Two People, One Couple (with Luck)


Boston. We have been to weddings this season, a flight of them. The children of friends are getting married. The churches that we visit ring out with words about union, togetherness, two people becoming one.

At times, it sounds as if the style of marriage is still as rooted in tradition as the bridal gowns. A costume of lace and pearls appropriate for exactly one day.

Sitting in my place, a veteran witness of marriages -- both first and second -- I have come to wonder how much even our fantasies about perfect marriages have changed.

Once, the dream of an ideal union meant that a wife would follow her husband in obedient contentment. A successful marriage rested, or so it was said, on her willingness to fold her life into and under his.

A generation ago, the fantasy of marriage was rather like that of simultaneous orgasm. The marital achievement manuals said that a husband and wife should be in such perfect harmony, that their bodies reached mutual pleasure whenever they touched.

Today, we don't approach relationships quite the same way. We leave more room for reality and for differences. Two people may become one couple but, even for those who stay attached, the coupling is looser than it once was.

Our new version of the fantasy is that two people can lead lives that are both separate and together, independent and synchronized. With a proper sense of timing, we want to believe that each of us can have whatever we individually want out of life -- including each other.

Our daydreams, if we have them, conjure up scenes in which his chance to work in Oregon will be just what she dreamed about in her office in Missouri. That what they would choose for themselves is also happily best for each other. That no one will have to be selfish and no one will have to be sacrificed.

Wasn't this the marital success story that Michael and Hope left behind on the last episode of "thirtysomething"? The centrifuge of modern life threatened even this "perfect couple." They were spinning out of control -- he to California, she to Washington, their marriage to divorce. But at the last moment, the crash was averted. Magically, her need to work folded symbiotically with his need to break from work. The happy ending came without conflict or compromise.

Real life doesn't always wrap up in the nick of time. The seams in our lives tend to show, stretch, and rip even the very models of seamless unions.

We face what Alva Myrdal, that remarkable Swedish woman of the world, called "the problem of two-someness." A central theme in the stunning memoir that ethicist Sissela Bok has written about her mother, "Alva Myrdal," touches on this: How difficult it is to lead a questing and individual life in context with another.

Alva and Gunnar Myrdal were in their lifetime the most heroic version of a contemporary marriage. Separately each had a brilliant career, indeed each a Nobel Prize. Together they had three children and a marriage that spanned 60 years, until her death in 1984.

They were defined publicly and often as a perfect modern couple. Yet Alva Myrdal, who began her marriage under the ideal of oneness in work and love, came to doubt that possibility. A writer, ambassador, cabinet minister who focused her formidable intellect to dilemmas ranging from family to disarmament, she came to describe herself and Gunnar more like "consort battleships, criss-crossing the world but stronger together."

Yet the question she repeatedly pondered was "How do I become myself?" Her pursuit of "self" struggled within marriage and strained its bounds. Here is how her daughter describes the dilemma: "This problem arises each time two persons join their lives together: To what extent does each one then remain a separate person while also becoming part and parcel of the other's existence."

These are not words that I have heard this season or any other in a marriage ceremony. Weddings celebrate union. Today, the bride and groom are told, two people become one.

Well, not exactly.

It seems to me that sometime before the fifth or 10th or 20th anniversary, "couples" come to see themselves as fellow strugglers. And the best of them try hard to keep the seams from splitting under the pressures and pleasures of "two-someness."

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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