BEN AFFLECK SET THE WORLD of Internet wags ablaze a few weeks back when, during his Oscar speech, the Argo director addressed his wife, Jennifer Garner. “I want to thank my wife . . . for working on our marriage for 10 Christmases. It’s good,” he sputtered. “It is work, but it’s the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with.”
The comment was instantly condemned as insufficiently romantic, a sure sign that his union was on the rocks.
To me, it came off as something long overdue and even heroic: an honest portrait of how marriage (or any long-term romantic relationship) actually functions. Which is why I’ve been defending the statement ever since, to my wife and friends and even a few unlucky strangers.
I’m thinking, in particular, of the elderly woman I met in the airport the day after the Oscars. Watching a clip of Affleck, she muttered, “Why couldn’t he have just said he loved her? Would that have been so hard?”
“Maybe he is saying he loves her,” I said.
“No,” she said. “He’s making her sound like a co-worker.”
I didn’t pursue the argument. But I’ve since talked to half a dozen of my male friends, all of whom agreed that Affleck was, in his own flustered way, trying to express a deep gratitude and devotion toward his wife. The problem he ran up against is that most Americans still cling to a fairy-tale version of marriage as a relationship we come to instinctually, a reliable path to happiness. We’ve got a whole “bridal industry” devoted to peddling the fantasy that the most arduous task a couple faces is planning a wedding. (Is it any wonder that so many marriages in the United States end in divorce?)
Yes, a marriage should provide comfort and security and joy. But these things don’t come just because you made the commitment to say I do. My own experience has been that they don’t come at all unless you’re willing to do all sorts of stuff that you’d really rather not do, ranging from dirty dishes to apologizing when you’ve behaved like a jerk.
The truth is, I don’t know of a single marriage — especially ones with kids in the mix — that isn’t fraught with anxieties and doubts. And not because the partners in question are cruel or weak people. But simply because living with another person involves a near-constant struggle. Whose needs and wants get met? Whose get sacrificed?
A few months ago, during an especially painful conversation with my wife, I told her I felt marriage was “mostly about managing disappointment.”
“You make it sound so romantic,” she replied.
But I wasn’t trying to malign our marriage or her. I was mostly talking about the disappointment I feel in myself, almost constantly, for not being more generous and forgiving.
The unions that endure, so far as I can tell, aren’t the ones founded on true love or destiny, but the ones in which both partners accept the inevitable burdens of monogamy, cohabitation, and parenting. And in which they’re willing to communicate when they feel taken for granted or thwarted or simply vulnerable.
I’m sorry, folks, but that’s not easy!
My wife and I are no experts on matrimony. As of March, we’ve been hitched a grand total of seven years. But we’ve grasped the essential lesson: Marriage isn’t about making our lives easier. It’s about making our lives richer and deeper. That only happens, though, if we’re both willing to do the tough part: level with each other about our hopes and fears.
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