THE authors of this little book are married. They have been married for years. Having loved each other completely, they still do not venture to dogmatize upon the probability that this love will continue through an indefinite future, but they think that their marriage has been successful, and they expect it to continue so. And they recall with indulgent tenderness the caution and circumspection with which they made the decision to marry.
They prepared the way with an extraordinary amount of preliminary thought and discussion. It was a curious argument, carried on in that spirit of mingled playfulness and earnestness which is natural to two young people who sit together in the moonlight. Their purpose was to clarify their own ideas on the problem and mystery of marriage. Their method was the method of the schools.
For both of them had been long in the atmosphere of the schools. They were familiar with the quaint attitudes which professors take toward the practical problems of life. They had learned in their classes many of the intricate theories of human conduct which are held in university circles. The language of the social sciences [p.2] flowed easily from their lips. And yet they recognized that the question then uppermost in their minds – whether to marry or not to marry – was one which the textbooks evaded and the theories missed. They set forth therefore to write their own textbook and to construct their own theory. Upon their collaboration was shed not only the light of the student’s lamp but also the light of the stars. This outline of domestic theory is the result.
It is not easy to view with scholastic detachment anything so intimately personal as one’s own courtship is while it is in progress. Moreover, there stands a wide-spread prejudice against such an attitude. It is generally believed that marriage should result from impulse rather than from reasoned judgment and decision. A cold calculating of consequences or a mathematical estimating of probabilities is thought to be foreign to the spirit of the institution. The only frame of mind which can decently be held by bride or groom is one of naive and unbounded optimism. An atmosphere of illusion is deemed as needful as a ring and a clergyman for the conventional wedding. The privilege of attempting to see things as they are is reserved for the onlookers who exchange the stock currency of wedding jests.
If two young things nevertheless make the effort to look upon their own prospective marriage as impersonally as if it were not their own, and to scrutinize it as calmly as it it were an investment proposition, they still lack definite standards by which to judge whether their life plan is sound or unsound. They have no way of knowing what kind of conduct is normal in married life, nor of estimating which of the desired satisfactions they can reasonably hope to obtain and which they must dismiss [p.3] as illusory. They find that there is no clearly established notion of what constitutes success in marriage, no well-defined distinction between the essential and the incidental.
The smooth generalizations which are most current on this subject do not stand criticism. For instance, it is said that the test of a successful marriage is happiness; the purpose of a marriage is to attain happiness; a marriage is a failure which does not bring happiness; those persons are well mated who continue to be happy though married. But happiness is a general aim, which we pursue in marriage as in other things; it does not constitute a specific aim proper to marriage alone. If I decide to go to college or to move to New York or to trade in my Chevrolet, all these decisions are equally made in the interests of prospective happiness. Certainly then one cannot demand of a marriage that it should guarantee happiness regardless of all other circumstances. Here is one man whose marriage was perhaps the best and wisest act of his life, but who has always been dogged by misery and misfortune; here is another whose matrimonial ventures have three times ended in divorce, who nevertheless persistently takes pleasure in life. On the strength of these facts we cannot judge the marriage of the first to have been a failure and the marriage of the second to have been successful. There is truth in the idea that marriage has to do with some kind of a total product of well-being or of misery; it is more legitimate to identify success in marriage with happiness than to identify success in business with happiness. But still the generalization that happiness is the end and aim of marriage is too indefinite to be useful.
[p.4] In the maze of discussion to which every Sunday paper contributes and upon which every acquaintance has vigorous opinions there is no end of contradiction and perplexity. Is eternal and undying love a psychological possibility or a probability? Does conjugal faithfulness normally turn out to be a pleasing habit or an irksome restriction? If permanence, stability, and companionship in old age be deemed the aim of marriage, what (in view of divorce statistics) are the mathematical chances that a marriage will yield this product? Which is to be held more sacred, love or marriage, if the two do not coincide? Should loveless wedlock be dissolved or can it he made worth while? There was the case of a student friend who lay all evening moaning on his bed: “She wanted to know if I’d love her always – damn it – I told her I didn’t know – damn it – I told her she’d have to take a chance – damn it – she turned me down.” Which had the more accurate and sensible understanding of matrimony, the man or the girl who turned him down?
The confusion of standards is particularly perplexing to a young woman. No formula for her conduct is unchallenged. Her duties are everywhere uncertain. How much independence can she retain after marriage? When factories and offices welcome the help of women, when schools offer to girls the same opportunities for technical training that they afford to men, when apartment houses relieve wives of most of the tasks that kept their mothers busy from dawn to dusk, must she still accept it as the normal course of things that no career is open to the married woman but the primitive round of kitchen and kinder? If a professional woman wishes to experience motherhood, must she risk the submerging of her person[p.5]ality in marriage? Shall we try to close the aesthetic enjoyment of sex life to all who are not prepared to assume the obligations of the married state? From courtship to divorce, from petting to birth control, all conduct is subjected to conflicting ethical judgments.
The situation is not explained as a mere prevalence of sin and wrongdoing in a corrupted age, for the standards by which sin and wrongdoing are to be identified are the very things that are called in question. The questioning is not the product of artful casuistry nor of conversational posing; it is deeper than the pretensions of the tea-room précieuse, and more serious than the speculations of a college sophist. Whether we approve or not we must accept the fact that marriage is no longer what it used to be. It has new meanings: it brings new consequences to those who undertake it. Our prevailing theories of marriage no longer fit the facts.
Perhaps the reason for the lack of a commonly accepted theory of domestic life lies in the fact that the family, no longer functioning as an economic unit, nor as a political institution, has come to rest upon a peculiarly individual sort of relationship, capable of the widest variation. We find it difficult to apply to it any set of general laws, or to fit it into logical schemes. The poet or the writer of fiction is perhaps better fitted to describe and define the elements of a domestic theory than is the logician or the scientist. A domestic relationship is at once general, like the relationship of citizen to state or buyer to seller, and particular, like the relationship of Caesar to Brutus or Héloïse to Abélard.
It may well be that an entirely new theory or scheme of domestic relationships must be drawn up by each couple [p.6] entering into them. Sometimes this theory is actually evolved retrospectively, after years of married life; sometimes it never finds expression in words, but only in conduct and attitudes. More often the development of a scheme of future relationships is a function of the courtship. And so it is with this present domestic theory – it is a courtship now after four years written down. In it the authors have made a systematic statement of certain great banalities which were a common minimum of their belief.
They have chosen, moreover, to state these banalities as social theory. They might have put their thought into the form of a prenuptial agreement, a decalogue or a motto. They preferred the deductive procedure of the social sciences because in such an organized presentation there is a possibility, however slight, that something more generally useful may be found.