Of all the married and romantically committed couples I know, not one has had an arranged partnership. Every single one of us, myself included, fell in love and embarked on the whole I’m-with-you-for-good thing as a matter of free will. I’ll never understand why some relationships work so well, while some falter or fail. How can some relationships work so well in one particular way, while other happy relationships function in a different way completely? Thinking about the couples I know makes me think that commitment is one of the more mystical and inexplicable phenomena, something akin to the moon’s pull on the oceans or the migration patterns of monarch butterflies.
Most of all, I wonder why any of us married or devoted couples have any problems at all when we, after all, chose each other.
People value choice almost to the point of worship. We want to choose our clothes, our friends, our professions, and, without a doubt, our romantic partners. We want choice, it seems, because we are convinced that we know better than anyone else what we want (even better than our mothers, though I’ve met with some resistance to that idea from certain people). When single, we have lists of what our future partners will look and act like, and we rule out possible mates based on their dissimilarity to our criteria.So, if are going to so much trouble to weed out the unfit and unearth the gems, why do so many couples face romantic challenges down the line? You’d think it would be smooth sailing from “I do” onward, right?
We all know that’s not the case. So, what gives? For one, it’s possible that we don’t know what we need as well as we’d like to think. Some of us meet our life partners when we’re very young. For example, I met the dude when I was just 23 – a mere babe. For goodness sake, I’ve changed careers twice since then. At such a young age, do we know enough about life and love to make such a weighty decision? If you follow that logic, we might as well cede all future match-making to our elders. (I think I just heard the sound of millions of mothers rejoicing.)
Speaking of not knowing enough about love, who among those of us who haven’t been married knows anything to speak of about marriage? This is one of the points that journalist Elizabeth Weil makes in her New York Times Magazine article “Married (Happily) with Issues,” published in December of last year. It’s difficult to know how to craft and maintain a satisfying long-term relationship, most obviously because “satisfying” has a different meaning for each person you ask. How do you build something that has no proven method of success and no blue print? And, yet, many people do just that, which brings me back to the idea of marriage as mystery.
I don’t have anywhere near enough information to speak as an authority on marriage. I’ve done it myself, messily and with the frequent feeling of toiling uphill interspersed with joyful, whirring downhills, for almost six years. So, I have that. And, I have a theory, which is this: That we don’t, in fact, know what we want or need in a partner – either because we know too little about ourselves or about marriage, or because what we want at 23 is not the same as what we want at 33 or 43 – but some lucky few end up with it anyway.
If I could approach selecting a mate as an a la carte activity, I’d conjure up a fella with some culinary skill, who woke up bright and early, and who spoke a few languages, none of which are qualities that the dude possesses. But, the dude has other qualities. For instance, he has the confidence to don admirably unusual facial hair with a swagger. He dreams big. He listens, even when he seems like he’s not, which makes him a good gift giver (something that I never would have thought or admitted was important to me, but it is). He is eager to learn about a variety of topics, from nutrition to experimental music. He has also made it his personal mission to find me the perfect notebook that I can carry around for my writing. None of these attributes would have made it to my top ten list, and they’re certainly not the reasons that I married him. And yet, they – and many other qualities – make this particular dude a good compliment to particular me. When we got married, it was our choice. But some days it seems that the choice was practically an illusion, knowing as little as we did about ourselves, each other, and marriage. Over time, the curtain draws up and I see the parts of our relationship that cause a frightening amount of friction and the parts that are undeniably sweet. And, really, they are never the parts I would have expected.
Love and marriage are indeed mystical, and I won’t be – or don’t care to be – convinced otherwise. It’s like a game of roulette. We have our strategies for playing the game. We identify patterns, prefer one color over another, or favor a number. But once the wheel is spinning, we keep our fingers crossed and hope to get lucky.
do you derive joy from diving in and seeing that
loving someone can actually feel like
freedom? are you funny? self-depracating? like
adventure and having many formed
these are twenty-one things that I want in a lover…
– Alanis Morissette, “21 Things That I Want in a Lover”