Marriage Is a Bad Habit
Click on image to enlarge.
by Ruth Dickson
Category: General Nonfiction
Description: When Ruth Dickson released her 1967 book MARRIED MEN MAKE THE BEST LOVERS, it went off like a bombshell. Defenders of the "sanctity" of marriage rose up to dismiss her frank, innovative, thoroughly researched book. But why? Why cling to the broken ritual of marriage? What comfort is there in a crumbling institution held together by meaningless tradition and out of touch patriarchy? In this thoughtful follow-up, Dickson examines marriage itself. As she explains, "It's no secret that the divorce rate is reaching astronomical proportions, yet nobody seems to do anything about the sole cause of divorce: marriage." Expertly weaving historical research, personal anecdotes, and scalpel-sharp philosophy, MARRIAGE IS A BAD HABIT makes the case that a life without marriage is a life of freedom--a woman's freedom from male dominance and abuse, a man's freedom from female resentment and martyrdom. In this new world it's time for the sexes to find a new way of living together. Or, more specifically, a new way to live apart. Sexier than Helen Gurley Brown, wittier than Xaviera Hollander, Ruth Dickson tells the truth, makes you laugh, gives you innovative ideas and thoughtful advice on how to navigate the tricky waters of true freedom of choice.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads/E-Reads, 1968
eBookwise Release Date: May 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [194 KB]
Reading time: 122-171 min.
Who's Hiding on the Premises?
"A system could not well have been devised more studiously hostile to human happiness than marriage."--Shelley
Some forty-odd (some odder than others) years ago, I accomplished a small volume called Married Men Make the Best Lovers, which you are probably too young to have read. If so, ask your mother, or perhaps your grandmother to tell you the tale of the Outrageous Woman who became the scourge of the suburbs wherever disreputable books were sold.
Now, a book with a title like that is bound to raise some hackles, not to mention eyebrows and blood pressure, but I never expected it to result in the turmoil of which I rapidly became the vortex. Suddenly, I was being introduced as "Controversial Ruth Dickson," as though "Controversial" were my first name, and the ensuing furor continued for years. However, not all the comments were negative, and some of the more penetrating remarks reinforced my contention that adultery is not the cause of poor marital relations, but rather the reverse. If there weren't something wrong with our system of marriage, adulterous relationships would not be as prevalent as they are; and obviously, there lay the real root of the problem.
As the nation's wives heaped scorn and curses upon my head, it became more and more apparent that they were operating not only from fear, but from a deep-seated anxiety about matrimony itself. Those who shouted the loudest were obviously those who were the least secure in their belief that marriage was a desirable state. They seemed to be saying, "I'm in this mess, and I'm not going to withstand it alone. Therefore, everyone damn well better get in it with me, most especially you, Ms. Controversial!" Because I said I felt women had something better to do with their lives than subjugate themselves to men, I was called evil. And because I stated flatly that I was far happier living alone than with a husband of my own, I was labeled sacrilegious. It seems like a pretty sad commentary on our society that the people who comprise it, especially the female contingent, are so frightened that they feel called upon to react so strongly to one woman's opinions.
No matter. Marriage as we know it is going down the drain, and nobody is more aware of that fact than the wives who are so desperately trying to make it work. And for this reason, I thought it high time somebody shed the light of sense on what's really happening to this fast-disintegrating system, and why. You aren't going to like it, any more than you liked the Surgeon General's report on smoking. Nobody likes to break a habit, no matter how damaging it might be, and I know perfectly well that nothing is going to change as a result of this book. But maybe it will make a few people think of what we've done to ourselves in the name of a religious superstition we insist on referring to as a "sacred institution."
Perhaps we had best first define what we're talking about when we use the word "marriage." Let's see what Mr. Webster has to say about it: "Marriage: the state of, or relation between, a man and woman who have become husband and wife, or the ceremony marking this union." Well, that doesn't tell us much, so let's see what he means by "husband," okay? Ah, now we're getting somewhere. "Husband: married man; the manager, as of a household; to manage economically; conserve." Does that begin to tell you something? Let's try "wife," shall we? "Wife: from the Anglo-Saxon 'wif,' meaning 'the hidden or veiled person'; a woman in relation to her husband." Still true in certain mid-Eastern countries, but hardly the norm in the Western world.
Yet, viewed objectively, that's pretty much what marriage is still supposed to be, despite all our strides forward into what we hopefully call civilization. A husband is expected to gather wherewithal and see that it is expended wisely and conservatively, while his wife is supposed to stay hidden from the world (meaning other men) and do whatever it is she's presumed to be doing behind those closed doors. We assume she's bearing and raising children, and helping the husband to husband his resources. And that's it. Except for one thing: it doesn't work like that anymore. Nowadays, the "hidden person" is just as likely to be out husbanding as is the male, just as much exposed to the world at large as he is, and thereby just as knowledgeable and educated as he. Maybe more so. And if she's not, and remains at home, it is she who is doing the managing and conserving, duties once assigned to the man. So what do we have? A system which is working on principles that are no longer valid.
Even Webster hasn't been able to give more than the original definitions of the words "marriage," "husband," or "wife," and would doubtless throw up his hands in despair if he were called upon to give adequate, workable meaning to these words today. They have become as ephemeral as "truth," "beauty," and "honor," with each individual defining them in the light of his own background and experience. In other words, totally meaningless, since they mean all things to all people.
Marriage was, at one time, a sound economic move, with predetermined and worthy ends. It was a working partnership, at best; a means to an acquisitive end, at worst. If, a thousand or so years ago, someone had asked the question "What is marriage for?" a reasonable answer could have been given. And it would have been a man who answered, because marriage was designed by and for men, with nobody ever bothering to ask the woman what she thought of the whole thing. Men needed wives for many things, not the least of which was to provide them with offspring to whom to leave their land. For it wasn't until man settled down and stopped his nomadic existence that marriage was conceived.
Of course the human animal bred, but it didn't much matter which female a male mated with, or vice versa, in a society which took its sustenance from the land on which it found itself, then moved on when it had depleted those resources. In those circumstances, all the children belonged to everyone, as did all the women. The women did tend the children, but only because they were biologically equipped to do so, nursing bottles being a rather recent innovation; but the children belonged to the tribe as a whole, not to any individual pairs of parents. And I bet there wasn't an Oedipus complex in sight, much less any of our other modern conveniences. But more on that later.
Anyhow, after a while man realized that he could make the land do things for him, rather than just taking what he could find, and thus began the whole sorry system. As soon as man began to identify himself with a piece of real estate, he needed (1) someone to help him take care of it, and (2) someone to leave it to, in order to create his own immortality. The offspring also answered a need for more manpower to defend his property from intruders and invaders, but because these extensions of himself needed to be his, he hit on the one solution to insure that they would be. He outlawed adultery. Not for himself, mind you, but for his wife, or wives, depending on the area and the time in history. It had nothing to do with morals, purity, or any other latter-day invention. It was simply a way to make sure some other dude's kids wouldn't inherit his land.
And it all worked pretty well, if you want to ignore the state the poor female found herself in. She, for centuries, was a mere piece of property, belonging first to her father, later to her husband, with no rights of her own, no self-determination, no voice in her own destiny. And the funny part is, she helped man perpetrate this crime against her, aiding and abetting every anti-feminine device he could imagine. It's difficult to pinpoint any one reason for this attitude, outside of congenital masochism, but it isn't too hard to see how it could happen. After all, man held all the wealth, made all the laws, and did all the brainwashing. And with the female's enslavement to her own biology, plus all the myths man invented about her, she never really had a chance.
Until now. Finally, after centuries of second-class citizen status, we women are finally coming into our own, as human beings in our own right and as a direct result of this emancipation, are beginning at last to question the validity of that most insidious of all enslavement methods: marriage. Females have been made the butt of the most complicated joke in human history, but I think we're beginning to take a jaundiced look at the boy pranksters and say, "It ain't funny, McGee!"
All of which brings us back to our original premise--that marriage, although based on sound motives at the outset, no longer has those motives, and is therefore doomed as a way of life. What began as a means to an end has become an end in itself, and as such is without reason or meaning.
It's hard to believe that in this day of enlightenment--and in this country particularly, where obsolescence is not only clearly recognized but actually built into our economy--we are still operating within a social structure so completely outworn as the institution of death-do-us-part monogamous relationships. It wouldn't be so bad if we looked upon it with the kind of amused condescension with which we view children's pranks and games. But we take it so seriously! As though it were real, for heaven's sake! Despite all the evidence to the contrary, we still keep trying to believe that marriage actually is a lifetime agreement, and what's worse, that it should be. When we know that just the opposite is true.
How many of the people you know are still married to their original spouse--and of those, how many wish they weren't? And when the almost-inevitable divorce occurs, how many recognize it as a natural result of an unnatural relationship, instead of feeling as though they were somehow at fault for failing to make it work? Yet, knowing that it can't work, knowing that it is contrary to human needs, we still continue to foster this myth, as though our very lives depended on it--when, in fact, our lives may indeed depend on dispensing with it, once and for all.
No, it wouldn't be quite so bad if we could live with it. If it were just a quaint relic of bygone days, doing no harm, we might keep it around, like a comfortable pair of old slippers. If we'd been able to change its shape to meet our changing needs, it wouldn't be quite so intolerable. But we keep trying to squeeze ourselves into a pair of shoes that no longer fit, and we've developed a set of corns on our psyches that would send Dr. Scholl into ecstasy.
Marriage is not harmless. Aside from organized religion, it is quite likely the one most damaging force our species has ever invented, up to and including war. After all, killing each other does at least have the advantage of making room for more maniacs to continue the cycle, whereas marriage only adds to the seething mass of suffering humanity already overcrowding our poor perspiring planet. It is not just a benign old tradition; it's a dreadful malignancy, threatening to wipe us out if we don't do something about it. It's a woebegone disaster area, and it's time some beneficent government agency did something about it, like outlaw its existence. Of course, being the rebellious people we are, that would probably be the answer, right there. Look at the number of happy drunks Prohibition caused. Can you imagine all the happy bootleg marriages there would be, if it were against the law?
But it's still legal, worse luck, even though it has become as vestigial as the appendix; just as useless, just as liable to disease, and just as painful to remove. Nobody, not one single man or woman, needs it anymore. Yet we persist in perpetuating it as recklessly, fecklessly, and relentlessly as though it were necessary to our survival--when, in fact, it is the absolute opposite. It is, at the very least, mankind's second greatest folly, and it's a wonder to me that our supposedly paternalistic government hasn't put an end to it, once and for all. After all, they've seen fit to step in and protect us from ourselves in every other phase of our lives. We are not allowed to gamble or use dope or drive without buckled seatbelts or otherwise leave ourselves open to harm. So how come, if our government loves us so much, it continues to allow us to ruin our lives, and the lives of our mates and children? Shame on you, Mr. President! Shame on you, Congressmen! Shame on you, Supreme Court Judges! Why don't you guys get on the ball and extricate us from this mess we've made?
Viewed objectively--which is difficult for most people, there being so much emotion connected with the subject--the only reason marriage seems to have hung on this long is tradition. Yet, in a nation of forward-looking, progressive-minded individuals, this seems rather odd. We've never before let tradition stand in the way of bigger and better everything. Even religious tradition is gradually giving way before the onslaught of reason. The only other barbarism to equal marriage's stubborn refusal to give up is the ceremony of the funeral, both of which rituals go back to about the same era. Even so, although the Glorification of the Corpse is exorbitant, shockingly wasteful of land, and an unnecessary cause of suffering for the survivors, at least the star of the performance doesn't have to stay around to watch the putrefaction set in, after all the folks have gone home.
Not so with marriage. Here is the same pomp and panoply used centuries ago, with the bride in white, although the chances are only one in eighty-nine that she is the virgin thus signified; with her father still giving her away, although the law no longer states that she was his property to begin with; and the groom whisking her off to something called a "honeymoon," although nobody even knows how to make mead anymore (the word derives from an ancient custom requiring newlyweds to spend their first moon getting wasted on honey-based booze) after having been pelted with rice, to promote fertility, although the bride has been dutifully swallowing birth control pills since she was sixteen and will probably continue to do so for some time to come. When the couple arrives at their secluded retreat, the groom is presumably to divest his bride of her hymen, although the chances are still eighty-nine to one that he or somebody else has already done so.
