Laura Fraser
photo of Laura Fraser   an italian affair  

  What About Marriage?

This year, my parents will celebrate their fiftieth wedding anniversary. I don't know that their marriage has always been easy, or even romantic, but it has been amiable. In their seventies, they each have what may be the best you can hope for out of a marriage: a best friend.

My own marriage barely lasted fifty weeks. Even if I got married again this afternoon, there isn't much chance we'd both still be around, at ninety, for the big party. Given the storybook standards of marriage I grew up with--my oldest sister just celebrated her twenty-fifth anniversary to a man who is still hopelessly crazy about her--I have to say I've been a rather dismal failure at the game. I've had a lot of sweet and interesting relationships over the years, with only a few regrets--you learn from your mistakes and all--but I wonder, in the end, without marriage, whether all those various romances will add up to anything when I'm seventy.

Strangely, that sense that a relationship doesn't count unless it leads to the altar may be what caused so many of my relationships, and particularly my marriage, to fail. Once you believe that marriage is a defining narrative of your life--and that was hard-wired into me by the example of my family--it's hard to let go of the expected sequence of events that go along with it. It's supposed to start with a juicy surprise opening, then there's the rising action and dramatic conflict, someone says "I love you," it builds to the big climax--the wedding--and then it's a long, long, denouement till death do you part. Any new relationship becomes so fraught with expectations about how it will fit into that future storyline that it's difficult to simply enjoy each other in the present.

My wedding was pretty much the beginning of the end of my relationship with my ex-husband. You can see it in the group photos, where he refused to smile. We'd been together for three years, amazed at our fantastic luck finding each other on this planet, when I naturally started thinking that this kind of love must lead to marriage. I was in my early thirties, tick-tock, and we'd discussed having children, and even with a wide bohemian streak, it seemed to me like if you're going to have kids, you ought to get married. Someone needs to say they're at least going to try to stick around. Plus, it's an excuse for a really great party.

My ex expressed his reservations about marriage, and I said fine, we'll stay friends, and so he reconsidered. Marrying me or losing me was a difficult choice for him. Unlike me, his parents had an acrimonious marriage that ended when he was only nine. Marriage didn't mean stability and trust to him, but treachery and a lot of temporary housing. But he weighed his doubts and finally asked me to marry him. Later, after we'd split up, he said he'd gotten married "with his fingers crossed," meaning hoping it would work out, but I think he also meant it the way kids do, when they tell a lie.

It wasn't long after we got married that he started to come home later and later. I was luxuriating in my newlywed status, and didn't really notice his inattention. He was busy at work; it was just a phase. Even when I walked in on him with a high school sweetheart, lying on the terrace in sleeping bags, sipping wine and staring at the moon, I simply introduced myself to her. It hadn't occurred to me not to trust him. A few weeks later, after a session where he said, "I just want out of this"--he hadn't even called it a marriage--he left. I was shocked: the story wasn't supposed to go that way, especially not so soon.

I went to Italy to get away from everything that reminded me of my husband. On the island of Ischia, I met a professor over breakfast who became my lover, and my companion in a journey that I shared in my book, An Italian Affair. I found out early on that he was married, and I wrestled with how I felt about being his lover: I asked myself whether I would have an affair with a married man, and decided that in the United States, I would not. But I wasn't in the United States--I was outside my country, my language, and really, my life. And he--well, he was French. The French are notorious for their extra-marital liaisons; as far as I knew, it was a way of life.

Maybe, I mused, as our relationship continued past those first four fantasy days on an island, marriage is different in other cultures, where it's less disposable. Maybe it's different if there is a silent understanding that people are human, that one other person can't fulfill all your needs for life, where both partners are discreet enough never to hurt the other with information they could happily live without. I wondered if it would be possible to sustain a little fling on the side, one that clearly did not threaten your marriage. Or would someone always be hurt?

During the course of my affair with the professor, it became clear that he and his wife had an understanding; they were, for all purposes, separated, staying together for the sake of the children and real estate. It left him free, but I also felt a little sad for him. I cared about him enough that I wanted a storybook marriage for him, too.

My love affair with the professor made me realize, though, that there are many more successful story lines about love and romance than we usually imagine. Just because a relationship doesn't last forever doesn't mean it's a failure. My story with the professor, which brought me back to life after my divorce, was never going to lead to marriage, but it changed me, giving me a deep reserve of happiness and memories that will always be with me. As relationships go, it was undeniably a success.

Now, when someone asks me whether I'd get married again, I usually say no. I tried it once, and it wasn't worth the pain. What is the point of saying you'll be together forever when people inevitably change, passion fades, and couples usually grow apart, disinterested?

Then I think about my parents, about the pleasure they take in each other, in their teasing old arguments, in their comfort traveling to new places together, in the security they have knowing that if one of them fails, the other will be there to take care. Marriage might not be such a bad idea, especially if it's one that doesn't strictly follow the storybook narrative, but makes room for dramatic complications well after the wedding.

I don't actually care if I get married again, if I wear the ring, the dress, and invite my friends to another big party. I do care, though, that I end up with a best friend. One way or the other.

author's page
Bold Type

Bold Type
Bold Type