How to Marry and Not Make a Mistake (Sep, 1930)
How to Marry and Not Make a Mistake
How to Select the Right Mate —– Marriage Is Not the Lottery We Once Thought It Was
By David Arnold Balch
THERE is a story told that Auguste Comte, the great French positive philosopher, took down the volumes of his work from the library shelves that held them and rewrote, on two different occasions, his changed and changing views of love. The first had been recorded in his young manhood; the second, in the middle distance of his life; and the third, in his old age, when he had learned all that it was probable he would learn about woman and her relationship to man.
In much the same manner might many of us, it seems, revise our views on the ancient and time-honored institution of marriage. Here, at least, is one who might, for in the past thirty years that I have been actively observing the marital state of others, and part of which time I have had opportunity for observing my own, I have revised my private views on marriage no less than two times, and each time has left me a little wiser than the first.
These views, I’ll admit frankly, were not always flattering to marriage. Indeed, there were times in my younger days, when (God forgive me!) I looked on marriage as a cheap and shoddy fake, an ignoble frustration of our romantic imaginings. Later, 1 grew more tolerant of its frailties, though no less skeptical of its worth; and it was not until I was thirty, really, that I began to see a purpose in it all that was somehow divinely good. And then, as time went on, I began to see more than this, until finally I came to the conclusion that marriage, as an institution, was, by and large, the most reliable of any of our institutions, and that the relationship which so many had regarded, and may continue to regard, as a lottery, is, in reality, no lottery at all.
That is my conclusion, based, as I have said, on more than thirty years of observation. Briefly, it means that most people find their true mates and marry them after all. They marry the person who likes (and dislikes) the same things they do. They match themselves in their choice of a partner, whether it is the communal interest of acquiring property, of saving money, or of rearing children. In mind, mood and temperament, they match themselves, and in the vast majority of cases they match themselves accurately.
Does this sound wildly extravagant and does it fail to explain things as you have found them? If so, I shall have to fall back upon the first line of defenses, which is statistics, to prove that marriage, in the overwhelming main, is an undoubted success. But what of that? you may counter. People marry, yes, and live miserably ever after, so does that prove anything? You can’t judge marriage by divorce; you’ve got to judge it by marriage. And the fact remains that most marriages are drab, uninspired affairs that reflect little credit on the institution that bred them.
To all of which I can only answer that there was once a time when I should have subscribed to such a belief with very real conviction. But that, as I’ve said, was before I had revised my views on marriage a second time. Now, I know that such a viewpoint is unqualifiedly wrong. I know this because I have examined the primary causes of attraction that lead to marriage and found them to be a lodestar guiding us aright; and that when men and women marry, there is truly a divinity that is shaping their ends. They have been brought together, for better or worse, and a wiser intelligence than their own is seeing to it that His law of natural selection is not a false law, but one that is accurate and tolerably foolproof.
During the first part of the present century, marriage underwent a curious discrediting. This state of mind was a product of the “Gay Nineties” and traced, perhaps, to the feministic influence of Ibsen’s Nora and to the materialistic philosophy that gained ascendancy in the early nineteen hundreds. For at that time, not only marriage but God, also, was discredited. And with the pendulum swinging away from the sacrosanct idea of this “made in heaven” institution, there came a whole school of writers who did much to carry on the good work. Indeed, they did their bit in poisoning the collective mind of that day and age and unselling it on the idea of the durability of marriage.
Then came the marriage muck-rakers. An age that was trimming its ship by science alone scoffed at heaven and at all things that were supposed to have been made in heaven. The romantic conception of love, courtship and marriage received a blow from which it has not even yet recovered.
I recall clearly in this regard the books of the late David Graham Phillips. Two of them—”The Hungry Heart” and “The Husband’s Story”—mirrored perfectly the common point of view toward marriage that prevailed a score of years ago. And it created in turn a large measure of mistrust. One married, but he wasn’t at all sure that his marriage would last. Marriage was necessary, of course, but it was a necessary evil. Woman was a monstrous egoist—that is, the woman one married was, if you were to believe the novelists.
And unfailingly one married the wrong person. Life was a supreme, a collossal, frustration, for after the sex edge had worn off marriage there was pathetically little left, save boredom, distrust and discontent, as well as the sense of an overwhelming disillusionment.
That was the conception of marriage some of us held twenty and more years ago, and when I say “some” of us, I mean a whole lot of us, for we were most of us reading “The Fighting Chance” and “The Younger Set,” and the stories of those memorable best sellers depicted faithless wives and disillusioned husbands galore. There was almost nothing, mind, of faith, loyalty and sacrificial purpose, such as has frequently distinguished the fine and enduring relationship of man and woman in matrimony. Instead, it was a wholly drab outlook, without a hint that occasionally somewhere in this curious partnership was something that was somehow good.
