Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.”

“You make me laugh, Charlotte; but it is not sound. You know it is not sound, and that you would never act in this way yourself.”

**

Among a subset of the thoughtful and orthodox, “it doesn’t matter who you marry” has become a bit of slogan. The line of thought behind it seems to go thus: we’re sold the notion that marital happiness, and marital obligations, depend on marrying “the one.” If you make a mistake, or your spouse’s personality changes, or you find yourself relating to them differently than you did at first, pulling up stakes and looking for a better deal falls somewhere between licit and incumbent. But in reality, what matters is the choice to get married, not who your partner is.

“It doesn’t matter who you marry” is an understandable reaction to a consumerist understanding of marriage and spiraling divorce rates; still, I have my doubts about its truth, utility, or prudence.

It is not clear that carefully considered, affection-driven spousal choice is an exclusively recent phenomenon. We can’t know the real lives, feelings, or practices of early 19th century couples from fictionalized accounts, but we can glean insight into what was socially valued, implicitly and explicitly, what was expected, what went without saying–hence the apt name “comedy of manners.” And even amid the venal machinations of Austen’s marriage plots, affection for a potential spouse and care in exercising one’s choice is presented as a standard, at least for the virtuous and well-bred.

Even in communities with no practice or concept of autonomy in courtship, the importance of a suitable match still shows up. Benjamin Franklin says in his autobiography

“I inquired concerning the Moravian marriages, whether the report was true that they were by lot. I was told that lots were used only in particular cases; that generally, when a young man found himself disposed to marry, he informed the elders of his class, who consulted the elder ladies that governed the young women. As these elders of the different sexes were well acquainted with the tempers and dispositions of their respective pupils they could best judge what matches were suitable, and their judgments were generally acquiesced in; but if, for example, it should happen that two or three young women were found to be equally proper for the young man, the lot was then recurred to. I objected, if the matches are not made by the mutual choice of the parties, some of them may chance to be very unhappy. “And so they may,” answered my informer, “if you let the parties choose for themselves”; which, indeed, I could not deny.”

It seems possible that it’s precisely the significance of whom you marry that moves some communities to take the decision out of the hands of the young couples themselves.

The discourse around the interchangeability of marital partners often implies that ideals of compatibility or the love-match are themselves the cause of current social ills. But low divorce rates and divorce stigma have co-existed with at least aspirational value attached to both scapegoats. This makes sense; presumably a robust understanding and institutional enforcement of marriage’s structure and obligations could support a variety of secondary norms.

Insofar as the problem is one of cultural misconceptions, the relevant point is not “what is the best way for an individual to enter into marriage?” but “what does the institution of marriage entail?”  As long as marriage in its socially constructed entirety exists only as a symbolic validation of love, or an at-will leisure activity that either party can opt out of at any moment, it will become perverse. It will sicken as an institution no matter how many individual couples keep their legally toothless vows, and whether the secondary norms attending it devolve on gendered labor, material security, interpersonal intimacy, political alliances, or sexual attraction.

It’s easy to see the aphoristic value of “it doesn’t matter who you marry,” or “just get married” here. The phrases jar the listener, reject the supposedly all-conquering powers of the soul-mate, and shift attention from personal happiness within marriage to a consideration of marriage itself. It’s entirely possible that proponents of marry-whomever-ism are engaging in a sophisticated bit of provocation designed to reframe cultural conversations about marriage rather than seriously presenting an alternative norm for how one should enter it.

But the aphorism needs at least an imaginary person’s particular plans and happiness as context, and so the futility of trying to address institutional breakdown at an individual level remains. Nor is futility the only problem.

Insofar as this advice has any teeth, it has them within communities already convinced of the seriousness of marriage. “It doesn’t matter whom you marry, just get married,” is unlikely to convince anyone who plans on a pre-nup, but it might convince very ardent, very young culture warriors who already see marriage as the sine qua non of a happy and valuable adult life. It’s most direct effect may be to encourage extremely imprudent action in a landscape that will offer the ardent couple very little succor in staying married once they have taken the plunge.

**

Not all reasons for care in spousal choice reduce marriage to a symbolic ceremony designed to validate and celebrate the discovery of “the one.” Marriage understood as the formation of a family implies an enormous undertaking, a shared project. The person with whom you enter into will not only be your ally and co-conspirator, your bedmate and sexual partner, but the father or mother of your children. Considered with the permanence and indissolubility of a sacramental marriage, all this tends very strongly towards discretion in decision, and a positive wish to marry rather than a negative and random default.

