The New Meaning of Forever

One of our basic understandings, until recently, has been that certain things are immutable, like forests and wild animals and air. Now, though, there is very little about our futures that can be assumed, and few things in the present that won’t change, maybe even tomorrow, as quickly as did my old computer, a huge grey IBM XT that was once considered state of the art (a phrase whose very coinage ominously foreshadowed the fate of forever) and now is not only no longer being made, but would be laughed at if it were.

Marriage was once immutable, as reliable as the tides, as predictable as rain in April: You got married and stayed married till you died. Permanence, specified by the contract, was what guaranteed the highest prize in life, security, and anything less than till death do you part was not a promise of security at all. It was permanence even more than sexual exclusivity, the other linchpin of marriage, that made wedlock marriage; made it what historian Tony Tanner called “the all subsuming, all organizing, all containing contract.”

It’s not that the contract itself has changed much: The standard marriage ceremony, whether it be religious or civil, still specifies both permanence and sexual exclusivity, and while either may be fudged a bit, they can’t be eliminated altogether. Vows that specify neither one is not a marriage, it is a date.

That marriage more often resembles a date than the binding, lifelong entity it once was is largely because the original commitment to permanence has shifted to a commitment to the quality of the relationship (a mutable phenomenon if ever there was one) so that if even one partner decides its quality has diminished sufficiently, the court simply has to recognize that fact officially and the marriage is over. This alone has done for the lifespan of marriage what the hole in the ozone layer has done to the lifespan of our rainforests: changed “forever” into “for a while.” Subject to our whim.

Any comforting sense a woman might have at the outset of her new marriage that it will last forever, then, or that she and her husband will be faithful to each other for as long as they both shall live, has to be the result of denial–as surely as any sense she might have that nature, as it is, will last forever.

But she yearns for forever as much as she always did. She can’t let go of happily ever after entirely any more than she can let go of the idea that there are blue skies ahead. Security is too tantalizing, permanence too reassuring, sexual fidelity too romantic and comforting to just go ahead and declare “forever” history, to acknowledge that marriage as we knew it is as extinct as the dodo or my XT. A woman clings to the comfort of immutability with a vengeance that belies the historical context in which she finds herself, a historical context that supports her very inability to comprehend it.

There have been times, and I remember a few, when we all tried to deal honestly with our reality, both environmental and personal. In the 1950s we built bomb shelters in our basements, stocking canned foods and sterno for a future after nuclear war. Schools had air raid drills and children were made to bend into attack position under their desks. And in the 1970s, couples in the thrall of the cult of honesty (more about that later), changed the marriage ceremony every which way to reflect their genuine personal commitments rather than institutionalized ones that they felt had outlived their relevance.

But we got sick of it, sick of spending money on shelters we might not use, sick of bending dazed children into pretzels twice a month, sick of those mountaintop weddings where “For as long as we both shall grow” was substituted for the original. We stood there in our jeans and our flowers listening to those carefully phrased ceremonies, feeling cheated; you can hardly burst into tears of joy over such a tepid compromise. What a shame they had to do that, we all said. What a world this is.

These days we don’t try so hard to acknowledge reality. We prefer to hope for the best even in the face of a world that terrifies us; to pretend, for example, that the planet isn’t being destroyed even though we see signs of its destruction in the very air we breathe; to pretend marriage means permanent love even though we know divorce breaks up roughly one out of two unions.

We prefer the logic of hope, to pretend not only that marriage means what it once did, but that it promises something even better now for women, even though nothing particularly new has been thrown in to the contract make it better. In fact, a chilling report in The Journal of Marriage and the Family, comparing 15 years of data compiled by the University of Chicago’s National Opinion Research Center concludes glumly that marriage in the U.S. is a “weakened and declining institution.” Why? “Because women are getting less and less out of it,” it said.

Nevertheless, a woman can hope, can long for what she “knows” she can’t get which is why, in answer to the question “What do you most want out of your marriage?” I heard “intimacy” and “closeness,” and in answer to “How long did you expect your marriage to last when you got married?” I heard “forever” from every single woman I interviewed, even if accompanied by a slightly embarrassed, “I know that sounds naive, but I really do.”

Research other than my own bears this out: Annette Lawson says she asked her students at Berkeley a similar question. “`How many of you expect to be married?’ I say to my class. All put up their hands. `How many of you expect to be divorced?’ Very few hands. They know the figures, but it is not going to happen to them.”

