Good marriages can’t be thrown away

Imagine that a marriage is falling apart and that the disaffected demands of the other, “How can you throw away what we’ve worked so long and hard for–how after all these years together, and for what?”

Suppose that these questions are not simply expressions of sorrow and imminent grief. Suppose that the questions are asked in good faith. Then we can examine the argument which tells us much about our misconceptions of marriage: of what it is and what it should be.

The mistakes abound. It is assumed that the end of the marriage is external rather than internal to itself. It is further assumed that ‘maintaining’ a marriage requires near constant, effortful, strenous activity, as opposed to being at home with graceful effortlessness. Lastly, it is implied that a good marriage must run on indefinitely. If it does fall apart, then something good and still good is miscategorized as waste and hence is disposed of, dispensed with, or lost.

Let’s consider what we know.

1. Good marriages do not involve a lot of work because good marriages are not of the order of work. Better comparisons can be made between good couples and good climbing partners or between good couples and good dance partners.

2. Good marriages are sung in a Daoist key. Each sings the same tune and that tune flows like water.

3. Good marriages do not aim at some external end. They aim at an immanent end, i.e.., an aim internal to the practice.

4. Good marriages do not ‘measure’ their ‘success’ according to the realization of  some external end. They are not ‘successful’ in these terms. Indeed, good marriages are not ‘successes.’

5. Since good marriages are not ‘successes’ or ‘accomplishments,’ they cannot be dispensed with or thrown away. And marriages that do not last are not ‘wastes.’ When examined closely, even failing marriages reveal a great deal about ourselves.

6. Good marriages inhabit the long present (philosophical eternity), not the n+1 (unphilosophical eternity).

It is wise not to reply to the accusation above but to see it as a sign that the marriage is over and has doubtless been over for a while.

‘The nature of a good marriage is actually very simple’

“Call no man blessed until he has died.”


For about a year, I’ve been having weekly conversations over email with an older man. We’ve been talking about living and dying, literature and philosophy, ethics and science. He’s become someone whom I admire.

During a recent exchanged, I asked him about the nature of a good marriage.


And what sorts of things do you and your wife talk about when you’re spending a leisurely evening together? 

The nature of a good marriage is actually very simple. Finding the other person is complete chance. After that, it requires only absolute commitment, trust, and the ability to negotiate.

Early on, sex is a good way to achieve all of that, so long as one is paying attention. Paying attention is something women usually do better than men. The urgency of sex wanes (but does not vanish). By that time, it is replaced by something not better exactly, but deeper.

When I first met my wife, we were working in the same lab. We became friends and were attracted to each other. Of course, the attraction is what starts it all, but it is only the beginning. That much took a long time, at least as time is measured at 25–several years. She moved in after 2 years, and we got married 2 years after that.

In the beginning, we were very different people: I am a linear, and she is a mosaic. We knew this immediately. In the lab one day, I was watering my rats; there were 36 I had operated on. She and I were “fooling around”–playing, really, as young people after each other do–while I changed the watering bottles. Quite naturally, I thought, I lined them up in a 6×6 matrix. She thought this very comical. To this day, she’s NEVER ONCE closed a drawer.

After 42 years together, we have grown into something else. Sometimes I think we have become one person, but that is not really accurate. She still believes in absolutes, and I do not. She has remained more of a radical than I have, but she has also found the advantages now and then of the 6×6 way of looking at things. I suppose it is that we rely on one another. This has all required trust, honesty and, more than anything, the ability to negotiate. So rather than having become one, I would say that we have learned the virtues of the other, and internalized them. She believes in *truth* and I believe in *goodness*.

I don’t mean for that to sound as sanctimonious as it may. We discuss what we are writing freely with each other and edit one another’s work. It took 25 years before she would really allow that, but I am a much better writer now than I was before, and have become a decent editor besides. We both read a lot, of course. We have an intense interest in our son; at the moment, he is far more interested in his newish girlfriend than he is in us, which is as it should be. We have been given much, have a long history together, and a lot of friends who live nearby: now on the 3rd generation of some of those friendships. I am grateful for work that I still love, and she is one of the best writers of short fiction working now. I don’t really think either of us would have had all those things without the other.