Nor is it true that people as a rule change so much as to render all consideration meaningless. People will change over a life-time of 60 odd years, and new circumstances always reveal new facets, but in general, major character traits do not simply disappear overnight–neither the good nor the bad ones. No matter what the flaws and virtues of a spouse, the duties of marriage remain, but it is criminally foolish and presumptuous to walk into a lifetime of avoidable difficulty in discharging your most serious obligations

Even romantic love, while not the absolute and only mode of marital choice, has some solid potential benefits behind it. Marriage creates a family bond between two previously unrelated people. The kind of love that sees with particular clarity and attention the excellences of the beloved, and that stakes a possessive claim on them, is not a bad kindle to the requisite fire. And the hardy, long-standing friendship that autonomous courtship often enables can make the transition from strangers to spouses, and to spousal friendship, a smoother and happier one.

Anyone who tells you that they are discerning a call “to the religious life” is nine tenths talk. Discernment starts when they find a house they might enter, when they encounter a specific charism and community of sisters to whom they might pledge their lives. And even after they enter to try their vocation, it takes long months of probation as a postulant before they are truly a sister, and often another three to five years before they make their final vows.

Entry to religious life, to which we are all called by virtue of our baptism, requires deliberation, persistence, and careful consideration of a particular community. The rigors of lifelong poverty and continence might require a superabundance of caution unnecessary with marriage, but still–uniting lives and families is serious business too.

**

Insofar as “It doesn’t matter whom  you marry” replaces erotic love with sacramental grace as a magical cure all, I’d like to see the concept go away.  There’s a blind romanticism to it, a fetishization of the leap into the unknown that, while rooted in something true about human relationships and commitments, distorts more than it reveals. What should replace it, I don’t know–there doesn’t seem to be a good slogan for marriage discernment. Don’t let stupid reasons stop you from marrying, but don’t rush imprudently into marriage. Don’t tell yourself that love is reducible to a feeling, but don’t try to will yourself into loving when it’s still time for taking the measure of your love. Don’t be afraid, don’t be an idiot.

Be good.

Live at Home and Like It

Somewhere lost in the cyclical kerfuffle about whether marrying young is good or bad are the socio-economic realities that conspire against it for most young people. Most of these are material, not strictly cultural: penurious wages, massive debt. But the peculiarly American stigma against living with one’s parents, the weighty and formal rite of living on one’s own for a prescribed number of years (after which, presumably, one has demonstrated something about one’s adult functionality) certainly militate against it.

The rite so necessary for proving one’s adulthood, paradoxically, suspends it. Single people who have reached their majority are neither fish nor fowl–severed from their natal families, not yet having taken on new obligations, set up for ephemerality and transience. They are discouraged from any movements towards permanence, as their real lives do not start until they marry–once they spend their requisite or allowed (depending on how close to thirty they stand) five to nine wandering years.

Much is made of marriage’s supposed transition from a “cornerstone” institution to a “capstone” one–from the institution on which you build your adult life to the final crowning achievement of said life. In fact, I think we’re stuck with the opposite problem. Marriage (including common law), except perhaps for a lucky and vanishingly few who immediately rise in living-wage, vocationally meaningful* jobs, is the only plausible legitimating adult institution–the only structure in which one can find one’s place rather than oneself. For young single people, the available cultural narrative about maturity is entirely abstract and necessarily contradictory–it demands economic independence, without which one cannot get married, but offers no stability or communal life. Those things are for married people.

Young people are expected to come into flourishing maturity in an artificial context that resembles no other part of their lives and removes them the economic and personal support life in common provides. For all intents and purposes, we force them to transition from infantile dependents to parents and heads of households with only a sort of non-sequitur ellipsis in between.

Given the muddle, it’s hardly surprising if many punt on such a leap into the void. And for those for whom marriage or childrearing is not in the cards, or not on the normal timeline, their most visible models oscillate between sad-sack isolation and self-indulgent entitlement.

I hope for and anticipate the rise of many creative solutions to this problem, from communes to beguinages, but one relatively easy improvement would be changing the story about living with one’s parents. The current story goes roughly as follows:

Once upon a time, there was a lame dude who couldn’t hack the challenges of adult life, so he moved back in with his parents. He loafed around, become more and more confirmed in his abject parasitism, and never got a date again. This didn’t matter to him so much though, because he preferred collecting action figurines to interacting with women. He also had a weird beard. THE END.

