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He got what he wanted but lost what he had

Little Richard threatened to title his yet-unwritten autobiography, “He got what he wanted but lost what he had,” after his 1962 single of the same name.  Someone should appropriate that title for a memoir of modern Bourgeois marriage.  That title, and the poignant sadness it implies, is the meta theme for much of the literature of Western Bourgeois marriage over the past two hundred years–for starters think “Madame Bovary,” “The Great Gatsby,” the Rabbit series, or the bulk of Philip Roth.

I was reflecting on this on Valentine’s Day.  With my wife feeling under-the-weather, I decided to take our nine year old daughter to the new Jennifer Aniston/Adam Sandler rom-com.  Thinking back to my first Valentine’s Day with my wife, twenty-two years prior, I bemoaned to my Facebook friends that I missed the years when February 14th involved new racy lingerie and Al Green CD’s.

I see this process working itself out in many of the upper-middle-class divorces I handle.  Couples who started out romantic but relatively poor end up with the accoutrements of success but become so bogged down in the responsibilities of work, children, community and home-making that they lose any sense of romantic connection.  When their marriage unravels due to this lack of connection they tend to lash out in anger, blaming the other for this loss.  Yet, reflecting neutrally on their circumstances, I often see a couple that has gotten what they wanted (the accoutrements of Bourgeois success) but lost what they had (an intense romantic connection with another human being).

I’d be amazed if any of the spouses coming to my office looking for me to handle their divorce averaged one day a month in which they simply devoted time to being with their spouse without any other distractions.  I’d be amazed if any of the couples I am friends with carve out a day a month for such connection.  Yet when we were younger, and unencumbered by such responsibilities, free time was one thing we had in much greater supply.  And the connection I recall wasn’t merely sexual. I miss the days my wife and I idled-away riding bicycles, taking long walks or having picnics in secluded shores or parks.  Now, too often, date night involves meals, movies or performing arts in which we are never alone, the time gobbled down the way a starving man might devour a fast food meal.

In Everclear’s album, Scenes from an American Movie, Vol. 1: Learning How to Smile, Art Alexakis possibly creates the best end-of-a-marriage song cycle that rock music has yet produced. Alexakis spins from elegiac to nostalgic to disappointed (mostly at the way his own behavior ruined his marriage).  My favorite song on Scenes is “Here We Go Again.”  With a sample of Public Enemy’s Chuck-D hectoring him, Alexakis sings this reminiscence from the vantage point of a marriage gone sour–to the point that even reaching across the bed to try to touch his wife will prompt an argument.  This disappointment leads him to fondly recall lying on a mattress on the floor of his little room with his wife, early in their relationship, watching porno and eating Chinese food, which–at least to me–seems much more romantic than a candlelight dinner at a fancy restaurant.  The contrast between the hopeful beginning and weary ending only adds to Alexakis’ sadness.  Two decades, two children and two careers later, spending a day with racy lingerie and Al Green CD’s is a distant memory; I’m as nostalgic for it as Alexakis is for his Chinese food and porno.

Richard Linklater, in his film Before Sunset, has Ethan Hawke’s character melancholically describing his marriage as akin to “running a small nursery with someone I used to date.”  Even for my colleagues’ marriages that appear to be stable and mutually supportive that description aptly describes my observations.  If our culture is going to view marriage as a romantic partnership–and not an economic partnership or child-rearing partnership–it needs to accept and encourage spouses to carve out time to just be with each other.  And I don’t believe that date night or half hour of alone time in the evenings–suggestions made by myriad women’s magazines–suffices.  Such activities fail to provide the time or privacy that romantic connection requires.  Further we need to finally recognize things like PTA, scouting and parent-involving extracurricular activities for the romance and marriage-destroying evils they truly are.

A culture in which even the Bourgeois can’t sustain its most important institutions is a culture in peril.  Perhaps we made a mistake redefining marriage as a romantic relationship–instead of an economic or child-rearing one–but I hope not.  To see marriage as based on spiritual rather than materialistic concerns is ennobling.   However, if we are going to sustain marriage as a romantic relationship our culture needs to provide more than just lip service and date night as support.

Many of my friends, especially my female friends, think it’s charming that I spent Valentine’s Day taking my wife’s and my younger daughter to a rom-com.  While I had a good time, I recall a much better time twenty-two Valentine’s Day’s prior.  Our culture thinks its perfectly normal when married couples spend more time with their children then they do with each other.  Of course, our culture also thinks it’s perfectly normal when married Bourgeois couples get divorced because the romance has drained from their relationship.  I simply find it sad.