And there they are. The guests have gone home, the parents have collapsed, the caterers have cleaned up the mess, and the honeymoon couple is just glowing with happiness. Forever and ever, they have promised. You know how long it lasts? The odds right now are better than even that they'll end up in a divorce court by the end of their first year. And if they survive that, they may call an armed truce for six more years, at which time the odds soar to six to one that they'll be divorced by about the end of the seventh year of an arrangement which was to have lasted till death.
All of which makes the whole thing much worse than a funeral. At least a corpse doesn't know what's happening to its body after its soul has departed, if we are to accept the conventional definition of death. But a dead marriage just lies there, unburied, with its participants looking hopelessly on, feeling guilt, remorse, distaste, distrust, and even hatred. And all for what? To continue a ritual which has long since lost its raison d'etre, for no other reason than habit and lassitude, with a little romantic superstition and a lot of financial concerns thrown in.
The habit of marriage makes me think of the Jewish custom of keeping a kosher kitchen. When the dietary laws of Judaism were established, they were an intelligent answer to poor sanitary conditions, and had no more religious significance than a garbage disposal has today. Yet they have become so imbued with mystical tradition that, despite their present irrationality, they have become an entity in themselves, surrounded by superstitious magical properties to which nobody gives an examining thought. In the same way, the habit of marriage persists, with the sensible reason for its existence long since forgotten.
Like many of our customs, started as logical solutions to problems and later outliving their usefulness, so marriage has continued long after it has stopped making any positive contribution to its participants. And it continues to deteriorate with each succeeding generation. Today, we are still perpetrating about two million marriages a year in this country, or about 7.5% per 1000 people. That means that approximately four million human beings a year willingly stick their heads into a noose that, if it doesn't kill them, will certainly maim them for life.
It's no secret that the divorce rate is reaching astronomical proportions, yet nobody seems to do anything about the sole cause of divorce: marriage. It is becoming increasingly obvious that the dissolved marriage is normal, if numbers constitute normality, which under a system of consensual validation they do. Logically, then, if the broken marriage is the norm, it seems the uttermost folly to commit matrimony in the first place. It is an unnatural state to start with, involving as it does the necessity for two people of violently opposite genders to share a dwelling place and the other necessities of life. Yet man continues to allow the greater society to force him into this uncomfortable, artificial position.
The male and the female of our species have been conditioned to such an extent of incompatibility from birth that it is virtually impossible for them to live equably with each other for any length of time. Oh, an occasional fling in a common household is an interesting and educational arrangement, but to insist that this be a lifelong covenant, and to be disappointed and guilt-ridden when it doesn't turn out that way, is not only illogical, it's downright masochistic! Two people of the same sex, who should certainly be expected to have more in common than two of opposite gender, can't be expected to spend their entire lives with each other. We know that most homosexual alliances don't last, although one would think they'd be easier to manage than those of the heterosexual variety. Identical twins, for heaven's sake, would find spending their lives together an intolerable bore after a while. So how in the world can any sane person expect to be happy in an entente that involves a pair of individuals who are totally different from each other in every way save species? And, moreover, expect them to remain mentally and emotionally static, so that they always feel the same about each other?
In our societal structure, a normal, reasonably well-adjusted human being simply cannot endure the state of marriage, and shouldn't have to. The idea of anybody, male or female, limiting his or her social and sexual alliances to one other human being for life is simply ludicrous, yet we persist in the idea of marriage as being a kind of blind isolation from the rest of the world, with only surface contact allowed between a married person and anyone of the opposite sex. We no longer live miles away from our nearest neighbors, and our home no longer represents our total universe, yet we're still supposed to act as though it did. In a so-called "good" marriage, a husband is supposed to ignore every woman in his ken save his mother, sisters, and wife, and to have a sexual relationship only with the latter, thereby effectively cutting off half the population from his range of vision, friendship, warmth, companionship, and love. The same, in even more virulent form, goes for his wife. She is presumed to be content with house, children, and female neighbors, and may only be distantly polite to the men who inhabit her world. How, in a country filled with two hundred million people, are we to accomplish this insane goal? The answer is, we don't and don't pretend to. Adultery, separation, and divorce flourish, and the concept of "forsaking all others" is simply a moldy leftover from a time which is long past, if indeed it ever existed.