And Dorothy Dinnerstein, the late psychologist and Rutgers professor, told me not long before she died, “I’ve asked my students: Do you think you’ll live till 60? Do you think you’ll have grandchildren?’ It seems to me I get unthought-out answers. This is something they don’t want to think about. They’ve made some very deep, inarticulate adjustments to the probabilities, and don’t want to say what those adjustments are. I know people don’t like to articulate it to themselves, but there isn’t a future that extends clearly ahead like a road you can see in the sunshine. There’s a kind of silent consensus that things can’t go on very much longer. And that consensus has to affect us, however we may try to deny it.” One way it affects us is that we suffer a psychological phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance” — a form of denial that means that what we know and what we believe don’t jibe, and that discrepancy makes us act peculiarly. We still pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere while taping ecologically correct bumper sticker slogans onto our windshields. Or we go to weddings and are overcome by the beauty and profundity of the ritual, but mutter to our companion through our tears, “What do you give it, two years, three years, max?”

“Denial has become so much more a central mechanism for keeping yourself sane now,” Dinnerstein said. “People used to repress and now they have to deny the chaos.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked
“They’re similar, except that when you repress you keep out of focal awareness certain feelings and thoughts, and when you deny, you don’t exactly keep them out of awareness: You can talk about them, but you don’t feel them.”

We use other mechanisms besides denial to superimpose our dreams on a reality that threatens to thwart them. We make new demands on that reality. In exchange for knowing marriage might not last, for instance, we have put enormous pressure on it to make us feel good every second while it does. We have asked of marriage that it be more of a love affair than it ever was.

Women have always discovered, sooner or later, that one thing they most certainly did not get, in spite of a courtship that might have promised it, was a lifelong love affair. No mother ever told her daughter that marriage equaled romantic bliss, or that sexual passion outlasted the early years of marriage. And as for getting their emotional needs met, best to look outside the union.

But in the past, women had little choice but to absorb their anger and sorrow and focus on their families rather than on their disillusionment. Their disappointment was mitigated by other rewards of marriage: financial security, social acceptance, children, a lifelong place to be. But fewer women today expect or depend on marriage to provide lifelong financial security; nor do they need marriage to be regarded as “normal” or even in order to bear children. Fewer women are marrying, and having children has ceased to be essential to every couple. These shifting perceptions have put more pressure on marriage to be rewarding emotionally and sexually. When it isn’t, women are deeply disappointed–more disappointed than their mothers were. Their longing for an even more satisfying future from marriage than it ever offered is precisely because it offers so little; Imbuing it with qualities it never had obscures the fact that the qualities it once had are now gone.

The demand is accompanied by a willingness to work at it. We’re willing to work hard at making our marriages wonderful, to do almost anything to make them good enough, passionate enough, rewarding enough to satisfy us. That’s one way to beat the odds, making our marriages so dazzle us with love and intimacy and sex that they will be immune to destruction. But all of this is trying to make do without forever.

As many have pointed out, the marriage contract has lost its binding character. We want to live in the moment. Have prenups that promise our partner will lose weight, or get a job, and if not—the marriage is over. We’re building in escape clauses, knowing well that our chances of staying put for a lifetime is unlikely. But not wanting to say so outright.

It’s an odd way to deal with the profound loss of marriage as an enduring commitment.

“Perhaps never in history have we expected so much and so little at the same time; never before have we seen such an odd conjunction of heightened expectations about the possibilities in human relationships and disillusion, if not despair,” writes psychologist Lillian Rubin in her book, Intimate Strangers.

To a person whose entire life has been characterized by such expectations, and such disillusionment and change, it is impossible to comprehend Webster’s definition of forever: “For a limitless time; eternally.” What can this mean to a child who grows up with a sense that the world itself could end? Frost’s poem is a dated little fantasy for her: Never mind ice or fire, she says. Most of the women I talked to thought AIDS would be more like it. For these women, the world itself and all the people and animals and trees in it, are mutable.

What can lifelong monogamy possibly mean to a young woman who has had 50 lovers when she marries? If you are wincing at that figure, it`s denial again, for that’s a modest figure, given that a girl is likely to start having sex at the age of 15 and not marry until she’s 27. That gives her thirteen years during which she is expected to experiment. That means about four lovers a year. Now she may have a “steady” for a few of those years, and may have sex with only him during that time, but she also may not. Some of the women I had talked to had counted 100 lovers; and some had simply lost count.

But the point isn’t how many sexual experiences a woman has had, but the fact that she’s had the freedom to have them, and that having them was considered a decent, important, even a moral quest. Getting married and staying with one man is the opposite of this quest, a turnaround in the philosophy of selfrealization that guided her up until marriage. It is not the same quest as it was for the woman who entered marriage precisely to have sex, or at least who didn’t have sex until and unless she was married.

