How to Pick a Lover

Posts tagged ‘marital alienation’

Good Old Charlie

One would be in less danger
From the wiles of a stranger
If one’s own kin and kith
Were more fun to be with.
—Ogden Nash

Let’s consider the plight of the older woman who has happily raised her children for twenty or more years only to find that their need for her has become increasingly limited as they approach adulthood. She anticipates that in a few years, they will have left home for college or marriage and will be busily preoccupied with their own lives.

Romantic film icon created from Nuvola icons

Photo credit: Wikipedia

She looks at her husband, an accountant—let’s call him Charlie—who is in pretty good shape for a man his age. He makes sensible decisions about stocks and insurance, works hard and loves his kids and cuts the grass and just wants a little peace on the weekends. He’s a nice man. A good man, benevolent, and well-mannered and harmless. There are millions of men like Charlie. If you live with a man like Charlie you learn to become benevolent and well mannered and harmless as well. You learn how to make casseroles, and you shop carefully for sensible shoes. But your life is frittered away in trivia, and nothing new ever happens except that the bathroom needs to be repainted and the living room needs new drapes.

While you are thumbing through samples of materials to make sure that the drapes match the carpet because you cannot afford to replace that too, it will suddenly occur to you that while Charlie is a good man, it would be wonderful to feel again: to feel desirable and dangerous and powerful because of that desirability and that dangerousness. To watch the impact of your beauty and personality on a man, to speculate on how far you will go with him, and to wonder, “Is that really another man watching me from the corner of his eye and biding his time until I’m free to be approached?”

It would be wonderful not to know what was going to happen next. Because with Charlie, who is a good man and is good to you, you know what is going to happen next—the next day, next week, next Christmas, next year. The Charlies of this world are the salt of the earth, and they get the mail out and make the trains run on time, but they are wedded to routine. Worse, they like routine. They like the familiar and the predictable. When they go to the city, they always stay at the same hotel. When they buy a new car, they buy another Toyota. They wear the same kind of white cotton underwear that their fathers wore. They have gone to the same barber for fifteen years. When they dine out, they have roast beef medium. Roast beef medium is not only an entrée, it is a state of mind. The woman remembering her first love is also remembering when men were mysterious, when any damn thing might happen next, when life and relationships were uncertain and unpredictable.

So as a married woman, if you’re considering taking a lover, you have to ask yourself what it is that you want. Well, for one thing, you want to be surprised.

Being Married Can Be Boring Too

Love has gone and left me . . . and the neighbors knock and borrow,
And life goes on forever like the gnawing of a mouse,
And tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow,
There’s this little street and this little house.
—Edna St. Vincent Millay

Some women, especially middle-class women who don’t work outside the home, are condemned day after day to lives of the most exquisite boredom. Betty Friedan, in her now classic book The Feminine Mystique, described them as having “the problem that has no name.”

Not true. It does have a name, and the name is boredom.

Consider a young woman who hitches her wagon to a promising young executive’s star. After a few years of marriage, she finds that she spends all day in the company of preliterate children, an always-full dishwasher, and an erratic washing machine. She walks through the repetitive, demanding, but unchallenging routine subject to the demands of a preschool family. It is not that she does not love her children or that she finds them uninteresting, but they are not interesting enough. And worst of all, one day is just like the next.

Cover of "The Women's Room"

Cover of The Women’s Room

The German poet Goethe is quoted as saying, “A man can stand almost anything except a succession of ordinary days.” The ordinary days of a young suburban housewife-mother have been described eloquently in the first part of The Women’s Room. “Bore”—“ing”—two words. The only light, the only spark to be anticipated, is the nightly return of the husband, trailing clouds of glory from the real world where conversations are literate, and decisions are important, and changes are possible.

A young husband is often not very interested in his young wife and her alien domestic world although, in an abstract way, he is at least willing to support her in dollar terms. He’s preoccupied with his own world, the masculine world of commerce, which defines his sense of self-worth and also pays the mortgage. Although an understandable and perhaps even laudatory preoccupation, it is not of great comfort to the woman who is doing two loads of laundry a day and is understandably preoccupied with soap and, by trivial extension, with soap operas as well.

Soap operas may be a satisfactory source of vicarious experience for the retired pensioner of seventy, but they are paltry fare for the young woman of twenty-five, who sees in them a reaffirmation of her own deep suspicion that life is passing her by and passing quickly at that. She might resolve this dilemma in a number of ways. Have another baby who, in being only a baby, will really need her in ways her four-year-old already doesn’t. Go back to school and study to become an architect. Get a job, if she can imagine being a receptionist and can arrange day care, or have an affair.

The mystique of an affair is that, in part, it is immediate. She is already qualified; her body already knows what to do. And with her husband’s tired and indifferent response, she has both motivation and justification, not to mention her speculations about his business trips and late nights at the office.

The young mother, and not so young mother, is often bored. She needs a lover to show her that she is still an attractive woman, to give her a reason to shave her legs, to make her listen for the ringing phone. Someone to hurry through the housework for, so she can be free by two o’clock. A lover fills up the time, the space, the emptiness. A lover, if he is a lover at all, at least promises to be interesting.

Alienation: Sharing Exotic Tastes

Another circumstance tormented me in those days: that no one resembled me and that I resembled no one else.
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes from Underground

If you like to do ordinary or more commonplace things, then it is relatively easy to find someone to do them with you. Everyone likes a well-prepared meal; everyone likes to drive through the park and watch the sunset. Sometimes, however, your passions may be so exotic that they are almost unshareable.

A young married  woman I know became fascinated with the Middle Ages when she was an adolescent. She devoured history books while her girlfriends devoured teen magazines. In college, she found her forte in the study of Chaucer and went around happily reciting passages in excellent Middle English. Alas, Middle English is a very exotic tongue and one not widely appreciated.

To her delight, she found, in one of her classes, a young man as infatuated as she was with the distant past. He spoke Middle English just as fluently. They went around delighting each other with outrageous puns no one else could understand. When she found an error in someone’s translation, she could point it out to him and he was interested and impressed.

Eventually, they went to bed together, and they even spoke Middle English there. Chaucer can be quite bawdy, but the appeal of this lover was not his lovemaking so much as his compassionate understanding of an exotic world.

The Rules of Attraction

The Rules of Attraction (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One person who is almost, by definition, alienated is the stranger in a strange land. A young married Puerto Rican living in Alberta, Canada, with her English-speaking husband, an oilman raised in Edmonton, told me how she felt like she was living in the subarctic. She was terribly lonesome for strong sunlight and a profusion of plants and the ocean. One day when she was at the market, a countryman made a casual comment to her in Spanish about the weather—which, for them, was not a casual issue. They eventually become lovers; but the lovemaking was of less importance to her than huddling under the blankets, speaking Spanish instead of struggling with English, and reminiscing about palm trees, real rum, fresh fish, and the spirit of carnival.

She was not unhappy with her husband, and she did not want to go home to the poverty of oppression of her childhood, but she was homesick for her own culture. The Puerto Rican lover could understand her ambivalence in ways her Canadian husband never would.

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