On Getting Married, for the Fifth Time
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On October 9, on the ranch named for my great-great-grandfather, surrounded by a small number family and friends, I will marry Victoria. The invitations have been mailed; plans become more concrete by the day. After four and a half years together, and nearly three under the same roof, we are eager for this next step.
This will be my fifth marriage.
The mention of a fifth marriage raises one obvious question: Why? With a mix of curiosity and bemusement, people often ask me to explain myself. They ask out of earshot of Victoria, as most of my acquaintances are at least somewhat civilized. They are not asking why my first four marriages ended, though that question will come. They just want to know why anyone would want to keep doing this. Folks who have been through just one wrenching divorce are particularly confused.
The five-or-more marriages club is a small one, particularly when you don’t count multiple marriages to the same person. According to the census bureau, 5% of Americans will end up marrying three times, but I’m unable to find figures for the number who exceed that particular milestone. We know some of the oft-married celebrity names: Zsa Zsa Gabor with nine, Liz Taylor and Jerry Lee Lewis with seven, Larry King and Rue McClanahan with six. When I marry Victoria, I’ll be joining Joan Collins, James Cameron, and Martin Scorsese at five. I plan to stop.
All these folks are celebrities – and at one time or another, every one of them has been ridiculed for their repeated trips down the aisle. Show-biz marriages are expected to be particularly tenuous, but college professors turned grocery store clerks are expected to be somewhat more sedate. More to the point, after two, three, or four divorces, people in my position are expected to conclude, “Right, marriage is clearly not for me. Maybe I should just start cohabiting in perpetuity with a lover, and see if avoiding the public and contractual celebration of a union might actually work out better for everyone.”
This mocking of multiple marriages is, I like to argue, profoundly un-American. We imagine ourselves a people of second (or fifth) chances. When your novel gets rejected four times, no worthy friend says, “Stop now.” Rather, they remind you of all the famous books that were rejected dozens of times, and the tenacity of the authors who refused to take no for an answer. The history of American capitalism is littered with stories of successful entrepreneurs who failed two, four, or ten times before hitting on an idea or a device that could actually sell.
In sports and the arts, as well as in business and science, we remind people that their early (and even not-so-early) failures are normal, even necessary. Marriage is not like that – even to the modern American mind it is to be done once, or twice, or at absolute most, three times. As young people wait longer and longer to wed, they imbue marriage with ever-loftier expectations.
Marriage isn’t what you do early and often, except in celebrity and certain rural evangelical circles. For the upper-middle-class, marriage is what the sociologists call the “capstone” institution – something you do after you’ve finished your education, found a stable profession, and dealt with your childhood trauma. It’s expected that you will have had your heart broken a time or two, had at least one prior long-term relationship, and slept with enough people to give you grounds for comparison with your life partner. Marriage isn’t a vehicle for getting your shit together; it’s what you only do once you have already gathered and processed all your shit, and the other person has flung about and examined all their own shit, and you then blend your over-analyzed, metaphorical feces into self-actualized, vitalized, harmonious bliss.
This shift in marriage patterns from “cornerstone” (something a couple does when they are young, and then build their lives together on the foundation of their union) to “capstone” (where two already successful, experienced and autonomous entities merge their interests) has been underway for decades, at least among the secular and the prosperous. I am in no position to criticize either approach, except to note that the “capstone” model is largely out of reach for folks below the middle class.
I will note that in past marriages, I tried variations on each model. When I married Alyssa in 1990; I was 23 and she was 20. I wasn’t sure I wanted to marry her – or anyone else. I felt uncertain and young. I also was terrified of losing my anchor and my rock; Alyssa had been with me almost since the beginning of my serious mental breakdowns, and I felt I “owed” her marriage. She would get the big Catholic ceremony and the registry; I would get a nurse.
After my first three divorces, I married Eira in 2005. I had a doctorate and tenure; I was a homeowner. Crucially, I had been sober and out of hospitals for more than seven years. I had convinced myself that I had somehow outgrown my alcoholism and mental illness. Eira was fierce and relentless, and as I told friends at the time, our marriage would be a vehicle not only for our own transformation but for transforming the world. We each made good money; we were each marvelously conditioned, (tiresomely) vegan athletes; we went to the right charity galas and ran the right races and drove the right cars. The term “power couple” is wince-inducing, but it captures our goal: together, Eira and I made things happen for ourselves and our world, and we pushed each other to be more and to do more.
