Monday, July 20, 2009

Mawwiage.



So, the universe demands my opinion on marriage in America. I know this because last week I got a link to the Atlantic Marriage Article, AND the NYT review of the said article, AND a physical issue of Time with "Infidelity is ruining Marriage" cover, and I managed to ignore all of it because my willpower is amazing. But, this week, Vicki posted this American Vs Russian Dating thing on her blog and I can't take it anymore. I am writing about this topic because I can no longer hold it in. And you are reading it because the season of Lost is over and you have nothing to watch on TV. So here goes.

Why is it that Americans marry late, and divorce early and often? A few years back, a Pew study was conducted on 'marital attitudes' in the world. In many different countries, they asked the question "What is the purpose of marriage?" Simple. Most countries responded in the same way, with Italy being a good representative of their answers: "To have children. You get married to have kids." You know what Americans answered? Um, many things, but nothing about kids. "To find happiness!" "To be with your soulmate!" "To work on common things together!" "To celebrate love!" "Mutual happiness and fulfillment!" (what the heck does that even mean?!)

And therein lies the problem.

First of all, as a public service announcement (to the 10 people that read my blog), let me tell you that if you are getting married to find happiness (and/or fulfillment, mutual or otherwise), then I suggest you put a divorce lawyer on your registry. Same to "work on common goals with soulmate while celebrating love with doves flying over your heads" or whatever other unicorn-like reasons you may have come up with.

You get married for one reason: because alone it is too hard. Because it helps to be a team. Because to raise kids, manage a household, work, be part of larger family and community, you have to be a team. That's why marriage exists. Your choice of partner and timing is, hopefully, dictated by love rather then a realization that you are getting too old to keep going to the same clubs anymore. But the reason you get married has nothing to do with any romantic notions. You get married for the same reason people join sports teams. It's just really hard to play the game by yourself.

When you picked people to play soccer on your team in junior high, you were thinking about how fast they are, how good they are at strategy and how long can they dribble the ball. You were not wondering if they will help you find happiness. You did not care if they leave the dishes in the sink all the time. You wanted to know one thing: can they play the game and will they do right by your team. Your marriage is a team that will play together for a lifetime. But, somehow, Americans decide to suddenly forget all their teammate-picking skills that were so hard-learned and instead start asking questions like "Am I having fun with him?", "Does he have annoying habits?", "Am I too young to settle down just yet?", "What if she takes over my life and/or closet?" People. Please. It doesn't matter. How long can they dribble the ball?

I was born in Russia (I know, you are thinking "no $@#$, Sherlock", but wait, I'm going somewhere with this). And in Russia, having children and raising them is central to a woman's life. So much so that marriage is seen as a vehicle to child-having. So much so that, no matter how much of a tramp (or not) the woman was before she had children, having children will elevate her to status of a saint. So much so that there is a saying in Russian "A woman without a child is a waste." So when I fell in love with my husband at age of 18, and my brain, hit with an 18-wheeler of head-over-heels mad-about-you-ness, turned to thinking of babies, I did not freak out.

I did not freak out even though in high school, I was determined to pursue a career full-speed, to become the best in something, or the first female something, in academia or workforce. I did not freak out even though suddenly, in love, all of that seemed so trivial and irrelevant, and all there was is just this guy, and me, and I strongly felt we should have kids as soon as possible and nothing else mattered at all.

If I were born and raised in the States, I probably would have freaked out and run the other way. Some American girls I knew did exactly that. Some others thought there was something wrong with them for suddenly being disinterested in any professional pursuits. In America, the feminist movement did a lot to convince women that not only they are equal to men (which I’m all for), but that they are exactly the SAME as men (which, um, is not really true at all in any way). Women were told to forget family and its narrow-minded backwards ways and focus on career! Achievement! Money! That’s what was going to bring them happiness! Unfortunately, it only made women busier and yes, richer, but not at all happier.

It couldn't make them happier because it tried to make the women into something they were simply not. No amount of pep talk can fight your biology. Americans learned to deny themselves their identity: women have to be more like men (work-oriented, “strong”, promiscuous, independent) and men have to be more like women (sensitive, caring, cooking…) And so everyone spends time soul-searching, looking for who they really are because a lot of us start so far off-base.

I don't know why we are teaching everyone to be an asexual being, but I don't think it's right. Studies are coming out saying that girls are not going into technical fields because they don't want to, not because they are being stifled (John Tierney had a good op-ed on this topic). More boys are diagnosed with ADD then ever because normal boyish behavior is now too rambunctious. Divorcees are writing about how their husbands cook and clean in one sentence, and then complain about them not being masculine and assertive enough in the bedroom in the next. All this confusion is leading us to get married later, have kids later and be far less happy and satisfied with our lives.

Of course, to this some would say "So what? What's the big deal with marrying later? You get to have more fun while you are single and then you know who you want and you get that person!" Well, those "some" just made this a longer post! Because, yes, I do have an answer for everything.

My husband and I fell in love at 18 and married at 23. Many of our classmates didn't believe you should stay together with your college sweetheart or marry that young. Recently, as we get closer and closer to 30 (eeek!), many people our age have, unpromted and without warning, said (in a cryptically meaningful tone) "You guys were right back then to stick together" when they run into us on random occasions.

This spontaneous exclamation used to kind of startle us (how do you respond to it? "Darn right!"?), but I think I'm beginning to understand where it comes from. As I have gotten older, I have become more set in my habits, more cynical and, I'm afraid, more quick to judge. When I was a teenager in college, I fell in love whole, wanting nothing except my guy and willing to build my life in any way necessary to have him by me. Except him, nothing mattered, and only because of him anything did. Had I stayed single until later, a man would have found me a cynical, judging and cautious woman, out to protect her own and aware of too much to "fall into" anything, especially love. It is really great if you are able to find and keep your love early in life - because, as the Feist song goes, "Money can't buy you back the love that you had then."

So may be we should let the genders be who they are, and take them as they are, with all their faults and awesome qualities, for better and for worse. Isn't that what marriage is supposed to be about, anyway?

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