Marriage Is Not a Tool

8 min read
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam/Public Domain

Rembrandt, “The Jewish Bride,” c. 1667

Source: Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam/Public Domain

The probability that a marriage will endure, let alone thrive, hangs to a substantial degree on how spouses understand their union. On the one hand, they may suppose that matrimony exists for them, in which case marriage will seem like a tool to be utilized only so long as it lives up to expectations. On the other hand, spouses may see themselves as existing for their marriage, in which case they are likely to manifest greater dedication to their union. One of the best sources of instruction about marriage is to be found in Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina, which vividly dramatizes this perspective.

Stiva and Dolly

Consider the character of Stepan Oblonsky, also known as Stiva. He sees his marriage as a tool, useful in some circumstances but inconvenient and, therefore, dispensable in others. The novel opens with a crisis in the Oblonsky household. His wife, Dolly, has discovered his correspondence with the former governess of their children, with whom he had been having an affair. Dolly refuses to leave her room. The children are running through the house like lost souls. The house staff is in an uproar, the cook having walked away and the new governess already seeking a new position.

Oblonsky is sorry, but not in the way readers might suppose. He is sorry not that the affair occurred but that it was detected. And he is sorry that, when his wife confronted him, he failed to show the appropriate contrition and instead allowed his usual good-natured smile to shine through. To him, the affair itself was not and is not wrong. He is incapable of repenting his deed. What mortifies him is his failure to manage the situation appropriately. Caught off guard, he did not have time to disavow it or somehow justify himself. Instead, the real Oblonsky shines through.

His reaction springs naturally from his view of his wife. To him, she is a “fretful, fussy, and far from bright woman,” “a worn-out, aging, no longer beautiful woman who was in no way remarkable,” “the simple, merely good-natured mother of his family,” who, in his eyes, “ought to have indulged him, simply out of a sense of fairness.” From Oblonsky’s perspective, marriage poses certain inconveniences in the area of sensual exclusivity that are simply unreasonable to expect a “handsome, amorous man of 34” such as himself to put up with.

In contemplating the aftermath of his affair, which was not his first and will not be his last, he thinks wistfully to himself,

How fine everything was before this, how well we lived! She was content and happy with the children, and I have never interfered in the slightest way, I left her to manage the children and the household as she pleased. True, it was not good that she had been a governess in our own house. Not good at all! There is something common, vulgar even, about making love to one’s own governess. But what a governess!

It would be wrong to say that Oblonsky is suffering a crisis of identity, and yet his identity, or rather lack thereof, has undeniably precipitated one. Unlike Dolly, whose whole life is given over to her husband and children, and for whom marriage represents a sacred bond, Oblonsky regards marriage as one domain of his life into and out of which, according to his own appetites, he is free to move. When he is at home, he wants nothing more than to maintain a peaceful family life. But when he steps away, as he often does, his identity as husband and father is suspended.

From the point of view of Dolly, the “mother of five living and two dead children,” the situation looks very different. She assumes that her husband sincerely intended to live by his wedding vows, supposing that she and their children would supersede other considerations. Yet, Oblonsky has difficulty recalling that he is a husband and father. A profligate who is rapidly eating through his wife’s dowry, he moves her and the children to the countryside to reduce expenses. In preparing the country house for their arrival, however, he unconsciously builds not a nest for a family but a bachelor pad.

Oblonsky desires marriage and parenthood, but only so long as they do not subsume his other passions in life. Wife and children are good, but only to a point. For Dolly, by contrast, living for her family is “her sole possible happiness.” At one point, her eldest daughter conspires to smuggle a forbidden piece of pie to her younger brother, who has been sent away without one for whistling when told not to. When she sees the two of them together, the boy eating his pie through sobs and saying, “You eat some, let’s eat it together,” her heart is filled with such joy that tears come to her eyes.

Oblonsky responds first to what he happens to want, which his marriage sometimes happens to provide him. Yet, in circumstances where it does not gratify his desires, he turns elsewhere. He does not want to leave his family, but he is also never truly fully present or committed to it. He wants more from life than marriage can provide him, so he keeps his family in a box that he enters at his convenience. Otherwise, he remains aloof, often going through the motions of husband and father while secretly contemplating an upcoming rendezvous.

A Commonplace View Today

This view of marriage as a tool has become so commonplace today that many may no longer recognize it. Consider, for example, divorce attorney James Sexton, whose books include If You’re in My Office, It’s Already Too Late: A Divorce Lawyer’s Guide to Staying Together and How to Stay in Love. To someone who spends his professional life negotiating marital dissolutions, marriage represents a failed technology.

The statistics seem to be on Sexton’s side. About 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce, with the average union lasting about 11 years. When divorced people marry again, as they do about 80 percent of the time, the divorce rate rises to 60 percent, with the average second marriage lasting only 8 years. And with third marriages, the divorce rate increases even further, to 73 percent. Eventually, reality begins to sink in. Married three times, entertainer Rod Stewart declared, “Instead of marrying again, I am just going to find a woman I don’t like and buy her a house.”

As if this were not bad enough, Sexton argues, the technology of marriage is failing even more dismally. Many of the people who remain married and, thus, never contribute to the high rates of divorce, do so for the wrong reasons. Some, for example, stay together for the children, so as not to put them through the trauma of a divorce. Others stay together to avoid the shame that a divorce would bring to them and their family. Still others remain married out of strictly practical considerations, such as the financial inability to support two households.

Today, the natural response to a failing technology is to look for a better technology. Sexton finds such a technology in, of all places, prenuptial agreements. First, prospective spouses should protect their tangible assets from one another should the marriage dissolve, as it is very likely to do. Second, they should make clear what they expect from the union. Finally, they should carefully listen to their prospective spouse’s expectations, so they know what is expected of them. Such frank upfront conversations, Sexton argues, could prevent many failed unions.

Yet perhaps the Sextons and Oblonskys of the world are missing something essential about marriage. What if it is less true to say that marriage is a tool than that we are the tools of marriage? Suppose, for example, that marriage at its best is not a contract but a covenant—not a set of clearly articulated expectations but a journey on which two people, full of hope and faith, embark. What if it is impossible for either party to know in advance what they will encounter on that journey? What if marriage is less about performing according to expectations than mutual discovery, growth, and dedication?

To see marriage as a technology implies that it is something of our own making. But perhaps marriage at its best is not a device but a sacrament, one meant not to gratify but to educate our desires, so that we might learn to love as fully as possible. Oblonsky just does not get it. He thinks that his marriage is a tool that he should wield according to his own convenience. Dolly, by contrast, knows the truth. She recognizes that her family is her highest and best possibility and that by living up to it she comes fully to life. It is in Dolly, who is all-in through thick and thin, that Tolstoy presents marriage most full.

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours