Few of Us Find Everything We Want in Marriage, But One May Make the Most of What One Gets
From Physical Culture magazine, 1930
HOW often have you remarked, as you looked among your friends, “What did she see in him?” or “Whatever made him marry her?” And even when you tried to puzzle out the answer, it was not forthcoming. I think, sometimes, that Nature has no thought of us as individuals; but just some far-off goal toward which she pushes us and to attain which we are used only as tools to achieve an end. I think this more especially when I observe how systematically persons of wholly unlike qualities wed. It is as if Nature tries to keep a balance, lest the final offspring of the generations shall be unevenly developed in character, or certain traits be definitely lost to posterity.
For instance, there is the woman in the next block. I knew her when she was a girl. She was ordinary, not particularly bright or well-educated, neither pretty nor homely. If she had an outstanding characteristic, it was what we nowadays call “pep.” Yet she married a man of extraordinary intellect and education—a quiet, self-contained man. It was easy enough to explain why she married him—she loved him, as a worshiper might love a god. But he—what did he see in her? I have heard that he figured it “sensibly.” She was well off, a good cook and a model housekeeper. And Nature (with her eye for the future) blinded him to the fact that these things were not enough—that some day he would crave companionship, and not find it.
I know another couple. He married her for her intelligence and social position. She married him because he was the only man who had ever asked her. Yet now, after thirty years or so, she is miserable because she has never had his love, while he resents the fact that she is discontented. And so it goes!
I line up for inspection all the couples I can think of—relatives, friends, acquaintances, neighbors. I find fewer than I can count on the fingers of one hand who are happy. And when I analyze the reason for the contentment of these few, I find that it is not, as a rule, because they are so eminently suited to one another, but because they tried—and succeeded—from the start to make the best of each other. This sounds prosaic and a bit pessimistic, yet it is neither. It is just applied common sense!
When you go to buy a dress, you first decide what it is to be used for. If you want it for evening wear, you look at evening dresses. If you want it for street wear, you look at street dresses. If you want it for sport, you look at sports dresses. You select it with an eye to suitability. And, having paid the price and carried it home, you use it for the purpose for which it was intended. You do not wear the ball gown to the golf links and cry because it has been ruined by trailing over the ground. You do not wear the street dress to a dance and fret because it does not take a prize for its beauty. If you want a general utility dress, you buy one, and you are satisfied with the result. It may not be so beautiful as some at the dance or quite so practical for street wear in winter; but it’s a good, all-round dress, and you are glad you got it. And if, perchance, the salesperson “slips one over on you” and you find that you’ve been cheated, if you are sensible you make the best of a bad bargain. You pin a bunch of flowers over the worn spot, or brighten it up with a bit of color and say to yourself, “That’s not half bad, after all. How clever I am.” Why not give husbands and wives the same break?
If the woman in the next block would remember that she married her husband because he was her superior, and content herself with her pride in him and her delight in serving him, as she did during the first year of their marriage, all might be well with them. But no! Having married him, she suddenly decides that he should become commonplace like herself. She has carved deep lines in her face and pinched in her mouth during the years she has spent railing because he appears to her “queer and highbrow.” While he withdraws into himself, except at such times as he vents his wrath upon her “stupidity,” and dreams of the woman he might have married. He paid for a cook in a gingham wrapper, and he wants—and grumbles because he did not get—a houri in a trailing robe with star-dust in her hair.
And the second couple. Why doesn’t she continue to figure, as she did at first, that she was lucky to get married at all? And why should he complain, if along with her intellect and social position, he drew a few things that he didn’t bargain for?
Of course, there is only one good reason for marriage—love, on both sides. But, even supposing we start with this, marriage is likely to prove a surprise package not always filled with the things we most desire.
I am convinced of this: unless there is actual dislike or antagonism from the beginning (and there seldom is), marriage can, nine times out of ten, be made successful, if you go at it rightly. You need three things to start with: a “till death us do part” attitude, a determination on both sides to make the best of it, and a similar sense of humor!
My belief is founded not only upon observation but upon personal experience, as well.
