By LINDA SEEBACH
Scripps Howard News Service
April 12, 2006
"That's nothing," the Russian retorted. "So can I!"
I had my own domestic version of that joke. I believed that marriage meant I should treat my husband better than I treated anyone else, except our son.
So did he.
That came to mind as I was reading Lis Pendley's "Marriage Works! Before You Say 'I Do'," on what you should know about the person you're planning to marry before you go and do it. She has nearly 50 brief chapters, illuminated by the funny and sometimes bitter comments of many people she has talked to or who have taken her surveys (see www.marriagewks.com).
Some of them are poignant vignettes of whole lives summed up in a sentence - "I came home and found a 'For Sale' sign on my house." Others are touching tributes to a lifetime of devotion. Mostly they suggest the kinds of questions you should be asking, of yourself, and of "Your Beloved" (an irritating tic, by the way) about all the things people take for granted and never talk about until the marriage plows into them like Titanic into the iceberg.
She's way too doctrinaire for me - "This person is not your best choice!" immediately makes me ask the economist's question: Compared with what? Even a less-than-ideal marriage may be preferable to no marriage, for a woman who wants children and is unwilling to try to raise them alone, just to take one important example.
Still, squarely facing the question "Is this my best choice" for dozens of marital perils - such as money, sex, children, religion, in-laws, work, household chores - is a useful exercise. Hardly anyone, I'd bet, would answer "yes" to every question, but honestly answering "no" a lot would most certainly be reason for caution.
Some of the comments are from people who made disastrous marriage choices that, looking back, they should have been able to foresee. Phoebe says, "He was drunk when we met. He stayed drunk for our entire marriage. My Dad was an alcoholic. I can't believe I ignored all the signs."
But sometimes the things that go wrong in a marriage are not foreseeable. My husband and I were married in 1959, the summer after he graduated from college. I was 19, with one more year to graduation. That's very young, but I don't think the marriage was a mistake. It's just that over the next 20 years we grew into very different people, and neither of us much liked the person the other had become.
The defining moment came in 1979, when my doctor told me I had breast cancer. He was wrong, as it happens; I have had breast cancer, but I didn't have it then. I called Arthur at his office to tell him and he said, "Oh, my God! What will happen to me when you die?"
Actually, nothing; I'm still here and he died in 1996 (or I wouldn't be writing about this). But from that point on, the marriage was irrevocably over. He might have apologized for such a self-centered response - not that he ever did - but it wouldn't have canceled the knowledge that in his eyes I was nothing more than a convenient household appliance.
We didn't actually get divorced until 1992, after our son Peter graduated from college and went to live in the Twin Cities, but from then on it was definitely going to happen sometime. Could I have predicted it in 1959? I don't see how, and in fact I think it likely that if I had continued to teach we'd have stayed together, having our work in common. Instead, I got comments like, "I don't have time to do that; I have a real job."
Was it worth it? Sure; Peter is worth it. And we had a lot of good times.
One woman told Pendley, "If I had shot him 20 years ago instead of marrying him, I'd be better off financially and I'd be out on parole by now." A man said that after five marriages and assorted kids, he kept track of birthdays and visitation days on a spreadsheet. Another man wrote, "Every few years I change my career. I was a landscape architect, a city planner, a professor. And every time I change my career, I change my wife!"
Not to pick just on husbands, Ted says, "I never saw it coming. I had no idea she planned to remake me. She expects me to give up my friends ('too boring'), my red meat ('too fattening'), my beer ('too addicting') and my baseball team ('too time-consuming')."
If you think you might need to see what's coming, take a look here.
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.