I don’t condone it. It’s not good for your mental or physical health, but I certainly understand why some people have indiscriminate sex and eschew all human relationships. Let’s face it, human relationships are thorny and after trying a few, some people go for the warm body experience minus the baggage. You know that baggage we all harbor -- old hurts, need for approval, deep-seated anger, pride and the whole panoply of needs, wants and resentments we all carry?
In the first chapter of Anna Karenina Tolstoy wrote, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think, however, that his thinking is upside down. His marriage and family life, however you might want to characterize them, were certainly unconventional. His wife Sofya (Sophie Andreevna Bers) was sixteen years his junior. On the eve of their wedding, he urged her to read his diaries which detailed his sexual adventures, including an affair he had had with a serf who had begotten him a son and was still living on the family’s property. Despite the exhortations of Sofya, Tolstoy refused birth control and his wife gave birth thirteen times. Eight of their children survived to adulthood. After thirty-seven years of marriage, he wrote The Kreutzer Sonata, a book disparaging the “animal excesses” and “swinish connection” of the sexes and basically proposing celibacy as a way of life. The protagonist eventually kills his wife in a jealous rage and is acquitted of any wrongdoing. The final major chasm in their marriage opened up after the author, also later in his life, decided that he needed to disencumber himself of all worldly goods and give away all that he owned including the rights to royalties on all his works. He certainly had some creative ways of antagonizing his wife.
In most marriages, however, the same culprits contribute to making a relationship untenable: alcohol, drugs, extramarital sex, inability to express feelings, ignoring your spouse’s needs, uncontrollable rage, depression, differences in expectations due to different upbringings or cultural values. Some of these predate the marriage and some begin afterwards. Thus, unlike Tolstoy, I feel most unhappy families are not unhappy in individual ways but repeat the same mistakes over and over. We humans have very little control of the baggage we carry and unhanding it can take a lifetime. Just realizing it’s there can take longer than your spouse might want to wait. Tolstoy had a very unusual marriage, but I still think his relationship exhibited some of the typical pitfalls including not listening to your spouse’s feelings and coming from very different backgrounds with different expectations.
I just finished reading A Happy Marriage by Rafael Iglesias. It is purportedly a novel, but appears to be autobiographical. It would be more aptly titled “A Mutually Satisfying Long-Term Relationship.” This excellent novel chronicles a twenty-seven year relationship that ends in a long battle with bladder cancer fought by the protagonist’s wife. Although the couple is not always happy together and there are long stretches where the relationship is not satisfying for one or both partners, it is a wonderful study of two people’s abiding love for each other and how they manage to forge a long-term relationship despite having very different personalities and coming from families who measure success very differently. When life is most difficult and he and his wife have to deal with making some harrowing decisions about her cancer care, the couple become most close. This is probably because the neediest half of the couple, the writer, becomes the most needed. This same turnaround is also seen in Elinor Fuchs’ book Making an Exit. This book covers the author’s relationship with her mother. During most of the author’s life, she is emotionally estranged from her diva mom. Their relationship blooms during “The Emergency,” the many years during which the mother becomes more and more incapacitated by Alzheimer’s disease. It is only as the mother becomes more dependent that their relationship grows after stagnating for many years.
Am I the only one who has asked herself, “Why are dogs so much easier to love than humans?” A few reasons have occurred to me. Most dogs are not big on baggage. They barely remember what happened yesterday unless they are severely scarred by a previous owner. They have few needs and they have no problem communicating them. When Dante gives us that big brown-eyed dog look, he either wants a biscuit or to be taken outside. I don’t have to wonder if I hurt his feelings earlier in the day when I said, “Sit down” a little harshly or when I said “Leave” when he was bothering a visitor to the house. He doesn’t harbor grudges. He doesn’t do drugs or drink alcohol. He came with very few expectations -- a bowl of food, a lot of love and exercise. He rarely misunderstands or misconstrues what I say. (My body language is more important to him.) I don’t think I remind him of his mother (but I can’t be sure on this one) and I know he depends on me and needs me. I am IMPORTANT to him in a big way and he lets me know it. He is rarely depressed for more than 10 minutes (He didn’t like the party hat we put on him for New Year’s.) And, you guessed it, like most dogs he is a paragon of faithfulness.
Happy families, Mr. Tolstoy, come in all shapes and sizes and no two of them are alike. As long as both partners are happy and fulfilled, the particulars don’t really matter. Most unhappy families tend to carry similar baggage. I would suggest, Readers, consulting Dante, not Tolstoy, for advice on success with your marriage or with any family relationship. He’s a natural. When it comes to love, he’s got what it takes. Who else could have a chin covered with toilet water and look so downright adorable?