Marriage, in 30-Second Increments.

I’ve been seeing a little too much of this Subaru Outback* commercial these days.

I worked in advertising for nine months. It was my first salaried, full-time, post-college job. I was just a proofreader, and I spent more time blogging and working on a manuscript and IM-ing than I did circling typos. Most of the employees forgot I’d been hired; they were used to proofing their own stuff. And needless to say, I wasn’t what you’d call a go-getter back then.

Still, I learned a lot about commercials there. Successful ones sell you an experience, rather than a product. They make you desire a lifestyle you never considered. They make you long for an emotion you didn’t realize you missed, didn’t realize you could even feel. (It’s the same concept around which the entire run of Mad Men is situated.)

For those 30 or 60 seconds, there it is. Right upfront, right in your home, for you to see and feel and want. And as it flickers like a flash of what might be gold in your pan, then ends before you want it to, the advertisers have left you wondering: Now what are you gonna do about it?

If they’re lucky, you connect that call to action to their product. But when I see that Subaru Outback commercial, I want the experience. In any car. This idea of starting a new life with someone, cloistered in the woods, blossoms ringing my hair, drenched and laughing and escaping a collapsed tent… this is an idea worth coveting.

I had the same experience with this Mitsubishi Outlander commercial in the early aughts. There’s a very brief scene where rose petals are swirling into the face of the driver’s new bride; when I first laid eyes on that in ’03, it was pretty spectacular. (Incidentally, this commercial has some of the best subtle “face-acting” of any I’ve seen to date. And you really get the sense that you’ve watched a character evolve and mature in the minute you spend watching it. I’d enter this commercial as evidence in my argument that a well-executed commercial can provide the same narrative satisfaction as flash fiction.)

The point is: like most unmarried people, there’s a part of me that will always romanticize marriage. If I marry, I will have some minor, irrational expectation that roughly 75% of my marital experience will evoke the emotions these commercials capture. Ideally, I want to be with someone who makes me feel that, regardless of the unforeseen–triumph, tragedy, great gain, profound loss, joy, sickness, treatment, remission–there simply isn’t anyone else with whom I’d rather be.

I haven’t married, in part, because of this. I am expecting something more spectacular than I’ve experienced.

You hear these aphorisms, these “marriage is what you make it”/”it’s a partnership” cliches, and you know there is truth at the heart of them.

So few of us go into a wedded union with any concept of the mundane, of the dying down of euphoria, of the reality that we simply cannot be confident of how our partner will respond to certain of life’s curve balls. We trust that the love we feel in the moment, in the first months or years or even the first decade , will deepen into a mature and constant, if unexciting love, that will guide us into our golden and twilight years, that will end with us at the other’s death bed.

And sometimes, the person with whom we began that journey becomes unrecognizable as the same guy earnestly floundering under a honeymoon tent, willing to soak himself down to the marrow in order to deliver on the promise of a caring, devoted, monogamous, self-sacrificial life.

I find that kind of risk utterly terrifying, and I haven’t found myself in the eye of a relationship that felt worth it.

I just don’t want to marry someone because I long for the 75% these car commercials seem intent on selling me, only to find myself hiding out in a greenhouse, growing increasingly bitter as I mist the potted orchids, until:

*Those Subaru Outbacks are dope, though.

16 responses to “Marriage, in 30-Second Increments.”

  1. See, when I watch those commercials, my reaction is completely different. I don’t see real people; even when I tried to watch them through the lens of this piece, all I see is a fantasy being sold. Things like this were not really part of my thought process when I got married- I figured, we’re both flawed now, we’ll continue to be (and hark! we have), but we work well together and are likely to continue to. I don’t know that it would be fair to either of us to place expectations for undying passion and romance on one another (especially since we plan to have kids at some point!) and I think that I’d have been much more wary about getting married had the decision only been about the emotional side of love rather than also looking in a very pragmatic way about who we fundamentally are. In more emotionally turbulent, cares-to-the-wind relationships, I’ve felt less sane and less true to who I am- I am capable, in a very real sense, of losing myself to love, and at this point in my life I don’t want that. I want me, with love, if that makes sense.

