For an institution that has, especially in recent weeks and years, been subject to such extensive and vigorous public debate, marriage is strangely unknowable — that is, any particular marriage is mysterious, to anyone outside it.
Think of a couple in your life or the public eye, gay or straight: When they’re alone together, do you imagine they’re nicer, meaner or exactly the same with each other as when they’re around others? Who attends to which household obligations? If they have young kids, how do they handle child care? How frequently do they fight or have sex? Are they, as individuals, fundamentally glad or regretful that they’re together?
As a novelist, I’m supposed to be highly attuned to human habits and yearnings, but I can’t answer most of these questions for most couples I know, and I can’t answer all of them for any couple except my husband and me. In fact, I’m not even sure I can answer on behalf of my husband, who’s less a fan of soul-probing inquiries than I am.
“How often do I annoy you, and how often are you glad that we’re married?” I asked him the other day when we were standing in the kitchen.
Looking concerned, he set one arm around my shoulders. “Is everything OK?”
“I’m writing an article,” I explained.
“Oh,” he said and backed away.
With the Supreme Court’s decision Friday that the Constitution guarantees a right to same-sex marriage, surely I’m not the only straight person tempted right now to send a message of marital welcome to the gay community. But this temptation isn’t just presumptuous — it’s downright absurd.
Of the four couples who were plaintiffs in the landmark case, some have been together longer than my husband and I have. Surely, it’s I who could learn a thing or two about commitment and devotion.
Obviously, marriage confers major legal and financial benefits, but it also provides less tangible ones. It’s reassuring to officially have an ally, or extra cushioning, between the individual and a sometimes-harsh world. For those of us aware of our own unappealing tendencies, there’s comfort in the knowledge that it’d be a pain for the other person to permanently part ways with us. Regarding the notion that marriage is a kind of entrapment, there’s a part of me that thinks, yes, exactly.
Marriage also provides resolution; the time you once spent scoping out romantic prospects or thinking about tying the knot can now be devoted to professional and recreational development, by which I mean watching “Homeland” and “Louie” together after your children go to bed.
And yet if praising the institution of marriage is acceptable — in an already much-cited passage in the court’s majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that “it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family” — praising your own union is trickier.
Announcing that you really like your spouse can make you seem square, corny, Facebook-ishly smug or pre-emptively defensive. But you know what? I really like my spouse.
The most frequent dynamic I encounter among straight people, both in pop culture and in couples I know, is that of the annoyed wife and the clueless husband. I’ve heard female acquaintances lament — to name just a few examples — how frequently their husbands want sex, how infrequently their husbands want sex, how bad their husbands are at fixing their daughters’ hair and how gracelessly their husbands endure upper respiratory infections, aka “man colds.” Meanwhile, in a scene in the new Pixar movie “Inside Out,” as the wife in the family sensitively tries to understand her daughter’s feelings, it’s revealed that the husband thinks a lot about sports and leaves the toilet seat up.
As it happens, my own husband thinks a lot about sports and leaves the toilet seat up (which I’m not crazy about, though at the risk of betraying my entire gender, I’ve never been sure why men are more obligated to leave the seat lowered than women are to leave it raised). But if once a day I’m annoyed by him, 10 times a day I’m struck by how lucky I am to be his wife. Hence the question I asked him in our kitchen, which, true to his character, he deftly avoided.
In fact, one of the most useful skills I’ve learned from my husband is what we refer to as deflection. It basically means doing nothing, or else engaging in a situation as little as you can. Say you get an aggressive e-mail you don’t want to deal with. Just don’t answer it. As a person who once believed words can and should be harnessed to address all possible scenarios, I’ve found the powerful passivity and near-silence of deflection revelatory.
Additional lessons I’ve learned from my husband are that after you wash your hands, flicking water at the other person just because he’s standing near you is irritating rather than festive; that reading instruction manuals can be an excellent investment of time (though I still don’t do it) and that if you and your spouse agree that you’ve divided chores more or less equally, it’s smart not to quantify things with greater precision.
Admittedly, there’s probably no surer way of destroying your marriage than writing a paean to it. I also should acknowledge that I have no idea if I like the institution of marriage or if I just like my specific husband. The jinx I’ve invited here notwithstanding, I hope I never find out.
But if you don’t think marriage is for you, unless you’re George Clooney pre-2014, you’re probably correct. I’d no more attempt to convert marriage skeptics than I’d try to persuade my husband that Brussels sprouts are delicious; it’s their life, and they’re his taste buds.
Either way, I believe in the Cardigan Sweater Rule: If I’m outside in the evening, the temperature falls below 70 degrees and I didn’t bring a sweater, I usually wish I had. If I did bring one, however, I often don’t put it on; knowing I have it is enough to prevent me from feeling cold.
Now that same-sex marriage is legal nationwide, plenty of gay people won’t get married just because they can, just as plenty of straight people don’t. Even so, how wonderful that the option exists for all of us.
Curtis Sittenfeld is the author of “American Wife” and the forthcoming novel “Eligible,” a contemporary retelling of “Pride and Prejudice.” She wrote this article for the New York Times.