Why do we marry? I mean, why do we want to? I think eyeing that green, green grass of marital bliss, as singles we think more of the physical and emotional intimacy and the charming notion of making house. Those who live by convictions of faith or tradition that prescribe sex only within marriage may in particular feel this way, but people the world over copulate outside marriage. So it’s a broader question I’m asking. We are in love with the idea of being in love and want to sustain that feeling, enjoy our beloved as long as possible. We give ourselves away on this point: we root for the lovers on screen and in those pages as they push against every obstacle set before them – culture, race, class, war – and strain to touch fingertips. Elizabeth Gilbert says: It’s all about a desire to feel chosen. [My friend] went on to write that while the concept of building a life together with another adult was appealing, what really pulled at her heart was the desire for a wedding, a public event ‘that will unequivocally prove to everyone, especially to myself, that I am precious enough to have been selected by somebody forever.’ Although still retroactively tired from the rigors of my own lovely wedding and wishing I could’ve traded that satin shoe for an elopement, I think this woman gets close. We want to be marked.
Wanting to get married looks different for men and women. Though I won’t name the bloggers who’ve disagreed with me (aren’t you glad, Curt, Brad?), I think men are wired to pursue, their pleasure to be found in moving toward the woman. And women want to feel desired. In wanting to find someone to settle down with, men don’t think, “Oh, I want to be wooed.” I’ve said in the past that our very biology suggests this dynamic at play. And yes, I’m on shifty ground because in this feminist day many women in fact do the chasing. But descriptive behavior is not what I have in mind. I have yet to see a successful, lasting nuptial where the woman had insisted herself on the man and overpowered him (or manipulated him into it). But whether or not you agree, you see the majority of us want to lay claim to someone and be claimed. Not be out here floating, forever available.
Love limits, almost by definition. Love narrows. The great expansion we feel in our hearts when we fall in love is matched only by the great restrictions that will necessarily follow. F and I have one of the most easygoing relationships you could possibly imagine, but please do not be fooled: I have utterly claimed this man as my own, and I have therefore fenced him off from the rest of the herd. His energies (sexual, emotional, creative) belong in large part to me, not to anybody else – not even entirely to himself anymore. He owes me things like information, explanations, fidelity, constancy, and details about the most mundane little aspects of his life. It’s not like I keep the man in a radio collar, but make no mistake about it – he belongs to me now. And I belong to him, in exactly the same measure. Gilbert in Committed.
Single people can stake out a community, especially in this age of options with meetups and interest groups of every hue in the rainbow. But this doesn’t quite mute the loneliness for most. It is an exclusive belonging we seek, one that is both horizontal in the emotional connection as well as vertical in the building of a home, the roots we want to lay. Even animals mark their place in the world. Communal affinities don’t require the private intimacy that Gilbert reminds us comes in a committed relationship. We want to desire and be desired, and in the heady throes of romance declare and hear the longing. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed. CS Lewis (who else?)
In The Signature of All Things by Gilbert, scientist Alma Whitaker had been quietly following the work of Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace into her waning years. The men had no idea who she was or that she too had actually come up with the theory of evolution that had propelled them to fame. Darwin never publicly spoke an ill word about Wallace, nor Wallace about Darwin, but Alma always wondered what the two men – so brilliant, and yet so opposite in disposition and style – truly thought of each other. Her question was answered…when Charles Darwin died and Alfred Wallace, per Darwin’s written instructions, served as a pallbearer at the great man’s funeral. They loved each other, she realized. They loved each other, because they knew each other. With that thought, Alma felt deeply lonely, for the first time in dozens of years.
Described to be unattractive, Alma had been hungry for the love of a man all her long life. Like her, we want to be known and cherished through our utmost faults, and be shown our own possibility of beauty. We discover the fuller breadth of this gift when we step over the threshold of matrimony. Marriage is one place this marvel of being known and (still) loved unfolds as you bump against each other’s offenses and annoyances and realize it’s forgive or bust. This knowing goes beyond the acceptance in the schoolyard, the affirmation that we’re all right and likeable. It goes even beyond the assurance from parents that our loveability is in sure standing. Which is why when we feel our spouse doesn’t really see us it cuts deeply. And so love is hard. It not only demands expression and attention but exacts its greatest testimony, sacrifice.
Even as a girl, my wanting to get married someday was bound up in my yearning to be a mother. In truth, what I wanted more than anything was to hold my baby to my heart someday. (Sorry, honey. I got the trash tonight.) Taking care of my latchkey cousins on my visits, I also wished I could raise them myself – literally, as a teenager at the time. If I were assured in my single days the recognition of Gilbert as a writer and her place on the TED stage for a trade-in on my hopes of marriage and motherhood, I would have chosen this life unblinkingly. (Okay, so I lingered on that stage a few minutes.) Remember, this from a woman for whom every minute writing is a drop of rain on a parched tongue. No, I didn’t see boyfriends only or primarily as potential fathers and I made sure to enjoy the romance with my husband. Well aware that nothing could ever fully satisfy this side of heaven, that I would always want more, I would still have felt palpably, if not achingly, incomplete without a child of my own. I would’ve felt so even before having completely fallen in love with the baby I called Tennyson, before I went on to follow the miracle of his growing.
So why would I surrender the chance at unimpeded devotion to my art and intoxicating acclaim (presuming I had Gilbert’s talent in that alternate universe) for the daily sacrifice of my body, time, and energy in the obscurity of motherhood? Turn my back on the opportunity to be known by millions around the world, in order to wash cloth diapers by hand and pour over a stove? The question is its own answer. A friend I grew up with realized when she had her first child, that her mother had always been looking at her. It is the sacrifice that is our delight, the unique experience of giving wholeheartedly and relentlessly to a life that delights as much in the taking. Babies and young children have nothing to give back, at least intentionally. They don’t see you because they can’t the way you do them. It’s not their job. The art of parenthood is the art of knowing. The more keen your observations, the better you decode their cries, the shyness, the explosion of energy, the ways they cope with fear. This correlation holds with friends and spouses also but at least in adult relationships we can expect some return of pleasure and appreciation on the investment of our emotional resources. Parenthood is such a one-way street, especially in the early years.
The sweetness of a man’s attention is the reason it might not have drawn me as compellingly as motherhood. (Masochist, remember?) Because where sacrifice is the measure of love, you don’t get more pain out of the business of forging a family than you do in childbirth. It’s not that one must give birth to experience love in its fullness. Love is too rich, has too many dimensions. I personally know fathers who are the better parent and there is enough room in the world for foster parents and caregivers which many, many step up to fill. There are women who can’t or don’t want children who give in many other ways out of a profound ability to love. This simply happens to be my narrative. I would make a better birth mother than an adoptive one. And there is something organic and visceral – downright bloody – about birthing that it discloses its own mystery on love. The pain is so mind-blowing it is a foretaste of death. You will permit me to speak because I felt every bit of it when I brought my boy into this world unetherized. And I’m not putting a higher premium on parenthood over the privilege of being a spouse, either. In fact, I don’t believe we should. All I am saying is we want to love so much to the point of giving up something, to the point of hurting, and women happen to find this generous opportunity in the physical and emotional capacity of the womb that is part of our design. Ironically, the high calling of sacrifice is the very reason so many marriages fail. Negotiating the give and take day in, day out, into decades can get tiresome in the least under the rule of human nature, that is, selfishness.
So whether we become a parent or remain single, we want to mark not only our place in this world but upon other lives. Where we inscribe our sacrifice at great cost, we know we have really loved.