At the beginning of a marriage ask yourself whether this person will be
interesting to talk to from now until old age. Everything else in marriage
is transitory: most of the time is spent in conversation.

— Friedrich Nietzsche.

 

We spent part of the afternoon this Saturday at Powell’s, Portland’s beloved bookstore, browsing through the Relationships and LGBTQ sections. We picked a couple of promising books, but my favorite is a little 1968 volume we found in the vintage shelf titled Marriage: Pro & Con. It is described as being “a compilation of witty sayings for and against the holy state of matrimony.”

Almost more than the insightful, funny, ridiculous, and at times cringe-worthy quotes, I love the inscription:

Kay –

This has some pretty good things to say pro-marriage — ignore the cons!

Hope you had a happy 21st –

Love,

Sue.

I’ve decided that Sue was Kay’s big sister. Probably 26 or 27 at the time. I bet she was married and thought herself very grown up. Kay was probably a flower child. And I’m sure Sue thought that now that Kay had turned 21 it was time to leave all that hippie nonsense behind and settle down.

I hope Kay leafed through the book. I hope she read quotes like, “Matrimony and bachelorhood are both of them at once equally wise and equally foolish,” by Samuel Butler. Or the English proverb, “Marry in haste and repent at leisure.” I hope she pondered the seeming contradiction yet inherent truth of both Benjamin Franklin’s observation that “Where there’s marriage without love, there will be love without marriage,” and the Countess of Blessington’s admonition that “Love matches are made by people who are content, for a month of honey, to condemn themselves to a life of vinegar.”

I hope Kay didn’t marry just because Sue, and whoever else, kept telling her marriage was a guaranteed happily-ever-after.

If, and when, Kay ever did get married, I hope she paid special heed to Nietzsche’s quote above. I appreciate the fact that even a lifelong bachelor like him could understand the truth espoused by the Scotsman R.L. Stevenson: “Marriage is one long conversation, chequered by disputes.”

Conversation is the soul of marriage. It is also the glue. This doesn't mean married people should spend every waking moment engaged in chitter-chatter. It just means that when you spend a lifetime together you spend a lot of time talking.

When I think of a hapless marriage I always think of one of my favorite scenes in Best in Show, when the character played by Jennifer Coolidge is talking about her 80-something-year-old husband. “We both have so much in common,” she says. “We both love soup. And, uh, we love the outdoors. Uh, we love snow peas. And, uh, talking and not talking. Uh... We could not talk or talk forever, and still find things to not talk about.”

CONVERSATION IN MARRIAGE DOESN’T JUST HAPPEN. AS EVERYTHING ELSE, IT REQUIRES INTENTIONALITY—A WILLINGNESS FROM BOTH PARTIES TO OPEN UP.

What Nietzsche, in his bachelorhood, couldn't have known, is that even when your spouse is an interesting and intelligent conversationalist (mine is) conversation in marriage doesn't always just happen. As everything else, it requires intentionality. It requires a willingness, from both parties, to open up and share about their days; share about their dreams; share about their pasts. And it sometimes requires prompts.

Conversation in marriage requires sustenance. That’s why David and I were at the bookstore last Saturday to begin with. Exchanging articles or podcasts and reading books together are some ways we’ve found to keep our conversations interesting. After Powell’s we went to a bar for a couple of hours to do some writing. Over dinner we played a Love Maps game in which we tried to answer questions about each other. We do this from time to time. It serves as a refresher about people, things, and events that have been important to each of us in the past. And we always learn something new. This time, for example, we both ended up sharing fond memories of our godmothers and what they meant to us when we were little.

Sue’s advice to Kay notwithstanding, marriage does have its cons. To grab another quote from that little book, this one by Benjamin Disraeli: “It destroys one’s nerves to be amiable everyday to the same human being.” David and I read that and laughed. Because it’s true.

I hope Kay paid special attention to the quotes about the cons. They won’t dissuade anyone who’s bent on marriage from tying the knot. Nor should they. But they should at least remind all of us—single or married—that marriage is work. And that, in the words of Herbert Samuel, “It takes two to make a marriage a success and only one a failure.”

 

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