Tolstoy famously divided the world into unhappy families ("each unhappy in its own way") and happy ones ("each happy in the same way"). I divide the world into the unhappily married (the ones who tell all the jokes about marriage) and the happily married (who don't even get the jokes).
Marriage often gets a bad press today. On a recent Valentine's Day, The New York Times ran not one but two op-eds singing the praises of the single life. In a pleasure-obsessed culture, marriage is not sexy (though, interestingly, that is one area in which every study shows that married couples have it all over their single counterparts, and the differential grows with age.) All Western societies report higher percentages who never marry, higher divorce rates, and skyrocketing illegitimacy (one of the best predictors of later criminality).
The Torah, of course, is ardently pro-marriage. "It is not good for man to be alone," is one of its first lessons. According to one Midrash, Adam and Eve were created joined together at the back, and thereafter separated so that they could face one another and give to each other. Accordingly, our Sages describe a man's search for a wife as looking for his missing piece, for a return to that primordial unity.
As my wife and I prepare to celebrate our thirtieth anniversary this coming week, I'm happy to report that my own experience confirms our Sages' pro-marriage bias. I cannot imagine life without a wife with whom to share everything. I would have no interest, for instance, in an all-expense paid trip to any of the ever dwindling number of places on the globe where identifiably Jewish tourists are still welcome without Judith. Any pleasure would be too diminished by the awareness that she was not there. I would feel like the Reform rabbi who hits a hole-in-one on Yom Kippur, and has nobody to tell.
One of the few things I miss about the practice of law is the collegiality of working with others on a big project. But in a law firm one has as great a chance of working with a partner one loathes. In marriage, you get to pick your partner, and your joint project – building a family – is infinitely more important than writing a brief or trying a case could ever be.
The spouse of our youth is often the only one, besides our mothers, who remembers us when our hair was still black and we were thin, and may even see us that way today. Even more important, our spouses know all our faults and foibles – and still love us. There is no need, or point, in putting on a show with one's spouse; they won't be fooled. But, at the same time, there are none of the performance anxieties that go with perpetually trying to sell oneself.
In Jewish thought, the purpose of life is to subject one's screaming id ("I want") to a higher command ("I should"). Marriage, in that view, is the best school for self-improvement, for it cannot work unless one is prepared to take account of another's needs and desires. The Torah describes one's spouse as an "ezer k'negdo" – both as a helpmate and in opposition. Sometimes the greatest help is that oppositional element.
Marriage cannot work unless there is a commitment to work at it and to reconcile the inevitable differences between any two people. But neither can one grow in any aspect of life without work. The only difference is that in marriage the need to make an effort cannot be ignored without disastrous consequences.
The glue to marriage is trust. At the most basic level that requires fidelity, the carving out of a private realm shared only the two of you, unseen by anyone else in the world. (That is why religious couples avoid public displays of affection – to heighten the power of what is theirs alone.) But trust is more broadly a function of each spouse knowing that their needs and desires are important to the other. Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler used to say to young couples under the chuppah, "The incredible happiness you are experiencing at this moment is a result of your great desire to give to one another. If that departs, so will your happiness."
IF MARRIAGE is so great, why do so many fail? And why do so many married people experience it as a burden rather than as the necessary condition for everything they have achieved in life? ( I once heard it said that the single greatest predictor of long-term success in Torah learning is not innate talents or early promise, but one's marital harmony.)
For one thing, many people choose stupidly. They confuse the qualities that make for a fun date with those that make for a good marriage. Attraction is undoubtedly an important element in marriage, and the momentum it provides a good start for the long haul ahead. But respect for one's spouse is even more essential. My wife earned mine on our first date, when she slowly ate her meal without taking note of my hungry looks after I had typically gobbled down my portion.
Few of us receive a neon sign from Heaven: This is the one. Actually, I did. I had returned to Chicago to start practicing law after a year in Israel, and despaired of finding anyone who shared my interest in living here. On our first date, Judith told me she had spent the year after high school in Israel. (The next day I told my father that I had met the girl I was going to marry; she told her roommate that I talked so much she wondered whether I had ever been out before.) On our third date, we discovered that her mother and my father grew up in the same small town in Western Pennsylvania, and my grandfather had greeted her grandmother at the local train station when she arrived from Hungary.
But the truth is that neon signs are unnecessary. Generally, if both parties are committed to making the marriage work, it will, and if they are not, it won't. If one's choice of spouse is based on impressing one's friends or the fulfillment of some fantasy rather than on the desire to give to another and share with her, the future is bleak.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to successful marriage today is the romantic fantasy that whatever we were heretofore lacking will be automatically cured by marriage, and all our multiple failures disappear. We look to our spouses to fix all our problems, and blame them when they do not. About twenty years ago, I missed an easy overhead in a tennis match, and instinctively shouted out, "Judith!" Judith was at least five miles away at the time. That act of public lunacy was an eye-opener for me. Unfortunately, such lunatic expectations of our spouses are widespread.
Anyone tempted to send us April Fools jokes on our anniversary, need not bother: We were not deterred thirty years ago, and would find them even less intelligible today.