Monday, August 12, 2002

Firing off the New Week

I can tell I'm gonna have to pay more blog attention over the weekends, what with all these spiffy people blogging and commenting 24/7.

In other news, it seems my father has found this site. Hi, Dad! I'm sure he and Mom now know all sorts of stuff about me they never imagined. :-)

Joie has opined a bit (where're your posts' permalinks, Joie?) on marriage and submission, and I thought I'd chime in.

The balance of power in a relationship is a tricky thing. Tripp tried years ago to make me see that every relationship has one, and I refused to admit it at the time, but I've come to admit that he's right.

The way it worked out in my case was that Jennifer and I married out of college -- mistake number one; neither of us was done with late adolescence yet, despite being legal to cohabitate, drink and vote. Long story short, I submitted quite willingly to Jennifer's leadership: she was much more experienced in handling the minutiae of daily life than I was; she had a lot more complete and concrete picture of the world than I did; and she was much better at keeping life's logistics under control. So Jennifer became the "alpha" in our relationship - I'd bring home the cash, and she'd funnel it to the places it needed to be to keep the bills paid and our little corner of the world functioning; I'd have dilemmas and she'd provide a perspective to get me started. A fair inversion of typical gender roles, but hey, we considered ourselves progressive late-20th-century people, and styled ourselves as a team, taking on the world.

Life continued. We experienced our little crises and crackups just like all married couples do, got through them and moved on, but the problems began when, as we grew older and novelty and charm wore thin, she came to resent her position of authority and obligation, and I began to realize that there were some things I could handle. Should have worked out perfectly, right? She was looking for a way to release some of her obligations, and I was looking to take some on. There were two major flies in the ointment, though: A) I was new at these things, and thus bound to screw up; and B) Jennifer was used to holding the reins, and as such had no precedent or inclination for respecting my judgment. From there it's predictable: I took on a few responsibilities for a few months, and screwed them up; rather than allow me to continue, and get through the learning process, she took the responsibilities back with extreme prejudice, assuming that I was a general screwup. From the accustomed submissive position, I had little ammunition to disagree, and even an inclination to keep to the old patterns and defer to her judgment.

Friction increased, though; we were growing up into increasingly disparate people: I was starting to demand respect and independence that wasn't forthcoming, and she saw her position of authority threatened by an incompetent, tubby hubby with the temerity to start spouting ideas that didn't jibe with hers. A few (well, several) other fundamental wrongnesses reared their heads over the coming two years (fodder for other blog entries), and after that, having convinced herself that I was a burden on her and that she shouldn't have to endure my presence in her life any longer, she filed for divorce and kicked me out.

I've had a lot of time to think, heal, grow up and reflect in the two and a half years since. My submissive position led to impressive passivity on my part; since the important decisions weren't mine to make, I could (and did) largely coast. Since they were all hers to make, she never could. Certainly this argued for better load-sharing, but I think there's more at work here. In American society, like it or not, the norm is for men to "drive" the household, while women are typically maintainers or navigators of that ship of state. There's a big part of me that believes, ruminating on a few mini-situations that did work out between us (where I stepped up, she failed to get in the way and wound up enjoying herself), that if Jennifer and I had somehow built that situation, we would both have been far happier and quite probably still married, with kidlets and all sorts of benefits. Still, we weren't people that came up with that for ourselves when it was possible to do so, so for that relationship it's moot. Besides, she's become someone with whom I no longer care to associate, so punt that. :-)

I've become much more my own person in the interim, and that's a very good thing; I'm self-possessed (and self-respecting) enough now that I'll be able to stake out my own positions of respect and defend myself when challenges come along in whatever new relationships are over the horizon.

But back to Joie's point: yes, IMO a blend of submission and struggle is certainly present in any marriage, but without mutual respect to firm up and mature that blend, there're fundamental problems with a marriage's foundation.

And speaking of fundamental problems...
A few months ago I finished a C.S. Lewis book called The Screwtape Letters. It's chock full of great ruminations on how to live and do the Christian thing, but one of the major points I took away from it was a discussion on love and marriage. The book takes the form of a series of letters written by Screwtape, a senior devil in Hell, to his largely incompetent tempter-in-training Wormwood. Wormwood's charge, a young English man, is at one point considering marriage to his sweetheart, and Screwtape's advice, (highly paraphrased) runs to this effect:

One of our major victories in this age has been the successful implanting of the notion that the breathless, glandular, transitory infatuation the humans have come to call 'love' (and neither duty to one's vows nor dedication to the larger ideal and institution) is the sole acceptable reason to undertake the lasting bond of marriage. We have borne more plentiful fruit from this innovation than possibly any other in this century.
This was written in the forties, if I recall my copyright dates. I'll check to be certain - it may well have been earlier, like the teens.

But the point I wanted to add to the discussion is just that: marriage is intrinsically neither an easy nor a glorious thing. It can be both, but it will frequently be neither. Marriage can on occasion be frustrating, messy, ugly and even painful. But that doesn't mean it's bad, and it probably means that the opportunity's there to make it very good. My own parents have seen all these sides, and yet they still manage considerable cutes and cuddlies after thirty-five-ish years. All three of their kids have had their dramas, problems, crises and hardships, but the example set by Mom and Dad is indelible, and fundamentally a beautiful, monumental thing. Because no matter how much friction there was, or how tightly pennies had to be pinched, or how far afield their kids may have gone, neither of them ever called it quits (or at least never that we saw, which amounts to the same thing).

When it comes down to brass tacks, is there any more important thing you can teach a kid?


[Edit: okay, here's the full set of quotes from Screwtape, Copyright 1942 (remember, it's a devil speaking, so 'Enemy' and 'Father' are reversed):

The Enemy's demand on humans takes the form of a dilemma; either complete abstinence or unmitigated monogamy. Ever since our Father's first great victory, we have rendered the former very difficult to them. The latter, for the last few centuries, we have been closing up as a way of escape. We have done this through the poets and novelists by persuading the humans that a curious, and usually shortlived, experience which they call 'being in love' is the only respectable ground for marriage; that marriage can, and ought to, render this excitement permanent; and that a marriage which does not do so is no longer binding.
...humans can be made to infer the false belief that the blend of affection, fear, and desire which they call 'being in love' is the only thing that makes marriage either happy or holy. [...]In other words, the humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as its result.
This is all distinctly more spiritual than I usually wax, but it's my site and I'll do what I want. :-) ]

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