Thursday, 20 September 2012

Marriage

I've just watched Tuesday evening's BBC4 programme Love and Marriage: a 20th Century Romance on iPlayer, the first of a three-part mini-series. (They are all mini nowadays! But that's another topic). What better after breakfast, to start the day with? It was something I watched with mixed feelings.

I have been married myself, in 1983, on St Valentine's Day - which was my own romantic idea - when I was aged 30, in a period not yet covered by this first programme. But strangely much of it applied, because I grew up having absorbed all that my parents had said about their own marriage immediately after the Second World War, and had seen their example before my eyes all of my life. They of course had learned their own standards and behaviour in the 1920s from parents and others who had before them been brought up according to Victorian ideas of what was right and proper, notions that had been very slow to change, and in living conditions that were far removed from today's.

My marriage did not succeed. Like the relationships that came before it, and those that followed, it was doomed to failure.

It began well enough, after a pleasant courtship of almost a year, but if I had not been nudged into popping the question in late 1982, nothing would have happened, and we would have drifted apart. (And how then might my life have gone?) My marriage was (I still think) a positive, enriching experience for the first four years, when homebuilding and enjoying the novel role of parent filled it up. After that, it slowly declined as my wife and I found we had much less in common than we hoped. Arguments and differences simmered as we strove to keep it all from A---, my step-daughter. Her departure to New Zealand for a year after her A Level exams was the coup de grace. The cement was gone. Within months we were permanently separated. That was in 1991. Divorce had to wait until the law allowed. My wife made me put my life on hold for the full five years then needed for a divorce on grounds of incompatability, where one partner (not me) was unwilling to end the marriage. I got my Decree Absolute in 1996. I have never remarried, even though I did often think about it during my years with M---. But it was definitely a case of once bitten, forever shy.

Marriage was a step too far for me. However, in the 1990s, and later, it was still the conventional thing to do, the Big Moment to plan for, especially if children were on the scene. And if there were children, marriage safeguarded their interests, ensuring (if it all went wrong) at least a home while they were of school age. So it was the Responsible Thing To Do.

And it might well go wrong. Even when I married in 1983, I was aware that the odds were against it lasting a lifetime, and that I was risking unhappiness. But I had the high hopes of the inexperienced, and a determination to make a proper go of it. Thirty years later, I am completely disillusioned, not just from my own experience, but from how it has been for so many others who have related their stories to me. But I'm not in the slightest degree bitter or regretful about this. In fact I feel as if I survived a kind of cathartic wartime experience, and emerged emotionally and financially battered, but still alive and kicking.

Currently I'm back to that state again, after my long quasi-marriage to M---. The same sensation of being shipwrecked, struggling to the shore, relieved to have no broken bones or serious cuts; picking through whatever the storm has washed up onto the beach; finding that I'll be all right if I set to, and get a hut made, and a fire going, and make a knife, and fashion a bow and arrow, and cobble together some fishing tackle, and fashion a cloak and skirt to hide my nakedness. And a necklace of sea shells and pebbles. Robina Crusoe. Just me and the desert island in the sun. Just me and a hut full of salvaged comforts. Just me and the sea, and the wind, and the wide beautiful sky, and the brilliant stars at night, and the cry of seabirds, and memories to ponder, and tunes to hum, and words to sing, and plans to explore the island and discover its secrets. All on my own. A metaphor for my real future life.

But this isn't how my parents' generation looked at their lives. So far as I can see, they were sexually innocent, subject to parental and official authority, and constrained by many social conventions. Marriage was built up to be the chief ambition within everyone's reach. As essential as finding a job. With children as inevitable and natural as rain. No solitary desert isand independence for them. Some men might pursue a career, and devote themselves to that for years, but most wanted a sweetheart, a wife, a home they could call their own, and kiddies to complete it. Something to work for, to give point to the daily toil. And my parents' generation believed in total commitment to each other, for better or worse. Often worse, of course, but they were prepared to make the best of it. They had their well-defined roles, and if it all worked out the reward for the effort and the compromises was trusted companionship for sixty years and more. Not to be sniffed at.

My Mum and Dad seemed so united. So devoted to each other. So sexless too. I couldn't imagine them ever having passionate moments in bed. It didn't square with the snores coming from their bedroom when I began to speculate on how and when I came to be conceived. For I was born six years after they got married - quite a long time afterwards for those days - and nothing much was ever said about those six years. There were a few photographs, taken on the beach somewhere. Hardly any other momentoes. Both had a decent job. They had a house, rented at first, then purchased. But how did they fill those years? Dad was working on an extension to his autobiography when he died in 2009. In the first weeks afterwards, I looked though his manuscript for clues. But I didn't learn much, and I'm still not ready to revisit it.

I gathered that there may have been problems. I know Mum's mum, a diabetic, died quite young in 1948. I know this made Mum's brother, who loved his mum and was devastated by her death, emigrate to Australia. He ran away. This left Mum without any close family. And Dad had none. So they were very reliant on each other. I know that Dad had some awkward edges that Mum, a strong-willed woman who was prepared to speak her mind, succeeded in smoothing away, though at what cost to Dad I couldn't say, and can never now find out. I suspect that things did not go well at times. I remember that Dad smoked (which Mum was strongly against), and liked his beer (he admitted to me that he'd once been severely scolded by Mum when he came home from the office worse for booze, and had to promise never to do it again). Even so, they must have shared a bed with the usual consequences. Why then did six years pass before I was born? I have speculated on a string of miscarriages before I came along. But it's beyond knowing now.

However it was, they stayed together and ended up with all that they could have hoped for. Dad in a very good job. Mum the domestic queen in a nice house. Two trophy children to be proud of, at least until they got to their teens.

I wonder what Mum and Dad thought when I announced my marriage? They said only conventional things at the time. I think they really wanted a wedding for me like they had had. A white wedding in a church, with proper vows, made to a pretty young thing who would bear children to dote over. Not to an older woman with a twelve-year old child, and not after I'd just failed some important Civil Service exams. It must have seemed unwise, done at the wrong moment, rushed. My parents were never usually slow in telling me what they thought of my ideas and ambitions, but they said nothing, and let it go ahead. It wouldn't of course have mattered if they had ventured an opinion against my marrying. I had begun to assert myself. I had begun in fact to renounce convention and embrace the unknown and unsafe. I would have stubbornly gone ahead if they'd disapproved.

And what did they think when it folded, some years later? They did not say to me, 'We knew this would happen. We could have told you so.' They said nothing; nothing at all for many, many years.

And, if still alive, what would they say now, with the dust settling on my long relationship with M---? From my point of view, nothing useful. I wouldn't want to hear, yet again, how they would have stuck it out, and found a way. I'd want some frankness about their own marriage. And an admission that human beings are very imperfect, and find it difficult to get on with each other without tears and frustration, and the subjugation of one to the other. For there is always one partner who - subtly or not - has the whip hand. I think they had scars to prove it. Invisible ones. As I have.

Even if I could experience a second marriage that was somehow benign and truly equal, I'd not be free. And I will not give up my freedom. So not again, thank you.

4 comments:

  1. I think this series is being seen by the machine which watches TV for us so that there will be something to watch in the dark cold winter...

    Funny thing marriage. Probably worked in smaller settled communities for stability. Now that the world is such a different place and many live much longer lives with mobility and wealth choices about mates are bound to change.

    So many young couples are formed by hormones, blind to the fact that in a few years there is a good chance that they will have little in common to hold them together.

    So many older relationships start with a passion but that may not be enough cement to hold them together for the long term when they may have become used to greater personal freedom. I hardly need to mention the fact that sexual activity is now openly treated as a sort of recreational sport and I wonder how societies function when so many couples know that their partners have already sampled many others in their circle of friends.

    I never wished to get married for reasons you can probably guess. My thoughts were that unmarried we would stay together so long as we daily made the effort to be mutually attractive, marriage obligation removes some of that need!

    We are still together after half a lifetime under the legal protections marriage gives but I still feel that I would have preferred that we were together by mutual consent...

    The sooner there is universal legal coverage for all "couples" whilst they wish it the better society will be. Marriage as it stands gives some unfair benefits over others and at the same time traps others into a lifetime of economic servitude. It is an interesting concept but flawed...

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think the only way a marriage can endure is if there is love. By marriage I mean the unity of spirit and not just a marriage confirmed by a ceremony and a certificate (although I believe that is ordained by God). Marriage is by definition the joining of two people both physically and spiritually, it is a union. The glue that holds such a relationship together is love and it is the only reason a lasting relationship can happen. We divorce for many reasons but that does not always mean that the love has gone. My own relationship is a prime example. My ex and I have been together for 40 years if you include the 18 month courtship/engagement. Marriage is also not about sex else it is a very shallow relationship indeed. Although I admit to only having a relatively short engagement I do think it is wise to have a long period of engagement in order to ensure living together is more likely to succeed. Often the best relationships are formed with childhood sweethearts as they have had years of experiencing each other.

    Shirley Anne x

    ReplyDelete
  3. Beautifully written. Seriously, have you thought of writing a book, about your lifetime story, experiences and observations ?

    ReplyDelete
  4. A book? If it would sell, perhaps yes. My Magnum Opus.

    The only thing is that for most of my life I was not taken seriously. So it's hard to imagine my thoughts and opinions striking a chord with thousands of people - to the extent of their paying to read my story, anyway. I think I'd best stick to blogging for now!

    Lucy

    ReplyDelete

This blog is public, and I expect comments from many sources and points of view. They will be welcome if sincere, well-expressed and add something worthwhile to the post. If not, they face removal.

Ideally I want to hear from bloggers, who, like myself, are knowable as real people and can be contacted. Anyone whose identity is questionable or impossible to verify may have their comments removed. Commercially-inspired comments will certainly be deleted - I do not allow free advertising.

Whoever you are, if you wish to make a private comment, rather than a public one, then do consider emailing me - see my Blogger Profile for the address.

Lucy Melford