The Chronicle Review

The Marriage Paradox

Matt Roth for The Chronicle Review

February 24, 2014

Last Thanksgiving, at the turn-of-the-century house Amie and I just bought in old Kansas City: Amie, my third wife; Rebecca, my second; Alicia, my first; Amie’s mom, Pat; and my three daughters sat around the harvest table. My first wife, Alicia, who has a large, ambitious heart, had proposed this act of holiday lunacy. My second wife, Rebecca, had suggested we just have fun without her, but then came anyway. Amie had felt powerless to say no, and now it was taking place.

Once the guests arrived, Amie hid in the kitchen until dinner. She spent most of her time there, making eggnog cappuccinos, roasting sweet potatoes, and baking pumpkin pies. I was afraid of the dinner table but took the head, my daughters flanking me on either side. Amie’s mother was at the other end. The four women and three girls all seemed to have a good time. My first wife and my third wife discussed cleaning supplies and ghosts. Three of the four women—everyone but Amie—were single mothers, I realized. They’d all been married; they were all presently single.

Coming out of the kitchen with a roasted chicken on a platter, I listened nervously to the conversation:

"I know the wood needs oil," Amie said, gesturing to the mahogany paneling in the dining room. "But you can’t really do it before company comes."

My eldest daughter was musing aloud about what she would do if she accidentally killed someone. She thought it would be best to hide the body.

"No," her mother, my first wife, said. "You would call me."

"I’d call my attorney!" my daughter said, and she pointed to my second wife (a divorce lawyer), who laughed.

Two ex-wives and my present wife all together: My divorce mediator had warned against it. I stood at the end of the table, amateurishly carved the chicken—these were the first I’d roasted in a few years—and talked with my daughters.

Dinner and dessert went well. Every time I looked up to check on Amie, she was smiling and chatting. When they all left, the hugs were natural. They all took pumpkin pies home with them.

Good luck always makes me anxious. That night I woke at 3 a.m. in a sweat. Why had those once-married women stayed single? Did they understand something I didn’t? Did Amie and I get married too quickly? Was it because I need someone to love me? Did she love me? But if not, why marry a twice-divorced man with three children? I couldn’t get back to sleep.

I went downstairs to the study, sat at our new desk, and made a list of all the reasons I’d married for a third time. I decided to be as rough on myself as I could. The first reason I wrote was: "I fell madly in love with Amie. She’s the one." Wait, that’s a cop-out. That was what I would say in a Nora Ephron play. I started a new list. Tougher.

"Reason No. 1: I don’t like to be alone. Reason No. 2: Life seems mostly sane when I am with the person who is my best friend." The list had 11 reasons. I could have kept going.

After my second divorce, a friend and mentor said to me, "Give me this much: You’ll wait as long as I did before trying it again." This friend had had an interval of about 15 years between his two marriages. I reassured him that there was no chance I was getting married again. Then, a few months after my promise, less than two weeks after the signing of my divorce decree, at the beginning of the monsoon season in a Tibetan colony in the Himalayas, I married for the third time. "For Christ’s sake, why?" my married male friends asked me. My single male friends were quiet. My female friends laughed or shook their heads. My brothers were relieved. My ex-wives were emphatic: "Promise you won’t have any more children." My mother said: "Listen to me. There’s only one way to make a marriage work, Clancy. You simply refuse to let it fail."

"Marriage is like a cage," Montaigne wrote. "One sees the birds outside desperate to get in, and those inside equally desperate to get out." The metaphor is hardly value-neutral; there is something noble if frightening about living outside the cage, secure but slavish within. (My father, himself twice married, used to quote Groucho Marx: "Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who wants to live in an institution?") For better or worse, Montaigne was right to point out that so many people who are married confess, after half a bottle of wine, that they would rather not be; catch a single person in a weak moment and he will often admit his longing for a lover who is more than temporary.

Divorce and the fortunate trend toward political, educational, and labor equality for women have changed the way we understand and practice marriage (in the West, anyway), but most of us continue to value the ideal of dedicating one’s erotic and affectionate attention to another human being for a lifetime. The story of Odysseus striving to get back to Penelope, of Penelope weaving and unweaving her tapestry to delay her suitors while she hopes for the return of her husband, is no less compelling today than it was more than 3,000 years ago.

