For better, for worse

June brings fewer wedding bells, but Scheherazade offers post-nuptial inspiration

“Will you marry me?” is such a wild thing to propose to another person. Who would have the audacity? I mean, it’s quite the ask: “Would you consider forswearing all others and tying your life and everything in it to mine?” “Sure, why not, for how long were you thinking?” “Oh, just until one of us dies.”

Why do people do it? As a married person myself, and the author of On Marriage, I should probably have an answer. But despite extensive research and my many years of marital experience, I don’t think I do. Marriage strikes me as a great enigma, in part because it seems to be both everywhere and nowhere – the predetermined plot of so much life and literature, but conspicuous by its absence from most philosophy. It’s as if people have largely decided to do it without thinking about it – or can only do it because they don’t think (or know how to think) about it. It’s not for nothing that Kant, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, philosophers who have thought seriously about marriage, didn’t marry themselves. Because if you treat this most conventional of lifestyle choices with any degree of probity it sounds, well, quite mad. But is it? Another philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, once suggested philosophers pursue contemplation at the expense of decision or action. Though he did pitch an alternative: that we should say “yes” to whatever is proposed and contemplate the outcome afterwards. Yup, clearly mad. Yet some things, Levinas suggests, can only be known through experience, which always begins with a leap of faith (or an act of madness). No wonder literature rather than philosophy has taken up the slack here. That love can’t be known in the abstract is what we learn from George Eliot’s marriage epic, Middlemarch.

2020 saw, for the first time, more people divorcing than tying the knot

Not that people marry for love, necessarily. Historically, we’re well aware, they’ve married for all sorts of practical or social reasons. Reasons like property, controlling and owning women, religion, sex, children, taxes, security, or a dream wedding and Vera Wang über-dress. Still, if you ask someone to look back on why they got married, they can get flustered. They may gamely reach for an answer, but it’s not one they seem particularly convinced by. So my book, which isn’t a polemic, a defence or critique of marriage, and which certainly isn’t advocating for my own lifestyle (definitely not that), is a deep dive into a custom so commonplace that we assume we know what it’s about, yet might not have much insight at all.

Hook-up dating app Tinder is now assuring its subscribers that a swipe right could possibly end up with a more permanent romantic arrangement

Of course, it’s harder in some ways to grasp what’s “common” given that common is hardly noteworthy. And marriage as a cultural norm has a history so long that we have no human records of a time preceding the institution. So, do people marry simply because it would be weird not to? In the UK 2019 census, just over half the population declared themselves legally wed. Since then, the numbers have continued a modern trend towards a slow but steady decline – a development only intensified by the pandemic. 2020 even saw, for the first time, more people divorcing than tying knots. While partly explained by the postponement of many weddings, this was also the consequence of lockdown restrictions causing couples to feel imprisoned within their marriages. Does this imply that marriage is finally heading for extinction? Or could it suggest the opposite – that having always come in and out of fashion, marriage is on the verge of another comeback?

Romance remains popular, as witnessed by a recent resurgence of romantic comedies in literature, film and TV. As a fan of that genre, I’m pleased, but not surprised. If we seek escapism from our entertainments in a world growing evermore precarious, the promise of the happy-ever-after is bound to allure. Last week, my husband spotted an advert on TV for Tinder (or so he told me). Once celebrated as the good-time, hook-up dating app, Tinder now assures subscribers that what begins with a swipe right could just as easily wind up with your own toothbrush lodged in their bathroom.

In a rocky world, marriage is still about building something lasting. When we’re afeared for our own planetary and species survival, and when our social contracts are fragmenting, our politics polarising, and our contact with others IRL all but disappearing, it presents a paradigm of life that not only avows deep and enduring relationships, but has itself strengthened and endured by adapting, expanding and changing with the times – as hard-won battles over the right to interracial and same-sex marriage attest. Indeed marriage, for all it may be tied to the restrictive, normative and patriarchal, has also proven extraordinarily elastic, capacious, and creative.

A successful marriage doesn’t have to be unexciting: Scheherazade, the heroine of “A Thousand and One Nights”, is exposed to suspense, seduction, risk and adventure after her wedding

So, what really is marriage? And why does such an ancient practice retain so much mystery? According to the early twentieth-century self-help author, Marie Stopes, the shameful secret that lies behind many a conjugal door is misery, drudgery, resentment and despair. That’s surely still true in lots of cases. But when the world outside that door is also despairing, a happy marriage might be no less shameful a secret – especially if it’s a means of shutting out the miseries of the world. Not that it’s easy to know either way. A couple can marry before witnesses and then retreat into the privacy of their own experimental chamber with a social sanction afforded to few other relationships. The assumption that we mustn’t pry into anyone else’s marriage is even laid down in an English literary canon that’s dominated by the marriage plot, but which usually ends with the wedding. And while there are exceptions to that rule, such as Middlemarch, there’s no obvious way of circumventing the narrative problem of what comes next. It’s succinctly expressed by Rachel Samstat, heroine of Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn:

“One thing I have never understood is how to work it so that when you’re married, things keep happening to you. Things happen to you when you’re single. You meet new men, you travel alone, you learn new tricks, you read Trollope, you try sushi, you buy nightgowns, you shave your legs. Then you get married, and the hair grows in. I love the everydayness of marriage, I love figuring out what’s for dinner and where to hang the pictures and do we owe the Richardsons, but life does tend to slow to a crawl.”

Samstat’s concern, and presumably Ephron’s too, both as a spouse and a writer, is that marriage affords little in the way of creative inspiration. Within the everydayness of marriage, there are few stories to tell. And without stories, runs the logic, there’s the risk of someone going off in search of tales they can’t tell (cf French literature).

Must a successful marriage therefore submit to being unexciting – even tedious? Not necessarily. For me, the greatest of all spouses as well as the greatest of all storytellers is Scheherazade, the heroine of A Thousand and One Nights, whose exposure to suspense, seduction, risk and adventure begins only after her nuptials. In Scheherazade’s case, everything comes down to how she sustains marital interest in the “ever after”. After all, she’s married a man, a king, whose plan to avert marital betrayal is this: wed, deflower, behead. It’s a plan with such sound logic that Scheherazade is in dire need of her own strategy. The one she hatches is to treat post-nuptial life as a space where language, imagination and narrative don’t end, but deliver courage, hope and inspiration.

My own marriage, thankfully, isn’t as interesting as Scheherazade’s. I’m used to a lot more of the everyday, a lot less of the every night. Still, if marriage is the place where we go to ostensibly repeat but secretly rewrite our human story, then I cannot but love what she espouses for all spouses.

Devorah Baum is an author, academic and filmmaker. Her book “On Marriage” (Penguin) is out now

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June 2023, Life

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