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Cynthia Kling

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Interview with Susan Squire, author of I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage

Posted: 08/05/08 06:43 PM ET

Read Susan Squire's highly entertaining new social history, I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage (Bloomsbury) and you will finally understand how we got ourselves into this mess. As it turns out, the mess has been several thousand years in the making. It's rooted in the tenacious but ultimately futile efforts of men -- pagan, Jewish and Christian alike -- to solve the problem they identified as Woman. But for me, it's the women in this book who steal the show: Bold, notorious broads like Jezebel, who was literally fed to the dogs (wild, ravenous, and in multiple) on God's orders, for wearing her husband's pants. But since her husband happened to be the king, maybe God had a point.

Squire's witty and deeply researched work proves one thing: marriage has been hard on both husbands and wives for a very long time. But, but, but... is there anything we can do to make it easier? Has the author's view of her own 20-year-marriage changed, for better or worse, in the course of writing I Don't? To find out, I called her.

Cynthia Kling: I finished your book with one major question: what were all those men so afraid of?

Susan Squire: Women. Especially the ones they lived with. Feminist historians describe the traditional male attitude as misogyny, but I'd call it gynophobia. Most people don't hate -- or spend thousands of years trying to subjugate -- anyone they don't fear. But why would the self-defined stronger sex feel so threatened by the weaker, inferior one? Women were seen as irrational, untrustworthy, incapable of self-control, and nymphomaniacal by nature. Since such creatures could not be held responsible for their own actions, their husbands were -- and the man who failed to master his wife was seen as no man at all. These days we all pay lip service to the idea that a man can cry, eat quiche and change diapers while his wife earns big bucks as a corporate CEO, but in reality very few couples embrace that model. It'll take more than a couple of decades to rewrite a marital playbook that's something like 5000 years old.

CK: You write that the idea of love in marriage emerged in the 16th century. Before that, was there love in people's lives?

SS: Sure, but it wasn't advertised like it is now. The Greeks considered heterosexual love, inside or outside marriage, as demeaning to men; the Christian church said that men who "loved" (read: desired) their wives too much were no better than adulterers; the medieval aristocracy's code of courtly love was all about adultery. Martin Luther placed love high on the marital-priority list, a refreshing change -- but in his vision, married love was something that developed over time and was rooted in mutual affection and respect.

CK: That idea seems to have been lost to some Hollywood idea of hot passion and cold ice cubes. What have we lost along the way?

SS: Passionate love blazes with intensity; it thrives on newness, unpredictability, and obstacles. Married love is something else entirely -- companionable, cozy, stable, and familiar. It glows rather than burns. People shouldn't expect the fire to last forever or to underestimate the power of the steady glow. It's the true signature of a happily-ever-after marriage.

CK: I'm sure that you met your husband, fell madly into a wild passionate love and then got hitched. That's how we boomers did it. But does a great love affair predict a great marriage?

SS: Noooo. It's just as likely to predict the opposite. Wild passionate love tends to be longhand for lust, and if it's all about lust, than it won't last. I'm not knocking great sex, god knows, but you have to think about other factors when figuring out the calculus: Do you want to floss your teeth around this guy -- or let him floss around you -- for the next 30 years? Is he going to have your back? Does he really understand and respect how your mind works? Is this someone you'd trust to make end-of-life decisions for you? Are his attitudes about neatness, togetherness, and spending money similar to yours? There has to be something underneath that will sustain the relationship over the long term.

CK: What was underneath for you?

SS: A very deep gut connection, a kind of recognition -- an embrace -- of each other's most essential self, what they used to call soul. We both know it's there, but no one else would, considering that we bicker all the time.

CK: If your 19-year old daughter came to you and said, "Mom I am crazy about this guy who I've just met and we're getting married," what would you say?

SS: I would tell her that whatever she found to be exotic, foreign, quirky, in the beginning, was bound to irritate her later on. I came from a striving New England Jewish family and my first husband was a laidback Californian -- not that there's any other kind -- who didn't see the point in striving. He had this Big Bird theory, as he called it: Sometimes the bird dropped goodies and sometimes just droppings, and you had no control over what you got, you just had to roll with it. At first, I found this strange and enchanting and desirable, and was desperate to internalize it. I thought if I did, I'd stop being neurotic and anxious and, well, striving. But by year four or five I'd want to scream: can't you get off your ass and be your own Big Bird, for chrissakes? So I'd tell her to take a hard look at the guy's worldview. Just for starters.

CK: It all seemed so much easier when the Church told everyone what to do. In our secular society, who has taken over for them?

SS: Self-help books, couples therapists, divorce lawyers, Viagra.

CK: Scary! Did your research make you reevaluate your own marriage?

SS: It made me realize that some of our problems, and everyone has them, weren't really ours -- they're actually endemic to the institution. Don't get me wrong, I still like my marriage even after 20 years, but it can be wearying at times, in every way you can think of. The protagonist of a David Lodge novel claims that he solved "the monotony of monogamy" problem by having a platonic mistress in one city and a wife in another. That's one way to go. The point is that marriage is a wearing-in process, and also a wearing-down process. If you share bed and board with one person over years or decades, the squabbles about who left the cap off the toothpaste tube or who forgot to pay the mortgage can make you grind your teeth to smithereens -- but that doesn't mean that the marriage has gone to hell. Those feelings are just par for the course; they ebb and they flow. What goes for parents goes for spouses as well: Pick your battles and otherwise let them slide.

CK: Let's end with the beginning of our book. The epitaph, "Marriage then... is what you call the monster?" What does that mean?

SS: It's a line of dialogue from The Golden Bowl by Henry James, The Golden Bowl, and it resonated for me because marriage is such a monstrous catch-22 -- and, it seems, always has been. Everyone on the outside wants in, everyone on the inside complains about being there, and yet ex-insiders tend to go back for more -- once, twice, ten times. It works in strange and mysterious ways, confounding even the couple involved. This is the monster that people can't live with yet can't live without; no society that calls itself civilized is without some form of marriage. So far it's the best system anyone's come up for organizing sex and family life, and despite periodic rumors of its demise -- and constant grousing about its constraints -- marriage isn't likely to disappear anytime soon.

CK: So it sounds like you're pro-marriage.

SS: Can I get back to you on that? Gotta go nag my husband to take out the garbage. As usual.