In the first months of our marriage, when Amie told me she loved me, she often added, "I’ve never loved anyone like this since my best friend in the third grade." Best friendship in childhood is something like marriage. Kierkegaard had the idea that, in every life, there was both a first and a second "immediacy." The first is the kind you enjoy when you are encountering the world for the first time: the smell of snow in your first few winters (even as a teenager, I could smell the snow in a way I no longer can), the first times you swim, what food tasted like. Then life proceeds: Familiarity and habit creep in, and the world loses its newness, its ease, its golden quality. For many of us, perhaps, we never recapture that immediacy of youth. But there can be a second immediacy, experienced perhaps through love, perhaps only through faith (the Danish word, tro, or faith, also means "belief").

This second immediacy sometimes sounds like a mystical state in Kierkegaard’s writing, but sometimes like the very ordinary, though uncommon, experience of rediscovering the newness of something you’ve experienced before—as when you reread a favorite book or swim in the ocean after you haven’t done so for a few years. Most simply, I think, it’s re-experiencing what it’s like to feel fully alive. In this state, we do not forget what the world was like before, when we were satiated with it; rather, we rediscover its wonder, and appreciate it more because of all that we’ve been through. The world is, as Max Weber (writing under Kierkegaard’s influence) put it, "re-enchanted."

Having a best friend as a kid, or falling in love: These are good examples of first immediacy. The world is an enchanted place. Then the disappointments of love disenchant us. But marriage might offer the possibility of re-enchantment. The idea is that in first immediacy, you don’t know how lucky you are. In the second immediacy, you bring both the knowledge that you have chosen this situation and your understanding of the past to your new way of looking at the world, your new appreciation of love.

For this reason, a good remarriage might be a particularly powerful case of re-enchantment. I bring to my new marriage everything I learned from my previous two: the immediacy I once had in those marriages; the knowledge of how I lost that freshness and what it is like to lose that; and, consequently, a deeper appreciation of the preciousness of that kind of love when you experience it again. Clearly I’m a slow learner. But I think that, in my third marriage, for the first time, I am starting to understand gratitude.

One of my philosopher friends would argue: How about a fourth marriage, then? Better still! And a fifth! Well, there’s a practical limit to human resilience. You love a second child as much as the first; a new career revives you, and so does exotic travel; but most of us don’t pursue those goods endlessly. And most long-term love relationships go through phases of enchantment, disenchantment, and re-enchantment: It’s not required and probably not recommended that one change partners to appreciate what I’m trying to describe.

The truth is, there’s not just one best mate out there waiting for us. If we allow that love relies not just on luck but also on our own ability to choose our partners and creatively apply our minds to romantically loving well, then there might be many potential lifelong mates who can fulfill us. And so we might need to search for re-enchantment following a disenchantment in love. The term "codependent" has gone out of style, and it is not fashionable to suggest that I am "more me" when I am with someone else. But what if it’s simply true that—to quote from my list (No. 4)—"I am at my best when I am sharing my life with someone with whom I am deeply in love?"

The contemporary American philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel has identified what he calls a paradox in the marriage vow: To promise to love for a lifetime, while recognizing that both life and love are unpredictable, seems like a risky move. But as Schwitzgebel correctly argues, to promise to love a partner for a lifetime is both to acknowledge the future’s unpredictability ("for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health") and to insist that one part of life won’t change: one’s commitment to one’s partner. Which is not to say that the feelings of both partners won’t change along the way.

If this vow is paradoxical the first time it’s made, think how much more so it is a second time and, in my case, a third. But belief in the meaning of that vow, despite its inherent paradox, despite the evidence that many of us don’t live up to it, adds to the passion that one brings to it. Kierkegaard observed that if we knew that God existed, we wouldn’t need to believe in him; it’s precisely the irrationality of faith that gives it its punch.

Marriage as a slightly crazy promise—even, perhaps, a special kind of self-deception: to believe a proposition and at the same time not to believe it. Psychologically, self-deception is even more paradoxical than the marriage vow; it ought to be impossible, and yet we do it with fluency from a young age.

