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.

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