There has never been a period in mankind's history during which monogamy for everybody really existed. It might have been the ideal, but very few people paid much attention to it, except to proffer lip service. No, don't point to our Puritans as a shining example. Those guys weren't nearly as chaste as we would like to think. Here's a cute fact to chew on: Of all the crimes of every sort mentioned in old Massachusetts records, by far the most prevalent and most popular sin was fornication. They did a lot of yelling and admonishing, to say nothing of whipping and ducking, but sex out of wedlock was every bit as prevalent then as it is now. So if you're trying to live up to your worthy ancestors' example, you'd better start swinging. They did!
Even knowing how futile and fruitless it is to live today by yesterday's rules, we still continue to try. Why? Well, I think the answer to that question is simply fear. The same fear of the unknown that permeates every other phase of the "average" person's life. The only people who have ever tried something new, or discovered something different, or wandered away in search of change, were the oddballs. Mr. Average, even in the time of Columbus, wouldn't have dreamed of setting off across an uncharted ocean in search of who-knows-what. I'm sure Columbus was considered a lunatic by his peers, as is everybody who has ever had a fresh idea. So, of course, nobody is going to take the first step and say, "Hey, this marriage business is ridiculous. Let's try it a different way." I'm saying it, and will doubtless be stoned in the public square (with stones!). The few others who have guts enough to question its values are shouted down, reviled, and otherwise made to feel like traitors to a shining cause. People, just like sheep, always follow the leader thoughtlessly and without question, on the theory that "everybody does it, so it must be right."
As a result, everybody sits around, encouraging and blindly helping the anomaly of monogamous marriage to persist, despite all the evidence showing it to be worthy of destruction. We know that prejudice and bigotry are born of ignorance. Then how, if a woman is to know no other man than the one she married, is she to be expected to understand the male animal in his entirety, and thereby erase her fear of him and her prejudice against him? And if woman wants to be fully liberated, emancipated and equalized, how can she accomplish this end when she permits her husband to know only one example: herself? How can man learn that woman is indeed capable of a great deal more than he has allowed her to do, if he is not permitted to associate, on all levels, with large numbers of women, and thereby learn for himself that there are as many facets to her as there are to him? Which is, of course, the only way woman can be truly accepted as an equal.
But the habit persists, and habit is all it is, both from society's point of view and that of the individual. That marriage is habitual can easily be seen from the statistics. The longer a marriage goes on, the longer it is likely to go on, just like smoking. The largest number of divorces occur in the first seven years of marriage, and descend to a mere three percent in the over-thirty-year category. Just as, if you stop smoking within five years after you start, you are far more likely to kick the addiction for life than if you try to quit after ten or twenty years. It's just easier to go on, miserable or not, than to make the effort to call it off. It seems to me that it's about time for somebody, maybe the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, to follow up on the good start of insisting on the warning on cigarette packages by a similar one on all marriage licenses: "Caution: marriage may be hazardous to your mental health." But probably as few people would pay attention to it as they do to the cancer caution, masochists that we are.
Marriage and smoking are analogous in more ways than one, come to think of it. Both satisfy an oral-sexual need, and both are an attempt to show the world that we're grown up enough to indulge. Never mind that either can destroy our lives; everybody's doing it, and if the rest of the lemmings are throwing themselves into the suicidal sea, we are impelled to jump in with them.
But let's stop generalizing. Let's peer at the individuals who, four million strong, plunge into the sea of matrimony yearly in the United States. Traditionally, our national joke is that no man wants to get married, and all girls do. "He chased her until she caught him," right? Well, let's take a look at one such bride, and see how she got that way. First of all, she's 20.5 years old, has completed 2.8 years of high school, and is probably pregnant, the number of "premature" first children being startlingly hilarious. Neither she nor her new husband were really ready for a lifelong contract, but they resigned themselves to giving it a try, "for the families," and decided that the least of all evils was matrimony. But that was just the final mistake. Long before the event, the young lady was undergoing a brainwashing that makes The Manchurian Candidate look like a Sunday School outing.