    I think I connect to this sentiment most, oddly enough, when it comes to friendship- there’s a big part of me, even as an adult, that longs for that idealized deep, best-friend-ever relationship. The way it turned out, I *do* have that friend who I love fiercely and forever, and who understands me better than probably anyone else.. but even when we lived close by, she’s the sole parent of two young kids- it never looked like it does when they’re selling it to you. (She doesn’t even drink wine! In movies, wine is the main ingredient in female friendships!) And in some ways the practicalities of that can hurt. But still, if friend-marriage were a thing, I’d totally go for it, because you just kind of know that what’s at the core endures.

    Even if you end up yelling at Steve (who, in fairness, probably is a well-intentioned but perpetual fuckup when it comes to this sort of thing) in the greenhouse.

    (Huge apology for this waaay-too-long comment. This was just a great topic.)

    • you know, i really rushed this entry (wrote on my commute to work, on my phone). there’s a ton of stuff i didn’t hit that i wanted to, such as: how well-executed commercials can be as satisfying as flash fiction; how much of my life is driven by the visual and print stories i encounter; how irrational that probably is. lol

      so i hear you. and i wound up editing this to be more specific about how small the part of me is that expect a hyper-romantic marital experience. i was in a relationship that lasted as long as (longer than?) some marriages; so i know how crazy it is to expect what those commercials evoke. but there’s certainly a part of us all that connects to/relates to the unfulfilled longings pop culture/various media/art forms suggest that we should have. (your BFFs with wine thing is also a familiar longing of mine. lol)

      • I believe it (that there’s a ton more to be said). It took me a while to write my comment because I could tell that this was one aspect of things, and I didn’t want to be engaging a different one.. I don’t think I did a great job of responding to what you *did* write about, without my comment going off in a bit of a different direction. Because you’re right, we’re all affected by those forces in different ways- certainly my husband would like my hyper-pragmatic self to have a little more of the romantic/idealistic outlook you describe here. 😉 (And not for nothing, but the part of you that is highly sensitized to those feelings makes for exquisitely detailed emotional portraits in your writing, so lucky for us that it’s there.)

  2. Wedlock is not for being or living fantastically with your beloved; it’s for being perfectly ordinary, and being perfectly comfotable with being ordinary, with your beloved. To expect more than that from marriage – to frost expectation of it with weddingdayzilla icing – is to set your marriage, yourself, and your beloved, up for serial crashes and abysmal disappointment. Marriage is for being your own kind of Ralph and your own kind of Alice Kramden.

  3. Marriage is mainly a state-sanctioned property arrangement. That’s what the license is all about. Everything else is ritual plus emotion and its management over time.

  4. “Ideally, I want to be with someone who makes me feel that, regardless of the unforeseen–triumph, tragedy, great gain, profound loss, joy, sickness, treatment, remission–there simply isn’t anyone else with whom I’d rather be.”

    So I dated a woman for 8 years and have married her for 2. 75% of our relationship is exactly like this after a decade of being together. So I’d say a good start.

  5. The AT&T commercial is just brutal and I don’t know how it’s supposed to encourage any positive feelings for their product. Who wants to be either of these people or in any way like them? The entire scenario is so dismal, so lacking in upside for either character, that you have to wonder if the entire creative team was asked to come up with the ad just after they were fired. It’s similar to the Yoplait ads where the husband, who just wants to eat something tasty (or in its sequel, brag about his weight loss), but is caught short by his wife’s exasperated, “Babe, what are you doing?” It’s probably the least flirty, most censorious “babe” committed to media, possibly ever. Who wants to be him, chained to a sweatpantsed harpy? Who wants to be her, stuck with some shriveling lummox? Who wants to eat the yogurt at the center of such a broken relationship? Someone should compile a household of despair, composed entirely of items from such painfully awkward commercials.

    • “Who wants to eat the yogurt at the center of such a broken relationship?”

      That’s a great line, man.

      I’m so glad I’m not alone in my hobby of close-reading commercials.

      Yeah, that AT&T one is *brutal.* But it also feels like a pretty authentic portrait of a particular kind of marriage. It’s completely unclear, though, what they hope to sell w/that message. It makes me feel abt AT&T the way ol’ girl feel about her husband.

