Men and women expect more of marriage than there is in it, and much of the unhappiness of married life is due to the romantically exaggerated view of this institution which most people hold. Marriage has two sides the sentimental, and the practical and the only people who succeed in the holy and difficult estate of matrimony are the ones who carry their common sense away from the altar with them, instead of leaving it bound as a sacrifice.
Marriage is a partnership of the most intimate and perplexing kind between two adults of different heredity, different upbringing, different ideals, different points of view regarding every known subject, from religion to cotton sheets. This is not to mention the inherent difference of the eternal masculine and the everlasting feminine.
The destined victims meet. The man is full of sentiment. He has thought out, if he be of the normal type, just what he expects and desires of a wife. He has woven a garment of dreams in which are blended lanes of every emotion of which he is capable in his most exalted moods. The man is the lonely, sentimental dreamer be sure of that. When he meets the woman to whom he feels drawn in nature’s old primal, unchanging fashion, he is not capable of seeing her as she is because he has promptly enveloped her in his beautiful garment of dreams, and she has at once become his ideal woman. He eulogizes the creature of his own imagination, and pours out upon her a wealth of boyish adoration, which is just as boyish at fifty as at twenty, provided he has not spent all his treasure in small change.
This is one factor of the problem. The other factor is the romantic woman. She has never really formulated to herself her expectations of the future husband. In her early years she takes it for granted that there will be one, and she thrills in response to the eyes or hand of every hero she meets in poetry or fiction. Her lover must conform to literary standards. She does not look for him for a long time among creatures of flesh and blood; they repel her a little, because their faces do not resemble that face of which Elaine dreamed “dark splendid, speaking in the silence, full of noble things.” Their manners are not to be compared with the Bayards whom she loves, and neither do they make up in masterfulness what they lack in courtesy, like Rochester. In fact, if a girl reads at all, she dreams through her teens of a lordly creature who calls her “little girl,” who wisely and with easy strength carries all her burdens for her, who loves her, asking no return an essential part of her subconscious ideal and who will praise unceasingly her efforts to please him, chiefly in the direction of music and clothes. Nobody will admit either of these pictures in their gallery of candidates for matrimony, but they are true nevertheless.
This romantic young woman or middle-aged one for that matter offers another factor in the problem. The third factor is the colossal ignorance of both the man and the woman regarding the practical details of this sentimental-romantic partnership. They are fit for Elysian fields, fit to make the angels of heaven go envying, as did the remarkable Annabel Lee and her lover. They are equipped for paradise before the fall or for earth in the millennium. If they did not have to eat or drink or be sheltered or clothed or bring up children or earn a living or cook a meal, life would be one grand sweet song. In fact, they are prepared for a condition of things that does not exist, and are absolutely unprepared for things as they are.
Now, given the sentimental man, the romantic woman, and a twofold ignorance of what is needed in the most practical relationship in life, the only wonder is that as many people struggle out into the light as we see wresting happiness every day from unfavorable conditions. These people who succeed, after they come home from their wedding trip, have made a secret pilgrimage to that shrine where they had left their common sense as an offering, and have quickly and with much laughter installed it as the ruling deity of the new home. Such people are quite safe. We need not worry about them.
For others, those who think it treachery to trust to anything but Love with a large L, the period of Disenchantment sets in with the waning honeymoon. Sentiment suffers because through the torn robe of dreams it beholds a woman’s soul that is not quite yet as the angels in heaven; romance is ruffled because Bayard and Rochester have become hopelessly confused with plain John Smith a good man, but neither a cavalier nor a brute. Moreover, the forest of ignorance is slowly giving place for standing ground on the level plain of all-those-things-we-know-that-we-do-not-know. This is the proper time for the man to discover that business is still of some importance, that home is not a divine institution presented by a watchful Providence to the newly wedded that they may be “happy ever after’s and that “women are queer.” This is the proper time for the woman to discover that she is left much alone and that her husband seems quite unaware of the fact; that there are plain everyday details of housekeeping and cooking that would make things much pleasanter if she only understood about them which she doesn’t; that books and music and calling and “going down town” “lack a gracious somewhat”to put it mildly; in fact, that it is a woman’s lot to be misunderstood and unhappy, and that “men are selfish.” Here are two propositions which many a man and woman, if they are truthful, will recognize.
Marriage, the very necessary and the very beautiful partnership which forms the basis of all rational life and society, cannot be abandoned. It must be understood and developed and ennobled in accordance with its everyday earthly limitations. It is the great glory of love that it once in a lifetime pushes back the gates of heaven; it ought to be the glory of men and women thereafter to live their plain earthly lives with that memory in their hearts. Most of them try to crowd through these doors ajar and set up housekeeping on the wrong side of the portals.
- Good Housekeeping (February 1908)