Monday, November 05, 2007

Good Enough

I call him Uncle K and have known him since childhood. Though he and his wife are about as old as my parents, their kids are younger than me and still in university. J fulfills their longing for a grandchild that might be a few years in coming. Any time they call to check on me, Uncle K and his wife will say Why do you want to live there all by yourself when you could relocate closer to us ? The job market will be a hundred times bigger and the school system just as good if not better.

Recently, he was around my neck of the woods on a business trip and swung by to spend the weekend with us. J was overjoyed to see him - I think she reminds him of her grandfather. He asked if I was seeing someone and then why not. The next several hours we chatted about relationships and marriage, what worked for his generation and what it takes now.

Uncle K is married to his high-school sweetheart. He recounted how his daughter once asked if he was happy in his marriage and he had to admit he had about eighty percent of what he wanted and twenty percent was missing. To him that was good enough. He was willing to live without what he did not have in return for everything that he could. I would expect Aunt B, his wife to share those same sentiments.

She has always been a home-maker and an excellent one at that. The kids are doing well, Uncle K is the bread winner and is able to provide the family a high standard of living. The arrangement is common with a lot of people his generation. The marriages are not made in heaven, what is missing from it could be as high as fifty percent and yet life goes on, the families remain unbroken.

Back in their time, marriages were always for life unless there were some very serious - often life threatening issues that prevented it from being the case. The workplace in India had very few women, so the options outside home did not really exist. The women that men interacted with were not unlike their wives in any significant way - or at least such differences were hard to spot in the limited social interactions that happened between them.

Everyone was someone's wife, managing a home, taking care of the kids perhaps nurturing a hobby or two on the side. A man did not have occasion to meet a woman who was his peer in the workplace, an intellectual equal if not superior, as comfortable in a man's world as she was in a woman's. He had no reason to believe that he had a reasonable chances of getting what was missing in his marriage by looking elsewhere.

The women typically without independent means to sustain a lifestyle that marriage afforded them were happy to live with the limitations and vexations of their situation. No one had raised the bar significantly higher around them. There was no real incentive to abandon the comfort and security of marriage to see what the other life had to offer. Since it was largely unknown and unventured territory it was viewed with much fear and suspicion.

Both sides of the equation has changed beyond recognition in our time. Women are increasingly educated and financially independent. They are a major part of the workforce. The good old hausfrau is a relic from the past. The long work hours, a variety of social and business networking opportunities gives both men and women a chance to know people who are completely unlike their spouses.

Every once in a while they meet someone who is all that they seek in an ideal partner. Just to know the ideal exists can be a strain on the marriage. The less than perfect spouse grows just a little more irksome. Discontent leads to different outcomes depending on the people involved. Some may decide to move on to greener pastures, some indulge in a "harmless" little fling and yet others will stay on even as their relationship decays from lack of nurture. All of those scenarios are harmful for the institution of marriage and a well bonded family.

So, I was telling Uncle K that a eighty percent good and twenty percent bad formula is set up for failure in this day and age. The external pressures on marriage can easily build a fracture line along the twenty percent mark. For something to work for the long haul a couple needs close to hundred percent good. Only then can they be safe from the destabilizing forces of the world outside that they need to contend with everyday.

Since the bar is so high, the wait is much longer often fraught with anxiety and hopelessness. You want to do it right so you won't be forced to do it over. Good enough is no longer good enough - it has to be near perfect. You want to look forward to coming home at the end of the day to a person who brings something to your life that nothing and nobody in the world outside can. Sometimes, that can be a fairly tall order.

And Uncle K asked So where does love and mutual dependence fall into the scheme of things in this brave new world ? I had to admit I did not know. Love and marriage have probably become a little decoupled in our generation. We are able to love and we are able to marry but the two don't always exactly confluence. We reminiscence about the lost loves of our past and we make a good faith effort to love who we marry.

We don't plunge into marriage because we are madly in love. Many of us would have an older relative who married someone entirely unsuitable in their youth because heart overrode all reason and judgment. I have no acquaintance male or female of my generation who has married "irresponsibly". The process of weighing pros and cons that comes naturally to us as we grow older has a sobering effect on "love". We allow the initial euphoria and giddiness to wear off and then decide on a rational course of action. The sum total of happiness or unhappiness in relationships is probably constant irrespective of time, only the choices vary.

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