Monday, August 25, 2008

Marriage Is No Excuse

When I was a boy, it seemed like all the famous TV standup comics (men-only in those days) relied on marriage jokes. These were endless variations on Henny Youngman’s classic “Take my wife… please!” (Like: “I take my wife everywhere, but she keeps finding her way back.”)

Henny, Milton Berle, Shecky Greene, Alan King, Rodney Dangerfield, even non-Catskill -trained Midwestern comics like George Gobel, they all treated marriage as a joke.
“Some people claim that marriage interferes with romance. There's no doubt about it. Anytime you have a romance, your wife is bound to interfere.” — Groucho Marx

But they didn’t invent this particular shtick. Odysseus probably made Penelope jokes to his cronies, after he drove off the suitors. And the ‘50s and ‘60s anti-monogamy monologists were tame compared to earlier satirical icons, like the widly misanthropic American Ambrose Bierce, or the naughtily philanthropic Oscar Wilde, to wit:

"Bigamy is having one husband or wife too many. Monogamy is the same." – Oscar Wilde
“One should always be in love. That is the reason one should never marry.” – Oscar Wilde, A Woman of No Importance
“Love: a temporary insanity, curable by marriage.” – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

So the standup guys were hardly blazing any trails, even for their time. As the ‘50s gave way to the ‘60s and ‘70s, free love became a worldwide rallying cry for youth, breaking loose from all conventional constraints. It was echoed by shrieking rocker and whispery folksinger alike.

The conventional attitude about no-commitment “rolling stone” relationship was perfectly reflected in Glen Campbell’s lyrics for “Gentle on My Mind”:

…it's knowin' I'm not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind

I never quite bought into this massively indoctrinated prevailing wisdom, whether expressed by Borscht Belters or shaggy-haired troubadours. In my private recesses, I always believed in the happy-ever-after marriage, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding (especially including my own parents’ dysfunctional union).

In fact, I continued to believe in this storybook ideal even when my own marriage began to fall, well, a wee bit short. It should work in real life. After all, it did work in the kind of stories I liked to read, and to write. At least up to that final fadeout.

But maybe I was wrong, and all the cynical voices were right. Maybe marriage is an unnatural state.
“Monogamy is like reading the same book over and over. – Mason Cooley
“Love at first sight is easy to understand; it's when two people have been looking at each other for a lifetime that it becomes a miracle.” – Amy Bloom

It was the revolutionary concept of the “courtship marriage,” as described by Fumika Misato on her Real Women Don’t Do Housework website, that suddenly stripped the scales from my eyes. "This," she declared flatly, "is a marriage in which your husband courts you till death does you part.”

Such a sweet revelation! The secret to happy-ever-aftering is simply to let the courtship continue! What a wonderful gift Lady Misato had given me (and all of us). Through her, I experienced a complete restoration of my naïve and boyish faith in storybook romance.

Later on, doing a bit of research into the origins of courtly love, I came across this quote from a 13th century writer, a quote that, for me, carried more truth than all the collected matrimonial wisdom of Marx (G.), Wilde, Bierce, Youngman, et al.:
“Marriage is no excuse for not loving.”
—Andreas Cappellanus: The Art of Honorable Love, 13th century

Morale: If you want to keep the romance in your marriage, let the pre-nupt be that the husband continues to press his suit post-nupt, dill death do you part.

My own embrace of Lady Misato’s advice radically transformed my marriage for the better, starting with my own attitude, and then, gradually, working its ways and wiles upon my wife. Granted, she was a little taken aback at first to find herself being courted again, but she’s getting to like it.

That transformation prodded me into writing a book, which I launched first on a website, then in publication.

As I wrote in an early draft, “The extravagant claim of this book is that love can be rekindled, even the all-consuming passion of first love. Not by returning to the time-tested, give-and-take practices of successful marriages (as most counselors recommend), but by the husband going all the way back to the giddy, unbalanced behaviors of courtship.”

Courtship is such an exhilarating state , it turns out, that husbands and wives alike are euphoric to be in it, over and over again.

It’s called being in love.

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