Full disclosure: I have spent a significant amount of my time out of school living with my family, and absolutely loved sharing bunk and bread with the nine other inmates of our little domestic asylum. Were anyone in Philadelphia to hire me, I’d be back there in a heartbeat.

Obviously, not everyone will have the same experience, but there are ways to shift the expectation and narrative from extended dependence to adult communal life. Based on my own observations, here’s what I’ve come up with**.

1. Don’t have kids do chores for money, unless you want to raise little domestic wage slaves. Growing up, there was never any direct proportion between chores done and money to spend–we did chores because we were a family and shared the work; if we wanted something we asked for it, and if possible, got it, because we were a family and shared the resources. A regular allowance for anyone was always fiscally laughable in my house, but if it had been possible, it wouldn’t have been connected to chores.

2. If your adult children live with you, don’t make them pay rent. Landlord-renter is an alienated, oppositional relationship–everyone dreams of a house of their own eventually. Instead, try sitting down with the returning prodigal or conquering hero and assessing both their income and household expenses. What can they realistically contribute to the common weal? Can they take over the light bill, the grocery bill? What kind of domestic labor will they take on? The starting point for discussion shouldn’t be “here’s the market price of the room,” but “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

3. Avoid enforcing with “You live under my roof, you’ll follow my rules.” This is a really weird reduction of parental authority to property ownership. Children don’t need to obey you because a deed in your name lets you play the little tyrant, they need to obey you because you are their parent entrusted with rearing them. And if you want to someday be able to live together as adults bound by fillial love and piety rather than direct parental authority, it’s a really bad habit to get into.

4. Let adult children order their own affairs. I never actually had a curfew, but as I got older, the “where are you going who’s going to be there will there be parents” litany stopped entirely. If I were damaging the common life by, say, bringing home drugs or lovers, obviously there would be a ruckus–but otherwise, if I want to spend my spare time smoking opium and eating frosting from the jar in a leather bikini on the courthouse steps, that’s that.

But of course I wouldn’t, because my parents would grieve and worry, and I highly value their judgement and happiness.

5. Let things get weird. A sea change like the difference between a parent’s life with a minor and a parent’s life with adult progeny is going to shake things up and make things weird. In many cases it’s going to demand the slow apprehension of entirely new ways of relating to one another. This is normal, and necessary. A family community doesn’t mean perpetual smiling photo-ops, it means working through the weird.

*By “vocationally meaningful,” for lack of a better phrase, I mean a non-precarious, presumptively permanent, living wage job which exposes one to validation and acceptance by adult peers. So, for the purposes of this discussion, a plumber with a strong union would have a more vocationally meaningful job than a Goldman Sach’s analyst or entry-level journalist.

**This is obviously not parenting advice in any kind of general sense. It’s advice on how to lay the groundwork for a certain kind of family community, on the basis of what has worked for me and my family.

Somewhat related, marginally related, not really related at all

Squeeeeeeeee

So, in all my bile over how much cultural and commerical suckage girls have to put up with, I forgot to mention one really truly excellent thing in the pink box: party planning. Do you have any idea how much fun three women can come up with given a kitchen, confetti, and a bottle of gin? If I ever got married (don’t hold your breath), my aunt would make her famous pound cake in three layers, my mom would compile a Beach Boys and Elvis flavored playlist and bully the jug band into showing up in our backyard, and my sister would make me a dress and hang tinfoil stars everywere. I’d be set.

Which brings me to the crux of the matter: one of the three infamous Cities of Wrath has decided to go all semi-respectable on us. That’s right, folks. One of us has a sparkler on her left hand and a man on her right. She’s gotten herself betrothed, engaged, and generally affianced up. I’m not telling you who it is, because we need to preserve some feminine mystique and mystery–it could be me for all you know. Ha. Ha. But either way, this definitely calls for some celebratory music:

honorable mentions here and here.

Anyway, now that that’s out of the way, the babes must needs get to work planning an engagement party. Most of the parties we attend together are heavy on the New York intellectual side–high on alcohol, cool people, cigarettes and discussions of city planning and etymology, decidely low on party favors, streamers, bright colors, and the kind of charm that comes in a mason jar. But we’ve been biding our time, and we’re going to throw an extravaganza to make Pinterest weep.  Now is the time for all good women to come to the aid of your party–do you have ideas, recipes, DIY, drinks, funny stories about that time you thought making a life sized swan out of marshmallows for your little sister’s Tchaikovsky themed birthday party was a good idea?

This is a twee-safe zone. In fact, a twee-positive zone. Bring on the twee–we can’t get enough of it.