For Better and Worse


Mike Kim

This article originally appeared in the May 1996 issue of Esquire. To read every story ever published, upgrade to All Access.

I was married ten years ago, on a brazenly warm day in January, from my father’s house, in a dress my mother made, with the same blithe blindness that sends a bungee jumper off a bridge.

I was thirty-four—not a young bride but about right for my narrow slice of the world: baby boomer, middle class professional, exquisitely self-referential. My kind didn’t marry young. In our twenties, marriage was about as hip as Tupperware parties. Driving around in my parents’ car the day before the wedding, I felt feverish, slightly inauthentic, immensely proud, awkward, and unaware, like a toddler on her maiden voyage as a biped.

I married the man I married because I liked his version of myself better than my own. I married him because I loved him, because I felt more real with him than I had felt with anyone else. I’m not sure what, at the time, I meant by real. I suppose I was pleased by the person I saw reflected in his eyes. There were a couple of different versions of me in those days: the addled girl in love with the romance of self-destruction and the woman my husband saw, the one who gazed with an archaeologist’s interest over the precipice but was in no danger of falling off.

I married him because he loved Ford Madox Ford, because he made the perfect martini, because we could fight and the walls did not fall down, because he was more at home with being a man than any man I knew, because he shouldered responsibility with deceptive ease, and because his eyes welled up with tears elicited by the everyday grace of ordinary people.

original spread

Original Esquire magazine spread.

They were no better and no worse, as reasons go, than any others I’ve heard for getting married: Such decisions hinge on a trick of the light, a tick of the clock, the urgent call of an errant and unreliable heart.

I will not be married as long as I thought I would be if the current odds on my husband’s lung cancer hold true. I doubt, though everyone tells me I can’t know this yet, that I will marry again. I have no plans to commit emotional suttee; I simply cannot imagine how anyone makes the decision to marry a second time, knowing what they know after the first.

Married couples in America now are like punched-out fighters, bathed in each other’s sweat, too exhausted to break the clinch, hanging on to each other because it’s the only alternative to falling down.

These days, newsmagazines run cover stories worrying about the state of marriage; essayists take bold stands in favor of fidelity. Statistics say marriage is bad for you, at least if you’re female: Married women have the worst mental health in the country. (Married men, mirabile dictu, the best.) Talk shows search for scapegoats: feminism, the economy, the government, the mass media, the underclass, the upper class, global warming. On any given weekend, lay ministers and former twelve-steppers are running seminars in dreary, windowless rooms of chain hotels, purportedly teaching people how to stay wed.

Even the divorce lawyers are concerned: The American Bar Association now sponsors something called the Preserving Marriages Project.

Marriage is our great American novel. But we are a people more suited to MTV.

And yet happy marriage is an accident, as Henry Adams noted. Given the demands of an institution that essentially suggests that you jump into the abyss with a nearby stranger and emerge years later with the core of your being inextricably scrambled with his, it is a wonder not that more marriages don’t survive but that more of them don’t end in murder.

Still, there’s something profoundly threatening to our nervous age about the idea that marriage itself isn’t working, as if without it we would have tossed out the last lifeboat. Having exchanged the extended family, the neighborhood bowling league, the two-party system, and the church social for the anonymous camaraderie of the gym and for Prozac’s hearty slap on the back, we are down to a nation of two. The state of marriage has become the barometer for measuring the culture’s decline, the porousness of its moral fiber.

Marriage is a bizarre business: a maze, a plot, a prison—a reason to live. It is, for most of us, the narrative spine of our lives, the epic on which we hang our sense of who we are and where we have come from. Marriage is our great American novel.

But we are a people more suited to MTV.

Marriage made sense once. It made sense when it was about money and children. Now marriage is no longer an economic contract but an emotional rip cord, the thing that we hope will land us gently in life, cushion the fall, soften the blows. On it, we stake all our claims to happiness— not the wisest of investment strategies. It is impossible, of course, and yet we persist—out of a still-lambent sense of romance? Or a sheer lack of imagination?

esquire lynn darling marriage

The Esquire cover touting this story, May 1996.


The publishing industry smells the chum in the water: In the past decade, there have been more than nine hundred books written on the subject of marriage. Pick any point of view, and there is a book to support it: The End of Marriage; The Good Marriage; Love Between Equals—How Peer Marriage Really Works; Men and Marriage; Tough Marriage: How to Make a Difficult Relationship Work; What to Expect the First Year of Marriage; Intimate Terrorism: The Deterioration of Erotic Life; Together Forever!—125 Loving Ways to Have a Vital and Romantic Marriage.

The books offer calm reason and logical interpretation; they teach strategy and negotiation. They attempt to protect us from chaos. They offer nice, shiny IKEA marriages, blond wood and clean lines, designed to fit any decor, some assembly required. But a real marriage is a hideous Victorian pile: overstuffed and wildly eccentric, the stains covered with yellowing antimacassars, claw-footed, and in need of a matchbook or two to keep it from tilting. It is a weird blending of obligation and accountability, barbarism and civility. Eventually, it weaves a morality of manners, an intricate pattern of consideration and savagery that only two human beings moving together through time can produce.

The first Valentine’s Day after we were married, my husband gave me bath towels. They were red towels, what are called “seconds”—the kind with snagged threads and other flaws that consign them to the bargain shelves. There was a bow on the shopping bag by way of gift wrapping.

I remember that I cried when I unfolded them. I was furious; the towels were a metaphor that blotted out the sun, shrieked across the reassuring hum of a gradually gathering dailiness. It was a romantic high noon, an emotional and historic accounting in which my husband was found sadly wanting. Now I would say that we were not really married then; we were still in teen-romance mode—he loves me, he loves me not—still riveted by the high drama and pitched emotion of courtship and passion, in which a passing glance can detonate a sudden emotional danger.


The centerfold of this story in the May 1996 issue of Esquire.


What I can’t remember anymore is why I was so angry. The reasoning must have been something like this: I have staked everything on this man, and he is not what I thought; he is not the man who cries when he reads Ford Madox Ford. I have defined myself in terms of this choice, this man, and this is the kind of man he is, the Kind Who Gives Towels.

I smile now when I remember this story, set back in the phase when marriage is still a mirror, reflecting back only one’s carefully constructed, easily shattered conceit. Now my husband gives me bath towels every Valentine’s Day, and every Valentine’s Day I laugh. It has become part of our mythology. But the laughter is its own edgy commentary on how things have changed, how we have changed each other, how the two people who smile at this joke are indelibly stained with each other’s expectations and disappointments, how who we are is a composite of who we might have been refracted through the lens of whom we married. The laughter is a counterpane, covering the lumps we’ve dealt each other, the scars left from the various surgeries we’ve performed on each other, the enthusiasms dampened so that a couple might emerge.

My husband was married when I met him. He and his wife had been together for fifteen years; they had three children. I mention this because even now it is hard for me to reconcile the person I thought I was with the person who could wreak so much havoc in other lives. My comfort had always been that the only one who got smashed up in my accidents was me. So now, despite all the time and talk and reconciliation, the ways in which his children are so dear to me, the ways in which his ex-wife and I are embedded in each other’s lives, there is a bitter sense of justice that the catastrophe that is happening, is happening on my watch. I earned this karmic crash.

I married him. And then I thought, Now what? I didn’t know this story. I didn’t know what was supposed to happen next. The plots available to us are so thin: We were happy until. . . she got the promotion, he met the other woman, the children went into detox. The stories that end happily are thinner still. For years, when I was single, I kept tacked to my office bulletin board a photograph of a couple in frozen ecstasy, whirling each other around at their fiftieth-anniversary party, the look of a mad, glad girl on her ancient face, the grin of the skull on his. They scared me, the way they were locked in their fossilized notion of love. I kept it as a warning: Don’t let this happen to you. Last summer, I watched an old couple walk hand in hand down the beach a good, long while—pink, doughy flesh in T-shirts and shorts, the children’s clothes we all wear made pitiable now by the body’s comic fall. They looked happy. I thought about the strings that come attached to answered prayers.

Television permanently distorted the popular idea of marriage. The sitcom wiped out the essential eccentricity of such unions, the odd Mendelian experiments that grow and twist themselves into fantastic shapes in the privacy of the bedroom and other dark arenas of the psyche; instead, it gave us pale paradigms to emulate, Ward and June Cleaver. (Lucy and Ricky got closer to the truth—there were between the Ricardos draconian ultimatums and deceptions, manic rows and thwarted ambitions—but then, that was meant to be slapstick.)