It is not strange, therefore, that this belief claimed many votaries, nor that the years between have seen it flourish like a green bay tree. Many are the men, indeed, who look back upon their bachelorhood with the eye of Moses peering over into the Promised Land. Their reasoning, if we but knew it, might be something like this: MARRIAGE ought to be good, for it’s a grand idea. And if I’d married my One Woman, life would certainly have been a long sweet song. But I didn’t. I married a girl who was just a plain girl and not a glorious creature of romance, and I’m destined, I guess, to continue on the same old treadmill till death do us part. Ho hum!”
Now, what such men, I have come in recent years to believe, do not know is that they did marry their One Woman, and, what is more, that nearly everyone does. So exact, in fact, is the process of mating by which we are wed, that ninety-nine out of every hundred men get in actuality the very Woman that God gave them, whether they like it or not. And the reason for marriage’s essential success lies in those primary causes of attraction that draw individuals of opposite sex together and, against the tides of circumstance and impulse, hold them together for as long as they inhabit this terrestrial sphere.
What, you may ask, are these unique forces that hold persons of opposite sex together after their love instinct has died? Is it children? Is it property? Or is it just habit?
Well, I think that fundamentally men and women are drawn together and held together through the quality of sameness. There is a mutual endowment of faculties that complement each other, and that gives each individual a continually renewed sense of satisfaction and pleasure in the possession of those faculties by the other. I have noted untold instances of this sort of thing, and it has brought with it the profound conviction that people marry their true mates after all.
Here are a husband and wife, let us say, and what are their greatest points of common interest? That is the heart and core of the matter, and on this de- sideratum shall their marriage stand or fall. They will succeed, or they will fail, precisely to the degree that one finds in the other reactions similar to his and her own. It’s like a story I once read of Ring Lardner’s in which one of the characters remarked of two others— “Why, they correspond.” She meant in an epistolary sense. But her husband answered sententiously, “Absolutely!”
It is not my purpose to hold up for clinical examination the frailties or infirmities of many persons— failings, indeed, that are familiar to us all and common, too, to many of us. But I have observed a startling similarity between the husbands and wives of successful and happy marriages. These points of similarity have been based as often, perhaps, upon ignoble traits as on noble ones. What is significant is—they both possessed the same identical traits. It may have been a kindred appreciation of humor, or a joint lack of it; a sense of Scotch thrift, or a mutual prodigality; it may have been an interest in religious matters, or a liking for dissipation; for books, art, or for sports; or for hiking, canoeing and camping in the great out-of-doors. Whatever it was, they both had it to a like degree, and this common interest made for understanding and continued satisfaction in the other’s society.
I KNOW a young couple whose marriage was one of those casual incidents of the Great War. Young men, newly in service then, married perhaps a little less discriminately than was normally the case. They were going overseas, they reasoned, they might not come back, so why not, anyway? In this manner, they turned to the first girl who gave evidence of liking them and led her to the nearest marriage license bureau, and thence to the first minister, rabbi or priest. Some of these marriages didn’t last, but some of them did. And those that lasted, I’m of firm belief, did so because they both found qualities that were common to each other. , This instance of which I speak was just such a marriage. It was a case of not only do I love you because you love the things I love, but I hate you because you love the things I hate, whether they are books, plays, popular songs, social diversions, sports, or—people, for we must not forget people. If, mind you, your best girl quarrels with you over some individual you have just met and who to you, because of his complacency, his arrogance, self-assurance, or downright orneriness, is utterly detestable to you, you can mark it down as a historical fact that this little point of disagreement between you and the lady of your heart isn’t going to prove a bond making for a happy solidarity. On the contrary!
But with the war marriage I’ve mentioned, such was not the case. Those young people corresponded, if ever two young people did. Romantically, however, they started off, I thought, somewhat lukewarmly. They didn’t seem to have as much of this sort of thing as young newlyweds usually have. Perhaps the young husband’s mind was on his country’s welfare and his own hazardous part in preserving it. At any rate, they married almost as casually as they might have dined, and a day or so later, I saw him off on a train, together with half a thousand other brown-suited young Americans, for Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.
Eventually, after the War was over, this chap and his wife went to housekeeping, and their marriage really started. I happen to know they weathered one storm together. He wearied after a time, as many men do, and turned to a younger girl. But it was an innocent transgression, as it happened. And then, he swung back to his wife—bound, I believe, by the ties that their marriage had established, the intimacy, the understanding, the communal likes and dislikes, that were missing in the other. And presently the other became a memory.
Against the sex urge of the latter, you see, had prevailed the long intimacy of marriage and the peculiar harmony of understanding, the similarity of viewpoint, that marriage usually brings. In other words, their marriage partnership had given them something over the space of years that was fine and indestructible, that nothing could come between and disrupt and destroy. Nor is it otherwise, let me say, where marriage is given half a chance to take root in each individual and blossom finally in a flower that, in all reality, never dies.
Of course, let me hasten to add, this rule of thumb does not apply to marriages that, for a variety of reasons, are foredoomed to failure from the very start. If a man, for instance, sees a girl the contour of whose legs he likes inordinately, and marries her regardless of all other considerations, I am not one to answer for the happiness or permanence of their marital relations. But where the qualities of human nature are allowed naturally to operate as an attractive force, nine times out of ten they will make for a successful mating.
The qualities that hold men and women together are fundamental qualities and, although their interpretation is graded according to the understanding of those concerned, the qualities in themselves are as basic as hunger and sleep. They affect our protective, preservative instinct, whether it be a welfare of the body or of the soul, and our capacity for excursioning in freedom of the will— whether this be in spending money or in appreciating art. Men and women find in each other that essential complementing quality that is dominant in each.
This may be thrift, which is a sublimated fear of want, religion, which is a fear of the hereafter, or the desire for unrestricted enjoyment, which is freedom of the will. All the indigent folk in the world, I fancy, are so because of their intolerance of any self-disciplinary measures of thrift and denial, just as all irreligious folk are without any apprehensive concern of an hereafter. Whatever the dominating characteristic of each may be, they should find its complement in the other, and usually, as I have said, they do. By and large, you find thrift matching thrift, religious nature matching religious nature, playgirl matching playboy. Thus they meet and pair, according to their lights, and all unconscious, as a rule, of the great directing force that is holding them together in somehow mutual contentment.
|T IS astonishing, in this respect, to note how many successful marriages seem to be founded upon the Scotch sense of thrift. Couples are attracted to each other and marry more, it would seem, because they both possess a thrifty, even parsimonious, nature, than for any other reason. Nor is it anything but creditable. Thrift is, in reality, a quality of strength, and each admires its possession in the other.
Every community of every city, town, or village, abounds in just such couples. Look about you, and the fact will at once become clear. You may have wondered when you first saw them what such people had to draw them together in the first place and to make them marry. What they had is, in one way, an enviable possession, and each sensed the strength of the other’s soul in his and her capacity to live frugally through interminable lean years, until such time as they knew the specter of want would never stalk them in their old age.
This mutual possession made them— not so much dear, perhaps, to one an- other, as necessary. Each felt in the other a profound understanding of his or her dominating instinct. And each turned to the other as his woman or her man. I knew a couple once who had lived through many lean years while the husband was establishing himself in business. In those early days, the wife, when she sewed, even saved her own bastings to use another time, while the husband shined his own shoes and ate ten-cent lunches. Later, when he became a millionaire, his habits of life did not change, nor did those of his wife. Thrift had become so habitual to each of them that, in the hotels where they stopped, she ordered one breakfast for both, which they ate in the sanctuary of their room.
ON the other hand, I have known couples to be drawn together by virtue, it seemed, of their very prodigality. They each found in the other a glad, irresponsible soul, living happily for the moment and careless of the morrow. Any time they had ten idle dollars in their possession, it was put promptly to work procuring them a dinner in some fashionable hotel. Each week found the husband awaiting his salary, and needing it on the minute. Any surplus there might be was at once used happily either to buy some unnecessary article of wearing apparel or for expensive food or entertainment. It was a situation in which the wife entered with all of the happy abandon that her husband did. And the weekly total of outgo chasing the weekly total of income became a vicious circle, the evil of which would have been apparent to any but those concerned.
Now, one might say, offhand: “What a pity that chap didn’t marry a different kind of girl—a girl who’d have made a man of him and saved his money, instead of helping him to spend it all.”
How often we’ve all of us heard this same kind of talk. What those who say such things fail utterly to realize is that this particular chap would not have been happy with that other kind of the girl, the girl who would have saved his money and made a man of him. He’d have resented her restrictions, her exactions, and, in all likelihood, he’d eventually commenced stepping out with some one whose prodigal nature matched his own, and who he felt understood him. There’s something after all in Kipling’s observation that A fool must follow his natural bent, Even as you and I.
Whatever this “natural bent” may be, whether it is folly or wisdom, it is fundamental in the individual, and the leopard does not change his spots. A man who is by nature thrifty does not develop into a spendthrift overnight, any more than the man who is a spendthrift suddenly becomes thrifty. Whatever he is, he is as God made him, and he must live according to his lights, and unfailingly he does. If he marries a girl whose nature matches his own, he finds in her a supreme and lasting source of spiritual satisfaction.
There are other things, too, that hold men and women together after the novelty of their relationship shall in large measure have worn off. There are per- sons who are social, who love company, and there are those who are anti-social and who prefer to live in comparative solitude. There are persons who practically live for their friends, while there are others who live ostensibly for themselves. If persons of like temperament in this regard meet and mate, it is easy to see how happy they will be; but if the husband and wife differ, it is also easy to see logical grounds for dissension. Happy are those husbands and wives, therefore, who like the same things and who speak the same language.
I HAVE in mind a man I’ve known for many years, a writer. He was always considered a “queer fish.” Perhaps you will say that all those writers are queer fish, anyway. However, I had suspected that his wife, when I met her, would be as queer as he was, for I knew that they were very happily married. Well, she was. In fact, she was, if anything, queerer. She possessed the same traits that he possessed—peculiar, stand-offish ways, that made others vaguely uncomfortable, and yet were so perfect a counterpart of the qualities he possessed. I had known him before his marriage, and he had been a queer fish even then. Recently, I met a lady who had gone to college with his wife. They had visited not long since, and the former remarked: “Mildred is the same quiet girl she was in school. She hasn’t changed a bit in fifteen years.”
So, their marriage, it was evident, hadn’t made one like the other, which might have happened, although I really believe it rarely does. They had both matched each other when they met, corresponded, if you will, and as a result they have both made an extremely happy marriage of it.
Speaking of fundamental traits and interests that hold people happily together in marriage, I have in mind another couple of my acquaintance who have been married about eight years. Both of them were well past thirty when they wed. Their great point of common interest is home decoration, an esthetic principle. He, as it happens, is an artist, while she is a woman of business, and they both return daily from their re- spective tasks, to their really delightful home in the country.
There, on such evenings that they are alone together, they sit discussing the decoration of their rooms, the acquisition of a porcelain lamp, a Satsuma vase, a Sarouk rug, rapt, happy, and very near to each other, it would be obvious to anyone. I have sometimes thought that if this couple were cast away on a desert island, they would have utterly nothing to talk about. But, then again, it is possible in that event that the resourceful wife would corral some choice specimens of shell and together they would find the same esthetic pleasure in their contemplation that they now do in the decoration of their home. In other words, you can’t keep a good hobby down!
Of course, there are exceptions to all rules. There are people who marry and who do actually mismate. so that a continuance of their marital state is quite intolerable. This—in spite of what, in the beginning, seemed like a happy alliance of their mutual interests. There are cases of ungovernable incompatibility due, possibly, to some nervous disorder that is aggravated by some peculiarity in the other. Or there may be a failure in their mutual sex life. Or, then again, one may outgrow the other. Whatever the cause, there ceases to be a true correspondence in matters of individual likes and dislikes. When this occurs, no matter how fair the weather seemed to be at the start, you may indeed look for a storm to overtake them and a disaster to threaten their fair ship of matrimony.
In this regard, I once knew a man and his wife who started, apparently, with everything. He was a moderately celebrated sculptor, and she was a very lovely person. They had means and three beautiful children. During our acquaintance, an incident arose which affected us all, one of those trivial social matters of the suburbs, which called, however, for a definite course of action on the part of the wife. We were discussing it, the husband and I, and I ventured to suggest what I felt his wife’s action should be. My friend shook his head.
“Edith won’t do that,” he said quickly, and I could see that her attitude dis- tressed him. I thought a moment and then proposed gently that he recommend such a course to her. It seemed to me definitely the only proper thing to do, and we had reached the decision, I felt, through mutual agreement. But he again shook his head.
“I can’t impose my will on Edith like that.” he remonstrated.
We were old friends, and I took the liberty of saying that, under the circumstances, I shouldn’t think he’d have to. But he shook his head again, a little sadly, I thought.
“We don’t share the same viewpoint in such things,” he answered.
Four years later, it may be interesting to note, they were divorced, and for no other reason than temperamental incompatibility. Of course, they never should have married.
THIS was the other side of the shield, an instance of two persons who very probably loved one another in the beginning, but who, because of their fundamental lack of agreement, that state of mutual oneness, sameness, that the French call en rapport., failed ultimately to find in each other that condition of lasting satisfaction that makes in the vast majority of cases for happy marriages.
But I believe that in most marriages there is a mental and temperamental force that guides us correctly. We sense mutually—if our hearts and minds are open to such promptings—whether there exists in the other a capacity that matches our own and that makes for confidence and understanding. We sense mutually, too, if there is adaptability, and if the current of the other’s actual, or if not actual, at least, potential, interests, flows in the same direction as our own. In most cases of marriage, I have found, there is a sort of beneficent magnetism that guides us correctly in our choice of a mate, say what you will.
This is why I can’t agree that marriage is a lottery. It’s the most exact science in the whole social scheme of things, and if it weren’t, civilization would never have borne the standard of respect for home and womanhood down through the dark waste of the ages to the present day.