Saturday, 21 August 2010

The Background Issue

What I would really, really love to say is something like "Who cares about men (or women) and marriage anyway? We know the Single life can be great, and it was the way of life St. Paul thought best, and virginity is ontologically superior to non-virginity, so why not hang onto it--if you still have it--get a job you love, and flourish!"

I'd love to say this every day, but the fact is that most of my readers are Searching Singles who long to get married and, being under 40, are probably going to get married. Most people (in the USA, anyway) do.

The issue is not how to get married, but how to (A) become a marriage-worthy person and (B) how to find/be found by the right man or woman. Being the wrong person or marrying the wrong person is among the worst things that you can do to yourself.

Pre-Cana class is a very poor substitute for marriage preparation, which ideally begins in childhood. This is not an original idea: I'm pretty sure John Paul II said that. Anyway, you learn about marriage (for good and for ill) from the married adults in your life, especially your parents, so if your parents fought viciously or got divorced, you might want to sort out with a counsellor how you feel about marriage as soon as you have the money. If your parents are divorced and you didn't live with a happily remarried parent, then you don't know how to be married. You know how to be divorced.

Now, my parents were a university professor and a well-educated housewife. My father's parents were middle class Irish-German American Catholics (with happy memories of pre-Crash wealth), and my mother's parents were working class Scottish Canadian Protestants (with ironic memories of 19th century domestic service). My parents believe in God, Catholicism, family and books. Completely indifferent to the Joneses, they hate buying stuff.

They also had, when I was growing up, a traditional kind of middle-class marriage: my mother divided her time between bursts of housework (especially laundry and cooking), taking children to appointments and reading endless books. My father put on a clean and ironed shirt every day and went to his office, returning to eat the dinner my mother put on the table. They never fought in front of their kids, and they always sided against us. I didn't think they had a very egalitarian arrangement, but that marriage is my yardstick of normal.

It is a good exercise to ponder what kind of marriage your parents had, what you liked about it and what you didn't. History has a way of repeating itself, and you are naturally most comfortable with what you think is normal, even if that is something very bad. To be a marriage-worthy person, you have to sort all this out before you get married.

Now, a word about the right person and background, since the thorny issue of university education raised its pointy head yesterday.

My parents did not come from the same ethnic, class or religious backgrounds. However, my mother had seized upon the values of the Canadian middle-class (most obviously university education, literature and "good taste") and had long desired to become a Roman Catholic when she finally did, at the age of 23. Therefore, she shared with my father two principal values: informed conversation and Roman Catholicism. Meanwhile, they didn't make a fetish of Scottishness, Irishness or Germanness, for their own parents (and, possibly, their parents) had discouraged that kind of thing.

My husband B.A. and I do not come from the same ethnic, class or religious backgrounds. However, B.A. seized upon the values of the Anglo-Scottish middle-class (most obviously university education, literature and "good taste") and had long desired to become a Roman Catholic when he finally did, at the age of 36. Therefore, he shares with me three principal values: entertaining, informed conversation and Roman Catholicism. Meanwhile, we occasionally bump heads over what "Scottish" means, for Scots in Scotland are anti-hierarchical, vaguely republican and decidedly socialist, and I can't get my monarchist, Vimy Ridge, Canada-The-Good-Daughter-Of-the-Empire mind around that. (I thought being "half-Scottish Canadian" made me Scottish; I was wrong.)

However, neither of us is hyperly nationalist. What matters to our marriage is that we are on the same page religiously, that we can both chat pleasantly at--and about--art openings, and that we both hate buying stuff. No disrespect to the Joneses, but they are perfectly welcome to their boring purchases. We'd rather read a book or watch BBC4. But that's just us. You have your own values, and to be marriage-worthy, you ought to know what they are.

When I tell women to check their possibly natural--and probably outmoded--tendency to seek a husband only from those men with more status and bigger paycheques than they, I am not telling them to ignore their backgrounds. I am merely stating that their own financial and professional achievements do not matter a damn in finding a husband compared to their principal values. Meanwhile, the higher up you go, the fewer Single men there are available, and they don't care if they marry their financial-and-professional equal. They should care that they marry somewhat who shares their principal values.

Those shared principal values, though, ought to have some weight behind them. If your principal values are looking good and making money, I am not sure you will be happy with a man whose principal values are also looking good and making money. However, if your principal values are la famiglia and being Italian, than you are probably going to get along great with a man whose principal values are also la famiglia and being Italian, even if he is a baker and you are a school principal.

One of my male relations married a woman of a different ethnic group, a different sect of Christianity, and who is better educated than he and makes much more money than he does. He still makes a good salary, mind you, and he enjoys his career, at which he works very hard. He's a consciencious worker, and that is a value he shares with his wife. In fact, despite their ethnic-sectarian-education-salary differences, they have many, perhaps more essential to them, values in common. They both believe passionately in hard work, children and the arts. Meanwhile, my relation has made peace with the traditional-breadwinner expectation he grew up with, and his wife, who is highly intelligent, allowed herself to be attracted to him because of his unmistakeably sincere, friendly, open smile. She didn't need a breadwinner; she wanted a sweetie. She chose one, and I think she rocks.

ONE FINAL NOTE: Amongst all my pieces of paper, I have a diploma in Lonergan Studies. My husband's university field was philosophy, he lectured in philosophy for years, and he wrote a thesis on Irish Murdoch. We almost never discuss philosophy. This is a much more likely conversation:

Me (reading the London Review of Books): Did you read this piece of crap on the Holy Father by Colm Toibin?

B.A. (looking up from "Father Z's" blog): Not all of it.

Me: Toibin's such a bastard.

B.A.: He's an arse.

Me: Did you see what he wrote about the Blessed Sacrament?

B.A.: He's such an arse.

Me: And then he has the nerve to say what the Church "should be."

B.A.: Plonker.


Christine said...

Oh the growing-up-with-divorced-parents part of this post could be a conversation (or many) in its own right. My parents and both sets of grandparents are/were divorced, so I look out for marriage models to get a look at what marriage "should" look like (I'm single). Thanks for posting about that.

theobromophile said...

Ditto Christine. My parents divorced when I was a baby, but I saw good marriages with my grandparents, and, as time has passed, with my parents and step-parents. I was out of college before I had a parent who had been married for ten consecutive years... and there is something about seeing that long-term, stable, loving marriage that is really helpful.

As for everything else: I've been ruminating, and concluded that what men look for in a girlfriend is often not what they want in a wife. Most of my Married male friends bemoan the fact that their wives do not have (or never had) high-powered careers, although they certainly never looked for "career women" when they were dating (and probably wanted the opposite).

Also, I think some of this is geographical: ninety-two percent of my high school class went to college immediately after graduation. In suburban Massachusetts, the push for college is really strong, my gut reaction (worth about as much as, well, a gut reaction! :) ) is "What the heck would a Harvard Law woman see in the men who smoked so much pot that they couldn't manage to go to college?!?"

So... I'm in favour of the generality (you'll probably get along better with someone of a similar educational/career background), but fully agree that there are exceptions to the rule. In Boston, I would add the caveat that even people in their 40s with loads of experience have trouble getting jobs if they don't have the requisite degrees, so there are issues with career stability.

Seraphic said...

Um...I can think of many reasons why a man might not go to college that have nothing to do with smoking pot.

I'm not holding up the Fearsome Four as models, but one of the more interesting plot developments in S&TC was that Harvard Law grad Miranda fell in love with bartender Steve. How they dealt with the class issue (in a very classist country that pretends it's not) through their storyline was very interesting and occasionally insightful.