  6. Yes, but… there can be passion in marriage too. If sexual chemistry is there, then even after decades of marriage (well, I’m at 16 years in), a touch in passing can be exciting, a glance across the dinner table can have meaning the kids hopefully won’t decipher. Not to say that either of us is perfect, or even that we’re perfectly matched. Just that good sex can help make the “ordinary marriage” feel extraordinary, and like something different from a “very small not-for-profit enterprise.”

    • I appreciate this perspective; it’s valuable among the (also quite useful, if discouraging) chorus of “marriage is a business arrangement/barter system.”

  7. Marriages can be like those commercials, at least a lot of the time. It’s both a job and a partnership, as well as a friendship and a sexual adventure. I’ve been married 19 years and there is a lot of passion and sex, we have good conversations and go out with friends and have a great time. But there is a tremendous amount of work involved, too, especially if you have kids (we have 2). You have to be able to work logistically with your spouse, plan smart strategies for dealing with scheduling, work and child care. And you have to manage money well together.

    You also both need a core foundation — a belief that you will always be together. You have to take the vows seriously. If you have that, then when you fight (and you will) you will never take it too far, never believe that it’s over even in the worst of circumstances.

    When they say “marriage is work”, I think what they really mean is marriage is a craft. And it’s a craft that’s not well taught. We mostly learn from watching our parents. I refinished a mahogany upright piano once. It had a coat of this ugly green house paint, and I had to take the piano completely apart strip all the individual pieces, sand them and re-stain them. And then put the thing back together again.

    It was hard fucking work, but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed learning how to strip, sand and stain (thank you Interwebs). I got it together and while it’s not professional quality, I did an admirable job. I love that piano. I love it more because I worked so hard on it.

    That’s what marriage can be like, and you don’t need to settle for less. You just need to know what to look for.

    • What a fantastic comment! Thank you so much for weighing in. I think the “aye”s have it, so to speak. Marriage isn’t the drudge we’ve all come to fear, after all–or at least, it needn’t be.

      Over time, it seems that our culture has, in order to downplay the unrealistic expectations/romanticizing associated w/marriage, decided to exaggerate its warts.

      I’ve found that the same is true of parenting. I have a 14-month-old. While pregnant, I got all kinds of admonitions about how profoundly it would diminish my free time/social life/adult fun of any kind. So far, I’ve found that most of those admonitions contained a good deal of hyperbole.

  8. As a person who never thought she would be married, I must share my experience.

    I was raised with the cultural adoration of the wedding that so many of us get as little girls. I just knew fairly early that I wasnt allowed to marry another girl and since I didnt want a boy, clearly marriage was not in my future.

    When I could get really and actually married to my lover of 6 years, we discussed it quite a bit. Why buy into the failed heterosexual institution? But we decided to do it, knowing it was just about making sure we were covered legally should one of us be hospitalized or have some other situation arise where a card carrying wife would be a good thing.

    And we were wrong. There is something different about being married than not being married. For us, there is a sense of peace, of being normal and the heterosexual normative world finally understanding that we could fit into the box just fine. When I say to my straight coworker that I am still not used to saying “Wife” and having her say “Yeah, it was about a year or two for me too” when what I MEANT was that I never thought I would be a wife or have one.
    That is what I mean. I still notice when I am treated normally. Of course I live in Seattle, where being gay is really no big deal at all. But being married remains a big deal to me.

    We had a romantic dinner in honor of the first time we connected on 7 years ago this weekend. The restaurant was so adorable. Champagne with dessert, no twitches when we would gaze at each other like hypnotized koala bears.

    I like it. MY wife has my back, I have hers. Marriage can be worth it for those of us who have never been able to do it before.

    • Thank you for sharing your experience here. I always find it comforting when I find people still willing to believe/admit that there’s “something different about being married.” It’s so trendy these days to say, “It’s just a piece of paper” or a legal formality or that there’s no need for marriage and no discernible, non-legal difference.

      Everyone has their own reason for saying/believing that there isn’t a difference.

      I’ve always believed there is one–but not the negative, romance-killing one that also seems to proliferate through the public narrative.

      It’s easier to label a belief in a whimsical or romantic post-marriage life naive than to confront other reasons why those aspects are absent from our marriages.

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