25 January 2013

Alternatives to Marriage

Weeks ago, I flew beside an attractive young mother who told me that she got married even though she didn't want to. "I don't intend to leave my husband. We have two children. But I didn't like the idea of being married."

"Why did you do it then," I asked her.

"My mother is very traditional She's Chinese and once our first boy was born it drove her nuts that we weren't married. I did it, really, for her."

"What difference does it make," I asked. "Why would you have rather not married?"

"I heard guys at work talk about their wives and they would talk about them as if they were some duty, some burden. I did not want to be that. I wanted more than that."

I was left thinking again that this generation has such a fascinating row ahead of it as it creates and navigates new kinds of arrangements, new social inventions, in domains as varied as boardrooms and bedrooms. It confirmed for me that we're living in a time of great change in that category.

And then we watched the century-old play by George Bernard Shaw and I heard this dialogue between Pickering -a gentlemen higher up in society - and Doolittle, who is part of the working poor. I realized that this is not a new thing, this matter of various kinds of departures from the "traditional" marriage. In fact, ad hoc relationships are at least as traditional in the sense that they've been around for as long.

PICKERING. Why don't you marry that missus of yours? I rather draw the line at encouraging that sort of immorality.
  DOOLITTLE. Tell her so, Governor: tell her so. I'm willing. It's me that suffers by it. I've no hold on her. I got to be agreeable to her. I got to give her presents. I got to buy her clothes something sinful. I'm a slave to that woman, Governor, just because I'm not her lawful husband. And she knows it too. Catch her marrying me! Take my advice, Governor: marry Eliza while she's young and don't know no better. If you don't you'll be sorry for it after. If you do, she'll be sorry for it after; but better you than her, because you're a man, and shes only a woman and don't know how to be happy anyhow.
- George Bernard Shaw, Pygmalion

Perhaps this young mother I thought of as so modern had gained her insight from reading Shaw's dialogue from a century earlier. Force the man to "be agreeable to her" by being a slave to her, knowing that she is free to leave if she's displeased. It turns out that I'm not only not up with the times - I'm at least a century behind them.

Here's a song you can hum as you contemplate this.

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