The bestselling and influential 1922 novel Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis offers a nightmarish portrait of how a man might feel trapped into marriage not by the promise of sex but by an inability to figure out how to leave a relationship with his self-respect intact.
Lewis tells us how George Babbitt was “hooked” by a woman, not through sex, but through tears: “One evening when he was weary and soft-minded, he saw that she had been weeping. She had been left out of a party given by [a friend]. Somehow her head was on his shoulder and he was kissing away the tears--and she raised her head to say trustingly, ‘Now that we're engaged, shall we be married soon or shall we wait?’. . .but it was pleasant to have a girl in his arms, and less and less could he insult her by blurting that he didn't love her. He himself had no doubt. The evening before his marriage was an agony, and the morning wild with the desire to flee.”
Obviously, the “nice guy” of 1922 marries the girl who weeps in his arms.
In the 1950s becoming a husband became like growing a beard: it was a mild annoyance that proved that you were a grown-up. In his novel, My Life as A Man, Philip Roth explains that for young men “who reached their maturity in the fifties, and who aspired to be grown–up during that decade... there was considerable moral prestige in taking a wife... It was only within marriage that an ordinary woman could hope to find equality and dignity. Indeed, we were led to believe by the defenders of womankind of our era that we were exploiting and degrading the women we didn't marry, rather than the ones we did.”
This last point is a particularly interesting one: marriage was considered the best gift a woman could be offered, so a man saved a marriage proposal the way a girl “saved” her virginity.
Many men were encouraged to see themselves as rescuers of the female race, since “Unattached and on her own, a woman was supposedly not even able to go to the movies or out to a restaurant by herself, let alone perform an appendectomy or drive a truck,” according to Roth. Young men were told “It was up to us then to give them the value and the purpose that society at large withheld––by marrying them. If we didn't marry women, who would? Ours, alas, was the only sex available for the job: the draft was on.”
Some men viewed women in the same light as enforced conscription; if their number was up, it was up. It was an age when a woman married the man she wanted to be, since she could only define herself through her husband.
And so the “nice guy” of 1962, or ‘72, or even ‘82, was told that he should marry the girl who sleeps in his arms in order to provide her life with meaning and give dignity to her role.
So why do men marry now?
Surprisingly, many of the old reasons still apply.
Now the line “We got married because she was pregnant” might be said today by a successful stockbroker who’s lived with his equally successful stockbroker partner for ten years. It is no longer a phrase used exclusively by high-school boys to explain why they have to drop out and get a job.
But one of the interesting things about this particular rationale is that many of the misgivings felt by the high-school boy might well be felt by his forty-year old counterpart.
The boy and the man might still ask themselves “Would we have gotten married if she wasn’t pregnant? How do I know she didn’t do this on purpose? Is she just using me to have a baby?”
“She said I should tell her how I really felt and I told her that I thought we should wait. She decided not to wait, and we’re married and I love our daughter, but my wife has never really forgiven me for telling her the truth ten years ago,” said one financial manager. “I’m terrified that one day, in a fit of anger, she’ll tell my daughter that I didn’t want her. My wife has always had control of the situation even though she wouldn’t see it that way.”
"I married her because I saw no alternative" is still what most guys would say when asked why they pop the question," said a 25-year-old former student of mine, "If they were being honest. But who could ever be honest about why he's getting married?" He was smiling as he asked the question of me, but I don't think he was actually joking.
Who indeed? Answers, anybody?