It used to be when you’d hit certain financial and social milestones: when you had a home to your name, a set of qualifications on the mantelpiece and a few cows and a parcel of land in your possession.
But when, under the influence of Romantic ideology, this grew to seem altogether too mercenary and calculating, the focus shifted to emotions. It came to be thought important to feel the right way. That was the true sign of a good union. And the right feelings included the sense that the other was ‘the one’, that you understood one another perfectly and that you’d both never want to sleep with anyone else again.
These ideas, though touching, have proved to be an almost sure recipe for the eventual dissolution of marriages – and have caused havoc in the emotional lives of millions of otherwise sane and well-meaning couples.
As a corrective to them, what follows is a proposal for a very different set of principles, more Classical in temper, which indicate when two people should properly consider themselves ready for marriage.
We are ready for marriage…
1. When we give up on perfection
We should not only admit in a general way that the person we are marrying is very far from perfect. We should also grasp the specifics of their imperfections: how they will be irritating, difficult, sometimes irrational, and often unable to sympathise or understand us. Vows should be rewritten to include the terse line: ‘I agree to marry this person even though they will, on a regular basis, drive me to distraction.’
However, these flaws should never be interpreted as merely capturing a local problem. No one else would be better. We are as bad. We are a flawed species. Whomever one got together with would be radically imperfect in a host of deeply serious ways. One must conclusively kill the idea that things would be ideal with any other creature in this galaxy. There can only ever be a ‘good enough’ marriage.
For this realisation to sink in, it helps to have had a number of relationships before marrying, not in order to have the chance to locate ‘the right person’, but so that one can have ample opportunity to discover at first hand, in many different contexts, the truth that everyone (even the most initially exciting prospect) really is a bit wrong close up.
2. When we despair of being understood
Love starts with the experience of being understood in a deeply supportive and uncommon way. They understand the lonely parts of you; you don’t have to explain why you find a particular joke so funny; you hate the same people; they too want to try out a particular sexual scenario.
This will not continue. Another vow should read: ‘However much the other seems to understand me, there will always be large tracts of my psyche that will remain incomprehensible to them, anyone else and even me.’
We shouldn’t, therefore, blame our lovers for a dereliction of duty in failing to interpret and grasp our internal workings. They were not tragically inept. They simply couldn’t understand who we were and what we needed – which is wholly normal. No one properly understands, and can therefore fully sympathise with, anyone else.
3. When we realise we are crazy
This is deeply counter-intuitive. We seem so normal and mostly so good. It’s the others…
But maturity is founded on an active sense of one’s folly. One is out of control for long periods, one has failed to master one’s past, one projects unhelpfully, one is permanently anxious. One is, to put it mildly, an idiot.
If we are not regularly and very deeply embarrassed about who we are, it can only be because we have a dangerous capacity for selective memory.
4. When we are ready to love rather than be loved
Confusingly, we speak of ‘love’ as one thing, rather than discerning the two very different varieties that lie beneath the single word: being loved and loving. We should marry when we are ready to do the latter and are aware of our unnatural, immature fixation on the former.
We start out knowing only about ‘being loved.’ It comes to seem – very wrongly – like the norm. To the child, it feels as if the parent is simply spontaneously on hand to comfort, guide, entertain, feed, clear up and remain almost always warm and cheerful. Parents don’t reveal how often they have bitten their tongue, fought back the tears and been too tired to take off their clothes after a day of childcare. The relationship is almost entirely non-reciprocal. The parent loves; but they do not expect the favour to be returned in any significant way. The parent does not get upset when the child has not noticed the new hair cut, asked carefully-calibrated questions about how the meeting at work went or suggested that they go upstairs to take a nap. Parent and child may both ‘love’, but each party is on a very different end of the axis, unbeknownst to the child.
This is why in adulthood, when we first say we long for love, what we predominantly mean is that we want to be loved as we were once loved by a parent. We want a recreation in adulthood of what it felt like to be ministered to and indulged. In a secret part of our minds, we picture someone who will understand our needs, bring us what we want, be immensely patient and sympathetic to us, act selflessly and make it all better.
This is – naturally – a disaster. For a marriage to work, we need to move firmly out of the child – and into the parental position. We need to become someone who will be willing to subordinate their own demands and concerns to the needs of another.
There’s a further lesson to be learnt. When a child says to its parent ‘I hate you’, the parent does not automatically go numb with shock or threaten to leave the house and never come back, because the parent knows that the child is not giving the executive summary of a deeply thought-out and patient investigation into the state of the relationship. The cause of these words might be hunger, a lost but crucial piece of Lego, the fact that they went to a cocktail party last night, that they won’t let them play a computer game, or that they have an earache…
Parents become very good at not hearing the explicit words and listening instead to what the child means but doesn’t yet know how to say: ‘I’m lonely, in pain, or frightened’ – distress which then unfairly comes out as an attack on the safest, kindest, most reliable thing in the child’s world: the parent.
We find it exceptionally hard to make this move with our partners: to hear what they truly mean, rather than responding (furiously) to what they are saying.
A third vow should state: ‘Whenever I have the strength in me to do so, I will imitate those who once loved me and take care of my partner as these figures cared for me. The task isn’t an unfair chore or a departure from the true nature of love. It is the only kind of love really worthy of that exalted word.’
5. When we are ready for administration
The Romantic person instinctively sees marriage in terms of emotions. But what a couple actually get up to together over a lifetime has much more in common with the workings of a small business. They must draw up work rosters, clean, chauffeur, cook, fix, throw away, mind, hire, fire, reconcile and budget.
None of these activities have any glamour whatsoever within the current arrangement of society. Those obliged to do them are therefore highly likely to resent them and feel that something has gone wrong with their lives for having to involve themselves so closely with them. And yet these tasks are what is truly ‘romantic’ in the sense of ‘conducive and sustaining of love’ and should be interpreted as the bedrock of a successful marriage, and accorded all the honour currently given to other activities in society, like mountain climbing or motor sport.
A central vow should read: ‘I accept the dignity of the ironing board.’
6. When we understand that sex and love do and don’t belong together
The Romantic view expects that love and sex will be aligned. But in truth, they won’t stay so beyond a few months or, at best, one or two years. This is not anyone’s fault. Because marriage has other key concerns (companionship, administration, another generation), sex will suffer. We are ready to get married when we accept a large degree of sexual resignation and the task of sublimation.
Both parties must therefore scrupulously avoid making the marriage ‘about sex’. They must also, from the outset, plan for the most challenging issue that will, statistically-speaking, arise for them: that one or the other will have affairs. Someone is properly ready for marriage when they are ready to behave maturely around betraying and being betrayed.
The inexperienced, immature view of betrayal goes like this: sex doesn’t have to be part of love. It can be quick and meaningless, just like playing tennis. Two people shouldn’t try to own each other’s bodies. It’s just a bit of fun. So one’s partner shouldn’t mind so much.
But this is wilfully to ignore impregnable basics of human nature. No one can be the victim of adultery and not feel that they have been found fundamentally wanting and cut to the core of their being. They will never get over it. It makes no sense, of course, but that isn’t the point. Many things about us make little sense – and yet have to be respected. The adulterer has to be ready to honour and forgive the partner’s extreme capacity for jealousy, and so must as far as is possible resist the urge to have sex with other people, must take every possible measure to prevent it being known if they do and must respond with extraordinary kindness and patience if the truth does ever emerge. They should above all never try to persuade their partner that it isn’t right to be jealous or that jealousy is unnatural, ‘bad’ or a bourgeois construct.
On the other side of the equation, one should ready oneself for betrayal. That is, one should make strenuous efforts to try to understand what might go through the partner’s mind when they have sex with someone else. One is likely to think that there is no other option but that they are deliberately trying to humiliate one and that all their love has evaporated. The more likely truth – that one’s partner just wants to have more, or different, sex – is as hard to master as Mandarin or the oboe and requires as much practice.
One is ready to get married when two very difficult things are in place: one is ready to believe in one’s partner’s genuine capacity to separate love and sex. And at the same time, one is ready to believe in one’s partner’s stubborn inability to keep love and sex apart.
Two people have to be able to master both feats, because they may – over a lifetime – be called upon to demonstrate both capacities. This – rather than a vow never to have sex with another human again – should be the relevant test for getting married.
7. When we are happy to be taught and calm about teaching
We are ready for marriage when we accept that in certain very significant areas, our partners will be wiser, more reasonable and more mature than we are. We should want to learn from them. We should bear having things pointed out to us. We should, at key points, see them as the teacher and ourselves as pupils. At the same time, we should be ready to take on the task of teaching them certain things and like good teachers, not shout, lose our tempers or expect them simply to know. Marriage should be recognised as a process of mutual education.
8. When we realise we’re not that compatible
The Romantic view of marriage stresses that the ‘right’ person means someone who shares our tastes, interests and general attitudes to life. This might be true in the short term. But, over an extended period of time, the relevance of this fades dramatically; because differences inevitably emerge. The person who is truly best suited to us is not the person who shares our tastes, but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently and wisely.
Rather than some notional idea of perfect complementarity, it is the capacity to tolerate difference that is the true marker of the ‘right’ person. Compatibility is an achievement of love; it shouldn’t be its precondition.
We have accepted that it is a truly good idea to attend some classes before having children. This is now the norm for all educated people in all developed nations.
Yet there is as yet no widespread acceptability for the idea of having classes before getting married. The results are around for all to see.
The time has come to bury the Romantic intuition-based view of marriage and learn to practice and rehearse marriage as one would ice-skating or violin playing, activities no more complex and no more deserving of systematic periods of instruction.
For now, while the infrastructure of new vows and classes is put in place, we all deserve untold sympathy for our struggles. We are trying to do something enormously difficult without the bare minimum of support necessary. It is not surprising if – very often – we have troubles.
For more, please see Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love: