By Dalma Heyn
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Women into Wives
She felt that she had entered a new world, some unknown planet entirely different from anything she had known and loved; everything in her life and thoughts was upset. This strange question occurred to her; Did she love her husband? He suddenly appeared a stranger who she hardly knew. Three months earlier she had not been aware of his existence; now she was his wife. What did it all mean? Why should one fall into marriage so quickly, as into an abyss suddenly yawning before one’s feet?
–Guy De Maupassant
A Woman’s Life
“So how are you?” Ella asks her married sister, three months after the family wedding that dazzled two hundred guests. Two months earlier, still recovering from the elaborate celebration, still unwrapping toasters and roasting pans, Judy had answered the same question: “Terrific.” Now she tries to assure her baby sister with feigned good cheer. “How am I?” she repeats, throwing her head back the way she used to when she still smoked, inhaling air between tight lips, taking the question into her lungs. Then she looks up again, back from thought and into her sister’s eyes: “I’m okay. Really. Fine.” She smiles. Ella catches the deflation in her sister’s voice, notices the falseness of just one quick gesture the way Judy intended to look straight at her when she exhaled but dodged her eyes for just a split second. But she doesn’t want to pry.
Ella is not used to having to be careful around her sister. They had always been so open: From the time they were young teenagers, they would shut their bedroom door and talk to each other. No topic was taboo. When one was in love, she told the other one all the details. When one was angry at the other, she never kept it pent up; they’d always battle it out. Sometimes they hated each other, but always, always, they talked.
“How’s Jack?” Ella asks a few weeks later, trying again.
“He’s great,” Judy says, as if talking to their mother. “Working too hard, of course, but loving it. Or at least loving being a good earner and provider.”
Hating the sharpening chill that nips their conversation, Ella takes a breath. “You know, sweetie . . . we never discuss Jack in any real way.”
“What do you mean?”
“We only talk about how hard he works, what a good father he’ll be, what kind of job he’s up for. We never talk about anything that has to do with you. I mean, what’s it like being married to this man? What’s he like, inside? You’re my sister, and suddenly you and I are locked in this conversation that could be taking place between two acquaintances: ‘Oh really? You paid the mortgage? Well, swell! I’m off to the cleaners. Have a great day!'” And then she blurts it out: “I feel as if you’re afraid to talk to me about what you really feel.”
“Oh,” Judy says sadly.
Ella knows her sister so well. She knows that tone of voice — the muted, childlike tone that betrays Judy’s feelings the instant she utters the first word. And today what Ella hears is confusion and sadness. “Speak to me!” she wants to shout. “What’s happened to you? Do you want me to come get you? Take you away from this thing, whatever it is, that’s come over you?”
Judy doesn’t know what has come over her. Sometimes she thinks nothing has, it’s just that she’s married now and her allegiance has shifted; she doesn’t want to say anything that would betray her husband. Or maybe it’s just that people who aren’t married — Ella included — can’t understand that things really are different, that marriage is not just a piece of paper. It has changed her life.
If she sounds different, well . . . maybe that’s how a wife sounds.
Other times, though, Judy longs for Ella to rescue her, to break through the film of ice that is slowly encasing her. Why should things be so different that she can’t speak about them? She wants to cry out to Ella, “Yes, do get through; I am feeling strange, tell me why, push me to try. How can I have everything I’ve ever wanted and still feel this way? Make me speak; don’t leave me! Something is wrong.”
What gets her most of all is this feeling that whatever it is she does feel cannot be shared any longer. Even her closest friends and family, even her beloved sister, can’t understand. It’s her discomfiture alone, and so unexpected she can’t even find the language to describe the strain. Not only can’t she admit it, she doesn’t even know what “it” is. She keeps thinking, I’m a new bride, for God’s sake. When will I ever be happier? Yet the core of that happiness eludes her. She feels deeply, profoundly, not like herself.
This is what Tracy wore to the annual Christmas party given by Tom’s firm: a little cropped red mohair cardigan over the tight, short black leather skirt she credits with helping to “conquer” Tom, suede shoes with a tiny Louis heel — elegant but sturdy enough for dancing — and a miniature satin backpack, so her hands could be free. She wore her cropped, auburn hair very spiky, punked out the way she liked it, with just a touch of lavender in the fine wisps at her hairline.
She was twenty-five. She had looked forward to this party every year since she’d begun dating Tom four years before, because there was always a terrific band, and while her fiancé didn’t dance, two of his closest colleagues, Jake and Peter, were as fanatic rock and rollers as she was.
When Tracy and Tom arrived, each went to a different part of the bar. She poured herself some eggnog; Tom got a double scotch on the rocks. Tracy checked to make sure her dance partners were in sight and waited impatiently for the band to start up. “Well, it was nice knowing you,” Tom said amiably when it did.
“So?” Tom said when they got back to his apartment. “Did you have fun?”
“I don’t know who Fred is, but he sure can dance.”
“Fred is the mailboy,” her fiancé said. He pulled her to him and stroked the soft leather of her skirt. “I love your hair like this,” he said. “And I love this skirt.”
“I know that,” she said. “It’s a magic garment that lets me dance with lots of men all night and still go home with the man I adore. I owe it all to this skirt.”
What Tracy wore to that same Christmas party a year later, the year she married Tom, was harder to choose. Over Tom’s protests, she had given away her treasured little black leather skirt, so that was out. She rejected a little sweater dress as too short, too sexy. She decided to wear a proper, more businessy suit — a plummy tweed one with flecks of gray in it.
When Jake came over to ask her to dance, she went, but she was worried about Tom, who, she noticed, was drinking much more than he normally did. “See you later, honey,” she said as she left, managing to take his scotch with her, as if absentmindedly, to the dance floor.
“Why didn’t you dance more?” Tom asked her when they got home.
“The band wasn’t as good as usual,” she said. That was true enough, but it wasn’t the real reason. She didn’t quite know the answer; all she knew was that she had fretted through most of the evening. The whole party had a different feel this year. She’d vowed to spend more time getting to know Tom’s boss, and had ended up having a rather labored, self-conscious conversation with him — all the while wistfully aware of the music in the background. At “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” she wound her way over to Fred, but she was distracted. Tom, she thought again, was eating too much.
Should she really be dancing when she could be getting to know the people he worked with? Did she look inane lip-synching “On Broadway” in her knee-length business suit? She didn’t know whether she felt too old, or too young, or what. She left the dance floor and went back to Tom’s boss.
At this year’s Christmas party, Tracy, now twenty-seven and married over a year, didn’t dance at all. She was riveted by the secretaries, standing in separate groups. How sexy and lively they looked, so different from the wives! Tired secretary and boss jokes danced in her head. Jake and Peter waved. “Come on, Trace,” they said as they passed her. “You’re missing the best band yet!” She told them she was a little tired.
“Face it, you don’t dance anymore!” Jake said. “You’re getting old.”
“Sure I dance!” Tracy protested. “Later, okay. After I get myself some food.”
Antonia used to tell Jonathan all her sexual feelings. Her frankness about every detail of what she was experiencing was a quality Jonathan loved about her from the moment they began having sex — which was after the fourth date, a year before they married, each for the second time. Yet Antonia says this sexual openness was something she’d achieved only in her relationship with Jonathan, something she had with him right from the beginning, a gift, an amazing alliance that allowed her to be herself — hungry, experimental, dirty — for the first time in her life.
It was part of what made their relationship so fine, she felt, and for her it was hard-earned.
Never before had she felt so free to speak, so able to speak, during sex. When other men had asked, “What do you like?” she had mumbled words that mirrored whatever they were doing — less a nice-girl tactic to please her partner, she thought, than shyness and a deep uncertainty about what she did like.
But with Jonathan, she had found herself, from the very first time they made love, speaking out in response to his questions about what felt good and where, how firm or gentle she liked his touch. And she would reply: there, no, softer, no, more against the bone, yes, kind of in a circle there, right. Honesty about her feelings had characterized Antonia’s sexual dynamic with Jonathan from the beginning, and for the three years they lived together.
Then they got married. And immediately, mysteriously, Antonia began holding back small details, tiny fragments of her thoughts and experiences, pieces of sexual knowledge. She began to feel awkward telling him what pleased her. She was a trifle more circumspect: “I was afraid Jonathan would want to know whom I’d done this or that with,” she says, adding that this was “hard to explain, because he already knew so much about me that it didn’t quite make sense for me to withhold now.” Observing, though, that “he was more uptight about my old boyfriends, and even my former husband, after we married,” her new reticence seemed to accommodate his new jealousy perfectly.
We tried to talk about it — we even called it “marriage-onset weirdness” — but we couldn’t locate where it was coming from. But I was always nervous about hurting his feelings, sexually, or making him jealous. I began playing myself down a bit — not seeming too experienced or something. I started lying a little. I did it to make things okay with us, so we could return to our terrific lovemaking. It meant so much to me, and I wanted like hell not to lose it.
Her sudden demureness felt particularly odd since Jonathan already knew about her experiences and her appetite. He had already come to enjoy her “bossiness,” as he called it, in bed — as well as her lapses into total passivity. He wasn’t aware that he was putting any pressure on her to hold back after they married, and nor was she; she just felt “nervous about hurting his feelings.” She’d have the urge to speak, to try new moves, but something stopped her: a strange new shame, a new impulse to be more protective of him, less assertive and lusty than she had been.
Worst of all, she felt less entitled to her fluctuating sexual moods:
I had tried so hard to learn to speak out for what I wanted — even when what I wanted was no sex for a while. I’d worked hard to overcome my shyness and repression. So when I began falling back into that shyness and repression with the one person I’d conquered it with, well, it was just terrible.
So now she lets Jonathan initiate all experimentation; he’s the one who “leads” all the time.
This is the kind of post-marriage change in mood and behavior that at first had me scratching my head. Two emotionally close sisters reach a conversational stalemate, one hiding from the other her true experience of marriage. A lovely, sociable woman turns distracted and self-conscious after marrying, more alert to unnamed responsibility than to having fun, the caregiver at the party rather than the guest. A sexually sophisticated, mature woman gives up her agency and her voice during sex. But this almost unnoticeable movement away from spontaneity, while interesting to observe, seems almost too unimportant to record, as if so embedded in our understanding of a bride’s new role that it’s not worth discussing, let alone dissecting. Few of us would question Judy’s wifely circumspection, Tracy’s nurturing impulse toward her new husband, or Antonia’s protective discretion; fewer still would suggest they give up their caring concern.
But as I trace this subtle, progressive diminution of presence, of pleasure, I think of those startling statistics that also defy our understanding. Certain numbers keep haunting me: Depression rates among married women are triple that of their single (never married, divorced, or widowed) female counterparts; severe neurosis among married women is three times that of single women. Here we are thinking that marriage contributes to women’s health and well-being, and yet two of the country’s most prominent researchers, Myrna Weissman and the late Gerald Klerman, reported almost a decade ago that married women suffer more nervous breakdowns, inertia, loneliness, unhappiness with their looks; more insomnia, heart palpitations, nervousness, and nightmares; more phobias; more feelings of incompetence, guilt, shame, and low self-esteem than single women. After looking carefully at all available data, in fact, they found marriage to be one of only two factors that contribute most to women’s depression, the other being low social status.
Married women are far more depressed than married men — in unhappy marriages, three times more; and — interestingly — in happy marriages, five times more. In truth, it is men who are thriving in marriage, now as always, and who show symptoms of psychological and physical distress outside it. Not only their emotional well-being but their very lives, some studies say, depend on being married!
Copyright © 2005 – 2011 Dalma Heyn