When I was sixteen, I fell in love. It was the sort of idyl you read about. He was everything I had dreamed the man I married should be. Apparently, he cared as much* for me as I did for him. Until I was nineteen, we were together constantly. All our friends took it for granted that nothing could come between us. Then, suddenly, he went out of my life. To this day, I do not know what the real reason was. I had only a heartbroken, disjointed letter that explained nothing—but that said good-by.
I was too proud to question, too hurt. For a year or more I brooded over the thing, convinced that my life was ruined. Then there came into it another man, and he loved me. I did not love him, I knew that I never could—not as I had loved that first sweetheart—but I liked him, and his affection and care somehow comforted me. We had a few things in common. Enough, I thought, to build on. And I wanted a home and children. It didn’t seem quite fair to give him less than the best, yet I wanted my life to be full, as only a wife’s and mother’s can be.
SO I told him the whole story. Then we talked it over. And we decided we could make a “go” of it. I had a real enough affection for him. He loved me. We were from about the same social strata. We had, approximately, the same religious views. We did not, at that time, realize our points of difference. When Nature sees fit to plant the thought of marriage in two sympathetic minds, she usually throws enough of the dust of romance into our eyes to make us at least partially blind.
We were sensible enough to formulate one or two “rides” for the game we were about to play together. We agreed that we intended to see it through, “for better or worse.” We would not be quitters. We realized that as we started with mutual liking and kindred interests, we should safeguard them as much as possible. We took into consideration the possibility of “the eternal triangle.”
GRANTED that somewhere in the world there might exist someone whom either of us could love better than each other, we resolved to have only mutual friends, and to share our pleasures as much as is humanly possible. Neither of us, to this day, would dream of going out alone with some one of the opposite sex. “There’s no harm in it,” of course, still, unless one starts with such small intimacies, there is little likelihood of getting to know some one so well that one is willing to forsake one’s life partner for the pleasure of eloping with a “soulmate.”
We resolved never to tell our troubles to anyone but each other, and to keep our disagreements to ourselves. These two latter rules have saved much unnecessary friction, I know. It is easy to “kiss and make up” when only yourselves are involved; but if the squabble has been poured into mother’s or a neighbor’s ears, it continues to rankle. One’s pride is hurt. Besides, neighbors (and mothers, too, quite frequently) have a way of dispensing sympathy that is apt to make one’s small annoyances loom exceeding large—much larger than they appeared before we voiced them.
We also agreed that we should try to “make the best of things”—and laughed as we said it, because the idea seemed so absurd.
The thing that was to count the most— a sense of humor—in holding us together (it will soon be our silver wedding) we were too young to take cognizance of; but, luckily for us, we both had a goodly share of it, waiting for time to bring to light.
We both “fessed up” to each other. Not that the past is, in a sense, of any real importance; but we felt that knowing all there was to know would put forever out of the way the fear that something might come to light, later, which would cause ill feeling. It’s easier to forgive and forget before marriage than afterward.
Then the day before my marriage, I had a little private bonfire of my own! I burned all my letters, photographs and keepsakes, and set myself to forget.
Things went smoothly with us for several years. Of course, once in a while, I’d get to thinking of that old affair, but I honestly tried not to, and, for the most part, I succeeded pretty well. My husband was still quite romantically in love with me, and I did my best to be not only a good and conscientious wife, but to remain as attractive after marriage as I had been before. He’s never had to wake up in the early morning to a cold-creamed and curl-papered bed-fellow, nor have I ever insulted him by eating breakfast in a dirty kimono and a boudoir cap. It’s quite surprising how many wives are guilty of both these offenses. What “beautifying” I do has always been in private. No husband should ever see his wife “in the making.”
But things never remain long static. Circumstances took us away from the environment we had been used to and, with the change, much that we had had in common went out of our lives. From city dwellers we became farmers. I detested the drudgery of this new life. I found nothing in common with my neighbors. And, as the years passed. I drew more and more into myself. My whole outlook in life took on the drabness of my kitchen walls.
My husband, on the contrary, took kindly to the new order of things. His love of animals gave him an interest in his new surroundings, and, being by nature a social fellow, he found it easy to mix with our neighbors.
We still clung to our old “rules” as far as possible, but more and more we became conscious of a widening breach between us. There were other troubles, too. My husband was unsuccessful in a business way and the fact could not be disguised or glossed over, his failure was largely due to laziness. I began to develop the scolding habit, which, of course, did not tend to improve things. Also, I began to feel vaguely sorry for myself. Owing to my husband’s lack of financial success, it had from the first been necessary for me to continue after marriage as a wage-earner. This in itself would not necessarily have mitigated against happiness. But, you see, because I was determined on a real home and a family, it meant that I actually did the work of two persons—housewife and mother as well as business woman. It was rather a large order, and did not add to my contentment or well-being. Continuous overfatigue is not conducive to the retaining of a sweet and patient disposition!
I FELL into the habit of wondering just why I had married as I had. and to picturing the happy life I might have led, if only that first love affair of mine had reached fruitition. I had not seen my old sweetheart for twenty years. To my mind’s eye he was still the perfect lover— tall, broad-shouldered, with a shock of golden hair that fell in tumbled waves back from his forehead. He was, moreover, quite successful. I occasionally saw his name in print.
I compared him secretly with my husband. Of course, the latter was kind, he loved me, and was generous to a fault. When I listed this particular trait, it brought with it the remembrance of the many times he had presented me with some expensive and elaborate gift (bought on the instalment plan) which I invariably had to finish paying for, myself! It made me smile as well as sigh to think of it, for his pleasure in the gift had always been so genuinely enthusiastic, and his repentance and promises to do better in future so thoroughly and boyishly sincere when the second instalment became overdue! But I could not disguise from myself the fact that his character, though lovable, was weak. He had none of the strength and firmness so necessary to success. I pitied myself hugely!
Then, two things happened which brought me awake and showed me my inconsistency. Up in the attic were some trunks of my mother’s. They had been there, undisturbed, since her death over a year before.
I dreaded to look through them, yet I knew it should be done. I finally decided to postpone it no longer. So one rainy afternoon I climbed the attic stairs and opened one. The first thing that caught my eye was a bundle of letters in my own handwriting. The quick tears came when I realized the love that had prompted her to treasure them.
THEY were all there, from the one with big printed words, sent by a little girl very lonesome for her absent mother, to those I had written shortly before her death. I glanced through them, one after another, until the date on one held me. It had been written the morning of my marriage and was, apparently, in answer to some protest of hers against my choice of a mate. And this is what I had written on my wedding day, nearly twenty years before: “I know he is not a strong character. I am not sure that he will ever be even moderately successful, but I believe he loves me and that his love will endure. And I think he will be a tender and loving father to the children who. I hope, will come to us. All I really ask is love. Some women have less. I’m willing to risk my happiness on that.”
There it was. in my own handwriting. I thought it over. He had given me all I had expected in full measure—love and tenderness and devotion. I had risked my happiness on that, and I was such a poor sport that, after all our years together, I was making both our lives unhappy because I had not received more than I had asked for.
In my heart I had always known that my husband is temperamentally unfit to be a wage-earner. He was raised a rich man’s son, and the handicap has been too great for him. In all probability I shall always be obliged to do more than my share toward the support of the family. On the other hand, he has no vices. In all but a financial way he is an ideal husband and father. This being so, then, why wreck both our lives with futile regrets and recriminations? Neither the children’s lives nor mine would be complete were we to separate. And if we are to remain together, why not keep home as happy as possible by making the best of things?
My husband, if the truth were known, probably has a few grievances against me. For, what credit to be a conscientious helpmate if one is also a self-righteous “nagger”?
After reading that letter. I saw myself very clearly for the first time in my life. I realized, also, that I had been so concerned with my own woes that I had been quite blind to my husband’s side of the problem.
As if to clinch my self-disgust and leave no room for quibbling with myself, another incident happened.
It was Sunday afternoon—a beautiful sunshiny day. My husband was looking through the paper and I was puttering around, putting the room to rights. Suddenly he spoke, with a chuckle: “Here’s an old friend of yours, Bob H——. Take a look at him.” Some- thing rushed up into my throat—after all these years, to see his picture again! I tried to make my voice casual as I answered, “Just a minute,” while I deliberately delayed what I was doing. I wanted to have myself well in hand when I should see his face again—the face that had haunted me for so many years. At length I walked over to my husband and took the paper from his hand. There was a full page devoted to the personages summering at a certain well-known seaside resort. I glanced over the photos, confident that his face would look out at me from all the rest, and draw my eyes to it. I saw no one that I recognized. Slowly I read the names below the pictures. At last I came to it— “Bob H——, whose wife recently divorced him for infidelity.”
It wasn’t possible! Quite aside from the printed words— Oh, it couldn’t be! For here was no hero, with wavy golden hair and a noble head. Here was just a very fat person with a portly stomach and a double chin. The golden hair was represented by a couple of scant locks carefully brushed over a large expanse of baldness. The chiseled mouth was weak and decidedly flabby. This face that looked out at me from the printed page bore all the signs of dissipation and self-indulgence. For a sickening moment I had a sensation of utter chaos—some one I loved had, in that moment, died.
Slowly I turned to look at my husband, with his tender smile and the humorous twinkle that, somehow, for a second, seemed more pronounced than usual. Then I commenced to laugh. I laughed and laughed—until I cried. My husband said no word, but he put his arms around me. and after a while—we talked things over.
We DECIDED to make a new start. We couldn’t go back to the city, for many reasons, but we could live near it. It was a compromise. My husband could still have his animals, and I should be less lonely. The ghost from the past was forever laid, and, for the rest—well, we’d each try harder to bear and forbear. As a matter of fact, we had kept to our “rules” fairly well, and we had no serious transgressions to forgive each other. It was then that I had my thought about the dresses which I set down in the beginning of this story. I told my husband how it seemed to me. “In that case,” quoth he, “I must have bought a two-piece garment—evening dress for beauty and a coat to make it practical for all-round wear. There’s the best wife in the world inside of it, and if she looks in the mirror, I believe she’ll see some star-dust in her hair.” Then he kissed me.
And just as he had healed my hurt so many years ago, I was comforted now for all the hurts and disappointments of our life together. After all, I had bargained only for a garment to keep me warm. Why grieve because its beauty and comfort failed to cover other lacks?
I looked back over our life together. There had been much of sorrow and deprivation; but what stood out from all the drabness were the good times we had shared. The day we had stood on the sidewalk in the rain, and laughed excitedly, as we counted our pennies to deter- mine if we had enough to see Charlie Chaplin in “The Kid.” The night my husband drove home the second-hand Ford (which he shouldn’t have bought) and insisted upon riding the entire family around the block, though we had all gone to bed and were in our night dresses! All the silly, foolish things that we had laughed at through the years! After all, weren’t these worth more than material success? I thought as much. It is not the sorrows, but the joys we share, that count the most.
So, after we had had our little talk, and both my laughter and my tears were over, we decided (as we had upon so many like occasions) to celebrate. We didn’t have much money, but we could manage a car ride to Coney Island after supper. We should have to forego the scenic railways and merry-go-rounds, but we could mingle with the crowds and enjoy the glory of the lights overhead.
For a very long time we sat in the sand and gazed far out over the water. Somehow, everything seemed to be trying to say something to me—something which I was too full to understand. The feeling persisted still, as I sat beside my husband on the trip homeward. So many people! Fathers and mothers, shabby and worn yet with something splendid in their faces. Children, tired and happy. Sweethearts, with all the promise of the future shining in their glance THE sharing of joys and sorrows is bound to weld a bond that is fairly unbreakable, if in that sharing there has been an attitude of sympathy and understanding. When a man and woman enter into the holy bonds of wedlock with the right spirit and with a determination to weather the storms, to laugh at misfortune and to grasp what happiness they may together, surely nothing can really come between them. And I somehow had the feeling that the things which had held us together for over twenty years would continue to hold us together “as long as we both shall live.”
Intuitively I knew that some such thoughts were running in my husband’s mind, too.
So it happened that we smiled at each other and pretended there were no tears in our eyes. And when, on the homeward bound car, we saw a flapper and her boy friend holding hands, we held hands, too.
And I guess that last is the answer to the question, what it is all for, and why we carry on.