There is a gender angle missing from the questions raised by TPP. Fifty years ago, I wonder how many suburban housewives of DC would have said that a relationship had enabled their self-realisation. Perhaps some relationships helped them realise that they were becoming someone they did not wish to be: an exhausted mother, a hen-pecked daughter-in-law, a domestic maid. Remember Linda Loman in Miller's Death of A Salesman, struggling to keep the family together while her husband wrestled with his own dreams? And who can forget that scene in Revolutionary Road where Frank Wheeler yells at his wife, April: "You are an empty, empty, hollow shell of a woman. I mean, what the hell are you doing in my house if you hate me so much?"
Frankly, where else could April Wheeler have gone?
To echo Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice, happiness in marriage was for centuries
As a 21-year old I remember thinking my female friends who were already 26 and unmarried were risking being left on the shelf. Now, at 32, I look back in astonishment. The rest of your life together is a really, really long time. Why the big rush? At 21, I was attracting the type of moronic boyfriend I deserved, with that ridiculous attitude. It was only after I met my fiance, at the age of 30, that it occurred to me: when we women spend time realising our own dreams before marriage, we attract the type of partner who loves our self-realised personality. Could it be that just when we decide we really don't need to get married, is the point when we become best suited to marriage? If so, and if at this point you still want to marry your partner, that has to be a winning ticket. That means less of the tricky renegotiating of boundaries that women often initiate years into a marriage; the wife has fewer abandoned dreams and a fuller pension pot; the husband values her good company and doesn't mind her preference for microwaved dinners. Both know where they stand - and are happy with their position - before moving forward together.
It follows that the things a woman may later wish she had done before she got married should all be done before she gets married. I firmly believe we should encourage this in our daughters. That's also why I urged one of my closest friends, a 30-year old on a great salary, to quit her miserable job in the City and take her dream four-month backpacking holiday in Asia. She knew this could be her last chance to travel like that. She will return a more attractive person for seizing that chance. She is not simply 'discovering' herself but actually creating herself out there. She will return empowered to make the right choices about potential partners, her career, her home, and her friends.
For most modern women, a marriage and children is fulfilling but is not enough to populate an entire human identity. The concept of choice is important. "A relationship is healthy when both parties have permission to ask for what they want and need, and they both have permission to say no if they choose" writes John Gray. He is the author of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, the most useful relationship book I have ever read. I suspect in most modern marriages, the permission he talks about is already there. It is the "asking" habit which needs to be strengthened. Often, we women need to teach ourselves how to say "no" to what we don't want. That learning process takes time and probably requires experimentation and challenges which are concentrated outside of a domestic setting. To experience those challenges some women may choose to travel through Asia with a backpack, or seek validation through work or volunteering. Sometimes academic challenges will be important, or any act of committing to something just because we feel good about it. John Gray is right about how important it is to give each other permission to choose. Equally, we women need to give ourselves permission to choose what we get ourselves into - and out of - before we can genuinely be happy helping our husbands to grow.
Revolutionary Road: me at Everest Base Camp (Tibet) the year before I met Hank.
I am not a psychologist and my opinions could be way off the mark. Do leave your comments here.
Just in case marriage still scares you... Here's Chris Rock's take on divorce. Be warned, it is hilarious but not suitable for kids: