When people learn that I have been married for over forty years, after the obligatory polite surprise I am asked what my secret is. I always feel that my answer is unsatisfyingly provisional and tentative. If only I could answer with confidence and offer forth absolutes truths and pearls of wisdoms but, as my nana would say: “if ifs and buts were pots and pans, what a lot I’d have!” The fact is, that like all complex human phenomena and processes, what we know about marriage from our lived experience can’t be packaged and sold. It is also true to say that finding out and learning is intrinsic to a long-term relationship of this kind and highly specific to each individual marriage.
When I came across ‘The School of Life’s’ words of wisdom on marriage, all nicely packaged in a smart turquoise, gold-lettered box containing 20 cards that claimed to contain “the secrets to a successful, long-term union’ I could not resist splashing out the £22.00. The School of Life is promoted as an international educational company that offers advice on life issues and psychotherapy and bibliotherapy services. It was founded by highly published philosopher Alain de Botton in 2008, has headquarters in London and offers individual, group and corporate therapy and programmes on developing personal agency, positive and satisfying relationships and wellbeing . ‘The Marriage Box’, like most of the material from the School of Life, is not attributed to any named individual/s and when I asked the young woman behind the counter in the School of Life shop in Marchmont Street, London WC1 where the material came from she seemed almost affronted by my curiosity and mumbled something about “the faculty”. I looked on line and found a collection of photographs of about forty young to middle-aged individuals; the teachers and therapists associated with the centre. In terms of demographics gender is fairly evenly spread and a reasonable mix of race represented but a range of ages is definitely not evident. This surprises me as so many of the great thinkers and philosophers were hardly youthful. As a business idea the combination of therapy and philosophy obviously works well but, and it’s a big but, the values and ethics underpinning all direct clinical practice may be compromised.
I brought the box home, optimistic that we might gain fresh perspective and new ideas and placed it next to our bed with the idea that we would read a card every night and discuss. For a few days my husband played along with the idea despite the fact that he would much rather have been enjoying his bedtime read with a novel of his choice. After about a week we were both quite weary of the idea and it actually took nearly four months to get through the twenty cards.
So why was the process of reading these cards so demanding and unpalatable? Firstly, it was only ever my bright idea and, like marriage, for it to have really worked both of us needed to be convinced. Secondly, what the box contained was so obvious as to be anodyne if not downright comic when read aloud. Thirdly, and the strongest deterrent to enjoying the Alain de Botton empire’s words of wisdom, it was downright depressing and in many ways quite negative. Alain d B may not be aware of this but he and his followers’ take on marriage follows a strong tradition of precedenting a masculinist world view on the surely equally gendered institution of marriage. Whilst thinking about writing this post I read many quotes from the learned, literary and powerful voices that sound through our times. My estimate of the ratio of male to female popular quotations is in the region of between 4:1 and 10:1 but don’t take my word for it; try googling “quotations on marriage” yourself. The other pattern I picked up was that the most pessimistic and derisory words come from men and from those who never married.
“In married life three is company and two none” Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)
“Oh! How many torments lie in the small circle of a wedding-ring!”Colley Cibber (1671-1757)
“It doesn’t much signify whom one married, for one is sure to find next morning that it was someone else.” Samuel Rogers (1763-1855)
This largely masculine prejudice is especially curious to me as a number of social psychology studies on marital status and individual happiness found that the happiest group was married men followed by single women. The unhappiest ? I’m afraid it was married women. Jessie Bernard, a very well known female sociologist, who specialised in the family, sexuality, and gender endorses this in her book The Future of Marriage (1972) and much more recently behavioural scientist Paul Dolan said at this year’s Hay Festival spoke of his research finding that unmarried women without children lived longer than their child-raising peers: “You” (men) “take less risks, you earn more money at work, and you live a little longer,” he explained. “She, on the other hand, has to put up with that, and dies sooner than if she never married. The healthiest and happiest population subgroup are women who never married or had children.”
So, it seems the secrets of marriage are many, are contradictory and are not easily communicated. Apologies to Alain de Botton and his followers but the answers aren’t necessarily to be found in the thoughts and words of his chosen philosophers and psychotherapists because to really make any sense of just one marriage you have to live it and even then, be prepared for some other understanding or idea to emerge at any moment in the complexity of everyday life. If anyone wants a read-once School of Life ‘Marriage Box’ it’s yours for the cost of postage please get in touch.