Man and woman on seesaw
Photo: BananaStock/Thinkstock
I love weddings; I always have. I like old brides, for their guts, their seasoned optimism, and their fashion sense—a pale pink or navy silk suit is so much more flattering on most of us than Cinderella's clouds of white tulle. I like the young shiny brides who don't know anything about anything, except how much in love they are. I like Great-Aunt Frieda doing the mambo with the groom's recently rehabbed second cousin. I like the depths of gooey sentimentality that otherwise normal accountants, architects and football players reveal when toasting their baby brothers. I like shockingly expensive bouquets, with exotic flowers flown in from tiny countries, and I like—maybe just a little bit more—a big handful of black-eyed Susans stuck in an old blue pitcher. I like Steve and Bruce, abandoning their jeans for matching tuxedos, adjusting each other's bow ties before tying the big knot in the sanctuary of St. Luke's, and I like the rough, tough, crew-cut guy in his Army uniform and gleaming shoes, blinking back tears as he marries his college sweetheart on her parents' lawn.

I like everything about weddings.

And they bear the same relationship to marriage as Fisher-Price ads do to childhood, as a bathtub does to the Atlantic. It takes something to get married: nerve, hope, a strong desire to make a certain statement—and it takes something to stay married: more hope, determination, a sense of humor and needs that are best met by being in a pair. And beyond the idea of marriage, which some of us cannot do and lots would rather not, is the question of partnership. In the old days for middle-class people, partnership meant He went off to work and did Outside Things, and She stayed home and raised children and other Indoor Things. In the even older days, it was Hunting and Gathering on one hand and Nursing and Cooking on the other, but at any point in history up until the very recent past, the meaning of the marital partnership was: The world is divided into two spheres, and I will take one and you will take the other. (I know, I know—a lot of ladies who would have been happy driving trucks or running counters had to darn socks, make dinner for six, and run errands, and the number of gentlemen who gave up Jobs and Outside things in order to accommodate the lady of their choice was notoriously small.) But even in the somewhat skewed nature of those traditional partnerships, there was clarity. Like white-glove etiquette and pinching corsets and dress codes, the world is on the whole a better, fairer, more humane place without them...and yet. And yet, in their absence, there is an awful lot of uncertainty and not a little unattractive behavior. The quid pro quo and you-owe-me of modern marriage, the lists that people make under the worst kind of couples therapists are not partnerships. 

What makes for a true partnership

It may be that three I-picked-up-your-towels are equal to one I-took-the-car-for-an-oil-change, and that everyone dutifully does their timed 45 minutes of housework, but that's not partnership. Keeping track of every slight and misstep ("And in 1984, you told my mother you didn't like the tablecloth she made us!"), including the blockbusters ("Thanks for the nice earrings. They look like the ones you gave the slut I caught you with when we were engaged. What do you mean? I have let it go"), may help someone feel in control of life, but it won't enhance the life or the partnership. Putting all of your needs a mile behind the other person's is not what I have in mind either. You can't have a partnership when one person is an emotional dray horse and the other person makes a meaningful contribution or sacrifice every 20 years; that may be a very strong relationship (and we've all seen them: two people both in love with one of them), but it's not a partnership. And suffering isn't what I have in mind, either, although some of that may be necessary. (You might have to go to hockey when you prefer the Mets; you might have to go to Holly Near when you'd prefer Blossom Dearie; and you will certainly have to spend some time, at some special occasion, with some people you don't like, unless your spouse is such a friendless, sibling-less, childless orphan that you never see anyone but your side of the family, which is also a problem.) To be a real partner requires the best of friendship, parenting and lover, in such a combination and quantity that we can hardly bear to expect it of Him or Her for fear of being disappointed, and we certainly hope that no one will expect it of us.

I think we should expect more and more, in the little ways as well as the big ones. Little things shape a life: He buys the jewelry he knows she likes, not the stuff he'd like her to wear; she wears the nightgown he's crazy about and not her favorite T-shirt. I think of my sister, reading companionably on the couch while her husband, in the great tradition of husbands, channel surfs interminably. It used to make her crazy and crabby—and the remote control mania will never make sense to her—but instead of berating him, she realized that not only does he like it better when she's near him, because he loves her, but she likes it better, too. I think of an older couple who lived in the country in a house they both labored on—mostly her, as is sometimes the case—until one day she announced that she wanted to spend her last years in her favorite city. He began to say that he hated that city and he hated change and he was damned if he was going to pack up his books one more time and at his age—and then he thought, "She makes me so happy and made us such a happy home, let me give this to her." And now they live in that big city and take long morning walks along her favorite river, and it's become his as well. I think of two dear men, who have managed to put their very serious careers, as writer and doctor, always slightly behind their relationship. He wrote hard and the doctor worked hard, paying the bills for both of them. The writer hit it big and, with his loving encouragement, the doctor began to think that he might like to work hard, but in a studio, not an office. They have balanced their needs and wants and given just a little more weight to the other's happiness, and that's what I'm talking about. It's doing your share, and then some.

In a true partnership, the kind worth striving for, the kind worth insisting on, and even, frankly, worth divorcing over, both people try to give as much or even a little more than they get. "Deserves" is not the point. "Fair" is not the point. And "owes" is certainly not the point. The point is to make the other person as happy as we can, because their happiness adds to ours. The point is—in the right hands, everything that you give, you get.

Amy Bloom is the National Book Award-nominated and National book Critics Award-nominated author of Come to Me: StoriesLove Invents Us, A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You: Stories and Normal.

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