Marriage And Society
( Originally Published 1931 )
Love is fed not by what it takes, but by what it gives, and that excellent dual love of man and wife must be fed also by the love they give to others.—EDWARD CARPENTER.
MAN, even the commonplace modern man, is romantic. He chases consciously or unconsciously for the freedom, the beauty, and the adventure which his forefathers found in their virgin forests. This craving, transmuted, changed out of recognition by civilized life and modern circumstances, is yet a factor not to be ignored in the relationship of the sexes.
The "bonds of matrimony," so often referred to with ribald laughter, touch, and perhaps secretly gall, even the most romantic and devoted husband. If to the sincere and friendly question : "What is most difficult in married life for the man?" one gets the sincere and rueful answer—that answer may be summed up in the words "perpetual propinquity."
Of this, the wife, particularly if she be really in love, is seldom fully aware. If her husband is her true lover, his tenderness and real devotion will give him the wit to conceal it. But though by concealment he may preserve the unruffled surface of their happiness, yet the longing to be roving is not completely extinguished. In the true lover this unspoken, unconscious longing is perhaps less a desire to set out upon a fresh journey than a longing to experience again the exquisite joy of the return; to re-live the magic charm of the approach to the spot in which the loved one is living her life, into the sacred separateness of which the lover breaks, and, like the Prince by his kiss, to stir her to fresh activity.
As will be realized by those who have understood the preceding chapters, each coming together of man and wife, even if they have been mated for many years, should be a fresh adventure; each winning should necessitate a fresh wooing.
Yet what a man often finds so hard is to come to that wooing with full ardor and with that complete sense of romance which alone can render it utterly delightful, if the woman he is to woo has been in a too uninterrupted and prosaic relation with him in the meantime.
Most men, of course, have their businesses apart from their homes, but in the home lives of the great mass of middle-class people the Victorian tradition still too largely preponderates, and the mated pair bore or deaden each other during the daily routine.
To a very thoughtful couple whom I have known, so precious was the sense of romantic joy in one another that they endeavored to perpetuate it by living in different houses.
Such a measure, however, is not likely to suit many people, particularly where there are children. Yet even without bodily separation (which must always entail expense) or any measure of freedom not at every one's command, much can be done to retain that sense of spiritual freedom in which alone the full joy of loving union can be experienced.
But even intellectual and spiritual freedom is often rendered impossible in present-day marriage.
The beautiful desire for ideal unity which is so strong in most hearts is perhaps the original cause of one of the most deadening features in many marriages. In the endeavor to attain the ideal unity, one or other partner consciously or unconsciously, imposes his or her will and opinions first upon the wife or husband, and then upon the children as they grow up.
The typical self-opinionated male which this course develops, while a subject for laughter in plays and novels, a laughter which hastens his extermination, is yet by no means extinct. In his less exaggerated form such a man may often be an idealist, but he is essentially an idealist of narrow vision. The peace, the unity for which he craves is superficially attained; but it takes acuter eyes than his to see that it is attained, not by harmonious intermingling, but by superposition and destruction.
I have known a romantic man of this type, apparently unaware that he was encroaching upon his wife's personality, who yet endeavored not only to choose her books and her friends for her, but "prohibited" her from buying the daily newspaper to which she had been accustomed for years before her marriage, saying that one newspaper was enough for them both, and blandly ignoring the fact that he took it with him out of the house before she had an opportunity of reading it. This man posed to himself more successfully than to others, not only as a romantic man, but as a model husband ; and he reproached his wife for jeopardizing their perfect unity whenever she accepted an invitation in which he was not included.
On the other hand, in homes where the avowed de-sire is for the modern freedom of intellectual life for both partners, there is very frequently a bickering, a sense of disharmony and unrest that dispels the peace and the air of restful security which is an essential feature of a true home.
It is one of the most difficult things in the world for two people of different opinions to retain their own opinions without each endeavoring to convert or coerce the other, and at the same time to feel the same tender trust in the judgment of the other that each would have felt had they agreed.
It takes a generous and beautiful heart to see beauty and dignity in the attitude of a mate who is looking at the other side of a vital question.
But the very fact that it does take a beautiful and generous heart to do this thing proves it well worth the doing.
If the easier way is chosen and the two mutually conceal their views when they differ, or the stronger partner coerces the weaker into hiding those traits which give personality to an individual, the result is an impoverishing of both, and through that very fact, an impoverishment, a lowering of the love which both sought to serve.
In marriage each one dreams that he will find the Understander—the one from whom he may set out into the world in search of treasures of knowledge and experience, and before whom the spoils may be exhibited without thought of rivalry, and with the certainty of glad apprisal. Treasures, dear to our own hearts but of no value to others, should here find appreciation, and here the tender supersensitive germ of an idea may be watered and tended till its ripe beauty is ready to burst upon the world.
As marriage is at present, such tenderness and such stimulating appreciation is much more likely to come from the woman to the man and his work than from the man to the woman. For too long have men been accustomed to look upon woman's views, and in particular on her intellectual opinions, as being something demanding, at the most, a bland humoring beneath the kindest smiles.
Even from the noblest man, the woman of sensitive personality today feels an under-current as of surprised congratulation when she has anything to say worth his serious attention outside that department of life supposed to belong to her "sphere." Thus man robs his wedded self of a greatness which the dual unity might reach.
But in marriage the mutual freedom and respect for opinion, vitally important though it be, is not sufficient for the full development of character. Life demands ever-widening interests. Owing partly to the differentiation of many types of individuals due to the specialization of civilization, which interests thoughtful individuals, and partly to the transmutation of his old vagrant instinct, man increasingly desires to touch and realize the lives of his fellows, In the lives of others our hearts and understanding may find perpetual adventures into the new and strange.
Individual human beings, even the noblest and most complex yet evolved, have but a share of the innumerable faculties of the race. Hence even in a supremely happy marriage, which touches, as does the mystic in his raptures, a realization of the whole universe, there cannot lie the whole of life's experience. Outside the actual lives of the pair there must always be many types of thought and many potentialities which can be realized only in the lives of other people.
In the complete human relation friends of all grades are needed, as well as a mate. Marriage, how-ever, in its present form is too often made to curtail the enjoyment of intimate friendships. The reason for this is partly the social etiquette, which, though discarded in the highest levels of society, still lingers in many circles, of inviting the husband and the wife together upon all social occasions. It is true that they are separated at the dinner table, but they are always within the possibility of earshot of each other, which very often deadens their potentialities for being entertaining. The mere fact of being overheard repeating something one may already have said else-where is sufficient to prevent some people from telling their best stories, or from expressing their real views upon important matters.
And, still more serious barrier to joy, so primitive, so little evolved are we even yet, there is in most human beings a strong streak of sex-jealousy. For either mate to be allowed to go out uncriticized into the world, is to demand, if not more than the other is willing to give, at least a measure of trust which by its rarity appears nowadays as something conspicuously fine.
Jealousy, which is one of the most frequent shadows cast by the blight of love, is very apt to sow a distrust in one which makes a normal life for the other partner impossible.
It is hard to say in which sex the feeling is more strongly developed. It takes special forms under different circumstances, and if a nature is predisposed towards it, it is one of the most difficult characteristics to eradicate.
Custom, and generations of traditions, seem to have imprinted on our race the false idea that marital fidelity is to be strengthened by coercive bonds. We are slowly growing out of this, and nowadays in most books giving advice to young wives there is a section telling them that a man should be allowed his men friends after marriage.
But this is not enough. There should be complete and unquestioning trust on both sides. The man and the woman should each be free to go unchallenged by a thought on solitary excursions, or on visits, weekends or walking tours, without the possibility of a breath of jealousy or suspicion springing up in the heart of one or the other.
It is true that many natures are not yet ready for such trust, and might abuse such freedom. But the baser natures will always find a method of gratifying their desires, and are not likely to err more in trusted freedom than they would inevitably have done through secret intrigues if held in jealous bondage.
While, on the other hand, it is only in the fresh unsullied air of such freedom that the fullest and most perfect love can develop. In the marriage relation it is supremely true that only by loosening the bonds can one bind two hearts indissolubly together.
When they are sometimes physically apart married lovers attain the closest spiritual union. For with sensitive spirits---and they are the only ones who know the highest pinnacles of love—periods of separation and solitude can be revivifying and recreative,
So great is the human soul that some of its beauty is hidden by nearness : it needs distance between it and the beholder to be perceived in its true perspective.
To the realization of the beauty and the enjoyment of solitude woman in general tends to be less awake than man. This, perhaps, is due to the innumerable generations during which the claims of her children and of domestic life have robbed her of nature's healing gift.
Although it is merely incidental to the drama, yet to me the most poignant thing in Synge's beautiful play Deirdre is that she could feel inevitable tragedy when the first thought of something apart from herself crosses her lover's mind. Deirdre and her lover had been together for seven years in an unbroken and idyllic intimacy, and she feels that all is finished, and that her doom, the knell of their joy had struck, when for the first time she perceived in him a half-formed thought of an occupation apart from her.
This ancient weakness of her sex must be conquered, and is being conquered by the modern woman.
While modern marriage is tending to give ever more and more freedom to each of the partners, there is at the same time a unity of work and interest growing up which brings them together on a higher plane than the purely domestic one which was so confining to the women and so dull to the men. Every year one sees a widening of the independence and the range of the pursuits of women; but still, far too often, marriage puts an end to woman's intellectual life. Marriage can never reach its full stature until women possess as much intellectual freedom and freedom of opportunity within it as do their partners.
That at present the majority of women neither de-sire freedom for creative work, nor would know how to use it, is only a sign that we are still living in the shadows of the coercive and dwarfing influences of the past.
In an interesting article on woman's intellectual work, W. Thomas ("Sex and Society," 1907) says :
The American woman, with the enjoyment of greater liberty, has made an approach toward the standards of professional scholarship, and some individuals stand at the very top in their university studies and examinations. The trouble with these cases is that they are either swept away and engulfed by the modem system of marriage, or find themselves excluded in some in-tangible way from association with men in the fullest sense, and no career open to their talents.
He sees clearly that this is but a passing phase in the development of our society, and he advocates a wider scope for the play of married women's powers.
The practice of an occupational activity of her own choosing, and a generous attitude towards this on the part of the man, would contribute to relieve the strain and make marriage more frequently successful.
When woman naturally develops the powers latent within her, man will find at his side not only a mate, free and strong, but a desirable friend and an intellectual comrade.
The desire for freedom, both physical and mental exploration and for experiences outside the sacred enclosure of the home, may at first sight appear to be conflicting and entirely incompatible with the ideal of closer and more perfect unity between the married pair. But this conflict is only apparent, though it is true that most writers have failed to realize this. Consequently in some sections of the writing and teaching of the "advanced" schools there are claims only for increased freedom—a freedom to wander at will—a freedom in which the wanderer does not return to his fixed center.
On the other hand there are those who realize principally the beauty of married unity, and, concentrating on the demand for the unity and extremest stability on the part of the married pair, are very apt to ignore the enriching flow of a wide life's experiences. They try to dam up the fertilizing tide of life, and thus, though they are unconscious of what they are doing, they tend to reduce the richness and beauty of marriage.
It is for the young people of the new generation to realize that the two currents of longing which spring up within them—the longing for a full life-experience and the longing for a close union with a lifelong mate—are not incompatible, but are actually both essential parts of the more perfect and fuller beauty of the future that already seeks to find its expression in their lives.
Ellen Key ("Love and Marriage") seems to fear the widening of the married woman's life, and she writes as though the aspiration to do professional and intellectual work of a high order must dwarf and sterilize the mother in the married woman.
She writes of a more northerly people, the Scandinavians and it may be true of her country-women; I do not know. But it is not essentially and universally true. I am writing of the English, the English of today, and though we also have among us that dwarfed and sterilized type of woman, she forms in our community a dwindling minority. The majority of our best women enter marriage and mother-hood, or else long for a marriage more beautiful than the warped mockery of it that is offered them.
As Mrs. Stetson says ("Women and Economics") :
In the primal physical functions of maternity the human female cannot show that her supposed specialization to these uses has improved her fulfilment of them, rather the opposite. The more freely the human mother mingles in the natural industries of a human creature, as in the case of the savage woman, the peasant woman, the working woman everywhere who is not overworked, the more rightly she fulfils these functions.
The more absolutely the woman is segregated to sex-functions only, cut off from all economic use and made wholly dependent on the sex-relation as means of a livelihood, the more pathological does her motherhood become. The over-development of sex caused by her economic dependence on the male reacts unfavorably on her essential duties. She is too female for the perfect motherhood !
The majority of our young women, I am convinced, have in them the potentiality of a full and perfected love. So, too, have the majority of our young men. For the best type of young man to-day is tired of polygamy; he has seen enough in his father's and friends' lives of the weariness of the sinister, secret polygamy, that hides itself and rots the race under the protecting cloak of the supposed monogamy of our social system.
But as things are at present in England, the young man who marries, however much he may be in love, is generally too ignorant (as has been indicated in the preceding chapters) to give his wife all her nature requires. Then, sooner or later, comes the sequence of disappointments which culminate in the longing for a fresh adventure.
As one young husband said to me, "A decent man can't go on having unions with his wife when she obviously does not enjoy them," and so he is forced to "go elsewhere." "And they call us polygamists ! We are not polygamists any longer. But marriage is a rotten failure," was his verdict.
No. They are not polygamists, the finest young men of the present and of the future. Most men today are not in their heart of hearts polygamists, in spite of the outward signs to the contrary; in spite of the fact that so few of them have remained faithful to one woman. But they are ignorant of the sex-laws and traditions, that sex-knowledge which was the heritage of much less civilized tribes, and so they have trampled and crushed out the very thing for the growth of which their hearts are aching.
Hence secretly (for in a marriage that is at least superficially happy the man seldom does this openly) the man begins to crave for another type of society and he "goes elsewhere." Not, it is true, to find, or even in the hope of finding, what he would get from a perfect marriage; but often to satisfy in some measure that yearning for fresh experience, for romance, and for that sense of fusion with another in the romantic experience which, even if it is only a delusion of the senses, is yet one of the most precious things life has to offer.
It is hard, indeed in many cases it seems impossible, for a good woman to understand what it is that draws her husband from her. Restricted by habit and convention in the exercise of her faculties, she is unaware of the ever-narrowing range of her interest and her powers of conversation. The home life tends to become that of a fenced pond, instead of a great ocean with innumerable currents. From the restricted and fenced, man's instinct is ever to escape. Man's opportunities for exploration in the cities are few, and the prostitute is one of the most obvious doors of escape into new experiences.
Women feel a so righteous and instinctive horror of prostitution, and regarding it they experience an indignation so intense, that they do not seek to understand the man's attitude.
The prostitute, however, sometimes supplies an element which is not purely physical, and which is often lacking in the wife's relation with her husband, an element of charm and mutual gaiety in pleasure. The prostitute also generally knows many of the subtleties and peculiarities of the stimuli which give not only an added physical delight but an increased completeness and therefore an enhanced health value to the normal act of union. A wife should not be content (as too many wives are) to be a meek and passive instrument for her husband's "indulgence," she has an active part to play. Without mutual participation neither can fully complete the joint consummation.
If good women realized this, while they would judge and endeavor to eliminate prostitution no less strenuously, they might be in a better position to begin their efforts to free men from the hold that social disease has upon them.
It is perhaps impossible to find the beginning of a vicious circle, but the first step out of it must be the realization that one is within it, and the realization of some, at any rate, of its component parts.
Man, through prudery, through the custom of ignoring the woman's side of marriage and considering his own whim as marriage law, has largely lost the art of stirring a chaste partner to physical love. He therefore deprives her of a glamour, the loss of which he deplores, for he feels a lack not only of romance and beauty, but of something higher which is mystically given as the result of the complete union. He blames his wife's "coldness" instead of his own want of art. Then he seeks elsewhere for the things she could have given him had he known how to win them. And she, knowing that the shrine has been desecrated, is filled with righteous indignation, though generally as blind as he is to the true cause of what has occurred.
Manifold and far-reaching, influencing the whole structure of society not only in this country, but in every country and at every time, have been the influences which have grown up from the root-fallacy in the marriage relation.
Then there is another cause for the dulling of a wife's bright charm her inferior position in the eyes of the law. It is indeed a serious matter, as Jean Finot says, "that, under present conditions, the mistress keeps certain liberties which are denied to married women."
The past and its history have been studied by many, and we may leave it. What concerns the present generation of young married people is to-day and the future. The future is full of hope. Already one sees beginning to grow up a new relationship between the units composing society.
In the noblest society love will hold sway. The love of mates will always be the supremest life-experience, but it will no longer be an experience exclusive and warped.
The love of friends and children, of comrades and fellow-workers, will but serve to develop every power of the two who are mates. By mingling the greatness of their individual stature they can achieve together something that, had both or either been dwarfed and puny individuals, would have remained forever unattainable.
The whole trend of the evolution of human society has been toward an increased coherence of all its parts, until at the present time it is already almost impossible to say that the community has an actual life on a plane above that of all the individuals composing it: that the community, in fact, is a superentity. It is through the community of human beings, and not in our individual lives, that we reach an ultimate permanence upon this globe.
When our relation to the community is fully realized, it will be seen that the health, the happiness, and the consequent powers of every individual, concern not only his own life, but also affect the whole community of which he is a member.
The happiness of a perfect marriage, which enhances the vitality of the private life, renders one not only capable of adding to the stream of the life blood of the community in children, but by marriage one is also rendered a fitter and more perfect instrument for one's own particular work, the results of which should be shared by society as a whole, and in the tempering and finishing of which society plays a part.
Marriage should be as perfect, and hence as joyous, as possible; so that powers which should be set free and created for the purpose of the whole community should not be frittered away in the use-less longing and disappointment engendered by ignorance, narrow restrictions, and low ideals.
In the world the happily mated pair should be like a great and beautiful light; a light not hid under a bushel, but one whose beams shine through the lives of all around them.