One side of the self-deception allows us to get ourselves into the kinds of love-destroying situations that I created when I ended my first two marriages. Like lying to others, lying to yourself can lead to a whole lot of trouble—as in, for example, sliding into bed with someone while telling yourself (and even telling your new lover), "No, this needn’t be the first step toward destroying my happy marriage." Self-deception may also keep people in certain marriages long after they should have left them. The difference between bad self-deception and good, I think, is that in the latter kind you know that you’re doing it and you know why you’re doing it. The benevolent power of self-deception is, in fact, what makes long, happy marriages—and all successful relationships—possible.

Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 138" shows how this works:

When my love swears that she is made of truth
I do believe her, though I know she lies,
That she might think me some untutor’d youth,
Unlearned in the world’s false subtleties.
Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,
Although she knows my days are past the best,
Simply I credit her false speaking tongue:
On both sides thus is simple truth suppress’d.
But wherefore says she not she is unjust?
And wherefore say not I that I am old?
O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,
And age in love loves not to have years told:
     Therefore I lie with her and she with me,
     And in our faults by lies we flatter’d be.

The first two lines are a terrific double paradox: He believes her, though he knows she’s lying—but for him to believe her, he can’t know she’s lying. Given our facility with the pretzel logic that enables us to believe the lies we tell ourselves, how do we believe a lie someone else is telling us, while knowing it’s a lie? The poet admits that he lets his lover believe that he believes her lies so that she will think he is young, which is also the lie she is telling him, and he uses his performance in the same way he believes her lie—to convince himself of the lie she is telling him ("thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young"). This is subtle, convoluted, hilarious, and yet entirely true to the phenomenology of love.

My favorite line: "O, love’s best habit is in seeming trust." Real trust in love comes in trusting even when we know there may be reason for distrust, when we recognize that complete trust is an illusion and should not even be a goal. To truly trust is to seem to trust, to trust with the acceptance of doubt, to be willing to extend the feigning of trust while hoping, even expecting, that the feint will be returned.

Do we really want to know the truth about our lovers? We don’t even know that about ourselves—it’s simply too elusive, too protean, too complex.

As Nietzsche observed, the wisdom of the ancient Greeks was in the fact that, at least before Socrates, they preferred seeming to being. They understood that "the naked truth" was not what good lovers seek: "It is necessary to keep bravely to the surface, the fold and the skin; to worship appearance, to believe in forms, tones, and words, in the whole Olympus of appearance! Those Greeks were superficial—from profundity!"

Do we really want to know the truth about our lovers? We don’t even know that about ourselves—it’s simply too elusive, too protean, too complex—and we don’t want to know it, we don’t need to know it. Would I love my wife more, would our marriage be stronger, if we knew every detail of each other’s past lovers and love affairs? Even writing this essay about marriage is scary. I am wildly in love; my marriage, though it has its ups and downs, is splendid: Do I really want to put it under a microscope? Will my commitment be stronger because of a 3 a.m. dissection?

In love we are artists, not scientists. Who among us hasn’t had the feeling, when first falling in love, of "wait, but aren’t I making this all up?" That can be a bad thing, as when the young narrator, at the close of James Joyce’s story "Araby," concludes that all of love is a kind of vain trick one plays on oneself. Yet deceptions and self-deceptions are a desirable, vital part of falling and staying in love. The make-believe of first love (and first heartbreak) is just warm-up for the game to come. We have to creatively participate in the romantic appreciation of our beloved—just as we creatively participate in the romantic enhancement of ourselves (both consciously and unconsciously).

Hans Vaihinger called that kind of instrumentally false belief a "necessary fiction"; Coleridge called it "the willing suspension of disbelief." Kids call it playing (although it crucially excludes the illusion-killing cynicism of the "player"). In Shakespeare’s sonnet, healthy illusions are being championed, not ironized away.

This is what being married three times has taught me: Engaging in this kind of playful, open-eyed deception and self-deception is how love is fostered, nurtured, and maintained. It is necessary to learn how to do it. "Couples last longer if they tend to overrate each other compared to the other’s self-evaluation," the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers teaches us. (That sounds awfully similar to No. 9 on my 3 a.m. Thanksgiving list: "I have doubts about myself and even tend to fail when I don’t have a partner who believes in me. When I have a partner who believes in me, I tend to be a better person.")

