Passages; Predictable Crises of Adult Life
By Gail Sheehy
Ever since romanticism replaced the arranged marriage, the assumption has been that people marry for love. This is largely a myth.
Any marriage can evolve into the mutual love of watching each other live. But first marriages are often a matter of conforming to the shoulds of the twenties. Until recently, few people felt free not to marry at this age. My conclusions are based on a synthesis of the 115 interviews. When I asked "Why did you marry?" the answers given by men who married in their twenties were quite consistent. (Their present ages range from 30 to 55.)
"I made a head decision," explained a writer. "This was the time. I didn't really have any deep desire to get married, but I thought I should. Doris expected it." He is now middle-aged and divorced.
A lawyer admitting to the same automatic response was uncomfortable about parting with his romantic illusions; he is only 30. "Within six months before or after our graduation from law school, all but one of my friends got married. I don't think it could be that everybody met the right girl by coincidence. There must have been an element of its being the right time. Not to take away from Jeanie...."
Each man thought that the shoulds were particular in his religion, region, or class background.
"Being married was just the way you lived as an upper-middle-class WASP in Cooperstown."
"If you grew up in the Hast and had a good Catholic school education and you came from the professional middle class, it was expected that you would marry and have children."
"Getting married was the natural thing you did when you were from Philadelphia, middle class, and Jewish."
The other real forces urging young people into marriages generally sift down to one of the following: the need for safety, the need to fill some vacancy in themselves, the need to get away from home, the need for prestige or practicality.
Again and again, from men as often as from women, one refrain is heard: "I wanted someone to take care of me." The collection of wishes carried by the phrase "take care of me" obviously comes straight out of childhood. Those of us raised in the child-centered middle-class American home have an appetite for attention so devouring, we scarcely hear what we are saying. Anything that intensifies the loneliness and the sense of lost security that accompany leaving the family (finishing school, entering the service, falling ill, finding ourselves in a strange place, seeing our parents' marriage come apart) increases the urge to recover the absolute safety of home.
But our dependency problems are bigger than this. With the affluence of the last twenty-five years, dependency became a systemic disease in America. The notion has flourished in all classes that one has the right to be taken care of throughout life. Beginning with the GI Bill or scholarship that would buy the education and the FHA loan that would buy the mortgage on a house, one would then be taken care of by the union, the corporation, the bureaucracy (as part of the vast army of government employees) or welfare until the time came to draw social security benefits and cash in on one's pension.
Falling into marriage as a safety net is by no means exclusive to women. So attached is Job to his Serena, so totally has he imbued her by now with the magical properties that can no longer reliably be ascribed to his parents, he cannot imagine a single misfortune they couldn't overcome so long as she is by his side. Buy remove Serena-
"Do you feel you could pretty well meet any roadblock that presents itself from here on in?" I asked him at the end of all our interviews.
"I think so," he said. As we talked, Serena quietly fixed dinner.
"Suppose you suddenly failed in law school?"
"I'd wring the professors neck." He laughed easily.
"Suppose you were robbed or Serena were mugged?"
"If I were burglarized, I'd use my insurance and not worry. When an emergency comes up and we don't have the money, we just say, 'It'll work out.' Now as far as Serena being mugged-" He tugged on his moccasin. "I would guess I'd be better equipped emotionally to deal with it if it happened to me."
"And if your father died?"
"I'd just go on," Jeb replied implacably. But the question had triggered a truly dangerous invasion of his safety base. "If it were Serena who died"-he sat awhile with that bayonet of a thought stuck in his mind. His optimism was suddenly penetrated. "That's the one thing I'm not prepared to do, go on without her."
Eventually, if Jeb is to end up with the safety inside himself, he will have to acknowledge the original source of his imagined protection: his mother. But he is not ready to challenge his inner custodian on the safety issue. Few of us are, in our twenties. He finds it easier to believe that all those protective powers are carried by his mate. So long as Serena is healthy and able to maintain a strong sense of her self, she can uphold the illusion.
If the magic mantle of the Strong One is passed back and forth between the couple, as we saw happening with Jeb and Serena, there will be progress both in sharing and in independence. The combination is what allows genuine intimacy to flourish.