  • As a divorce lawyer and a baseball fan, I was fascinated several years ago to learn that of the thirty-three players on the team, only two had divorced parents and those two players roomed together. I think that couples have to have activities and interest in common. In the case of the baseball players’ parents, they had their sons’ baseball careers in common. Also, they spent a lot of time together attending the baseball games.

  • California observer

    You should write a book, something like “A Divorce Lawyer’s Guide to a Happy Marriage.”

  • Liz Stringer

    Greg– Just a thought but Karen is lucky that you are even thinking about this. Now it is time for you to spontaneously whisk her away to Italy (after all you are clearly lucky to have her–you know I adore you Karen!). I for one am going to be careful and continue to carve out time for just Andrew and I. Good lesson for newlyweds and the veteran married alike

  • Denny

    I like the hipness of this piece! and the cautionary aspect.

    I’m happy if people who find their way into marriage find a way to stay in it. It doesn’t necessarily break my heart when they don’t though.

    People marry for reasons that don’t last forever. It’s okay to change a relationship and not let what you thought, felt, were told in the past decide for you now. That doesn’t mean I think everyone who fails in a marriage did all they could or should have done to make it last.

    The baseball anecdote doesn’t mean much to me on it’s face. I have many questions about that particular piece of data. I know lots of divorced families with their athletes careers in common. Also some unhappily married parents of athletes.

  • Bee

    Why do you continue to capitalize bourgeois?

  • Thank you for your blog. I'm learning a lot from it and getting lots of food for thought. As a marriage and family therapist who works with lots of unhappy couples, I really appreciate this post. It seems like so many couples put kids, work, individual interests and pretty much everything else above making time for each other to nurture their romantic connection and positive feelings of closeness with each other. I often say that marriage is a living vital thing, like an infant. It is not self-sustaining. It is a dynamic creation that has to be cared for in order to survive. It has its own set of needs as a distinct entity. If you don't give it a lot of time, nurturing, routine, and vital nutrients for growth, its going to die. So many couples go for months without doing anything together that remotely resembles true quality time. They say they'll do that when they get around to it or when things calm down or after the kids are grown or whenever. Meanwhile, the marriage is screaming to be picked up and fed and changed. They ignore the crying or put the occasional metaphoric bottle in its mouth and the marriage gets weaker and weaker and dies from neglect. It can't continue to exist under such conditions of deprivation. Marriages are fragile and need the same focussed intentional care in order to survive, and even moreso to thrive and be healthy, that babies need. We wouldn't condone neglecting children this way, but marriages are being neglected this way all the time. By the time people realize their marriage is sick, the disease is often terminal and the marriage isn't strong enough to bounce back. People work all week and then feel guilty for leaving their children to spend time with each other but the best gift parents can give their kids, in my opinion, is a Mom and Dad who show that their relationship is a priority and are committed to keeping their marriage strong and healthy. Kids thrive on such security and have a healthy example of what marriage and commitment should be. Its not just about being roommates and coparents. Romantic love can be sustained and nurtured but couples have to be intentional in how and when they go about this, just as they are with the kids' schedules and work responsibilities. Most marriages don't fail because of the big stuff like abuse, affairs, or addiction. They fail because of neglect. Well-known marriage therapist Willard Harley says couples should spend at least 15 hours of time together each week during which they give each other their undivided attention. Many people think this is extreme, but most couples I know or work with don't even give each other 2 hrs of undivided attention a week. They coordinate schedules, call each other "Mommy" and "Daddy" because they're so focussed on their kids that they lose their identities as husbands and wives, and become partners who efficiently run a household. Dr. Harley's website, MarriageBuilders.com, has lots of great articles about how important this is and about what happens when couples don't make time for each other a priority. There is also a book called "Mating In Captivity" that addresses helping couples stay connected and passionate about each other while doing the routine work, child rearing, and domestic stuff. This is a major issue that deserves a lot of attention and conversation. SmartMarriages.com is another site that contains a lot of info about helping couples maintain strong marriages in which the couple relationship is a priority and is nurtured and cared for just like careers and children are. Sorry this was so lengthy. Obviously, it is a major soap box issue for me.

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