In Defense of Marriage

Last week someone asked me as a long married man what I thought of gay marriage. I said I was all for it; it was straight marriage I sometimes have my doubts about. I was joking, but like most jokes there was a kernel of truth in it. With the rate of divorce in this country at a record high level I wonder how the right wing keeps their self-righteous rhetoric going on the sacredness of traditional marriage, and why it feels so threatened by gay people who want the ceremony, the respect, and the legal rights of marriage. The denial of those rights seems outrageous in any country that considers itself a civil society. And there is the embarrassing fact that Republican John McCain, Libertarian Bob Barr, and half the Republicans and Democrats in Congress are divorced or serial adulterers, not counting those defenders of marriage who are lusting after Senate pages, and engaging in toilet booth toe tickles. Yes, I do believe in defending marriage but not by setting up walls of discriminatory law to prevent others from enjoying its privileges, its joys, and its struggles.

A few years back when many people mocked or condemned Hillary Clinton for staying married to Bill after the Monica mess, I thought it was among her bravest decisions. She would not let scandal or humiliation, a relentlessly prurient press, or a husband who was half a genius and half a jerk force her to end a marriage that for all its flaws meant a great deal to her and to her daughter. There was a better history to that marriage that she was not going to toss out to satisfy her critics during the impeachment. Marriage can be a litmus test for how a person might govern. Bill’s screw up within his marriage was not totally disconnected to some of his bad Presidential decisions, including his pardon of Mark Rich, and his embrace of NAFTA; suggesting immediate gratification without a thought of the consequences to his own reputation or to the nation’s workers.

I might even draw some political conclusions from the easy yet spirited and loving marriage of Michelle and Barak Obama, suggesting that he would be a leader who would respond to the country’s needs in a thoughtful and caring way:

Then look at the Bush marriage. Laura and George existing in separate worlds even as they inhabit the same space; the sad disconnect of a cheerful looking couple who have only one thing in common, an inability to face the facts: George, in his constant losing battle with reality, Laura smiling her ladylike library smile from one denial to another denial about the toxic consequences of her husband’s presidency. I might even contrast Obama with John McCain, whose marital history shows a streak of cruel opportunism, suggesting a man who will always abandon his principles and the welfare of the disadvantaged, as he abandoned his first disadvantaged wife when it proved expedient.

Having said that I have t
o step back a little for nobody, and that includes this writer, has the right to pass too harsh a judgment on other people’s loves and marriages, which doesn’t mean that I don’t do so from time to time. What I do know is that marriage is occasionally an arrangement, sometimes a marvel, often a mess, and always a mystery. I have observed that love ties us up in its amazing contradictions and confusions, and never more so than in a marriage.

It’s almost impossible to avoid the subject of love when we talk about marriage or divorce. As you will see I am a big fan of love and marriage, and somewhat dubious about divorce. Sadly, this Bush government which claims to be the protector of traditional marriage has been marriage’s greatest enemy, because unemployment, poverty, debt, and despair – the Bush gift to so many married people through the past eight years of his policies – does so much harm to a marriage. A love must be heroically strong to face down such worries as how will we pay the pediatrician or where will we get the money to buy the diapers or the children shoes? Amazingly, sometimes love does get a couple through such crises, but it places an unbearable burden on love. Love. It was not for nothing that my first Latin lessons (in that long ago time when Latin was still taught in our public schools) started with my learning “Amo, Amas, Amat” – I love, you love, he she or it loves. And best of all there was the beauty of “Amamus” - the wonderful “we love.” For all of the world’s emphasis on love, love, like money, often seems more significant in its absence than in its presence. Despite the failure of so many marriages I’m a big booster of marriage as the best place to deal with love and its inevitable transformation over time. Divorce often seems wasteful to me; the wrong way to resolve many problems, and bad emotional ecology.

Yes, I know divorce is often necessary and I don’t fault those who end a hopeless, abusive, or destructive relations
hip. Doing that takes its own kind of hard courage. We have all seen that long, loveless duet of death between two married people whose only bond is their inexorable anger towards each other. And we all know of the terrible loneliness within a bad marriage, the emotional isolation that makes it seem like Sartre on steroids. But the unwillingness of so many married people today to “make a go of it” as my folks would say in the nineteen thirties, can as often lead to sorrowful future lives as much as it does to fresh starts.