Before she could walk, she was handed a doll and told, 'This is your baby, you're the mommy." ("And in a few years, you'll find out the hell you put me through. Neener neener.") From pre-school through graduation and beyond, she is dressed, groomed, prodded, and cajoled into being a "little lady"--which, freely translated, means keeping her knees together at all times and keeping her hands and face clean. Then, in her twelfth or thirteenth year she is eased into the world of cosmetics, the better to seduce them with (while still keeping those knees together, young lady). Also during this period, she is given a nasty little pair of "grown-up" dolls, in the stylized shape of a girl and a boy teenager, complete with extravagant wardrobes and a darling little house in which to live. She is taught to imbue these playthings with a life of their own and encouraged to see them as the ideal couple. They "go steady," then marry, while Pen has a job and Harpie stays home and keeps their miniature love-nest clean and tidy. They are "in love," although neither of them is endowed with genitals, so presumably their love is consummated entirely between their little plastic ears.
At the same time that this insidious educational process is going on, our little girl is being bombarded on all sides with further propaganda, strongly urging her to believe that the only life she can possibly lead, and still remain within the normal pale, is that of love-and-marriage (never are these phenomena separated into the mutually exclusive entities which they inevitably become). The big screen in her living room tells her ad nauseam that if she uses the proper toothpaste, soap, deodorant and detergent, she will be amply rewarded by catching a rich and handsome husband, thereby insuring a future filled with unending bliss. She projects herself into the myth of the joyous housewife, gleefully waxing floors, giving her hands a beauty treatment in dishwater, cooing at a happy, drool-free baby and living in a serene, decorator-appointed home in the suburbs, smiling, smiling, smiling.
In other words, our juvenile heroine is told, over and over and over, that the pot of gold at the end of her rainbow will, positively, be provided by that Giver Of All Things (fanfare)--A Husband! Despite the evidence of her own experience, that of seeing her mother grumpy, their home not exactly as pictured in the never-never land of advertising, her father more than somewhat different from the handsome, happy, loving prince of TV dreams, and both parents more often snarling than smiling at each other, still she is fooled. Real life is what she sees in the pictures, not what's around her. And when she grows up, she'll have it all: home, husband, and happiness everlasting.
In high school, things look for a minute like the Dream might Come True. The most sought-after boy in school asks for a date, and she pounces. She and mother join forces in turning the little girl into a seductive little woman, at least on the outside. Of course, all the while the sacrificial adornment is going on, the warning keeps sounding to guard closely the golden maidenhead. She knows she must make him "like" her, and maybe he'll "fall in love" with her, and then, inevitably, they will "get married."
So, off they go on the Big Date, but somehow things don't turn out quite as mother planned. First of all, darling daughter is not as innocent of physical knowledge as the ingenuous mom believes. She has heard about sex, and talks about it endlessly. The football boy lost his virginity the day he made his first touchdown, and had a choice of eight girls on whom to bestow it. He knows he doesn't have to waste time with anyone who doesn't put out, and this new one looks ripe for plucking. The new one, heart pumping and hands sweating, realizes that she'll never see him again if she doesn't "do it" with him. Besides, she's sort of curious, in a nervous way, to find out what this sex thing is all about. All the other kids seem to have tried it, and she's feeling a bit backward and left out. She thinks briefly about contraception, having heard all about The Pill, but being under-age and certainly unable to discuss the matter with mother, she is not able to procure any kind of birth control measure. Of course, the quarterback is naturally too "sophisticated" to use a condom, but as far as our heroine is concerned, the possibility of pregnancy is not nearly so frightening as the possibility of never seeing him again.
So off they go, both of them knowing from the start that the evening will find them eventually in the back seat of his car, making what they call "out," and what mom calls "love." Both euphemisms indicate just plain old fornication, ordered by their glands, glossed over with her happy-ever-after fantasy. She later uses a Seven-Up1 douche, like all the girls do, and keeps her fingers crossed till period time.
It turns out they enjoy each other's bodies and decide to become an official couple, meaning that they now feel justified in sleeping together at every possible opportunity. Until the Seven-Up falls down on the job, and she finds herself "in trouble." So, as noted above, they decide marriage is cheaper and easier than an abortion, which they don't know how or where to obtain2, anyhow.
And so they are wed. To live in contention, suspicion, and contempt. Her apartment doesn't resemble TV any more than her mother's house did, and she never smiled once while waxing the floor. Pretty soon, either she or her groom does something so flagrant as to force a separation, followed by divorce. In the meantime, the baby is born, and, being a girl, is handed a doll before she can walk and told, "This is your baby. You're the mommy." And so the propaganda machine once again goes into high gear and another generation is set on its way down the quicksand road to matrimonial hell.