My 24-year-old stepdaughter recently married. For me and my husband (third husband, her dad), the wedding was miserable; in its wake, I thought a lot about, well, divorce.
I said nothing cynical about marriage at the wedding, despite the fact that all those 20-somethings with their stubbly beards and flawless skin aroused my skeptical self. And when two groomsmen launched into a tirade at my husband ("We know lousy dads when we see one," they said, "and you're one!"), I shuddered to realize the scars of divorce are deep and wide and indelible; I think the world could do without some of the meanness they create, so I left that wedding thinking maybe this marriage business wasn't such a good idea (money-making business though it is).
I used to think divorce was sophisticated, and a lifetime married to one person impossible. I used to think my friend Patrick was crazy to think the course he created -- Marriage 101 -- could help anyone.
In my 20s, when I married the man who turned out to be only my first husband, I was ambitious and cocky, but in retrospect I see I was also unsure about who I was. I envisioned a romantic, wildly successful life. Does anyone in her 20s envision anything less? I'd be a famous writer with oceans of friends, fabulous clothes, and a marriage like my parents', only more cinematic. On my (first) wedding day, my parents were well into their 25th year of marriage; they still stared into each others' eyes and cuddled on the sofa. The only part I didn't like but figured I had remedied for myself was that they hadn't tossed over scads of lovers for each other.
After that marriage dissolved and as my second (to a man in prison, a story for another day) was falling to pieces -- I began to think kids of divorce were lucky. Sure I had had a model of devoted happiness, but maybe it was fiery discontent that inspired the desire to create its opposite.
I also thought my parents were lucky. Who marries in their 20s and stays together for 60-odd years? Okay, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; Martin Sheen and his wife; my brother-in-law and his. Maybe a few others. But those stalwart couples aren't the American norm.
After the wedding this summer, as I thought about my young stepdaughter and her new, young husband and as I watched Mad Men, I began to fear my stepdaughter was ultimately headed to divorce and thus to more scars and meanness. So I began to watch old movies -- The Philadelphia Story, His Girl Friday, Adam's Rib, movies about couples who ultimately find their way to fabulous union. I began to understand that the couples in those movies worked because they weren't afraid to reveal to each other who they were, warts and all. They grew. They changed. They learned to trust. I realized my parents had actually talked to each other, had let each other grow and change over the years.
Growing and learning and changing aren't strong suits for most of us -- and in our 20s? But wow -- those kids with the divorce scars and the mistrusting, accusing stances? I've changed my mind about Marriage 101. From now on it's my wedding gift.