On TV, marriage, like God, was eternal. At the turn of the century, the departure of the last child from the domestic nest coincided with the death of one of the spouses, but sitcoms never acknowledged the inconvenient fact that modern longevity had taken away the traditional cure for many an unhappy marriage.

Even without a nudge from mortality, John Updike saw a life cycle in a marriage: “That a marriage ends is less than ideal,” he wrote in the preface to Too Far to Go. “But all things end under heaven, and if temporality is held to be invalidating, then nothing real succeeds.”

lucille ball and desi arnaz in 'i love lucy'

A still from I Love Lucy, 1956.

Hulton Archive//Getty Images

We seem unable to tolerate such hard truths in the nineties, in this nation of micromanagers, where parents-to-be hire experts to plot the most advantageous month in which to conceive their offspring. According to a University of Washington study, even marriage can now be subjugated to an equation—the researchers claimed that they could “actually quantify the ratio of positive to negative interactions needed to maintain a marriage in good shape.” They found that “satisfied couples, no matter how their marriages stacked up against the ideal, were those who maintained a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative moments.” Ladies and gentlemen, get out your calculators.

It seems as if we are trying to talk ourselves into something, like urbanites onto the farm or sybarites into the sermon. Now that nostalgia is our highest art form, marriage has become another vanished dream to be resurrected back into the thing it never was.

The late philosopher-curmudgeon Christopher Lasch cast a cold eye on our current attitudes. To his mind, the rise of a managerial and professional elite—experimental in its values, disdainful of tradition, transient and unencumbered—has shattered the sorts of standards that make institutions like marriage viable. This new elite, this meritocracy, lacks such basic marital assets as loyalty, a sense of responsibility for one’s actions, and pride of place, Lasch wrote.

Okay, guilty, guilty, guilty. We are too smart and too rich—and also too stupid—to stay married to each other for life. So why do we watch in horror, gawkers at a traffic accident, when a marriage breaks up?

Because marriage has become the coin of our personal happiness, which makes it a savage business.

When I was single, I equated marriage with drowning: Your identity disappeared, your privacy was invaded, your self submerged. After I married, I found out that I was right; what I hadn’t known was how much of an amphibian I could be.

It is early in our marriage. My husband and I are at a dinner party. It is one of the first we have attended together, so we have not yet worked out our public persona, the two-headed vaudeville act all married couples become in other people’s living rooms. We have not yet developed the group of people who will become our friends.

This time, we happen to be at a table surrounded by mine. I am very nervous, and because I am very nervous and like to drink, I drink too much. The Jack Daniel’s makes me long for a Camel. The cigarette is a talisman, a declaration of allegiance to my own self, and although I officially gave up smoking several years ago, I enjoy the throaty rape of the smoke with an immoderate, illicit pleasure.

Late in the evening, I look down the table from the warm interior of some prolonged fit of liquor-enhanced laughter to see my husband’s cold, unsmiling face. I know the look on his face. It is the look that says, This is not the Woman Who Loves Schubert’s String Quintet in C. This is the woman my wife warned me about, the Tacky Little Floozy Who Will Ruin My Life. Without saying another word to me, my husband leaves the table and drives home, leaving me to find my own way back.

My self-indulgence, my lack of restraint, he tells me later, has disappointed him. I bridle, not seeing that his anger obscures his fear that he really has stepped onto a runaway train. I see only the way in which I have become the flawed reflection of his self-esteem. Are we really now meant to be mirrors of each other? Does every public thing we do raise or lower our sense of ourselves in the world accordingly?

The answer, I learned in time, was yes, of course. Married couples are hybrids, forced blooms, and we make ungainly composites in the beginning, molting in public, like transsexuals before the knife but after the hormone treatments have begun.

It is an unnatural way to live, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. The quiet fund of conspiracy, the shared opinions and the shared visions—“Their eyes,” Updike wrote, “had married and merged to three”—begin to accumulate weight and meaning. Over the years, the dry wit and the dumb jokes and the occasional blinding beauty of another soul make things like abrupt departures and stolen cigarettes not worth the fight. Maybe marriage isn’t the great civilizer conservative pontificators want it to be, but at least it is a medium— a theater for our incivility.

Marriages, after all, begin in delusions, in the drug of love, in a lie—if not knowing who you are and who the other one is can be called a lie. In the Richard Yates novel Revolutionary Road, a wife reflects on how a boy she liked to kiss after he walked her home from a party became her husband: “The only real mistake, the only wrong and dishonest thing, was ever to have seen him as anything more than that. Oh, for a month or two, just for fun, it might be all right to play a game like that with a boy; but all these years! And all because, in a sentimentally lonely time long ago, she had found it easy and agreeable to believe whatever this one particular boy felt like saying, and to repay him for that pleasure by telling easy, agreeable lies of her own, until each was saying what the other most wanted to hear—until he was saying, ‘I love you’ and she was saying, ‘Really, I mean it; you’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met.’ What a subtle, treacherous thing it was to let yourself go that way!”

Vintage Revolutionary Road

Revolutionary Road

Vintage Revolutionary Road

All marriages begin in myth. The myth is the carapace under which the real marriage takes shape; the cracking of the carapace, like the breakup of the ice on a spring-swollen river, is a deafening thing. In our case, the original myth was all the stronger because of the destruction its creation had occasioned. Since we had plundered one marriage to make another, our particular myth, the romance of two souls so made for each other that the claims of no one could stand in their way, gave way only reluctantly to the reality of daily life. You do not break up a marriage only to argue over the dishes with the one who was meant to take you away from the exasperating dullness of arguing over the dishes.

We fought, we skinned our knees, we tasted the poison in each other.

All marriages are mended garments. In marriage, you don’t make it all better; you get over it. By marrying, Robert Louis Stevenson warned, “you have willfully introduced a witness into your life . . . and can no longer close the mind’s eye upon uncomely passages, but must stand up straight and put a name upon your actions.” Because if you don’t, she will.

“Every major argument has a cost, a potential parting of the ways, when you can say, That’s it, it’s over,” says a friend who has been married for seventeen years. “Then you think, I can’t shut down my whole life, and you don’t, but there’s a price, an unhappiness that gets woven in, and you deal with it. Some drink, some mope, some get religious, some have affairs. But if you leave, you could lose a lot that you value. What if you married a second time and were just as unhappy? Marriage isn’t a tradable commodity; it’s an element you live in.”

I remember after one of our early rows, my husband and I emerged into the light of the afternoon to look at an apartment we had an appointment to see. The woman renting the place stared at me quizzically. She was trying to place me, and in time she did: It turned out that she was my ex-boyfriend’s ex-wife. She and I laughed uneasily over the coincidence, but my husband was visibly shaken by the breathtaking fragility of human arrangements. We both felt the windows rattle; I could see it was the first time he had considered the idea that we might not be together forever. I think for a time we treated each other more carefully after that, having become more aware of the tremors beneath our feet.

“My wife is becoming less interested in me,” a friend tells me over lunch. He says this with calm dispassion, as if describing the migrating habits of geese. “What I don’t think she expected is how much like my father I would turn out to be.” And he? Is he less interested in her? “What’s surprising to me still is the things you don’t know, the ways in which the other remains a stranger to you. That’s disappointing, because there was once a sense that you could talk about anything, that you would tell each other everything.” But that, he says, was “back in the time when you could be honest without being hurtful,” back before the power plays made every observation a criticism, every criticism a hand grenade.

In marriage, you don’t make it all better; you get over it.

We put each other on leashes; we use the leashes like whips. The leashes vary from couple to couple: I have a friend whose husband has insisted that she avoid short skirts because, he says, her legs aren’t good enough. On the other hand, she goes off to Paris every year by herself for ten days’ R&R, and he doesn’t blink twice. I wear what I want to wear, but if I were to propose such a trip to Paris, both my husband and I would consider the idea tantamount to a divorce decree. We are each accountable to the other, and that accountability is both the best and worst part of marriage. It keeps you sane. It also drives you crazy.

Five years into our marriage, we are living in New York. Things have changed. We are no longer the scandalous couple of the small-town gossip mill of Washington, D. C. I am no longer the ingenue. My husband is no longer the keeper of all my aspirations. New York dazzles me: Unbound from the round of decorous Beltway dinner parties, I become restless, ready for something new. The fights grow bitter. I want a child and he does not. Our myth is cracking. Privately, I think, we both pull out a set of scales, begin to wonder if what we have given up is worth what we got. There are nights when we sit by the dinner table with nothing to say to each other, and I remember all the nights in restaurants when I have watched such silence between other couples with smug contempt, wondering how they ever got that way.

My husband goes on a trip, for six weeks, to Africa. For the first time in a long while, I am completely alone. Before long, I am deep into adultery: I take a long walk at night in the rain, exulting in the fact that there is no one waiting for me at home, aggrieved and wanting dinner; I spend an afternoon listening to Linda Ronstadt, a singer my husband hates, while knitting, an activity he finds ridiculously mindless. In the morning, I open the refrigerator and drink orange juice straight from the carton, a habit that I have concealed since I saw him wince when he caught me in the act. In social settings, on my own now, not part of a couple, I haul out my old camouflage—taunting, flirtatious, argumentative, the persona I adopted when I was single. It’s a bit tattered here and there, but it still works.

man placing engagement ring on woman's finger

Betrothed, but for how long?

H. Armstrong Roberts//Getty Images

I am having, I realize, an affair with myself. It is an innocent adultery, as these things go, but it still feels like a betrayal—of the person I am with my husband, the one who represents my half of the couple.

When my husband returns, I am glad to see him and relieved that I am glad, that my life is simply better with him in it. We are interesting to each other again. But now there is this being, folded up again in my back pocket, this doppelgänger, the person I might have been had I not married. She worries me.

There are cycles to this domestic life—times when you’re in love; times when you coexist as amiable roommates, too busy to take much notice of each other as long as the domestic machinery is humming along; times, too, when the air becomes too thin for you to breathe, the walls between you as translucent as membrane when what you want is good, thick concrete.

I think that is when the bickering begins. The sharp tone to the casual comment, the stubborn refusal to give in, are the holes we puncture in the top of the lid to make sure enough air gets in.

A friend of mine, recently divorced, is sitting in our living room after dinner. We are talking about Tiananmen Square, a subject I know nothing about, unlike my husband, the former foreign editor of two major newspapers. We are not discussing the righteousness of the current foreign policy toward China. We are tangling over some perfectly meaningless point of fact. We cover the same rocky patch of ground for several interminable minutes while some still-sane remnant of my character wonders why it is so important that I win this argument.

I look at my friend, the survivor of a cruel marriage and a crueler divorce. She is smiling. I ask her why. “I just remembered why I’m glad I’m not married anymore,” she says.

But now there is this being, folded up in my back pocket, this doppelgänger, the person I might have been had I not married. She worries me.

In the cancer ward, my husband is dozing. In the next bed lies an elderly man, dry as parchment. His wife sits next to him, their two voices topping each other, the incessant ballet of mosquitoes.

“I told you to call her.”

“You never mentioned it.”

“I just thought it would be better for you, that’s all.”

“Me? You were thinking of me? Since when have you thought about me?”

Love me. Leave me alone. Love me. Remember that once you loved me. Love me. But never forget that you will never know me. There was something oddly reassuring about their voices, about the insect dance in that stern white room, dailiness among the IV tubes, a talisman against the day when one of the voices stops.

Every marriage has a story, says a friend of mine, a plot twist, “a critical moment that changes things, like a tree after a bad storm, the event that colored their whole lives—Bill had to go to war; we lost the money when the market crashed. So that where you end up is not where you began, which is both the heaven and the hell of marriage. You are not who you were and she is not who she was, and the balance on any given day, of whether that is a good or a bad thing, shifts precariously.”

My marriage assumed its final form on a day in April laced in green when my husband walked to a lectern in a Washington church and delivered the eulogy for his twelve-year-old and only son.

He talked about his son’s short life, and at the end he asked the congregation to say the boy’s name out loud together one last time. And all that I know about love and courage and timeless sorrow I learned from looking at his face as he listened while we did as he asked.

I sat in a pew with the boy’s mother, whose strength and generosity still astound me, and his two sisters, my stepdaughters, just entering their own spring. Around us was a force of people who had buoyed this family and kept them afloat for a terrible week and would continue to do so in the years ahead. This was the community in which my husband and I had taken our place together.

My marriage assumed its final form on a day in April laced in green…

I knew many of their stories: Some of these people were pompous and proud, some dull and stingy with their affection, others gaudy in their ambition, a few unrecognized in their goodness. But that day, it wasn’t their foibles that caught the light; it was the immense, tangled net of them, the strength of that net, the weight it could support. The terrible necessity of other people at last came home to me.

My husband and I would never be the same after what happened to his son. The moment when I understood the horror and the beauty of that fact, the way in which we had been changed, the way in which our knowledge of each other was unfathomably deepened, the way in which we were inextricably a part of each other, was the moment when I felt I finally knew what it meant to be married.

In life, Updike wrote, “There are four forces: love, habit, time, and boredom. Love and habit at short range are immensely powerful, but time, lacking a minus charge, accumulates inexorably, and with its brother boredom levels all.”

My married friends and I talk about adultery sometimes. Late at night, on the rare evenings we are up late at night, or on the phone, on the more frequent afternoons when we are avoiding the things we have to do, we discuss the weirdness of the idea that we will never make love to anyone new. Implicit in the conversations is the idea that none of us have.

At one late-night dinner party, the question on the table is what constitutes adultery, where we draw the line. Drunken kissing in a taxicab? An out-of-town blow job? We are goosing ourselves a little, wondering what we would do, wondering which of us have done it.

The single people at the table regard us sternly. The merest kiss is adultery, they tell us. They have much to learn. They think adultery is about sex.

passionate embrace

Adultery in action.

Orlando//Getty Images

Not all of us find adultery an interesting question—there is one participant in the conversation who insists that he would rather eat an olive than make love. It is a sensible attitude, and I envy him to the same degree to which he astonishes me. I prefer his position to the rather smug and priggish new piety about adultery to be found these days—we are all too busy, too tired, too well-adjusted, the theory goes, to indulge in that sort of thing. According to this line of thinking, adultery is a syndrome like alcohol addiction, a kink in the family genes. Or adultery is quaint, something people did in the fifties instead of watching pay-per-view.

But the fact is, adultery is always an issue, an insistent tongue seeking out the sore tooth. Marriage demands virtue, but virtue is an amputation, and what is lost is one of the things that make one feel most alive. Desire is such an anarchic state, so perfectly heedless, that it doesn’t have much to do with morality or guilt or virtue or innocence and shouldn’t have to answer to any such judgments. But there is no way to reconcile the satisfactions of abiding love with the leap your heart takes when you’re touching someone you have thought about touching for a long, long time.

There is a depth of intimacy to domesticated lovemaking that nothing can equal; yet there are times when the idea of making love to just one person for the rest of your life can make your head hurt. So where does that leave us, apart from staring at the ceiling at three o’clock in the morning or at each other over the remnants of the tiramisu? I don’t know. Marriage, when it works, is a mystery made up of such a complicated ebb and flow of affection, admiration, fury, ritual, and gradually unfolding understanding that with the right person it’s not a bad way to live a life. But if it means giving up fire and first kisses, then it seems like more than a little death. So one is left with a simple choice: self-denial or betrayal, contentment or ecstasy, earth or fire, the lady or the tramp.

Most of us choose not to take the risk while leaving open the loophole, in much the same way that I continue not to smoke only because I pretend that I haven’t smoked my last cigarette. But in the end, adultery—real, old-fashioned sex with someone else—is a fairly stupid issue: One of the best marriages I know, one in which the levels of sanity and self-respect, consideration and camaraderie, are reassuringly high, involves a couple for whom the judicious use of the extramarital affair has seen each of them through an extended siege of the other’s craziness. I’ve seen totally faithful marriages for which the only sensible solution is a nice murder-suicide.

For most of us, adultery is a gauge to the stage and status of our marriage. Most of us sitting around the table are at an awkward age, too old to consider ourselves young, too young to consider ourselves old. Our preoccupation with the subject is in part a generational legacy: The ecstatic abandon of Woodstock is the benchmark against which we measure ourselves. Unlike people now in their twenties, who grew up in a harder school and know a good deal when they see one, we were not after contentment but cliff-hangers. The past ten years has seen a surge in what are now called “starter” marriages, as ephemeral as spring. My tribe settled for living together. We got around to marriage late and cautiously, perhaps too late ever to achieve the kind of seamless duality where the border of one personality bleeds inconspicuously into the other.

For most of us, adultery is a gauge to the stage and status of our marriage.

For us, then, adultery is a metaphor for what’s been given up, the existential quality of experience, the random act, the assertion of privacy and independence. Its promise is protection against the kind of cold comfort that Edith Wharton’s protagonist in The Age of Innocence nurses after giving up the woman he loves for the woman he has promised to marry: “Their long years together had shown him that it did not so much matter if marriage was a dull duty, as long as it kept the dignity of a duty: lapsing from that, it became a mere battle of ugly appetites.”

We have no modern affinity for the Edwardian sense of sacrifice as an endorphin high. Marriage has a dangerous relationship with happiness; it was meant to be measured in terms of economic necessity, not by the yardstick of capitalism. “As soon as [men and women] introduce into their private life a sort of inarticulate system of cost accounting—they cannot fail to become aware of the heavy personal sacrifices that family ties and especially parenthood entail under modern conditions,” wrote the economist Joseph Schumpeter in 1942.

On the other hand, adultery is at best a stopgap measure. We need other, more contemporary answers to the dry rot that sets in, to the slow, insidious accretions of acid and lethal insight that a lifetime’s—or even the prospect of a lifetime’s—accumulation of microscopic observations yields. Surprisingly, the Republican radicals in Congress may have come up with the solution for what ails marriages. It’s simple, it’s facile, it’s pragmatic in the superficial way today’s politics demands. The answer to marriage’s downward spiral is the same as their answer to congressional inertia and unresponsiveness: term limits.

Instead of getting married for life, men and women (in whatever combination suits their sexual orientation) should sign up for a seven-year hitch. If, at the end of those seven years, they want to re-enlist for another seven, they may do so. But after that, the marriage is over. Those who wish to stay together after that may live in what used to be called sin. There would be minor penalties; such flouting of the law might be a misdemeanor, akin to smoking dope.

Such penalties would naturally lead to some inconvenience, but on the other hand there would be the rush of illicitness, a whiff of disapprobation to long-term cohabitation that could jazz things up considerably. Other benefits are obvious: No more stigma attached to the children of divorced parents; all marriages would end equally. No more divorce lawyers. No more fiftieth-wedding-anniversary parties to attend.

After the seven or fourteen years, one could move onto another marriage, perhaps, but maybe to something less restrictive. The ex-hippie in me says that it should be possible after marriage to evolve to a higher plane, to living arrangements involving ex-lovers, best friends, children, stray cats, and green plants that create the sweet rhythms of domestic life we look for in marriage while allowing room for the barbed-wire frontiers necessary for adult sanity.

But the realist in me remembers that there is no way you are going to put up with another person’s predilection for unwashed dishes or Frank Sinatra unless you are inextricably entwined with the perpetrator, both physically and financially. So I think we’re probably stuck with marriage, even if what you end up with is the pride of the survivor, that the two of you have weathered the storm, that you still cherish the person and all he has meant to you. Even if what you end up with is the conclusion a friend of mine came to: “I still can’t imagine being happier,” he says. “I just didn’t realize how unhappy I could become.”

Memory is a slut, open to any interpretation. I live in three time zones these days—past, present, and future. I think about the person I was before I married and worry that the demons in her will come back to haunt me. I think about the future only when it slips in the unexpected stiletto: Wobbling about on rented skates, scanning the crowd for my five-year-old daughter, I see a man sitting at a table. From the back, he looks a little like my husband. There is a rush of fond surprise and then a chill. I imagine making the same mistake in later years, when it is not followed by the recollection that my husband is, in fact, at home.

Terminal illness and lack of time perform a Khmer Rouge-like obliteration on the dull lacquer of years. There are moments when my husband and I are back in the year one, and all the reasons we fell in love are so apparent, the barnacles of grievance and irritation removed so completely, that I become furious with marriage for the way it buries love in the sludge of who takes out the trash, the way routine replaces romance.

But then it is a Sunday afternoon. My husband and I are playing Monopoly Junior with our daughter. Chet Baker’s trumpet fills the room. I hated jazz when I was single, but now our marriage is steeped in this music, in the ways I have changed and the things I’ve come to know, in exasperation and elegance, in the poetry of dailiness, in the solace of each other’s company. I see the ways my husband saved me, the ways I saved him. There is still pain in the phantom limbs lost in the making of this marriage, but in that moment the loss seems a manageable part of the trade. I see only the courage and kindness that marriage elicits, not the cost, and it seems to me that it gives us our only chance to be heroes. I want the song Baker is playing never to end.

I don’t think anyone chooses to be a hero, not after they know the price to be paid. I know I don’t want to be changed again, to be blended, smoothed, to pare down the sharp ends of my personality to fit into the too-small allowances made for them. But I look at who I was and who I am, and I want to be nowhere except where I am now, even though, and perhaps because, I know it is the one thing I will not be given. And while the song is playing, I know that, yes, I would marry again, if I could simply marry the very same man.

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