So, my sister-in-law got married this past Saturday, September 7th. It was a lovely ceremony and a beautiful day. The bride was radiant, and the groom was darkly handsome. More important than that, however, it was heartfelt. I’m not sure every couple I’ve ever seen married actually liked each other. These too, I’m pretty sure they do, and I’m thrilled for them. So why does this post seem to have a bit of a sardonic tone to it?
Before I go any further about me, I want to be clear that this post also relates to writing. And let me also be clear that I have no great concerns about their marriage, or my own. The tone struck here is more a reflection on modern American marriage, not on any one individual marriage.
As writers, we often use marriage as a motivator for characters. They want to get married. They’re getting married. They’re recently married and figuring everything out. They’ve been married for a long time, trying to rekindle the fires. They want a divorce. The list goes on and on. Part of this, of course, has to do with the very real fact that most people you know are, have been, or will get married at some point. You were likely born to married parents, even if they didn’t stay that way. You’ve grown up seeing marriages, good and bad. It’s familiar territory for almost all of us.
It is also a powerful force in our society. Hallmark makes lots of money convincing you to send beautiful cards to newly married couples. De Beers makes lots more convincing you that diamonds are forever, even if the marriage isn’t. Caterers and bakers and dressmakers and tuxedo makers and wedding planners and limousine companies are all out for a cut of your wedding money. And then there’s the legal side of things. When you get married, depending on state, some, most or all of what you possess – both “stuff” and debt – become co-owned. And if one of you dies – as one of you eventually will, before the other – there is an important transfer of wealth that occurs.
In older societies, marriage was the single most important transaction that occurred. Wars have been prevented – and a few fought – because of weddings. Powerful merchant interests or noble families were made weaker or stronger by a poor or good choice in spouse. Human history is littered with these transactions. As writers, then, this is a gold mine. But all of this sociological and historical information doesn’t matter if the story doesn’t feel real, doesn’t resonate with the reader. That’s where our personal experiences come in.
I was terrified of marriage as a young man, and I had right to be. My parents had had a rough marriage. My brothers would likely differ with me on the causes, but the net result was the same. For a time when I was just a baby, they split up for a year. They got back together – and had my little brother – but they fought heartily. More than once I remember my mother hurling something at my father – usually a pot or pan – and calling him something I won’t repeat here. It was ugly.
In fact, I’m probably a writer today in part because of how they fought. When things got bad, I would retreat to my bedroom – an impregnable fortress, at least in the mind of a young boy – and I would read. And read. And read. Did I mention my parents fought often? I became a storyteller because I found safety and peace traveling with Captain Kirk or Frodo Baggins or Arthur Dent or Skeeve and Aahz or any of a number of fantastical counselors and psychotherapists.
In my mid-twenties I met the mother of my children and ended up marrying her. I’m not sorry I did this because I have two amazing children, but, yeah, not the best move I ever made. And I’m not sure I’ll ever really understand why I did it. You see, all the fear I had previously from my parents marriage was still there. I just choked it and stuffed it into a trunk. I seemed, as they say, to be a good idea at the time. It ended badly, but she and I still communicate somewhat as co-parents.
So there I was. Thirty six years old, divorced, unable to see my children nearly as much as I wanted. I was clinically depressed, working a job I hated, buying way too much whiskey and ice-cream. It was a dream come true, for a writer, at least. It was a dream because it was ugly and painful. My parents had died a few years before the divorce, and I really felt alone. I thought deeply and reflected often on my mistakes and what purpose my life had. In short, I really suffered. Death, divorce, loneliness, ennui and angst. Yeah. It was fun. But it was exactly what I needed.
Fast forward a few years, and I met my now wife. We didn’t start out romantic, but when we realized our boats were lashed together and we had drifted into the Sea of Sentiment, I was faced with the same choice about marriage. Now granted I had changed much since my first marriage, and the circumstances were very different, but still…
You can see a character in a book with the very same back story, can’t you? And that’s kinda my point. Marriage is everywhere. It shows up in – or can show up in – nearly any form of fiction imaginable. And it has to be there. If there were no marriage, any human-like people would have invented it anyway. They might call it “mate-bonding” or “life-promise”, but a rose by any other name still costs too much. Or is that smells as sweet?
So, marriage is here. It’s not going anywhere in your life, even if you reject the cultural definition of marriage and never commit or actually go through with it. If you live with the same person for ten, twenty, thirty years, you’re married in all but name. And it’s not going anywhere in fiction either. People have a need to be with someone else for more reasons than I care to mention here. It’s part of who we are, and that
isn’t going to change. So consider how you can use the complexities of marriage in your stories, and consider how marriage will affect your life, even if you life alone all your life.
So to Heidi and Anthony, may God bless your marriage.