In his 1996 book, Monogamy, the psychotherapist Adam Phillips succinctly views the same idea in a more negative light: "The point about trust is that it is impossible to establish. It is a risk masquerading as a promise." But we can take blind risks, foolish risks, ill-advised risks; we can also take practiced risks; we can enjoy risk; we can risk because to risk is to live.

A friend of mine, the philosopher R.J. Hankinson, who is a scholar of the ancient skeptic Sextus Empiricus, once raised the argument that being a skeptic might not be all that attractive a way to live, because skepticism—despite or because of the tranquilizing benefits that ataraxia ("freedom from disturbance") might have—threatens to take the fun out of life. If you aren’t willing to be swayed by appearances, if you aren’t stimulated and even scared once in a while, what’s the point of it all?

Yes, to get married is a leap of faith: Hell, it’s not a rational thing to do, but how much of life is rational? Is it rational to have kids, to chase a career, to write books, to believe that tomorrow will be better than yesterday? If it is all a dream, is a nightmare more honest? And really, who would want to be in a marriage because "it makes sense"?

Yes, to get married is a leap of faith. But really, who would want to be married because "it makes sense"?

The Buddhist lama Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche (also known as Khyentse Norbu) gave a famous lecture on love and relationships in 2010, in Bir, in northern India. With romantic relationships, he said, "We don’t really have a choice. When it comes, it comes. What is important about relationships is not to have expectations. If you are a couple, your attitude should be that you have checked into a hotel for a few days together. I might never see her again tomorrow. This might be our last goodbye, our last kiss, together. Maybe it will help; it will bring out the preciousness of the relationship. When the relationship comes, you should not be afraid."

Or, as Mark Twain wrote in a letter, sounding very Buddhist himself: "Marriage—yes, it is the supreme felicity of life. I concede it. And it is also the supreme tragedy of life. The deeper the love, the surer the tragedy."

When Khyentse Rinpoche married my wife and me, he warned us: "You know, Buddhism doesn’t have a marriage ceremony. We don’t really believe in marriage." To married couples, he says: "The best thing you can do is live in the world. I would tell you from the day you are married, your practice is, let’s forget about giving freedom to the sentient beings"—a fundamental Buddhist motivation—"but start with giving freedom to your husband, and husband to the wife."

In this view, marriage is not supposed to constrain but to liberate. What does that mean, practically speaking? I think it means that I am supposed to help Amie pursue the things that matter most to her—many of which will also, with luck, turn out to be the things that matter most to me.

The lama goes on to say that marrying can be good practice for freeing oneself from the selfish cravings that we all suffer from. In the ideal marriage, which is understood as a goal, Amie’s well-being will matter to me more than my own. We do love our children this way, and sometimes one or two friends. Of course we should acknowledge that, if life is impermanent (as indeed it is), marriage may be much more so—but here we are, stuck in the world, so why not risk it? Part of the risk is honestly acknowledging that the other human being, your spouse, is free: There’s no telling what she or he might do. You’re free, too, and sometimes there’s no telling what you might do.

Of course all of this is just a philosopher stumbling awkwardly around the real story, which is that Amie called one afternoon to do a tarot-card reading on me for a column she eventually wrote for a magazine (the cards said I should work and avoid romance). I Google-imaged her and, single at the time, flirted with her. Facebook led to emails led to texts and then long phone calls. I flew Amie to Kansas City, and one morning, coming upstairs from the basement of my apartment with laundry in my arms, I caught sight of her in the eastern sunlight making coffee, smiling with that half-frown she makes when she’s working, her long, dark brown hair in her face and on her shoulders. I flew back with her to Seattle, and walking through the jewelry department of Barney’s, I saw a ring. That afternoon I proposed. That’s the truth of it. We met; we fell in love; I asked her to spend the rest of her life with me; she said yes.

Yes, you might have your heart broken; yes, the whole thing might be an impossible joke, a game with outrageous odds; yes, you might have failed at it twice before, and there’s no guarantee—just the opposite, really—that the third time’s the charm. Life is risky; love, riskier still; marriage might be riskiest of all. But to choose to be married is, contra Montaigne, a paradoxical expression of one’s freedom. It’s not the only game in town, but it’s one helluva good game.

Clancy Martin is a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and the author of the novel How to Sell (2009) and the forthcoming nonfiction book Love, Lies, and Marriage (both Farrar, Straus and Giroux).