Having lived more than a little while I can testify that the promise of the new (as in a new marriage and a new life) is often a cruel deception as well as an ecological threat as it trashes the old relationship for landfill. The new car, the new religion, the new man or woman, the new iPod, the new flat screen TV, the new Apple tele-toy, all become tomorrow’s detritus, more clutter for the garbage scow. There is no reason why the idea of saving the planet from human destruction cannot be applied to human relationships and to our emotional environment. Saving a marriage may not be up there with saving a rain forest, but in the overall scheme of things it does matter; at least it does to the children of that marriage who are the future of this world.

y wife and I will have been married for fifty-five years this month. This number staggers me. On a good day I refuse to believe that I am even fifty five years old. Despite that number, I have no professional wisdom to offer about longevity in marriage, but I recognize my good fortune, knowing that I still feel delight when she enters a room and concern when she is too long away from me. The fact is that I see the world more clearly in the light of her presence. I know she will object to my saying this because she feels that a public declaration of love is highly suspect; a movie star fakery like jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch. Okay, I’m off the couch now. A little personal history follows.

We met in college in the fifties, fell in love, and married young right after graduation as many people did at that time. A decade into our marriage our first son Nick was born, and thanks to Nick and his former wife I am today the grandfather of an amazing three year old grand-daughter. Ten years after Nick arrived our son Chris completed our family. And in two months Chris and his wife will be the parents of twin girls. Soon I will have my own trio of grand-daughters, emphasis on the grand. I don’t think my marriage is exceptional. I have many friends who have enjoyed long marriages. They are not joined at the hip but connected in a thousand other ways, among their gifts is an easy humor and a reluctance to hold on to grudges, or expose their mate to private or public humiliation. And this applies to several of my gay friends who have had enduring, loving relationships. What all these long relationships seem to have in common is the will to remain together in the face of the adversity which we all experience, and not to view change as the enemy. The key seems to be that they are all great listeners because listening is the indispensable art that the best marriages have perfected. In marriage we are each others first responders in times of disaster, and the first to celebrate the good news when it happens.

When I look back on the past years I think not only of all the laughter my wife and I have shared – both of us are fools for laughter - but of the sorrows we have endured. No, I haven’t found the secret of life, or of marriage, mainly because there is no single secret that I know of, and if there was I’ve been too busy working on the projects I love to go looking for it these past fifty five years. But I do think the capacity for accepting change in another is one of the requirements for keeping a marriage strong. Although I place a high value on marriage, I do not condescend or feel sorry for those who live alone by choice or necessity. I have single friends, male and female, who truly enjoy busy, productive lives, full of gratifying relationships and rewarding work, lives which are in no way solitary. There is no one route to a good life. What I do know is how lucky I’ve been to have had such a splendid companion for so many years, luck playing a huge role in every relationship. For us, love has been a renewable source of energy, one that has seen us through so much joy and sorrow. And I realize how easy it is today to dissolve a relationship when trouble comes, and it will arrive regularly with bump and a thud.

I am a lover of history, fascinated by the layers of people, events, and change that have occurred in a given place over time. This applies to the history of a marriage as well. And so on this notable anniversary as I look at the photograph of that ridiculously young couple at their traditional June wedding, she, so beautiful in the long white gown, me, so uncomfortable in the rented tails, both so certain that we would always be young with an endless future before us, it pleases me to say that we have kept our word to each other, and that in the decades that followed we remain the best of friends. And so to my wife on this great day, “Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus...”


Contributing writer, Sherman Yellen, screenwriter, playwright, and lyricist, has won two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award, first for his drama John Adams, Lawyer in the PBS series The Adams Chronicles, and later for An Early Frost, a groundbreaking drama about AIDS in America. His Beauty and the Beast was nominated for an Emmy and won the Christopher Award. Yellen was nominated for a Tony Award for his book for the Broadway musical, The Rothschilds. Yellen's other plays include Strangers, December Fools and Josephine Tonight! Sherman Yellen received a lifetime achievement award in Arts and Letters from Bard College.