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The mystery of enduring love

We're always being advised on the joys of sex and the secrets of finding romance. But what about living happily ever after together? There's precious little guidance on how to do that, says Philip Hensher

Tuesday 16 September 2008 00:00 BST

Contrary to popular opinion, most people who get married, stay married. In the UK, it has been estimated that at least one in three marriages end in divorce. In 2006, 132,562 couples divorced a rate of 12.2 per thousand couples. Though these are historically low figures, they don't seem very cheerful until you contemplate that it means that, for two thirds of all UK marriages, the sentiment "until death do us part", whether uttered in church or wished silently in registry offices turns out to be an exact description. The average length of a failed marriage is 11.6 years, which argues, at the very least, for sustained effort even among those relationships which fail. And we have no real data for those relationships which bump along without recourse to official sanction, year after year. For most people, despite everything in modern life which discourages lasting bonds, enduring love is both a reality and an ideal. Where is it, however? What does it look like?

We get our lasting ideas about human relationships handed down from two sources; our own families, and, in second-hand fashion, from literature and art. Ideas of romantic love descend into our personal ideals from the ways it was set out by the troubadours, by poets, by novelists, by film-makers. Even if an individual knows nothing of literary themes at first hand, those themes and settings will descend by word-of-mouth, as it were, until every fourteen-year-old has a version in their mind of what it means to be swept off their feet by love and sex. And that idea, rounded off and simplified, will turn out in the end to have been invented by the poets, centuries back.

If the ideal of romantic love is clear and powerful in our minds, only a satyromaniac, leaping from brief encounter to brief encounter, can live within that state of mind forever. For most of us, romantic love is an important part of something bigger; committed devotion, carried out over the years. Any fool can put together a romantic evening from the templates of literature. To run a relationship over the course of years is a process of personal discovery, both of the nature of a relationship and the nature of your partner. A marriage or partnership has to be put together, in a sometimes ramshackle way, from the materials to hand, rather than to accepted templates. And one of the reasons for this is that literature is, really, of very little help.

David Lodge remarked that literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children, whereas real life is mostly the other way round, or so it sometimes seems. I would say that literature is very interested in falling in love, or its mirror image, falling out of love, but not very about in staying in a marriage. Quite large parts of literature don't seem to know what a decent happy marriage actually looks or feels like. Jane Austen's novels all approach the beginning of what we are assured will be a happy marriage for the hero and heroine, but you have to wonder how plausible that will be, given the lack of any really convincing, long-term happy marriage in the novels up to that point. Mr Bennet, in Pride and Prejudice, openly despises his wife. In Mansfield Park, the long-running marriages are either unhappy Fanny Price's parents or unexplored by the novelist. We are told that Sir Thomas Bertram and his wife are fond of each other and she, at least, esteems him in what Austen thinks a proper way. But it is impossible to imagine what they might say to each other when they are alone. The mechanism of a long-term marriage is, more or less, beyond Austen's reach.

If you think of a marriage in Dickens, the one which comes most readily to mind is the Micawber's, in David Copperfield. If a successful marriage consists of a wife who constantly assures strangers that she will never desert her husband, that will have to do. Others, such as the marriages in Our Mutual Friend, where Dickens seems to have made a definite attempt to see what he can make of two people yoked together as a novelistic subject, are less idyllic. Wilfer, like Mr Bennet, makes no bones about detesting his wife "I need have no delicacy in hinting before him that he may perhaps find your Ma a little wearing." The Lammles marry each other only in the false belief that the other is rich, and are chained together in one of Dickens's most hellish images. Only the cosy and incredible Boffins, eating toasted muffins interminably before the fire, seem to approach any kind of idea of how two people might rub along together; and no-one could ever imagine that their life could come to look like Mr and Mrs Boffin.There are some attempts at a portrait of a marriage which seem more plausible. I always thought Rawdon Crawley's to Becky Sharp in Thackeray's Vanity Fair highly likely; two adventurers, drawn to each other by sexual fire, as Thackeray broadly suggests, and kept there by the same force. Of course, such a marriage would be undone by the first incident of infidelity, but while it lasts, the happiness is unmistakable. Proust can't do a happy marriage the nearest thing in the vast expanses of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is the Duc and Duchesse de Guermantes, despite the Duke's numerous affairs, and, really, the best Proust can do is the outlining of polite solicitude between the two of them. The rest of it, one starts to think, is not a novelist's business.

Two films of the summer suggest how far imaginative life still is from spelling out the ordinary nature of a marriage and its give and take. In Mamma Mia, husbands can be summoned from the ether for the purposes of display. Nobody need get on with anyone for more than a day or two, so the film needn't trouble itself about any bigger subject than a kiss under the stars. And in Wall-E, the most long-term of marriages is envisaged, between two indestructible robots. It is seen, however, as an indefinite chain of romantic encounters, lasting for centuries. We put up with the thin but pretty vision only because the leads are mechanical constructions.

In short, we have very few imaginative examples of how to live a life together, and we have to find out ourselves how it is done. The success of most marriages seems remarkable when you consider that, over the last 150 years, divorce has been getting easier and easier; that the social pressures which used to force people into a supposedly indissoluble bond have all but disappeared; that there is nothing in most cases to force anyone into a marriage but personal inclination. If whim drives someone into a marriage, you can imagine our ancestors asking, what is to stop whim driving them straight out again if the law allows it?

In the past, and in other cultures even now, personal taste is not necessarily the most important factor, and marriages have customarily been set out on the basis of shared class or caste, of financial or dynastic advantage, of general utility. Many such marriages have, historically, been extremely happy, but they are clearly on the way out. The pressure of the West's idea of romantic love bears down upon the whole world now, and such a traditional basis for a marriage is not to the taste of the young, and often not to the taste of their traditionally-married parents, either. A single friend of mine in her mid-thirties, brought up in this country to Indian-born parents, once asked them, not entirely seriously, if they would arrange a marriage for her, since she didn't seem to be having much luck finding a man. Though they themselves were married in the traditional way, hardly meeting before the wedding, and though their marriage turned out very happy, they laughed uproariously. No: she would have to do it herself. That is just how the world is, nowadays.

And a shared culture and class, previously seen as a sine qua non for a long-lasting relationship, is no longer to be taken for granted. We all live in a multi-cultural society, and may easily find that the person our inclination leads us towards, and keeps us with, had grandparents very unlike our own, in appearance, beliefs and practices. In such a situation, and in our dominant mindset that differences are things to be relished rather than overcome, a new model for marriage starts to arise.

Certainly, I've found that few traditional models for a long-lasting relationship will exactly serve. But perhaps nobody has ever modelled their long-distance relationship on a given template. My partner and I have arrangements which would have looked unconventional 30 years ago. For a start, we are both men. Secondly, we come from different cultures he is a Bengali lawyer, I'm a very English sort of novelist, though we met and probably feel most at home in the London melting pot. And we're not together for every day of the year. His job as a human rights lawyer for a major international organisation has taken him, in the years we've been together, to Afghanistan during the Taliban period, Florence, Sudan and now Switzerland. We divide our time, sometimes together, sometimes not, between three houses, forever wondering out loud where that special shirt is (usually in the wrong county, country or, in the past, continent).

I think of it as conveying, on a larger scale, the benefits of working in different worlds, and with different people. When we see each other, after two or, at the outside, three weeks, there is always something to talk about, and those conversations continue quite merrily for the long periods we manage to spend together. We're probably in the same house for half the year, and speak on the phone at least every day. I know other couples have gone further, and come to an agreement about casual infidelity ; we haven't, and I know it's not something I could incorporate, or work around. Still, the modernity of the arrangement is, that, like our complicated living arrangements, it is something we've discussed, and decided to come down on the traditional, forsaking-all-others side. Only in the most advanced circles would it have been thought worth discussing a couple of decades ago; now, I think, most people come to an agreement about it, one way or another, and bear the consequences and even pain. One of these days, we will get married, with flowers and a party and a Bootsy Collins groove as we walk down the aisle; that is, once we manage to get in the right city with a lawyer who can be made to understand that nobody around here is in any hurry to shed his nationality in the process.

Perhaps the model for modern marriage in general starts to look like the commitments of homosexuals. There, for decades, the sustenance of long-lasting relationships by nothing more than will and decision, rather than a legal contract and obligations, represented an extreme idea of modern marriage. In gay marriages, often some degree of difference seems desirable, as it does to us, rather than cultural or social identity that might grow just a little too matchy-matchy. When, in 2005, gay people started being able to register their marriages as "civil partnerships", a degree of obligation started being added to that of inclination. It will be interesting to see whether these marriages start behaving like their heterosexual counterparts, or whether the long-cherished inclination which keeps people together actually acts as a more powerful bond than the conventional pressure on heterosexuals to marry.

We know a lot about what brings people together, thanks largely to literature. We know, too, what separates them, thanks to the divorce courts. But the big question, which law and literature almost never ask, is "Why don't people leave each other all the time? What keeps people together?" And occasionally, literature does supply an answer. Tolstoy, at the beginning of Anna Karenina, seems to suggest that unhappy families are more interesting than happy ones, which are all alike. But the mesmerizing marriage of Kitty and Levin, in that novel, goes through all the stages, and shows us what one way of getting along might look like. I don't think Jane Austen could ever have written one of Tolstoy's simple, lovely sentences: "Kitty was particularly glad of the opportunity of being alone with her husband". And, at one point, they return from an angry marital row in the garden, to this comment: "The gardener saw with surprise that, though nothing had been pursuing them, and there had been nothing to run away from, and they could not have found anything on that garden seat, they passed him on their way back to the house with quieted and beaming faces."

Tolstoy withdraws to an anonymous gardener, watching the pair, because, more than sex or dreaming, long-term marital happiness is the most intimate of subjects, which we have no right to observe. This is something not to watch, but, more likely as not, something that we ourselves will have the chance to participate in. It's been very truly said that no-one outside a good marriage really knows what makes it work. That is private, and something which many, perhaps most people, go on discovering. And this happens in year after year in which, strange as it may sometimes seem, they don't get divorced.

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