“It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, 1946


Marriage has always seemed to me a great mystery. Clearly it has a political aspect. To most people, this is at least somewhat apparent. In an earlier American era, the negative politics of single womanhood was quite obvious.

Take a second look at the film, from Christmases past, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”   At the start of the movie, the hero, played by Jimmy Stewart, thinks his life is falling apart. A benevolent other-worldly visitor steps in to show him how much the people he loves would have suffered had he not been present in their lives. The part of the film I’ve never forgotten comes where he is shown what would have befallen his wife had he never been there to marry her!

The forlorn nonwife, her psyche left unwarmed by the sex-with-a-license that Jimmy Stewart could have provided, becomes positively batty. She can’t bear to be touched! She’s afraid of her shadow!

Let’s go back another hundred years to the New England mores depicted in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel, The House of Seven Gables. Aside from its ancestral curse, the aforesaid House includes a spinster lady, whom the author is not too politically correct to call an “old maid.” In Salem, the town where they used to hang witches, the elderly unmarried lady is treated as a moving target for the cruel mockery of small boys. None of the respectable townspeople reprove the small boys or come to her rescue. So her paranoia is not just in her head. It’s well founded.

Can it get any worse? Indeed it can. I had a student, of Middle Eastern parentage, a beautiful young woman who was still unmarried in her early twenties. Her mother told her that, being a virgin at her age, she was causing their houseplants to wither. Her parents must have finally decided to relieve her of this plant-withering responsibity. One day, she did not show up at the college. I never saw her again.

Can it get still worse? Certainly it can, but we won’t explore that further here.

So that’s the negative aspect of the politics of marriage. Marriage affects status.   Absence of marriage affects status negatively. When, in my (unhappy) first marriage, I gained this unearned status, I always felt bad about it. I got more prestige from a garage station attendant when he saw my wedding ring than I got from professorial colleagues when I gave philosophic papers internationally. Even when those philosophers praised my paper sincerely! There’s “prestige” and then there’s prestige. You can tell the difference.

Once I divorced, I decided to buy a ring from my Yoga Center, wearing it on the third finger of my left hand.

“Why,” asked a married friend, “are you wearing a wedding ring?”

“I get more respect when I wear it. It’s from my Yoga Center. Bride of Yoga.”

After my divorce, I thought my unmarried women friends would welcome me back — like a busted officer — into the ranks of enlisted women. Enlisted in the battle for full human status that subliminally underwrites the feminine condition. But, busted or not, they didn’t forgive me or ever welcome me back into the ranks fully.

I did not expect to fall in love or marry again. I didn’t rule it out, since I don’t write the rules. It just wasn’t anything I anticipated. When, however, I did remarry, other women friends found excuses to break with me.

That wasn’t something I could shrug off.

Status shmatus.

You need your friends to stand by you while you careen up and down the roller coaster of life. I didn’t try to get over the loss of those friends and probably I never will. Of course, that too shows the politics of marriage.

And now the big question: Did I ever get a happily married woman to tell me how she’d done it.

No. I never did.

Never asked directly – it didn’t seem proper — but I tried to look and listen and find out. For the genuine article, the happily-married woman, that would be her greatest secret, and – whoever I wished I could ask — she wouldn’t be telling.

The great chefs don’t tell.

The great composers don’t tell.

The great wives don’t tell either.

My mother used to say, “Never tell anyone how much money you have or your sexual history. That’s life capital.” That may be a good prudential warning, but on occasion I’ve learned from a friend her financial or sexual history. Maybe I’ve confided mine too, whether wisely or unwisely.

But one thing nobody has told me is the secret of her marriage, if it is a happy one.

I remember telling a bride-to-be of Jerry’s advice about the marital state: “Nothing is trivial.” In other words, don’t bottle it up. If it’s important enough to stay on your mind for any length of time, talk it out. Take the risks.

But even that is not THE secret and it can’t be implemented robotically. One learns where the other person’s threshold is and not to cross it in a way that he or she would find threatening.

So far, I’ve cited negative instances of the politics of marriage. On the more positive side, why did it always seem to be a great mystery and a powerful, positive reality? Almost a defining part of reality?

My belief is that there is no biochemical or compatibility criterion for happy marriages. The right marriage is beshert, destined. God does marriages. A right marriage is an everyday, right-under-your-eyes miracle.

Take my present marriage. How are you going to get a Jewish girl from Manhattan’s upper east side – intensely Jewish – together with a guy born in the Texas panhandle, brought up to be a Southern Baptist (till he went off to college, anyway)? The fact that we are both philosophers would not normally be a plus. Philosophers chew each other up for breakfast. They don’t know how to behave with other philosophers, unless they just call a truce. A marriage is intimate. It can’t be based on a truce.

There are other phases to the mystery of a happy marriage. They not only share white nights of … er … delight with each other. They cohabit with the rest of the biological reality of each other, not all of which can delight anyone. I have always found this part unfathomable as well.

Also, if the marriage works and becomes a reality, the status thing is not worn high on the sleeve like epaulettes. It’s internalized, like a change in one’s being.

When we emerged from the wedding ceremony into daylight, and got into Jerry’s car, he stared at me and said, “Look in the mirror.”

I pulled down the car mirror and stared too. For heaven’s sake! I looked denser, like a photograph with more pixels in it. What did this mean? Could I have become more real?

Beyond all this, there is the narrative aspect of marriage. I’m not talking about the adventures you can have that you never thought of having. That part is more like finding yourself a player in a film whose script you’ve not read in advance and trying to ad lib it, as it plays.

What I’m trying to get at is something more intelligible. I shouldn’t want what I’m trying to describe to be thought of as effortless or pain-free. Nevertheless, in a right marriage, fear wanes and you get the courage to raise possibilities you would previously have suppressed as too improbable to entertain. When you begin to act on these formerly choked-off hypotheses — about what you can be or do — more of

the person you are

comes to light. The new stuff fits in with what was there already, or with other green sprouts, also entering daylight for the first time. You become more complex and more whole. The story of you becomes more continuous. Less jaded. And you are more astonished, less of a know-it-all.

You’re just trying to keep up with what’s happening. You can’t get above it. But it’s got the rush of reality to it.

It’s beshert.

About Abigail

Abigail Rosenthal is Professor Emerita of Philosophy, Brooklyn College of CUNY. She is the author of A Good Look at Evil, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, now available in an expanded, revised second edition and as an audiobook. Its thesis is that good people try to live out their stories while evil people aim to mess up good people’s stories. Her next book, Confessions of a Young Philosopher, forthcoming and illustrated, provides multiple illustrations from her own life. She writes a weekly column for her blog, “Dear Abbie: The Non-Advice Column” (www.dearabbie-nonadvice.com) where she explains why women's lives are highly interesting. She’s the editor of the posthumously published Consolations of Philosophy: Hobbes’s Secret; Spinoza’s Way by her father, Henry M. Rosenthal. Some of her articles can be accessed at https://brooklyn-cuny.academia.edu/AbigailMartin . She is married to Jerry L. Martin, also a philosopher. They live in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
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2 Responses to “Marriage”

  1. Joel Weiner says:

    Interesting column this week. Thank you. I am in a happy marriage, but I haven’t really thought about what or why that means. I do feel lucky, though. Beshert.

    • Abigail says:

      Yeah, it’s kind of unbelievable. How could THIS happen? Bad stuff isn’t that hard to believe, given the state of the world. Good stuff, I think I must be dreaming!

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