The impact of premarital sex on postmarital fidelity in all the research I have seen is simple: A woman is more likely to have extramarital sex if she has had premarital sex. “In my study, premarital sexual experience relates in significant ways to postmarital behavior, the faithful more often being inexperienced before marriage and the most adulterous the most experienced,” writes Annette Lawson. “Furthermore, the greater the variety of lovers before marriage, the more likely it was that people would have affairs following marriage.” It is clear that, as Pepper Schwartz puts it, “Monogamy is a habit. So isnonmonogamy.”

I believe it impossible for us to understand what permanence and sexual fidelity mean to a young woman, even if she uses the same words older women do to define her terms, because in the absence of anything clear-cut to go by, she is defining those terms in her imagination. This may be one of the reasons, says Dr. Norval Glenn, that students tend to be so “unrealistic” about what their lives are going to be like once they get married. “They don’t really understand how restrictive marriage is going to be,” he says. “They have a very romantic view of marriage. What I see is the idea that students are going to be successful in their careers, and that they are going to get a lot of emotional support from their spouses,” Glenn says. “In spite of what they know, think, feel and anticipate, they seek closeness, and are drawn to marriage anyway. But underneath the surface, they are convincing themselves that they’ll avoid the pitfalls.”

Even children of painful divorces convince themselves that divorce can’t happen to them with a tenacity that foes beyond youthful optimism. As feminist author Carolyn Heilbrun pointed out years ago, “She may assure herself that her marriage will be different, a hope that is fulfilled about as often as the bank is broken at Monte Carlo; or she will avoid marriage, or conventionally acceptable marriage, altogether.”

Without factoring in the adjustment that young women have made to their gut understanding of the instability of their own future, we cannot look at the issue of marriage and extramarital sex in this culture. Nor can we comprehend why the word “commitment” has so shifted so in meaning that it can be called that but last just a few months. But we have to understand these new definitions, and we have to understand the historical situation these women find themselves in, for as Dr. Glenn says, “It seems to me we’re getting a kind of situation which when people marry they’re so unsure of what’s going to happen in that marriage, so unsure of the stability of that marriage, that it’s very difficult for them to make the kind of emotional commitment and any kind of investment of time and effort and forgone opportunities to really make the marriage work. If you go into marriage without a full commitment, it’s kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy: You’re so afraid that it won’t work out that that fear itself can be the problem working it out.

“Given the large proportion of marriages that don’t work out well, it’s an act of irrationality to make a full commitment to a marriage and on the other hand, you have to do just that, or be pretty sure it’s not going to work out very well. I think many people who say, “This is it; this is going to be permanent,” are whistling in the dark: Underneath that facade, some of them feel very insecure. And it is true that disillusionment and disappointment tend to come quite early.”

The vocabulary surrounding the words that have lost their original meanings, like forever and like marriage, has also lost its original meaning. Commitment is a difficult thing to measure under any circumstances, but under present circumstances it by necessity has changed in meaning. “If we look at women who are having affairs, who were nonmonogamous, versus those who are not, the level of commitment to the relationship is lower among the former,” says Pepper Schwartz. “And I think if you’re a person who has an affair or who feels she can have an affair, it means unless you’re self-destructive that you can afford to have an affair, by which I mean you might be just less completely in love with your husband. Therefore if he left you you wouldn’t be as bereft, you might be a little more economically independent, you might be just a little bit more able to think of someone else in your life.

“All those things are just a little less committed. It doesn’t mean they’re not committed, but it’s different from the woman who says “This is the only man I ever want, and no other man even looks good to me.”

This subtle and unconscious shying away from profound commitment has as much to do with fear of the future in general, of its perceived temporariness of everything, as it has with a modern woman’s with distrust of the future of her marriage. The withholding of full commitment may be leading us to a state of being that sociologist Bernard Farber calls “Universal Availability” in which all people, married and single, are perpetually in the marriage market, constantly looking around for a mate that might be preferable to the one they have at the moment.

“The concept of `universal availability’ puts the whole institution in great jeopardy,” says Glenn. “The constant comparison with others, the lack of investment in your own marriage, these are the things that engender dissatisfaction and discontent.”

But not enough, he agrees, to make us change the institution to reflect what it has become. When people ask me if marriage has changed, I always say No. We have changed, but marriage—like the church, like the military—remains as it was. Our need for permanence, for forever, simply prevents us from taking appropriate measures to alter a hallowed place that once ensured a decent if not limitless future. We seem to need this sense of limitless future, of forever, in order to entrust our love and ourselves to another person. We need “for as long as we both shall live,” just as we need “happily ever after”–even if on some level, we doubt their reality.