I could not sustain my end of the bargain. The darkness came back, and with it, a secret life – and then, an agonizingly public puncturing of a carefully-crafted illusion.
When you’ve stumbled and fallen as often as I have, you are wary of the language of redemption and change. The chorus of “Amazing Grace” declares “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.” Um, what is this “once” you sing of? In my adult life, I’ve moved from despair to certainty, from confusion to clarity and back again three dozen times. I’ve had countless conversions to everything from Marxism to Pentecostalism to Veganism to Male Feminist Activism, each time declaring that I had shed the Lost Man I was before in order to find my True Purpose. People rightly stop taking you seriously after your 17th “road to Damascus” moment. If you have a modicum of self-awareness, you stop taking yourself so seriously, too, and you stop chasing certainties.
And so you see I have come to doubt
All that I once held as true
I stand alone without beliefs
The only truth I know is you
Paul Simon wrote that when he was very young (for his underage Welsh girlfriend, if you want to cast about in the ashes for scandal). I’ve been listening to Kathy’s Song since I was ten, but it’s only now, deep into middle-age, that I have arrived at that happy place of near-perfect doubt about politics and philosophies. Francis Bacon said that if a man began with certainties, he would end in doubts, and he meant that as a warning. I take it as a bit of a blessing; I had my certainties, and I preached them, and my certainties and I, we failed each other. Now, all I have left is gentle acceptance of human foibles – and quiet, devoted certainty about Victoria, my best friend.
I am a grocery store clerk, with a ceiling on my aspirations of my own making. I am defined by fatherhood, and by my love for this woman only, and that is enough. Never have I entered a marriage with fewer beliefs and ambitions. I think that bodes well.
Anything worth doing is worth doing even if one has failed at it multiple times. I cannot speak for Elizabeth Taylor or Jerry Lee Lewis, but I can say that no matter how often one weds, it is never the same experience twice. One does not so much repeat one’s mistakes as one makes new and different mistakes. There are, I can attest, so many different ways to make things go wrong! To paraphrase Tolstoy, every happy marriage is alike; every unhappy marriage is its own story. (Patience, my therapist friends, eager to point out that Leo and I have that exactly backwards.)
We, the often married, are not mocking marriage. We do not make light of this institution at which we have failed so often. We are in awe of it, clumsy pilgrims slipping on the marble steps as we climb to the sanctuary. We are willing to be called fools, or — gently — teased. We are honest about our countless errors in the past, careful to shoulder the lion’s share (but not the entirety) of the blame for all that went wrong.
Folks who like to rhapsodize about marriage often quote snippets from Wendell Berry’s famous prose poem on the subject. Fifty years ago, Berry wrote to his wife:
I come to you
lost, wholly trusting as a man who goes
into the forest unarmed. It is as though I descend
slowly earthward out of the air. I rest in peace
in you, when I arrive at last.
“At last” is perhaps the most evocative two-word construction in the English language. The child, exhausted from the long drive, understands it the moment the car pulls up outside grandma’s house. The graduate student understands it – perhaps he tears up – when he sees his adviser sign the certificate of completion on his doctoral thesis. The battered old man knows it, when he nestles next to his beloved on the couch after a long day, aching shoulder to aching shoulder, tired oar to tired oar.
Some people have had more “at lasts” than others. Do not begrudge us our journeys.
Kathy’s Song was on repeat today, but so was this duet from Mary Chapin Carpenter and the late Joe Diffie. It is one of the best songs about love, again, after many loves before.
To hear you say my name, to see you search my eyes
To feel you touch my hand, it more than satisfies
If I was not the first, just say I'll be the last
It's too much to expect, but it's not too much to ask
Now I can only dream of being all you need
And I can only try to be the reason why
You think about today and forget about the past
It's too much to expect, but it's not too much to ask
May your marriage be blessed. I wish you many many healthy and happy years together. You have chosen a very auspicious day (my birthday; also the birthday of John Lennon and Jackson Browne).