September 2010

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by Jonathan Wallace

I spend a lot of time thinking about the element which makes some marriages last while others fail. I believe many of the truisms are true: there is the almost indescribable alchemy which dictates that in some cases, after twenty-five years, the other person still delights and fascinates you. There is the sharing of common interests, and the ability to grow and change together.

However, I think an element which is rarely noticed, is among the most important: gratitude. Your spouse selected you above all others and invested a lifetime of love, attention and time in you. If more of us said, even to ourselves, "Thank you for picking my sorry ass, when you could have had other people", I think there would be less divorce. In some cases, in the classic scenario of the middle aged man forsaking his wife of three decades for a woman twenty or thirty years younger, divorce would be almost impossible.

It requires a certain degree of humility to be grateful to a spouse or to anybody. If you regard yourself as God's gift to the world, then you view your marriage as a one-sided thing, in which undoubtedly your spouse received all the benefit while you undertook all the burdens. Barring this insane vanity, most of us must realize--or be able to realize--that a spouse was an independent actor in the world, who chose us. Who didn't have to. Who has worked very hard, despite flaws and misunderstandings, to stay with us, to tolerate our moods, setbacks, failures, misunderstandings and those moments when we must appear completely incomprehensible.

I find the 1960's novels of Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and John Updike almost unreadable, largely because of what I call their "reverse alien abduction" view of marriage. Instead of taking you away, the aliens deposited someone in your life who is a complete stranger, with whom you are required to live but from whom you are entirely alienated. The sixties, with its often bogus and selfish concepts of personal freedom, veered away from the idea of responsibility. Robert Frost's statement that "freedom is feeling easy in the harness" was completely alien to our culture back then. Extramarital sex and the destruction of long-established marriages and families, was glorified without much regard for the breakage. In the 1960's "alien" marriage, there is no concept of choice at all: neither of you selected the other; you married because your parents expected it, or because that is what everyone did. Eventually, an opportunity for self realization comes along, usually in the guise of a much younger blonde woman in a tie dyed shirt, and the story ends with the man escaping the oppressive alien world for one of earth tones, sexual abandon and pot.

If you have little else left in common with a spouse, but start rebuilding with gratitude as a cornerstone, I believe happiness may still be possible. (I am not speaking from personal experience here because in my marriage the truisms given above apply.) The excuses of husbands leaving "reverse alien abduction" marriages--"I'm not happy, she's not who I married"-- run through the neurolinguistic processor, become confessions of their own failure to adapt, to set expectations reasonably, to do the work. Of course you will not be happy if you are fifty and only a twenty-five year old appeals to you. On the other hand, you are also an infantile, selfish, cruel son of a bitch.

I think the failure to feel grateful in marriage is part of a larger failure of gratitude in Americans. Gratitude itself runs entirely counter to a hedonistic, self-involved, entitled philosophy of life. Politics has been centered on the idea for a long time now, that we need give nothing, yet expect everything. Gratitude is inconsistent with entitlement, because it is based on the perception that someone went out of their way, did something they did not have to do, out of motives of compassion, love or community spirit. Gratitude also implies reciprocal obligations; we are ungrateful indeed if, given the chance, we do nothing to help the person who helped us, save the person who saved us. Remember the case of Max Cleland, the U.S. Senator from Georgia, a triple amputee from wounds suffered in the Vietnam war, defeated in 2002 by representative Saxby Chambliss on the grounds he wasn't sufficiently patriotic. I think a grateful electorate, aware of Cleland's sacrifice and services, wouldn't have paid attention to the scurrilous attacks.

I am a big believer in liberty, the self-legislated right to be different, to choose, to evolve as one can, to be as strange as one wants to be. I also believe in responsibility, not the dead bonds of an incomprehensible law but the live and vibrant commitments we recognize in our hearts. There is nothing as fulfilling as the performance of a duty no-one else recognizes. Gratitude is not a popular emotion today because it interferes with entirely narcissistic concepts of personal freedom, conceived in complete disregard of corresponding responsibilities.