only role model I had was my grandparents' marriage, which was not conventional. My grandmother had my mother when she was 43. And both of my grandparents were so eccentric I don't know what ideas I had from them about what marriage was. I know so many friends who when they got married, it was the culmination of so many fantasies. I was never that person. I didn't think that much about it until it happened. In my case, it was totally intuitive.

Given that you went into this calmly, did you find any surprises in commitment?

I don't think anybody can really anticipate what it's going to be like to be a parent. I don't think anybody is really prepared for the amount of time and energy and focus kids demand. Or for the amount of joy either. We've been married for 17 years and we've gone over a few bumps in which I thought -- I'm sure this is true of Colin as well -- "OK, so this is the person I'm going to be living with for the rest of my life; this is something I'm going to have to learn to cope with." Never moments where I thought, "OK, I'm outta here." Both of us were not only committed to each other in a pretty unqualified way from the beginning, but we've both been mystified by people entering into it with less commitment than that. We've known people who've gotten married with a "Let's see how it goes" attitude and I couldn't identify with that.

You're someone who's written very openly about your personal life. How does it feel to have your husband doing it?

I am much more comfortable writing about stuff like this than my husband is. Somehow when I'm writing personal essay or memoir I really intend to vivisect myself. It's not that I'm not a private person. But I think that there's some sort of disjuncture. I'm a very private person who uses means of self-exposure for expression.

The issues are different for Colin. He's more self-conscious and more protective of his privacy and our family's privacy. But because we're both writers we've understood from the beginning that we each have autonomy as writers: that I can't censor him and he can't censor me. That doesn't mean we're not sensitive to each other. But I am trying to think of what he could say that would bother me, and I just don't know. But then again, I sort of have put us through a trial by fire, so I have a different relationship to this than many people would and I know that.

You seem so calm about all of this.

I think we are pretty calm about marriage. I guess we're just very certain. I know a number of people for whom certain fights lead to thinking or saying the "D" word: "divorce." I know that that's never popped into my head. I've never seen our marriage as something that might be over. When I think about the end of it, every once in a while, I think: Which one of us will go first? And then I think: How can that be? Who's left behind? And that seems an impossible thought.

So you think of your relationship in terms of death?

I think I'm somebody who thinks about death probably a lot. I'm not obsessed with it but I do think about it routinely.

Do you think that's one of the reasons you were able to look at Colin's father's wound?

I think his father asked me to look at it because he wanted my witness to what had happened. I don't think you could bear it by yourself, the consciousness of that kind of wound. I don't think he would have asked Colin because I think to ask that of his child was a different thing, it would have a different impact. Because of the impact it had on me I remember telling Colin there was no reason for him to look at it. I just didn't see purpose in that kind of pain.

Do you think that your awareness of death goes hand in hand with your appreciation for your relationship with your husband?

I don't know if I've ever felt that keen love for anybody without the twin feeling of "Oh my god what would it be like to lose you?" I don't know that I experience one without the other. Having children also changes your relationship to the idea of your death. I remember getting mugged about eight years ago and only having $40 on me and thinking, "Please let it be enough." And saying, "I have kids," and he had what turned out to be a toy gun.

You're hostage to the feelings that you have for people. I don't think there's any way around that. I think that's why some people are afraid of commitment. I guess it's the impulse to not put yourself in a position in which you could lose them.

And opening "Committed" is an introduction by the thrice-married "Bright Lights, Big City" author Jay McInerney, who tells of how he was foiled on the way to his fourth trip down the aisle. His live-in partner and fiancée, Jeanine Pepler, decided partway through the wedding planning that she didn't want to get married, but wanted to stay together. McInerney writes of the way this decision turned social assumptions on their heads; friends didn't know whom to console, and he didn't know how to feel. Had he escaped? Or has he been unceremoniously set free?

Salon: What was your reaction to Jay's piece?

Jeanine Pepler: I was quite amused. You know, Jay was supposed to be a contributor. And when I called off the wedding, he said, "I don't know what to write anymore." And I told him, why don't you write about what happened? Why does the fact that we're not getting married mean our relationship is over? Or damaged? Isn't there a way to write that you don't necessarily have to get married to prove something to society or to yourselves? So why don't you write about the truth, which is we didn't get married but I love you and you love me.

So what happened exactly?

Well, I sort of pushed him a little bit and wanted to see if he loved me enough to marry me. And he did. And once we had plans, we had the church, the priest, once everything was in place it was just a matter of doing it. And suddenly I said to myself: But why? It's so great the way it is! Also, he'd been married three times and it didn't work, why would the fourth time be any different? And if we do it, what's next? Not children -- he has two gorgeous children who I'm so lucky to have in my life -- so maybe divorce is next.

Have you been married before?

Yes, I was married at 24 and divorced at 27. My marriage taught me that marriage doesn't solve any problems; it just creates new ones. And it creates this great sense of what's next. And I've never been that keen on kids so when Jay and I met, and I realized he'd been married three times, I was quite happy about that because I wasn't looking for kids.

But you said you pushed him to marriage.

Well, it's important to know that a man wants to marry you, that he would marry you. Especially since you look at Hollywood endings, even "Sex and the City" -- the TV show not the book, Candace [Bushnell] is a friend -- but even the TV show succumbed to convention. It seems like it's always about the appropriate social ending which is somehow always marriage. In the first couple of years with us it never came up. But at one point -- and I think it happens with girls at some point -- I began to think, "Would he marry me? You know, he married three other women! So what's wrong with me?" But then it turned out he did want to marry me. But then when I called it off people would look at me and say, "Oh, I'm so sorry." And I would say, "No, no way. I called it off." But they felt bad for me and that made me feel bad. And Jay said, "But you did it!" And I'd explain, "No, it's this social thing." And Jay said, "Screw 'em" and I said, "Yeah, I know, screw 'em."

So exactly how long before the wedding did you nix it?

Well, we had the date and the church. We were getting married on May 29 in 2004 in St. Barts and we called it off just before Christmas.

Was he surprised?

Yes, he nearly choked. We were having lunch over a bottle of wine and I didn't know how to say it because it wasn't supposed to be a downer. So I just said, "Would you mind if we didn't get married?" He looked at me like I'd grown another head and he said, "Are you sure?" And I said, "I love you but I have grown in my own thoughts about this." It's the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" theory.

Did you feel like you were reversing gender roles?

I did. That was actually quite fun in a way. There's something fun and playful about turning the tables. He enjoyed it too. I think it strengthened our relationship hugely.

Is there any possibility you might want to get married later?

Sure. Absolutely nothing is out of the question. It's not like it's off the table but right now it's not an imperative. Right now things are good and I'm very happy and I love him and I'm so lucky. We've been together for five and a half years and we live together and have a French bulldog named Zelda who is our child.

So do you view this as like being married?

Yes. But I've been legally tied to someone, and I know that the mind-set is different. I have a fight with Jay and I think, "I can leave." There's nothing binding me; I'm not shackled. So every day is a decision to stay. It makes my choice to be with him, to love him, proactive. And I'm excited about it.

Rich Cohen, journalist and author of "Tough Jews," wrote "How My Son Got His Name" a piece about choosing a name for the hours-old child he has with his wife, New York Assistant District Attorney Jessica Medoff.

Salon: Rich's story was more about the birth of your son than about committing to marriage. So can you fill us in on your story?

Jessica Medoff: We met in 1997 through a mutual friend and were married in 2000. I was 27; he's two years older. I had had a very serious boyfriend for many years and we had broken up, so I was at a fun point in my life where I was free and excited about that. I wasn't necessarily looking for a boyfriend.

Was it hard for you to give up your single freedom?

Soon after we met my father got sick and ended up being sick for about a year. We were at a point in our relationship when the discussion of marriage comes up. I wasn't reluctant about getting married, but with my father getting sick and because of other family stuff, I didn't want everything to happen so close in time. I just wanted to make sure everything was OK in my personal life. I didn't want things to get confused. I wasn't reluctant or commitment phobic.

Do you think it's harder for guys to settle down than for women?

Rich had dated a lot and I don't think he planned on getting married at 31 or 32. He was very excited about it and about our relationship. But getting married wasn't his plan. I think he envisioned himself getting married at an older age.

How has marriage and a baby changed your relationship??

It's gotten better and better. And I'm pregnant again, six months. With Aaron it's been amazing and there haven't been those rough patches people talk about. The birth has made the marriage even stronger. It hasn't changed our lives in any way; it's just enhanced it and maybe we're happier.

What's surprised you about the nature of commitment?

We were in a long-term relationship before marriage and we lived together, so I just assumed marriage would be the same. But there was significance to taking those vows and saying those words and going through the birth of our son that wasn't present in our lives together before we were married. Our relationship has gotten stronger and that's a surprise because our relationship was so good beforehand. I'm not saying it's not hard work, but it's made our lives better.

Sorry there's no juicy part.

What do you think you've done right?

I think people have expectations about marriage and that's where people run into trouble. I've heard friends say things like, "Oh, I want to marry this person because I want to grow old with them." And I want to ask: Who wants to grow old? Are you happy now? Are you enjoying yourself today? This week?

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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