But if self-delusion is your particular poison, well, then that's fine, too. Just make sure that when you phone your life-order in, you say, "One self-delusion, please," as opposed to "One perfect marriage." Fantasy, as we all know, doesn't deliver.
Because in the end, that's basically what it's all about: getting your order right. Our day comes down to choices—and it's finally dawning on the long-term wives of the world that divorce may be the last-standing woman's right to choose. We can admit that our marriages aren't lambent, lyrical ice-dancing routines and still decide to push on together to the final flying sit spin. We also realize that divorce is an alternative that's fully within reach, be it now or later or never. The more readily we acknowledge the solid utility of marriage (as one friend's husband put it, "I'm essentially a checkbook and a sperm bank—but I'm okay with that!"), the more ably we can splinter the box of marital fantasy that makes us feel stuck, trapped, obliged. One eloquent swing of the ax and happiness is thrust firmly back into our own hands.
This is not to say dismantling one's marriage will automatically bring happiness; it's the idealization of marriage that needs to be shredded, along with its accompanying bumper sticker WIVES MAKE BETTER WOMEN. If we stay, we stay because we decide to, not because our ankles and wrists have been locked into societal expectations. If, after various efforts, we finally leave, we have the confidence to be the leavers and not the left.
Having choices is a cornerstone of strength: Choosers won't be beggars. "Thinking about divorce is kind of like living in New York City with its museums and theater and culture," a doctor friend of mine said. "You may never actually go to any of these places, but for some reason, just the idea that you could if you wanted to makes you feel better."
Maybe one day, marriage—like the human appendix, male nipples, or your pinky toes—will become a vestigial structure that will, in a millennium or two, be obsolete. Our great-great-great-grandchildren's grandchildren will ask each other in passing, "Remember marriage? What was its function again? Was it that maladaptive organ that intermittently produced gastrointestinal antigens and sometimes got so inflamed that it painfully erupted?"
Yes. Yes it was.
Until that day of obsolescence, we can confront the dilemma and consider the choice a privilege. Once upon a time is the stuff of fairy tales. As for happily ever after—see appendix.